Need for special education is growing, but collaboration required by the three-tiered support model is not working in practice

The number of students in need of support for learning is increasing, but in many municipalities, teachers report a shortage of special education teachers. Special education teachers, on the other hand, suffer from an excessive workload. Researchers recommend clarifying the roles of special education teachers and improving collaboration with subject teachers.
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Photo: Plugi/Antti Ekola

Inclusive education means that all students study in mainstream schools, where they receive the support they need. Special education teachers are key professionals in realizing inclusive education. They support both students and teachers in mainstream schools.

In a practical three-part study conducted at the University of Oulu, special education teachers were asked about their work. They feel that with the three-tiered support model used in Finland, the work of special education teachers has diversified, but the target and purpose of the work have become unclear as the number of various tasks has increased. The three-tiered model was introduced in 2011.

Collaboration between special education teachers and class teachers (in primary school) or subject teachers (in secondary school) is central in the tiered model, as it relies on the belief that through this collaboration, students will receive suitable support. Supporting students in their studies is the responsibility of all teachers, not just special education teachers. According to one of the three studies, all these teachers are also involved in supporting students in all tiers, although practices vary between different schools. There is an obvious need to develop and improve the collaboration between teachers.

The researchers argue that the subject teacher system complicates collaboration in lower secondary schools. There is no designated time for collaboration on support issues, and it is challenging to find time for this collaboration due to teachers' different schedules. In some schools, there is also a lack of suitable spaces for collaboration.

"The studies provide a comprehensive picture of what support for learning has become in basic education in the new support model. These results are valuable when the role of special education teachers is updated, and the basic education law is refined concerning support," says Doctoral Researcher Ninnu Kotilainen. She works as a subject teacher at Karkkila Comprehensive School in Uusimaa and is doing her doctoral dissertation at the University of Oulu on support for learning in lower secondary schools.

Special education teachers in both primary and lower secondary schools report an excessive workload because the number of students in need of support is increasing, and there are not enough special education teachers in schools. The amount and diversity of special education teachers’ work can be surprising. The studies reveal that special education teachers find their work very hard, if not impossible, to carry out well due to the workload and conflicting expectations from different stakeholders.

"The Finnish three-tiered support model relies on collaboration among teachers. However, there is no time nor suitable structures for joint planning, especially in lower secondary schools, where every teacher has their own schedule and common planning time can be hard to find," explains Ninnu Kotilainen.

According to the research, special education teachers need professional knowledge and collaborative skills, self-management skills such as stress-management, and something the researchers termed as “special education teacher mindset” which includes student-centeredness and flexibility. In lower secondary schools, special education teachers also need knowledge of subject content and issues related to mental health. Discussing and defining the work description is needed to provide support flexibly to students and colleagues.

A total of 248 special education teachers working in basic education participated in the Finnish-language studies, and 63 lower secondary school special education teachers participated in the English-language study. The data were collected through questionnaires and analyzed using content analysis. Research concerning the modern work description of Finnish SETs in the framework of inclusive education and the three-tiered support system is not excessive. The English-language publication is the first in a long time to focus solely on the work of lower secondary special education teachers.


Kotilainen, N. & Takala, M. 2024. “So much invisible work” – the role of special education teachers in Finnish lower secondary schools. Scandinavian Journal of Educational Research

In Finnish: Sirkko, R., Kotilainen, N., & Takala, M. 2023. Erityisopettajan työ osa-aikaisessa erityisopetuksessa. Kasvatus & Aika, 17 (3)

In Finnish: Takala, M., Kotilainen, N. & Sirkko, R. 2023. Laaja-alainen erityisopettaja tuen antajana. Oppimisen ja oppimisvaikeuksien erityislehti - NMI-Bulletin, 3.

Last updated: 5.3.2024