When I first begun teaching in the Autism Academy last year, I literally had no idea where to start setting up my first grade classroom. Although I had taught PreK LEAP for 3 years prior to teaching 1st grade, I had a blank canvas and couldn’t visualize anything up! This was finally my very OWN classroom- one I could decorate, organize and set up however I wanted but I had no idea where to begin!
Last year, I had a couple of fellow teachers give me input as to how I should have my classroom set up, and I simply went with that. After having “lived” in the classroom for a whole year and having seen the students transition around it, I now had a better picture of what I wanted to do with it and which areas should change. This year, I went back to school weeks before teachers were required to come in, spray-painted furniture, swapped my centers around, and even had my paraprofessional (para), who had been in my classroom for years before I arrived, move her desk to a different area of the classroom. So far, however, I love the new set up! This week was the very first week of school and the transitions and organization worked fantastically! All the hard work really paid off! I finally feel like I own the place!!!
Setting up an autism classroom for the first time can be mind bobbling! So here’s a peek into mine for all of my fellow special educators to get ideas (because someone once gave me ideas that got me started) and for my new parents to get acquainted with their child’s second home for the year.
As you will notice while you, digitally, visit my classroom, I have tried to visually create defined spaces for each of my areas. Clearly defining a space helps the students understand the area and my expectations better. For instance, if they are going to the Writing Center, they know exactly where the Writing Center begins and where it ends. When they leave the area and we ask them to return, they can easily orient themselves back to the Writing Center because it has been clearly defined. Clearly defined areas is definitely something that a classroom for students with autism should incorporate.
My Large Group area is the place where I conduct whole group instruction. I have set up a kidney table with 6 small chairs (that is currently the number of students I have) and a large chair for me on the other end. I am in the process of labeling the student chairs so that each child knows where they are expected to sit. This first week of school has been trial-and-error while we move students around to see who works well with who. Due to the limited space and furniture in my classroom, we also use this space and table as their snack table as well as for rainy-day PE activities.
I will soon be updating this page and adding additional pictures as well as educational activities done in our Large Group area here.
Welcome to my favorite time of our classroom routine!!! Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy just about every subject I teach (especially reading and writing). However, I have put this thing into place, organized each area with the items needed, created teacher-made resources for some areas, and played around with times and rotations. I practically gave birth to this awesome time of our classroom routine.
I like Centers for many reasons: the students become empowered and independent by following the routine practically on their own; they also get the opportunity to independently practice the skills we have learned as a group. During the Centers time, I also have the chance to focus on each child individually when I work with them in the Writing Center. Because most of my students receive occupational therapy and all of them receive speech therapy, during Writing Center I focus on their language and fine motor skills and try to hound in on individually practicing the things that we have reviewed as a whole group.
I have 5 different centers and 6 rotations of 10 minutes each. During the one hour of Centers, I remain in the Writing Center, working one-to-one with the child that has been assigned to that area, while my para rotates around to help the students who require more assistance with the rotations. I set a timer for 10 minutes. When the timer goes off the students know to clean up and walk to their individual picture schedule to check for their next center. I typically warn the students during the last minute or so; this way they receive a verbal reminder that the timer is about to go off and that they should begin cleaning up. Each child visits each of the following centers: Writing Center, Fine Motor, Book Area, Leisure, and Computer. Each of these centers is visited once throughout the one hour allotted, with the exception of Leisure where each child checks in twice in order to have them work with a different partner each time. Not that they mind going to the Leisure center twice, of course!
The Writing Center is by far my favorite of the 5. Here is where I help my students do the independent portions of our writing curriculum. Currently, I am using Handwriting Without Tears and I am loving it! I place two chairs on the desk, one for the student and one for myself. The filing cabinet shown was an old addition to the classroom that was salvaged from another classroom where it wasn’t being used. I revamped this piece with red spray paint as well as chalkboard spray paint. I can now use the side of the cabinet to write messages with chalk or to have blackboard writing activities for my students within the Writing Center. I also use this filing cabinet to keep materials for the Writing Center organized.
