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NEA 'IDEA Brief' #6

NEA members ask:

What are multi-categorical special education classrooms?
Do they impact special education teacher retention?

My district is planning to establish "multi-categorical special education classrooms." What are they and how do they work?

A multi-categorical special education classroom is one that includes students with a wide range of disability categories and learning needs. Such classrooms and placements are known by several other names across the country -- cross-categorical, non-categorical and mixed ability special education classrooms. Whatever the name, they all signify the same thing - that students are placed together for learning, rather than separated into distinct  classroom "categories" that describe their identified physical or learning disabilities.

Wouldn't it be better to separate students into classes based on certain disability categories? In that way all students could get the specific help they need.

It just isn't that simple or clear. The categories of disability that describe students' special education learning needs are often far from unambiguous. In addition, many believe that maintaining a strict categorical approach to serving students often results in fragmented programs and services. One of the reasons states and districts have typically used categorical systems is to limit students' access to special services, rather than to make special services available according to each individual's need -- so the categories have actually served as "gatekeepers" in some instances.

Why do some teachers favor a multi-categorical classroom?

 Many educators feel that the categories commonly employed to describe students with apparently similar difficulties and disabilities are sometimes questionable, but more importantly, they are of little or no use in determining the appropriate pedagogy to be employed with a particular student. Some experts say that by allowing students from several different categories to come together in one class without specific labels, teachers are more likely to view students as individuals with particular instructional needs, rather than a category of learners who may or may not meet certain expectations for learning (Wheldall, 1994).

But what about teaching in multi-categorical classrooms? Wouldn't that require a teacher like me to be certified in a lot of different areas?

It depends on what state you teach in. Special education certifications vary from state to state. Some states offer categorical licenses that certify teachers to teach children of all ages with a specific type of disability. Other states offer a more general special education degree that certifies a teacher to teach children with all disabilities in a specific age range. Most states offer a combination of these certification types.  Geiger, et al., 2003 reports that there is an identifiable trend toward multi-categorical licensure, especially for teachers of students with mental retardation, orthopedic impairments, other health impairments, serious emotional disturbance and specific learning disabilities.

It also depends upon how your state is interpreting the "highly qualified" requirements of the so-called No Child Left Behind Act and the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004.  Both of these laws stipulate that who teach core academic subjects need to demonstrate that they are qualified to teach the subjects they are teaching.  Special education teachers who teach in multi-categorical classrooms are most likely teaching multiple core academic subjects.  The bottom line is that special education teachers will need to follow the process outlined by their states to demonstrate that they are "highly qualified" whether they are teaching students who all have the same disability or who have a variety of disabilities.

Are multi-categorical classes more difficult to teach? Do they affect teacher retention?

Interestingly enough, some very preliminary research (Carlson & Billingsley, 2001) suggests that rather than the number of students, diversity of caseloads may contribute to teacher attrition. Special educators who planned to leave "as soon as possible" were significantly more likely to teach students with four or more different primary disabilities compared to those who were planning to stay.  What is not clear from this research is why teachers plan to leave -- is it a lack of adequate preparation or training or the number of students combined with the diversity of caseloads, rather than total caseload -- as previously thought. This question will no doubt merit further study.


Billingsley, B. (2003). Special education teacher retention and attrition: A critical analysis of the literature. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education. Retrieved from on February 4, 2005.

Geiger, W. L., Crutchfield, M.D., and Mainzer, R. (2003). The status of licensure of special education teachers in the 21st century. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida, Center on Personnel Studies in Special Education. Retrieved from on February 8, 2005.

Wheldall, K. (1994). Why do contemporary special educators favor a non-categorical approach to teaching?  Special Education Perspectives, (3), 1. Retrieved from Contempory Special_Educators.pdf