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When Is a Child Ready for Mainstreaming?

Parents face tough issues when deciding whether it's time to change schools

Clinical Experts: Yael Goldmintz-Rosenbaum, PhD , Susan J. Schwartz, MAEd

When you have a special-needs child who is doing well in a specialized education setting, the good news can actually present difficult choices. You may be told that your son is ready for a regular education, mainstream setting.

Moving a child into special-needs classroom in the first place is emotionally charged for parents and kids alike. But so is moving out of such a setting. How much of his academic and behavioral success is tied to the structure of the setting?

While some parents may be thrilled at the idea of sending a child back into a “regular” school—a less stigmatizing setting—others will worry that he might lose ground that he has gained.

Don’t push a child before he’s ready

“Moving to a mainstream school is a huge step,” says Susan Schwartz, a learning and educational specialist at the Child Mind Institute. “A child’s emotional, social and behavioral functioning should be considered. It’s not just about academics. There’s a different level of independence that requires skill and strategy as well.”

Moving a student to a school environment that’s not supportive enough can be comparable to taking the training wheels off too soon. If a child is not ready to move on without some or any of the supports and supervision he has, he may regress, leading to failure and low self-esteem.

Schwartz says kids who need remedial support for a single issue, such as a reading delay, usually make substantial gains within two years, and then can be ready for re-entry. But children with more severe learning, attention and behavioral issues generally need more time in a setting with a more intensive level of support.

When to mainstream?

So how do parents and educators know when a child is ready to move to a less restrictive setting, let alone be mainstreamed?

There are four important factors to consider when thinking about mainstreaming, advises Dr. Yael Rosenbaum, a pediatric neuropsychologist at the Child Mind Institute who has helped many families determine appropriate school placements, accommodations, and supports.

  • What grade is your child going into? There are some grades that introduce new academic demands, including third grade and the first year of middle school. If a child has been getting extra support in a specialized educational setting, it might not be the best time to move him into a less supportive environment during these grades. Third grade, educators often say, is the year that kids make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. If a child’s reading skills are still shaky, another year of skill-building could be preferable to switching. Similarly, middle school, with higher expectations and less oversight, challenges the organizational skills of many kids. It can be better to wait until the end of middle school, using the time to shore up skills and confidence, and make the change at the beginning of high school.
  • Can your child meet expectations in the new class? Whether mainstreaming will be effective also depends on how big a gap there is between your child’s current performance and what’s typical of other kids at her grade level. If the gap is too big it can be demoralizing for your child. This is where it can be especially useful to get a comprehensive neuropsychological assessment to develop a profile of your child’s cognitive and academic strengths and weaknesses. The testing can determine how much academic progress your child has made relative to national norms, which will be important to help guide the school placement decision, and also to monitor a child’s progress in her (potentially) new academic setting.
  • How resilient is your child? In trying to gauge how a child will respond to a new, more challenging school environment, her temperament may be a deciding factor. How well does she tolerate frustration and respond to obstacles? Is she a good problem-solver? Having to struggle to fit in or keep up in a mainstream school can be hard on a child’s self-esteem. A child who is anxious or easily discouraged may do better staying in a more supportive classroom.
  • Is your child comfortable being an advocate for himself? In a mainstream setting, it can make all the difference whether your child is able and willing to speak up if he needs help. It isn’t always apparent to teachers when kids fall behind or feel lost, and a child who’s comfortable asking for help is likely to get more support, and not only do better but feel better about himself.

Interim steps

Parents should know that if a child isn’t quite ready to move from a class with only special-needs students to a mainstream setting with only typically developing kids, there are intermediary steps she can take. For example, a child may go from special-needs setting with a class of eight to a less-restrictive one with 12. She might join a mainstream class for a specific subject like math or even gym, or enter an inclusion class in a mainstream school.

What’s the process?

When a child gets academic or behavioral support in school, through the federal Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), the accommodations are regularly reassessed to see if they’re sufficient—or still needed.

At the middle and end of every school year, parents meet with anyone working with their child—teachers, occupational therapists, psychologists, principals—to monitor his progress, find out if he needs more or less remedial support, and think about the following year’s most appropriate placement. At that point, an Individualized Education Program, or IEP, is created or updated. And at any time, a parent may request that a student’s case be reviewed.

As children get older, they may attend meetings themselves. “They have a right to be there,” Schwartz says. “We usually see middle and high school students who are anxious to take a role.”

This article was last reviewed or updated on December 5, 2023.