Special Education Classroom Setup

As an avid blog follower, I've seen some amazing classroom reveals popping up the past month.  I love seeing how different teachers design their classrooms for both FUN and FUNctionality.  Regardless of grade or learning environment, there are so many great ideas out there that we can tweak to work in our own rooms.

With the pace that we become accustomed to in the summer, I found myself very eager to take all of the ideas swirling in my head and make them a reality in my room.  I quickly remembered why posting a Classroom Reveal blog post the first week of school is futile.

Change is constant as a teacher.  In special education, this is particularly true.  The students' needs design our classrooms.  I've implemented successful systems in the past that I've loved, and then the next year, the systems had to be packed away, because I realized that they just wouldn't work with the group of students I would have in the upcoming year.

At the beginning of the summer, a new children's museum opened up down the street from my house.  My one-year-old daughter and I spent countless days there playing.  Knowing that this was one of the things that I was going to miss most about this summer, I knew that wanted to incorporate the colors and themes of the children's museum in my classroom, so that's where I started.  And, that's where I had to stop until I got to know not only my new students, but also how my students from last year would work with my new students.

To maintain confidentiality, you'll see smiley faces where there are student pictures and/or names, because, of course, my students are always smiling...hahaha.

There were some things that I knew I would need to set up immediately.  I knew I needed an area for hygiene (tissues, hand sanitizer, visuals about when to clean hands and reminders about what makes our hands dirty, etc.)  This is also the area where I keep my tools, not toys.  I keep fidgets in this area to keep busy hands busy.  I offer whisper phones made out of PVC pipes for students to use when reading quietly to themselves, as well as counting cubes and other items that I want students to have access to.


Every classroom needs an area for technology.  I have four elderly computers and an absolutely beautiful Smartboard.  Underneath the Smartboard, I have a charging bin where we place our iPads to be charged.  Students are taught to return iPads to this area, and it makes it easier for me to make sure that all iPads and chargers are accounted for.


I expect all of my students to follow technology procedures.  Technology at school is for learning, and if they choose to exit what they're supposed to be working on, whether it's on the computer or an iPad, they lose technology privileges for the rest of the day.  Technology procedures are reviewed frequently with the students, and after having to remove the first picture at the beginning of the year for not following our procedures, I don't usually have to do it again.


I'm very fortunate to have these block cubby holes in my room that are perfect for my lesson boxes.  There are more than a few container options out there to fit the layout of every room.  Every box holds activities in every core subject area.  If there is a box that holds an activity connected to an IEP goal, I put a sticker on the exterior to flag it.  It was a huge investment of time and also an investment of money, but it has proven to be worth it.  When I made labels for every unit that I wanted to teach throughout the school year, I could easily see where I had ample materials and where I had virtually no materials.  This helped me to focus my time and efforts in the most needed areas.  It also helps on those days that I'm going to be absent, because the activities are all ready for my guest teacher.  You can download all of the labels for my bins and my lesson boxes by clicking HERE.  I've updated my labels since I printed them for my own boxes, so the labels available for download are far better than mine!

I have a token economy in my classroom.  Students' pictures are posted at the top, and the coin "wallet" is posted out of reach of students but where students can see their coins.  Under the coins are visuals that I refer to frequently describing what students need to do in order to earn coins and be charged coins.  Below the visuals is a price chart that I hard laminate without prices posted.  I change my prices weekly based off of how many coins the students earn and what they can purchase.


I set up a teamwork system, although I also recognized that the expectations I would have for my students regarding teamwork might need to be adjusted from the last year.  I divide my teamwork board into red and black, with a zero right in the middle.  I use library book envelopes to show positive and negative integers.  Students' pictures are adhered to popsicle sticks.  Every student begins every day at zero.  I have visuals posted on each side that I refer to frequently, explaining to students how their choices are positive for the team or negative for the team.  Students either earn bonus coins, or they owe me coins based off the choices they make to advance our strong classroom team.  We have a "Fun Friday" activity in the afternoon on Fridays.  Students can move back and forth on the number line all week, but if they end their week in the "red," they will work on an alternate assignment with a paraprofessional rather than participating in the Friday activities.  This is also a great way to teach positive and negative integers in a meaningful way.

If you would like to download my teamwork sign for FREE, click HERE.  If you would like to download the visuals for my teamwork system, click HERE.

I set up the framework for my small group area, with future plans of inserting needed materials and activities once baseline data was collected on my students' abilities.  An important part of the classroom is the small group table.  I love using flexible groupings based off the activity.  Next to my small group table, in addition to my lesson boxes, I have a tower for more activities.  These include very specific activities for specific IEP goal instruction for specific students, as well as activities that target foundation skills that I might want the paraprofessionals to work on with the students.  Each student has a drawer or two with their name on it so that anyone who is available to work with a student can open it and pull out an individualized activity for each student.


