Block Scheduling vs. Self-Contained Classrooms in Elementary Schools

Block scheduling is one way educators are changing the school day to tailor learning environments for all students.
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The self-contained classroom model in elementary school differs considerably from a segmented day divided into dedicated blocks of specialized instruction. Primary school teachers and administrators hold differing opinions about using the structure of block scheduling more often found in the nation’s high schools. Block scheduling holds some measurable advantages, and some schools are changing to embrace this alternative to the self-contained classroom that was originally created to meet the specific and common needs of students in special-education programs.

1 Block Scheduling

Block scheduling represents intensive single-subject chunks of specialized instructional periods, with pupils in class for up to 90 minutes -- the usual method of scheduling in high schools. This system is challenging the more familiar model of grouping elementary students by common grade level or educational need in the "self contained" classroom. As a compromise, some elementary schools are experimenting with a “parallel block system." In this model, a classroom of children is divided into two, and each group receives instruction tailored to fit a particular and specific need. The groups switch after a period of time that can vary in duration from 30 minutes to an hour. Enrichment types of activities such as art and music are built into schedules this way, allowing teachers a smaller group with which to teach more targeted skills.

2 Benefits of a Block Scheduling

With blocks of intensive time directed and narrowed into one subject, teachers can allow time for students to explore a concept more deeply. Proponents of this kind of schedule maintain that less time is lost during the school day when transitioning between subjects and activities. Additionally, if the time is long enough, block scheduling allows for in-depth study and peer collaboration on projects. The Education Alliance at Brown University, a educational laboratory, found that advantages with block schedules resulted in reduced discipline problems, increased achievement levels, and stronger personal relationships between teachers and students.

3 Self-Contained Classrooms

In a self-contained classroom, students who share similar education needs are grouped together. Ideally, the self-contained classroom offers a small student-to- teacher ratio to better meet the needs of children diagnosed with autism, ADD, ADHD, dyslexia or other special-educational requirements. A self-contained class is typically composed of students with similar learning needs. This ensures that a common environment for academic success can be maintained for all children. If students require additional accommodations, such as speech or occupational therapy, a self-contained classroom for academic education fulfills the requirement specified by law as education within the least restrictive environment because students can be pulled from the classroom for these individualized support services. Children may spend part or all of the school day in the self-contained classroom.

4 Teachers and Block Scheduling

Because block scheduling is a fairly non-typical model in the elementary school, shifts in time management and changes to methods of teaching and learning also need to be implemented when block scheduling is employed. If teachers are not prepared professionally in ways to maximize instructional time, class time can be wasted. Education researchers Legters, McDill, and McPartland cite studies that show less attention and development of close relationships between teachers and young adolescents might make departmentalized block-learning environments less student oriented and more subject-matter focused. Alternatively, a system utilizing interdisciplinary teacher teams to deliver instruction and follow through with extra academic support is shown to promote positive school climates and offer another option in education environments.

Julie Alice Huson is a parent and an educator with a Master of Science in education. She has more than 25 years of teaching experience, and has written educational materials for Colonial Williamsburg. She has also worked in consultation with the California Department of Education. Huson received a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching in 2011.