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Laying the Foundation: Considerations for Scheduling Students With Disabilities

Master scheduling in an inclusive school is a student-centered and collaborative process. Before creating the final master schedule, administrators can minimize the otherwise daunting nature of this task by (a) actively engaging teachers, service providers, guidance counselors, and other support personnel in identifying students’ learning and behavioral needs; (b) creating balanced class rosters and individual student schedules; and (c) assigning appropriate staff to teach the general education curriculum and provide special education to students with disabilities (Florida Inclusion Network [FIN], n.d.; Friend, Hamby, & McAdams, 2014; Prewett et al., 2012).

Crawford (2008) views the master schedule as a means to creating a balance between non-negotiable state and division policies, student needs, staff expertise, and the number of hours in the school day. As such, the master schedule is a powerful tool that, with considerable and proactive planning, can create the conditions for “successful teaching and learning” and decrease last-minute juggling of staff and students (Crawford, 2008; FIN, n.d.; Friend et al., 2014).

This article’s primary focus is on scheduling students with disabilities. It offers principals and master scheduling teams suggestions and tools for planning in advance of the master scheduling process.

Before Building the Master Schedule

  1. Lay the foundation. The content of students’ individualized education program (IEP) defines their instructional program and is a critical resource for the scheduling process (Brink, 2014). Principals can communicate the importance of the IEP by setting clear expectations that:
    1. The student’s IEP must accurately reflect her Present Level of Academic and Functional Performance (PLAFP), goals, and special education services.
    2. Student needs, not their identified disability category, drive student placement.
    3. The general education classroom with special education supports is the default placement for students with disabilities.
    4. A continuum of services is available to support the needs of students with disabilities.
    5. Classroom rosters are strategically balanced to allow educators to address the needs of individual students while also creating the conditions to maximize learning for all students (Bateman & Bateman, 2014; FIN, n.d.; Friend, et al., 2014).
  1. Carefully select a team to build the master schedule. Collaborative pre-planning is key when creating a master schedule. Pooling the creativity of a cross-section of the school’s faculty and administrators increases staff buy-in and the likelihood that a final schedule that meets the needs of all students will be developed (Friend et al., 2014). It also allows collaborative teams to experiment with and consider the impact of a variety of different scenarios before producing the final master schedule (Crawford, 2008; Canady & Rettig, 2008). The optimal team is comprised of educators who
    • know their students’ needs,
    • understand the general education curriculum,
    • have instructional expertise in reading and math,
    • have special education expertise, and
    • understand state, division, and school policies and practices that influence the master scheduling process (FIN, n.d.; Kussen, 2008).
  1. Know and understand students and their learning needs. In both elementary and secondary schools, students with disabilities should be the first students assigned to classes in the master schedule (FIN, n.d.; Friend et al., 2014; Murawski, 2008). While it may seem most logical to assign all students with disabilities to one class, this is rarely the best solution (Murawski, 2008), it is most effective to build supports around student needs.

Friend et al. (2014) recommend that no more than 40% of students with disabilities populate a general education classroom, whereas Murawski (2008) suggests no more than 20%. Bateman and Bateman (2014) recommend that students with disabilities be “spread out” and that their proportion in classrooms reflect their proportion in the school community. Most important, careful consideration should be given to class composition to prevent co-taught classes from becoming the placement option for all students with learning difficulties (e.g., students who are English language learners, considered at risk, or demonstrating behavior challenges) (Friend et al., 2014; Murawski, 2008).

All students with disabilities do not require placement in co-taught classrooms (Friend et al., 2014). Some students need minimal or no supports in general education classrooms, while others need very specialized services in self-contained settings (Friend et al., 2014). For students with disabilities who need more intensive support in addition to general education, educators should consider scheduling intervention and resource classes at times that allow students to remain in core classes for the entire period (Prewett et al., 2012). Options for secondary-level students with disabilities include (a) using elective periods to provide interventions; (b) when possible, shortening class periods to create time in the master schedule for an intervention block; and (c) extending instruction beyond the school day to provide opportunities for students to voluntarily attend intervention or remediation sessions (e.g., before or after school or Saturday school sessions) (Prewett et al., 2012).

