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Co-Teaching models offer mainstreaming opportunities for special needs students

Updated on October 1, 2014
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

An example what a co-taught classroom may look like. Notice the seating arrangements.
An example what a co-taught classroom may look like. Notice the seating arrangements. | Source

Are two teachers better than one? That’s a question many school districts throughout the United States are contemplating. The issue fueling this question is the need to mainstream students with special needs into general education courses. The attempt to answer this question is an experiment often called co-teaching.

Co-teaching - also known as "co-taught"- is a system in which an academic course is taught by a general education teacher and a special educator together. The classes are a mix of special and general education students. Despite the mix, however, the course is considered a general education class.

Co-teaching Defined by Districts

The way it is used throughout the country varies, and can be different in each school within a district. One example of this can be seen in two school districts outside Los Angeles.

In one affluent district, one high school offers co-teaching courses and has done so for years. In a nearby “struggling” district, many of the schools have begun to implement this program.

In many cases, co-teaching is utilized for remedial courses or English language development classes (ELD). However, there are numerous schools that have converted standard courses in English and Algebra into a co-taught class.

Not all co-teaching courses use a combination of general and special education teachers. Some regular education courses - in particular the English support courses, will use two regular education Reading teachers. A special education reading program may consist of two special ed. teachers.

Another trend is to combine another program, the learning center, with co-teaching. In some districts, resource teachers specializing in different academic areas are paired up to coordinate it.

Types of Co-Teaching Models

There are several models for a co-taught (or co-teaching) classroom. Here are four examples:

Station teaching - the two teachers divide the class and teach certain topics to groups of students. Or they establish stations focusing on several categories within a curriculum (for instance, a co-taught English class will have stations for reading, grammar lessons, writing, or listening/speaking.

One Teach-Support- One teacher (usually the regular education teacher) will create and presents the lesson and the other teacher merely assist students with the lesson (usually the special education teacher). The special education teacher's duty will include using accommodations tools with students with disabilities in the classroom.

Team Teaching - The teachers work as equals. They will share duties of lecturing and assisting students. Unlike the One-Teach-Support model, both will create the curriculum.

Alternative Teaching - This may be a combination of the other models. Also, it has elements of a pull-out style in which the special education teacher will pull out the students with special needs or anyone in need of additional help to a station in the room or to another classroom for a short time to assist them.


Co-Teaching Replacing Specialized Academic Instruction

The Co-teaching model is proving to be very popular. As a result, it is starting to replace programs such as Specialized Academic Instruction (SAI) -- at least in my school. Next year, my school will be the first in the district to go full-inclusion for students with mild learning disabilities.

I for one, was critical of SAI. It was poorly initiated in my district and was hampered by numerous misplacement of students who either needed or didn't need additional services. Still, I have questions about the sudden elimination of the program for the co-teaching model.

Will the students be ready? Will they be misplaced? And will there be effective team-teaching partners? The school has slowly implemented this program. Now, it's going head first. Time will tell if this transition will work.

The front table in the photo are often used as "stations" in a co-teaching course using the station teaching model.
The front table in the photo are often used as "stations" in a co-teaching course using the station teaching model. | Source

How Teachers Use Them

The success depends on how the teachers approach and plan for this project. Those who are proactive establish a system and a role in the classroom. In most cases, the regular education teacher will take the lead, while the special education teacher will monitor the students (regular and special needs).

Monitoring in this system may include pulling students with special needs to the side to review notes or the basics. They may also assist in the use of accommodation tools the students may need (this can include note-taking).

In many cases, co-teaching works when the classroom is organized into collaborative groups. In this fashion, the two teachers can work with small groups of students within the classroom.

Another configuration that works with co-teaching is the establishment of stations in every corner of the classroom. Every 15 to 30 minutes the students will rotate to these stations where a different part of the same lesson is taught. Here, something is taught in every area. An example of this process would be to have a general education teacher lecture about a lesson. After time is up, the group of students will move on to the next station, where they may receive an assignment to practice what they’ve learned at the lecture station.

Critics of the Program

Not everyone is excited about co-teaching. In one district, several special educators feared that they would become over-glorified teacher’s assistants who would have to run errands during class time for the general education teachers.

The general education teachers, on the other hand, believed that their classes would be inundated with students they felt would be difficult to teach.

Also, there were teachers (general and special education) who felt co-teaching would hinder their ability to teach and write their own lesson plans.

Benefits of the Program

Many of these concerns have been unfounded. In fact, the programs have led to better teacher collaboration. Special educators have been able to educate general education teachers on ways to accommodate and effectively teach students with special needs.

Laws such as the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973 have established rules in which students with special needs are to be given equal and reasonable access to the same curriculum as their non-disabled peers. Co-teaching is an attempt to fulfill these needs by placing them in general education class with built-in support.


Co-teaching, in many respects, is an experiment. Some of the practices associated with it have never been tested or observed on a large scale. Still, it can incorporate other proven factors such as collaborative groups, learning centers and directed instructions and remediation.

Also, it has the potential to open more educational opportunities for students who need the most attention.

Examples of Co-Teaching in Action

© 2014 Dean Traylor


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