Regardless of whether it is your first year or your 20th in your classroom, there are always new ideas to make your year a successful one. Teachers understand that planning and organizing their room can be one of the most important steps to help ensure a successful year. It is also a chance to be creative and design a classroom where your students will flourish!
Reviewing IEP’s and Communicating with Parents
One of the most helpful ways to begin is to see what your student’s challenges will be. To do this you may be able to access their files and look through the IEP’s so you can find and provide the best materials for them. Communication with the parents at the beginning of the year is very helpful, because they know the most intimate information. You may be able to find out about how they react to their medicine, general habits they experience, or extreme behaviors that may occur during the day. Parents may also know their child’s triggers, such as loud noises, and their child’s favorite activities that they enjoy at home. This information can help you plan your first day. Perhaps, you may decide to add calming classical music at the beginning of the day, and then, you find out that many students love to paint, so you may want to use this experience in order to comfort them with a familiar activity.
Below are some ways to set up a special education environment, along with some ideas on how to manage the environment once the students are in it.
Designing a Creative Learning Environment
How can you turn a white-walled, empty room into something of beauty and learning? Begin with the placement of desks and tables, which need to be spaced to where the students have plenty of room so they are not distracted by other learners. Often, children with special needs are very sensitive about personal space and desks should not be placed too close to other students. (Be careful not to make children with special needs feel isolated by placing them too far from other students.) Horseshoe tables can work well for small group work. A small rectangular table can work well for individual testing and art.
If you have bookshelves throughout the room that you use for centers or your own work, you can place a calming color runner such as green or blue along the top. Small live plants could also be added. As you go around each area of the room adding these calming colored runners and small plants, you will be amazed at how cozy it feels.
Books will need to be easy to access by placing them in labeled wooden baskets with the word “book” under a picture attached. A soft lamp could be added in the library and writing center.
Pictures of the children’s family can be placed on a table for them to look at as they are reading. This can provide a sense of comfort and safety to the child as they see their family in the room. Pictures of the child’s family and pets can also be placed on their wheelchair trays.
A floor lamp with a low watt bulb can be a cozy addition to other parts of the room such as in the art nook, where children’s future artwork will hang on the walls.
Light tables for science exploration are a nice addition to a classroom. You can buy a small tabletop model from Discount School Supply to use for magnetic color play.
Creating a Calming Space for Individual Students to Regulate Emotions
Designing an area where a child may go if they are angry, sad, or feeling scared can help you throughout the year. students can go there freely or by teacher request if a child is in need of gaining self-control. The teacher or assistant can also be there to help calm the student.
Beanbag chairs work nice for this area or for a creative spin; you could purchase a brand new trashcan and cut away a curved horseshoe shape in the center of it that extends down to the bottom of the can. Then add comfortable pillows and the child can go right in. Decorating the outside of the can with soft and colorful fabric can make the space very inviting. It is also nice for the child to have a few activities to choose from while they are sitting there. If the student is angry, often times books, sensory bottles filled with water, glitter, and sequins, can help calm him or her. Sensory balls that the child can squeeze work, as well.
Developing a Schedule
Now that the environment is set up, how and what to fill the educational hours with becomes the focal point. Timing your day will help ensure that students are engaged in learning and are not engaged in behaviors that you do not want. It can be very helpful to plan more than you would need in one day, striving to give them ample time for structured, as well as unstructured time, that is educational and working towards their goals.
A busy schedule might begin like this:
- Greet students individually as they enter.
- Then, they are brought over to get their morning folders where individual goal work awaits them. (For example, some students may be working on writing their name or answering a series of yes or no questions, such as identifying their phone number or their addresses. Other important educational goals such as shapes, addition, or letters, may follow.)
- Morning breakfast for some of the children who require this, would be served.
Communication Circles can be done on 2 or 3 days a week. In Communication Circles, the students come together to share what they did over the weekend, sharing important events coming up in their lives. Parents of child who is nonverbal could take home a communication device on which the parent can record what their child did over the weekend. Alternatively, the parent could write a note and the teacher could record what the parent wrote. Students, who can speak, share what they did over the weekend.
On day two, a selected student can bring home a decorated bag, which could be called A Sharing Bag. The child can fill the bag with one item from home that is very special and bring it back to school. Other students enjoy reaching in to feel the item, trying to guess what it might be. This can be used as a sensory and vocabulary building experience, also.
Morning Meeting and Centers
Morning Meeting can be done directly after Communication Circle. This is where the calendar, weather and learning topics are shared. Music and big books are very effective to use during this time.
After morning meeting, students will work on an art, science, math, or language project relating to the topic discussed in Morning Meeting. On some days, they may work more in-depth on individual goal work.
Centers are then introduced. Perhaps you may have the light table open for science, kitchen center, math cubes, and reading areas. Other choices could include listening centers, art, and specific fine motor skills that students may be working on.
Centers would be followed by lunchtime and recess/or mat time for children, who are in wheel chairs.
Project Work and End of the Day
After lunch and recess, project work on a specific topic such as Plants, The Human Body, etc. can be explored. Ending the day with a meeting can be a good way to discuss how the class is doing on project work. Students could share what they learned for the day, perhaps close with a song and have students help with an end of the day task to enhance community skills. For instance, the student’s Job for the Week may be to water the plants or sweep the floor. Then, everyone can prepare for dismissal and head to the buses.
Creativity and Structure Help with IEP Documentation
As you implement the projects and centers, students will be excited to see what you have in store next and will have an opportunity to work on their personal IEP goals. This can leave you with valuable time to walk around and document all that they are learning. Managing your special education resource room in schools at the primary grade levels can be made easier with a good dose of creativity, project based learning, and structure.
- Communication Circles and Morning Goal Work ideas are from the wonderful teachers at Woodlane School of Developmental Disabilities in Bowling Green, Ohio
- Source: Author’s experience as a teacher of Head Start children