The book area is perhaps my second favorite center. Children have the ability to pick a book and lay on the carpet with the teddy bears or sit on the red couch and read to the teddy bears. We have also provided weighed blankets in this area for students to use for anxiety or frustration regulation. The blankets are also used as a way to provide pressure/weigh on the laps of students who have a difficult time sitting down. Out of 3 students we tried this technique with, it has been successful in helping 2 students remain seated for longer periods of time.
The majority of the teddy bears were provided to me by one of my neighboring teachers who bought them at a garage sale. The rest of them have been additions from multiple other donors. Every year, I take them home for a wash and then return them back into the classroom. The students love the corner where the teddy bears are since they are somewhat hidden under the counter portrayed.
My grandmother is excellent at sewing. She has created multiple items for my classrooms over the years- from curtains to plastic bag holders. Recently, I asked if she could help with what I thought would be a difficult project. I showed her a weighed blanket that our class borrowed from one of our wonderful occupational therapists. I took all the materials she would need and in less than a week she had created one large-size lap blanket, one medium-size lap blanket and two small-size neck blankets. My classroom has benefited tremendously from this addition and is a strategy that has helped to minimize out-of-chair behaviors!
I enjoy looking online for ideas and organizational tips that will make my daily routine easier to follow and to keep up. I have found many of these organizational strategies on Pinterest. Others my para and I have come up with in an effort to maintain an easy flow in the classroom.
Right in front of our classroom door once you step inside, I have created a Parent Corner. The Parent Corner is meant to display important information and resources for parents to refer to as they drop off or pick up their children. I currently have displayed a couple of papers I have already sent out to the homes (including the supply list and the Meet your Teacher Sheet). I also display our school and autism academy brochures as well as brochures from places that serve as a great resource for parents.
I think that more than just teach students, often times, special education teachers serve as resource providers; almost a type of social worker. From therapy places that lots of parents are boasting about to simple strategies and articles that could greatly help parents at home, we are resource filing cabinets waiting to share our knowledge. The Parent Corner is an excellent way to begin!
Although I pride myself in being a perfectionist and getting the important stuff done- I also have multiple things going throughout the day and often forget office-to-dos, along with other things! (Don’t worry mommy, your child is still safe with me!) For this reason, I placed up this magnetic dry-erase board on the door that leads to my fellow neighbor teacher’s classroom. This door is right next to the main entrance of our classroom. This has helped me tremendously to remember things that I would typically forget.
As part of the myriad of resources and therapies our school offers to the students in the autism academy, we are also extremely blessed to have tablets! At the beginning of the year last year, when my classroom was in its empty-ish stage, we were able to salvage this big books storage unit. Because I already have a different way of storing my big books, we figured this unit would better serve as an iPad storage unit. This is where we charge and store the iPads throughout the day and where the students have already learned to return them to after use.
Front of Classroom Teacher Station
Last year, after researching ideas, I found an organizational strategy that worked for me. Next to my kidney table in Large Group (where I hold whole-group instruction), I placed a table with bins and folders. I bought the blue bins from the Dollar Store and labeled them with days Monday through Friday. Inside of each bin, I have placed a yellow filing folder and a red folder with multiple tabs and pockets. I bought the latter at Office Depot. Inside of the red folders, I labeled each tab with the subjects I teach which require student written work (Reading, Language Arts, Social Studies, Science and Math). I also organized those labels in the order in which those subjects take place within our schedule. In the pockets I place the worksheet the students will complete for that particular subject on that particular day of the week. When I am ready to have my students do the assignment portion of the class, I simply pull out the red folder for that day, look for the subject I am currently teaching, and pull out the assignments. This has been extremely helpful! The yellow filing folder is what I use to place the work that was completed by my students on that day. In other words, the yellow folder holds the work that needs to be graded. In addition to these folders, I also place in the bins any other materials or resources I may need to use for that particular day.