Of course, I also needed my within-reach-of-what-I-need teacher area.  I think it's important that teachers have an area that is a no student zone, even if it's a tiny area.  We MUST have a place for confidential papers, important information that we might need to access quickly, a place for items that students may have brought from home and not have full access to, and a place for sharper objects (scissors, etc.) that need to be strictly monitored and so on.


Behind my teacher area is kind of like my command post.  In this area, I have my area for easily accessible lesson plans, sleeves for important information and a hook for my student information cards.  I make student information cards every year to have access to needed information quickly and easily.  If you'd like a template for student information cards, click HERE.  If you're also interested in the Guide that includes examples of student information cards, click HERE.


We're not only the students' teacher, we're also usually their case manager, and there is a lot of information that various people on my various teams both need to know and don't need to know about a given student.  Most of the time, people need to know only certain information about a student, such as their mode of communication and communication devices they use, as well as information about their personalities such as what teaching approach works best (firm or gentle), the students' interests and what needs to be avoided when it comes to working with certain students.  For example, mentioning a certain trigger, sensitivities to excessive noise or light, getting too close, etc. can be important information.  To inform the team without "over" informing, I made a Quick Reference clipboard.  Educators can get a quick picture of how to work with a student that they might not know very well.


We're now kicking into high gear with the school year.  I've had a few extremely busy weeks getting to know my students, their needs and how they will all work together.  I've gotten a good idea of my students' current work habits and where I'd like them to be by the end of the year in regards to being ready to learn.  I've also gotten a very good idea of what each student is likely to do when they don't feel ready to learn.  I implemented a Ready to Learn system in my room.  Students begin every day with their clothes pin on Ready to Learn (green).  Depending on their effort and participation in academic activities throughout the day, they can move up to Wonderful (blue) and then Fabulous (purple).  Or, they could be moved down to Make Better Choices (orange) or Talk about a Consequence (red).


What must be recognized is that there cannot be blanket rules and expectations for all students in a special needs classroom, because some students have learned negative behaviors and others cannot help certain behaviors because of their disability.  What can be allowed for one students should not be allowed for another student.  So, I had to think of a way to differentiate the system fairly for every student.

I created an individualized rubric for each student.  The rubric defines what Ready to Learn looks like for each student.  What is "Fabulous" for one student might be "Ready to Learn" for another.  It has already helped out greatly when I encountered a situation where one student needed to make better choices (orange), but another student was not moved because that student could not control themselves in the same way as the first student.  I reiterate to the class that everyone has a personal goal to better themselves and become better students.  Becoming a better student is different for everyone, so we are part of the same system, but we need to support each other in our differences and try to find the leader in ourselves.  It's one of my ways of creating controlled chaos.  If you'd like to download the Ready to Learn visuals, you can click HERE.  The rubric is not included, as a rubric for what defines each students' level on the chart is very different.


An extension of the Ready to Learn system with its accompanying rubrics is the Personal Goal Calendar.  At the end of the day, students color on the calendar where their clothes pin was at the end of the day.  There is also a place for certain students to color on their communication sheet that goes home so that their parents know daily the effort that their student is paying toward learning.  At the end of each month, we're going to have a Ready to Learn drawing that will reward students who are consistently in green, blue and purple at the end of the day.

It is very difficult (if not currently impossible) for most of my students to set personal goals.  This is one of the strategies I use to teach students reflection and personal goal setting.


At the entrance/exit to my room, I have this tiny, important post.  This is our Inbox/Outbox zone.  The box on top is where I put papers that need to be dropped off at various locations on campus, copies that I need to be made, and items that need to be taken to various locations.  Under this box, on the shelf, are passes for places like the nurse and counselor.  On the way is posted a reminder about keeping hands clean, as well as the bus chart that shows student names and bus numbers for all of my students.  This information is useful EVERY DAY.
*For some reason this paragraph won't align to the left.  So annoying.


There's a lot going on in the morning.  The telephone rings that a bus might be late, a student might not want to get off the bus, perhaps a student has a morning job somewhere else on campus, a teacher or two or three might need to give you pressing information, 5 or 50 emails might have come in from parents and administrators needing to give you information right away, and so on.  Students cannot come in and be idle.  Students need morning warm-ups to ease their brains into school while the day gets started.  Morning warm-ups must be appropriate for the students you have that year.  This year, I provide a bundle of laminated, simple bar graphs for students to complete.  They have access to dry erase markers and clipboards.  They choose the graph that sparks their interest, and they are free to go between my room and the adjoining special needs room, practicing their speech skills while they fill out their bar graph.  When we begin our morning meeting, we discuss the results of their graphs.


I've done this system in many different ways, but this year, this is what the student mailboxes look like.  Their pictures and names are on the front of their boxes.  This is where we keep their communication logs, papers, and of course, little trinkets that I don't want at their desks.  It also makes it easy for me, when papers come to me that must be sent home, to drop them in each of their boxes and ensure, at the end of the day, that the papers make it home.  Under the mailboxes are our recycle and shred bins, as well as a box of needed supplies to go to electives and a bin for our student aid to tend to when he visits the room.


