The perspectives of Colorado general and special education teachers on the barriers to co-teaching in the inclusive elementary school classroom

Co-teaching has the demonstrated potential to positively impact the experiences and academic performance of students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms, yet numerous studies have demonstrated that without sufficient training, planning time, or instructional feedback, the potential gains are not consistently realized in practice.

Key Takeaway: Co-teaching has the demonstrated potential to positively impact the experiences and academic performance of students with disabilities in inclusive classrooms, yet numerous studies have demonstrated that without sufficient training, planning time, or instructional feedback, the potential gains are not consistently realized in practice. —Erin Madonna

What Was Shared: The purpose of Yazeed Alnasser’s study was to draw out general and special education teacher’s thoughts around co-teaching in inclusive classrooms, allowing for the identification of perceived barriers to effective co-teaching. Four co-teaching pairs, eight teachers in total, were observed and interviewed at a public elementary school in Colorado, USA. The study centered three questions:

  1. “How is co-teaching implemented in an inclusive elementary school classroom in Colorado?
  2. How do co-teachers justify their preferences regarding the models of co-teaching they utilise?
  3. How do co-teachers perceive the barriers that exist in the co-teaching environment of the inclusive classroom?”

Alnassar provides a thorough literature review that elucidates the following understandings:

  • Co-teaching refers to the inclusive practice of at least two educators delivering core instruction in partnership to a heterogeneous group of students within one setting.
  • Despite encompassing multiple models of delivery, the one teach and one assist model is the most commonly used approach to co-teaching.
  • Students with disabilities, who receive instruction in inclusive settings from a co-teaching team, outperformed like peers in segregated settings who did not receive co-teaching instruction.
  • Co-teaching is an approach which has been shown to benefit diverse populations of students, including English language learners and at-risk students.
  • Additional benefits of co-teaching include reduced stigma, increased access to the general education curriculum, a reduction of disruptive behaviors, and increased stability for teachers as they are working with peer support.
  • Thorough training is necessary in order for co-teaching pairs to provide highly effective instruction.
  • Limited planning time negatively impacts the quality of instruction co-teaching pairs can provide. 
  • Special educators often do not have equal status in co-teaching classrooms, with mutual respect and trust lacking in multiple studies. Consistently, in the reviewed studies, general education teachers took primary responsibility for the content while special educators supported through reteaching, providing accommodations and modifications, and managing behavior. 
  • Preparation prior to entering into a co-teaching relationship, including conversations around potential challenges, may mitigate threats to a functioning partnership.
  • “Despite rapid increase in popularity and use, co-teaching remains one of the most commonly misunderstood practices in education.”

Research Question (1): Three themes were drawn out of the observation data:

  • The number of students with IEPs in each classroom felt unmanageable, with every classroom having at least eight students receiving special education services.
  • Adjustment of the general education curriculum through accommodations, modifications, or differentiation, was largely the responsibility of the special educators with shared responsibility for providing these services only present in one observation. Almost universally, the teachers delivered verbal instruction and wrote on the white board without providing differentiation or sufficient accommodation or modification.
  • A one teach-one assist model was used in all observations, despite the model having limited support in literature. Parallel teaching was used for only 10 minutes in one observation.

Research Question (2): One primary theme arose from one-to-one interviews with the teachers:

  • The teachers justified their preference for the one teach-one assist model by pointing out that it was possible to implement without increased planning time, that it met their understanding of the roles the general education teacher (content delivery) and the special education teacher (adapting content) play, and that it was the easiest model to use.

Research Question (3): Four themes addressing barriers arose from one-to-one interviews with the teachers:

  • All teachers struggled to identify the vision or goal of co-teaching in their school.
  • The teachers shared that they either did not have shared planning time at all or that the amount of time they had was insufficient to effectively plan together.
  • All teachers shared that they would benefit from instructional feedback and coaching, with clear expectations in place. They did not feel that this level of administrative support was currently in place.
  • All teachers felt that they had insufficient professional development around co-teaching topics.

Alnasser discusses the following points and suggests actions that may improve the efficacy of co-teaching in inclusive classrooms:

  • When administrators are lacking knowledge of effective co-teaching, it is impossible for them to provide quality feedback or coaching to their staff.
  • In-depth professional development for both teachers and administrators is needed if implementing a co-teaching model.
  • “To make co-teaching successful, it is important to provide time for teachers to engage in co-planning.” Careful attention should be paid during scheduling to the balance of all learners within an inclusive setting to ensure caseloads are manageable.
  • “None of the participants were able to identify the school’s vision for co-teaching.” Developing a clear vision for co-teaching with actionable goals is necessary for success.

Co-teaching has the potential to be a transformative practice in inclusive classrooms if quality professional development and adequate planning time are provided, if administration engages in regular feedback cycles with their staff, and if the relationship between general education and special education teachers is collaborative and mutually respectful.

Summarized Article:

Alnasser, Y. A. (2021). The perspectives of Colorado general and special education teachers on the barriers to co-teaching in the inclusive elementary school classroom. Education 3-13, 49(6), 716–729. https://doi.org/10.1080/03004279.2020.1776363

Summary by: Erin Madonna—Erin philosophically aligns with the MARIO Framework's deeply rooted conviction that all learners are capable, and she firmly believes in MARIO's commitment to the use of evidence-based practices drawn from the field of current multidisciplinary research.

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We are a dedicated group of learners that are constantly seeking to improve the lives of the children we care for. Whether you are a teacher, parent, assistant, or administrator, we give you free access to the most recent special education related research and practices available. Our twice monthly MARIO Memo summarizes and shares studies from peer-reviewed journals, while our learning letters provide insights from MARIO classrooms.

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