On this table, I also keep my grading book, the calendar days (inside of the blue pencil box displayed), pens and highlighters (for me to grade and for creating traceable words) and the students pencil boxes (not currently displayed). Overall, this is my teacher station. It gives me easy access to the assignments that need to be completed within that day without having to walk back to my desk, and, if I were to be absent, it gives my para and the substitute easy access as well.
Access Points Displayed
In the autism academy, we utilize the Access Points to guide us in what we will be teaching the students. The access points are part of the Sunshine State Standards. They are smaller steps that help us teach our students so that they reach the standard itself. I decided to display some of the access points we will be using at the beginning of the year. This helps inform visitors of what we are working on and can easily be updated with new access points being utilized.
We keep a shelf in the classroom close to the door where the bathroom we use is located. On this shelf, we store student extra clothes, as well as diapers and wipes. This gives us easy access to the items we will need when the children have bathroom accidents or when they need to be changed. In addition, we also keep hand sanitizer, hand soap and Clorox wipes on the blue crate displayed. My para decided to recycle wipe containers as storage containers for these items. She covered the containers with red duct tape, and that is currently where we keep these cleaning supplies. This is actually a great idea to avoid the students reaching out and grabbing hold of them without our permission. It also helps to keep these ‘hidden’.
The number one organization and classroom management strategy we have set up in the classroom is the daily schedule. Because our students with autism are very routine oriented- it is important to maintain a constant routine that flows and transitions seamlessly from one activity to the next. Also, this routine needs to be CONSISTENT. In order to maintain our routine, we use the help of our picture schedules.
These individual picture schedules are set up so that each student has their own. To the left of each line of schedules we place the students’ names and pictures (not currently displayed) so that each student can easily follow their own schedule. For the most part each child follows the whole-group class routine simultaneously. The picture schedule activities that tend to differ from each other across students are the ones that correspond to the center each child should be going to, which for the hour allotted to Centers, is different for each child. The only exception for us this year is the Leisure Center, where I have placed two students to go there at the same time so that they practice the Social Skills we review during Large Group activities. My para and I ask the students to “check” their schedule when it is time to transition. Once they have walked to the schedule board (first picture above), they then match their individual picture to the corresponding stop sign (second picture above) which we have strategically placed in the area the student has been assigned to.
The idea behind these Individual Picture Schedules is two-fold: it allows the students the ability to not only know where they are going, but to know what is expected of them, while still providing the teacher seamless organization and a clear, direct routine. I love our picture schedule! My para is the Queen of picture schedules so she is the one that typically takes care of organizing these. You may probably be able to create these using cliparts or such but the best way to go about creating your own pictures to match the activities in your class is by using Boardmaker.
The Display Daily Schedule is a simpler way to show visitors our order of activities within the class. This is more for the adults involved. The one I am currently using and the one displayed on the picture above was downloaded for free from TeachersPayTeachers (TPT) here.
Overall, the schedules help to maintain a certain level of expectation from the students. My students feel empowered when they know what is expected of them and where they are supposed to be within my classroom.
This is My Classroom…
My classroom is not only my second home but is also my students’ second home. I strive to create an environment that they can enjoy and feel safe in. For this and many reasons, every year I enjoy implementing new strategies and sprucing up certain areas of the classroom. Although staying in this particular classroom is not always guaranteed, I always look forward to the chance of continuing the work I started here. No amount of words can describe my enthusiasm and excitement as I look into the future and picture the many things I can do here. But even more importantly, no amount of words can describe my illusion, 5 years ago, when I first became a teacher as compared to the amazing reality I face working with my wonderful students today. There is no doubt in my mind that I am in the right field and that I am doing what I have been called to do. I am a Special Education teacher for children with autism and I am LOVING it!!!