Multi-categorical special education is a relatively new concept in education of children with special needs. It agrees with the inclusiveness trend popular currently in schools and in the culture in general. However, the term is best expressed in the logistics and in the composition of the classroom.

What is this Concept?

According to the National Education Association, these classrooms are also called non-categorical special education or mixed-needs classrooms. This approach involves teaching special-needs children together in the classroom instead of segregating them into groups that define them according to their disabilities. The goal is to permit them to return at some point to the regular classroom. The classes are small, generally averaging no more than fifteen students.

Why Not Separate Them According to Their Needs?

It would seem that this would ensure their needs would be addressed. One problem, however, is that disabilities vary in their severity, and they may overlap. Services are paid for by the government according to these categories, and so some children could be denied services, because they do not exactly fit the description. In an all-inclusive classroom, these kids benefit from services offered to other groups. Another consideration is that techniques identified as beneficial for one group of students, for instance those with autism, do not address specific learning needs of individual students. Children with disabilities often have several issues that are “co-morbid,” or concurrently existing. In addition, special needs children, like the general student population, tend to learn in different ways. Some may be tactile learners while others are visual. Putting the children together may mean that they are seen as individuals instead of as members of certain special education categories. Students of different disability kinds and levels can also be motivated through inclusion in a diverse group. When the need arises to teach special skills or concepts, they may be separated into small groups for a time, so that specific needs may be addressed without completely removing them from the inclusive group

Are Teachers Certified Differently for This Type of Special Education?

A 2003 study cited by Teacher Sol, there is a trend toward multi-category licenses. Certification varies by state. In one state, teachers may be certified to teach children of any age who have a certain disability. In another state, the teacher may be certified to teach children of any disability as long as they fall into a specified age group. The difference is attributable to the way individual states interpret the clause “highly qualified” that appears in both the “No Child Left Behind Act” and the “Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.” In regular teacher certification teachers must prove they are qualified to teach core subjects. A teacher in a multi-categorical classroom would be teaching many core subjects and so would have to be qualified in all of them. This issue may be one cause of special education teachers leaving their jobs. A study found that stress in teaching this population results less from the number of children in the classroom than to the “diversity of caseloads.”

Related Resource: Education Policy Analyst

The nation is attempting to incorporate the concept of inclusion in all areas of culture. In special-needs education, the barrier to total inclusion might be the behavioral issues that arise with some disabilities. While some schools “mainstream” special-needs students, that inclusion might have an adverse effect on both the general student population and upon the abilities of the students with disabilities to master some concepts. Multi-categorical special education can address those needs while placing students in an environment that does not define them by their disabilities.