Teaching students with autism is such a unique and rewarding profession! It is also one of those specialist positions that doesn’t include a manual, or a cheat sheet, for success. All students are different, of course, but there are certain steps you can take to set up your classroom to minimize behavioral problems and maximize progress. Here are my recommendations for setting up your autism classroom to result in a win for you and your students! Going back to our classrooms after months of at-home learning will be the perfect opportunity to look at your space with fresh eyes.
This is so important for autism classrooms because everyone needs space to move without feeling crowded by furniture or running into things. While considering your environment, think about things like flexible seating arrangements, classroom decoration, and materials placement. Do your students need alternate lighting or benefit from aromatherapy diffusers? A good rule of thumb is that you should look at your overall classroom design and feel calm, with no crowded spaces, busy or loud décor, or loud sounds. Students will often need physical boundaries to understand the difference between centers.
This element of classroom design is absolutely related to #1, but also deserves its own number. Think of clutter as related to the day-to-day operations of your classroom. This has to do with materials needed for daily lessons, storage of materials used on a regular basis, and sometimes even knick-knacks. These items can become visually overwhelming when you need your space to be calming and organized. My saying is “a bin for everything and everything in its bin.”
There are many options for functional sensory strategies in the classroom, but sensory strategies are not optional. Think about the storage of and access to calming sensory materials, which will vary (sometimes considerably) for your students. Each workstation should have sensory materials readily available for students because you don’t want their use to interrupt teaching and learning. You can also consider another space in the room with larger, louder, or messier sensory strategies, and using a ticket or icon system for their use. Whatever you choose to do, make getting sensory inventories and your students, and planning for meeting those needs a top priority!
The #1 requirement for students with autism is a calm, competent teacher. Students feed so much off the staff and environment that you are THE major resource for classroom management! Get organized. Stay organized. We all get rattled at times but having your systems in place so you can be calm and efficient is going to pay off in the short and long run. The one thing that has kept me organized throughout the years is a well thought out teacher planner. I could never find one that fit my needs at the store, so I made this one. I love that I can print it again each year.
Time outs have come a long way from being used as discipline in classrooms! What I am referring to here is students taking self-managed sensory breaks when they need to calm down or self reregulate. This area can be stocked with comfortable, calming strategies chosen specifically for your students. My students respond well to: a small tent for brief self-isolation (link here), cozy pillows or even yoga mats for comfort (link here), headphones for sound-dampening, or listening to preferred music, and snacks. Lots and lots of snacks.
Visual schedules are visual supports, but they are routine-oriented, and crucial to help students manage their day. Think about the placement of your visual schedules – do you want them in a central location or to be mobile? How will students use them? Think of visual supports as schedules within an activity. The visual schedule helps students move between those activities and any other transitions required throughout the day. Also, an important piece is to make sure that you have your master schedule down. You can learn all about how to start making a schedule here!
Most special education classrooms have an independent work component in their daily schedule. Independent workstations set up for maximizing focus and minimizing distractions are crucial. Independent centers are critical for students learning to work all by themselves. You can read all about how to set up these centers in this blog post HERE.
Paraprofessionals are literally our right-hand-people in the day to day operations of the autism classroom. They are invaluable for working with small groups and 1:1 with students, but they can also be so, so helpful prepping materials needed for workstations and small groups. Think about where paras can work in the classroom that will be out of the way of students and give them room for their yards and yards of laminating. Some things that I use in the beginning of the year to get on the same pages as my assistants are my handbook and my brochure.
Make a space in an out of the way corner, desk, or cabinet, where the adults in the classroom can store their things, keep snacks, and just, in general, have their stuff for easy access where it is also safe. All of you who work so hard every day deserves a little oasis for a quick break when needed.
So, at this point, I understand that it sounds like you will have a classroom the size of Wal-Mart. I know we are all given differential space, staff, and resources! But these tips are some of the most important things to think about for success, from my experience. Of course, you may need to make adjustments based on your circumstances but knowing what to look for is half the battle.
That’s all for now!Tell me in the comments if you set up your classroom any different.