It is important to be realistic about the level of support students with disabilities need when transitioning from elementary to middle school and from middle to high school. Out of concern for the increased demands at the next school level, IEP teams sometimes overload the students’ IEP with unnecessary supports (Friend et al., 2014). An individualized transition plan that includes scheduled meetings between elementary and middle school and middle and high school IEP teams (that include the student) is an effective way to minimize anxiety (Frasier, 2007) and plan more realistically. Such a meeting allows teams to proactively discuss the student’s learning needs, the demands of the student’s new learning environment, and supports and programs that are available to increase the likelihood of a smooth transition to the new school (Frasier, 2007).

The scheduling team can use the following tools to make informed decisions about creating class rosters:

  • Teaching Assignment Preference Form assists the elementary principal in assigning teachers to grade levels, co-teaching partnerships, committees, and leadership positions (Brink, 2014).
  • Academic and Functional Data Collection Template summarizes universal and special education assessment data and enables special education teachers to effectively communicate students’ academic and behavioral needs.
  • Grouping Cards summarize important student information that is helpful when creating class rosters and Grouping Cards Helpful Hints provides instructions on completing the grouping cards and creating class rosters (Brink, 2014).
  • Projections Chart creates a visual of the level of support required for students at each grade level (Brink, 2014).
  1. Reserve time in the master schedule for collaborative planning time. Whether teachers are in co-teaching relationships or general and special educators regularly consult with one another regarding student progress on IEP goals, regularly scheduled time for collaborative planning and data-based decision-making is a key component of an effective instructional program for students with disabilities (Bateman & Bateman, 2014; Canady & Rettig, 2008; Friend et al., 2014; Prewett et al., 2012). Building time into the school’s calendar for the scheduling team to complete this initial work around creating a master schedule will help to ensure that students with disabilities are assigned to classrooms and courses first and that the educators most qualified to meet their learning needs are subsequently assigned.

NEWNote to Readers:  If you have implemented processes that have been effective at supporting students with disabilities during the master scheduling process, please let us know about them. If not, what are your most pressing needs and questions around scheduling students with disabilities? Share your story or ask a question by leaving a comment below.



Bateman, D., & Bateman, C. (2014). A principal’s guide to special education. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children.

Brink, G. (2014, September). Scheduling to best support students with disabilities. Presentation at the Principal’s Institute: Leading with the success of students with disabilities in mind, symposium conducted at the meeting of The College of William and Mary and Old Dominion University and Training and Technical Assistance Center (TTAC) and Mary, Hampton, VA.

Canady, R., & Rettig, M. (2008). Elementary school scheduling: Enhancing instruction For student achievement. Larchmont, NY: Eye On Education, Inc.

Crawford, M. (2008). Think inside the clock. Phi Delta Kappan, 90, 251-255.

Florida Inclusion Network. (n.d.). CUEcard for inclusive scheduling.  Retrieved from

Florida Inclusion Network (n.d.). Flexible scheduling for in-class supports: A blueprint for change. Retrieved from

Frasier, J. (2007). Transitioning students with disabilities from middle to high school. Teaching Exceptional Children Plus, 4(2), 1-10.

Friend, M., Hamby, L., & McAdams, D. (2014, April). Scheduling for co-teaching and other inclusive practices. Paper presented at the Meeting of the Council for Exceptional Children, Philadelphia, PA.

Kussen, S. (2008). How to build the master schedule in 10 easy steps: A guide for secondary school administrators. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Murawski, W. (2008). Five keys to co-teaching in inclusive classrooms. School Administrator, 65(8), 29-29.

Prewett, S., Mellard, D., Dshler, D., Allen, J., Alexander, R., & Stern, A. (2012).  Response to intervention in middle schools: Practices and outcomes.  Learning Disabilities Research & Practice, 27(3), 136-147.

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