When several students are on technology, all with sound going, the room can be a very distracting environment for students who are learning in small group.  I label all student headphones in individual baggies, and students use their own headphones when they're on technology that has sound.  I also teach a work skills class where I have students wear aprons.  I have a bin for the students to keep their "uniforms."  There's a bin for social narratives and another for student items that come from home and need a safe place to park so that they will not become a distraction.  Of course, there's also a bin for lunches so that students can learn to be responsible for emptying their backpacks of food items in the morning and delivering them to a place that makes it easy for the paras to deliver them to the refrigerator.


Every student has a different plan, so there's a binder for everything!  I use binders for take-home communication logs, preferring preprinted and individualized communication log forms over writing in spiral notebooks at the end of the day.  This is because, when I'm being pulled in multiple directions upon dismissal, writing in spirals doesn't prove efficient for me.  I use binders for student data, for collecting work samples, for keeping IEP goals and meeting information, and I use binders for students who travel to other classes so that their social narratives, behavior contracts and reminders of positive behavior reinforcement systems are available in every class.  I even use the sleeves on the exterior of the binders to remind me about things like sending student iPads home at the end of the day.


There are some extra things that I post in my room to keep our day running efficiently.  Of course, students love lunch!  I post the lunch menu calendar in an area that we can check every morning.  I have a door in my room that leads to a changing area.  This door is referred to on a daily basis, as posted on this door is important information such as my 9-weeks pacing calendars, critical skills that we teach beyond academics, and my student privacy list that lets me know at a quick glance which students have approved parental access to internet and who can or cannot be photographed, etc.  On the door, I also post a classroom schedule for teachers including teacher to student ratios at every part of the day, where students are if they are not in my room and where paraprofessionals are and who they're working with at any given time of day.  Of course, I have the daily schedule for students posted on another wall, as they need more basic information than the teachers.


I do not require homework in my classroom, but sometimes parents still want extra work for their students to do at home.  Because many of our learners are not pencil/paper students, sending homework home can be difficult.  I created a teacher webpage that offers educational internet sites and reading materials that are appropriate for our students.  I'm still working to add materials to my site.  I created a homework checklist that is sent home by parent request only, and if students bring it back on Friday with their personal goal met, they earn extra coins.  You can download my homework checklist for FREE by clicking HERE.

This year I encountered a challenge that I have never before encountered.  I have students who carry smart phones.  Smart technology can be an amazing tool for our students, but students also need to learn how to limit their use of this technology, particularly during academic instruction.  I created a phone jail in not only my room, but in every classroom where these tech-saavy students learn.  In every one of their classes, they check their phone into phone jail at the beginning of class and retrieve it at the end of class.  This has helped to teach my students moderation when it comes to personal technology use at school.  This wasn't easy.  It took time, but it is now becoming more automatic, and the students are beginning to check their phones in without reminders.  The students who do not need a phone jail are not required to use it.  The students who have repeatedly shown that they are having a difficult time not pulling it out of their pocket during class are required to use this system.  Mine is a simple pencil case that is in a safe place where students can see it and not readily access it during class.  My personal experience is that if my students can see the phone jail, then they know their phone is safe.


This is my fun new project.  It's combination of a math station and work skills.  I splurged a bit and got a calculator cash register.  I have food boxes (I was busy and bought them, but they could also be brought in from home when containers are emptied).  I photographed all of my "products" and made activity sheets to go along with them.  I put the activity sheets in plastic sleeves so that they can be written on with dry erase markers and be used repeatedly.  My amazing paraprofessional tediously cut out all of my prices and taped them to the products.  Students take an activity sheet, locate the products in the "pantry" and put them in their basket.  They then use the cash register to add up the total price of their products and circle the answer.

Although you'd need to do your own editing, you can upload a FREE powerpoint of this activity by clicking HERE.  Change the pictures, change the prices, or basically change whatever you want in order to make it work for your room!


This was a long post, and I assure you that I edited it down greatly.  There are so many components to setting up a special needs classroom, and every classroom is going to be different based on the given student population.  My classroom has looked very different every year, and I have seen some amazing classrooms that looked nothing like mine, because they just wouldn't work for my students.  I hope that, if you made it this far in my post, you've found at least one idea that you can use in your room to help you teach your students more effectively.  Time is always our enemy.  It has taken me years to get to this point, and there's still so much that I want to do that I haven't yet had the time to create.  Those things will come with TIME.  We add to the big picture every year, making our rooms better and better.  The best of luck to all of you teachers who are working your tails off every day for the students!!!!


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  4. I was wondering if you could show us an example of what you put in your lesson boxes. I'm very intrigued by this idea.

    1. Hi Christina. When packing up at the end of the school year, I took some photos of box contents so you could get a peek inside. I'll be posting those photographs this summer on my blog. Thank you for visiting! :)

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