Research Based Top 6 Ways Working Conditions Affect Special Education Instruction – Which School Environment Is Right For My Child?

As an educator, I am frequently asked about how parents can tell if their student is receiving great instruction. These questions include, but are not limited to:

How can I tell if a curriculum is right for my child?

Is my child’s school providing a good education for my child?

Is my child’s teacher any good?

Is special education helping my child?

There is research related to the quality of curriculum and reading programs, but academia is beginning to find more meaningful correlations between actual teaching and school practices and increased student outcomes. One of these important practices is by providing a positive work environment. This research is critical because it is usually low cost to implement, allows administration to fine tune their school wide practices, helps parents understand if their school is providing a positive support system, and encourages teachers to look for positive work environments when searching for a job.

An article published in the Journal of Special Education, by Bettini, Crockett, Brownell, and Merrill (2016), reviewed current research on how working conditions affect special education instruction. As the inclusion of students with special needs in the general education classroom continues to grow, special education teacher working conditions are also applicable for general education teachers and paraprofessionals.

The six ways Bettini found that working conditions affect instruction are:

  • The school and district culture
  • Instructionally focused administrative and collegial support
  • Instructional materials
  • Instructional grouping
  • Time for instruction
  • Time for planning

What the Research Shows

This research review found that when schools shared responsibility for teaching all students, had support from other strong teachers, had appropriate materials for learning, had smaller groups with similar educational needs, administration promoted and allowed ample instructional time, and allowed their teachers enough planning time for their work loads, students exhibited greater academic gains.


Application of Findings

This may all seem very obvious… just give teachers what they need to do their work. But this continues to be a struggle today. Now, obviously my experiences cannot speak for everyone’s situation. But I hope to provide some insight for parents or teachers looking for a positive teaching environment.

Traditional Public School

At a public school, I received a lot of support: Lots of trainings, lots of materials, pre-made lessons, the teachers supported each other, I had several prep periods, and two paraprofessionals. However, there was a lot of “politics.” Due to certain laws and regulations, sometimes my hands were tied. Other times, senior teachers would decide how a schedule needed to be and I could not try anything new. Older educational practices ruled the school because the senior teachers were in charge. It felt like: “Hey, we are all family here. We have your back. Unless you rock the boat… then we’re not interested in what you have to say.”

Public schools have a lot to offer. I believe in the public school system. In my opinion, public school working environments make it the best situation for these students:

  • Students who are typically developing.
  • Students who need career training in high school.
  • Students with mild learning disabilities and can be in the general education classroom.
  • Students with moderate to severe learning/intellectual disabilities up until high school (however, I am a STRONG supporter for push-in services, rather than the typical pull-out).

This is the best working environment for teachers who:

  • Are looking for a safe way to gain tenure and have job security
  • Want to become a public school principal, superintendent, or other administrative job (you are required to work so many years in a public setting)
  • Want a traditional teaching model and independence in their classroom
  • Enjoy participating in lots of extra curricular activities
  • Are seeking the protection of a union
  • Interested in a traditional retirement plan

Public Charter School

At a public charter school, I also received ample training. Only this time, it was a rigid system of education. Everything was research based, students were given high expectations, and we were given a school wide system of support for our students. It ran like a well oiled machine. The downside here was that I was worked like a dog. Literally. I often would not leave my building until 6pm, and then had work I was bringing home. I was expected to write my own curriculum. This was incredibly difficult and the work environment tended to be cold. It felt like: “We are elite. We are changing the world! But if you are not willing to sacrifice your soul, then you’re not good enough for our school.”

In my opinion, high performing public charter school work environments make the best situation for these students:

  • High performing students who are looking to be challenged
  • Students whose local schools do not have a positive environment
  • Students who are looking for a different structure than their public school has to offer
  • High school students who have intensive learning needs

This is the best working environment for teachers who:

  • Looking to work hard and move up in an organization
  • Are willing to work long hours for equal or less pay
  • Dedicated to great teaching practices and demanding high expectations
  • Interested in an alternative teaching culture than public schools offer
NOTE: Of course there are exceptions to every rule! You’ll find poor performing public charters schools as well! Be choosy!

Private Schools

Working at a private school was very different. We had less bureaucracy and could really serve the parents. If the parents wanted a specific tool, they could pick it. The struggle here was that our pay was slightly less than public schools, and sometimes the support was limited. Not by any fault of the company mind you, but in a private business, you have to make financial decisions to keep the company going. It felt like: “We are on your team. We work for the families, and we’re just trying to do our best.”

In my opinion, private school environments are best for these students:

  • Students and families looking for a religious environment.
  • Students who need a specific learning plan.
  • Students with sensory needs.
  • Students who need specific tools, therapies, and support personnel to be safe, functional, and learn life skills. (However, you will either have to pay for these yourself, or apply for federal scholarships)

This is the best environment for teachers who:

  • Want to teach in a religious setting
  • Enjoy working in a small school setting
  • Can work in a non-traditional school
  • Is okay without a union or traditional teacher protections
  • For special education placements: is okay with high needs children


These experiences all had their pros and cons. However, when you are searching for an appropriate job or school placement, make sure you are looking into these environmental factors. Some schools are not going to work well for your student, and some of them are not going to be great for you to teach in.

Here are my warning signs for a poor environment (which could lead to poor student outcomes):

Teachers are given sporadic planning time.

  • If students are NOT given a different curriculum, but are pulled out for all of their core subjects and lessons. (this is a pretty old way of doing special education instruction, and it has proven to actually regress students)
  • Teachers do not appear to be happy during the day.
  • If there is no a collaboration time set up for the school.
  • If the principal has changed frequently over the past several years.
  • If the special education students work only with paraprofessionals and not the special education teacher.
  • If there only a few or outdated teaching materials found in the classroom.
  • If the class sizes are consistently over 30 students, or the students do not fit in the classroom.

Thanks, feel free to post any questions or comments!


Here are some other sources you may want to look through when choosing a child’s school placement:


Here are additional resources for teachers looking for the right job placement:

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