An effective classroom set-up when teaching to children with special needs is essential. You’re probably thinking, ‘a classroom is quite standard; it’s just a room filled with a table, chairs and a whiteboard. How could the set-up of simple elements effect a child’s learning so much?’.
However, a good classroom set-up, especially for students with special needs, shapes mindset and behaviour.
1. A good classroom is one that is clear and consistent in the function of each segmented area
An area can be an abstract concept for our children with special needs. For example, there are so many things you can do while at a table. You can write at a table, you can also read a book, complete a puzzle, or play with toys at that same table. Because of this ambiguity of space, students with special needs may struggle to understand the function of a given area or space. Therefore, a good classroom set-up for students with special needs will have a specific or designated area for a consistent function.
For example, at The Radiant Spectrum, the piano area is used for piano tasks. A table against a different wall is used for writing tasks. Teachers may also set up an additional space called “Break Area”, a small corner of the classroom where there are toys for students to engage with when they are not doing work. In this Break Area, students are given space to play with and keep toys there. When it is time to move to the piano or the table for work, they do not bring the toys out of the “Break Area”. Each area in the classroom has a consistent function differentiated by the tasks and/or materials available.
For more literal students, having materials and tasks consistently in an area is not sufficient. They may require more concrete physical structures such as containers to retrieve and keep materials into, or physical boundaries using chairs, tables, stools, coloured mats, and coloured tapes to indicate corners, spaces, and walls.
2. A good classroom is flexible and can be adjusted to the sensorial needs of the student
When it comes to good classroom physical structure, there is no one size fits all approach. Some students sit perfectly well on stools, while others may sit better when the chair has a backrest. Some students focus better when seated facing a non-reflective surface, while others are ignorant of the hustle and bustle around them. A good classroom set-up for students with special needs takes into account the learning styles and sensory needs of each student and is flexible enough for modifications.
For example, for younger students who are more active and have yet to learn good on-seat behaviours in the classroom, we usually change the position and/or direction of the table and chair.
At first glance, both pictures look the same – just a table, a chair, and a stool. Look again, and you will realize that the work area has been structured with on-seat challenges in mind.
On the right, the student is seated against the wall, which discourages him or her from running off or flooring, since there is a finite space between the chair and table. In order to get off the seat, the student needs to lift his or her legs up effortfully and only has one direction to exit. This layout gives the teacher time to react and redirect the student’s behaviour easily. Consequently, this layout is often used with younger students. On the left is a structure that is suitable for students with good on-seat behaviour. Because the student is unlikely to show behaviours like running off or flooring, the huge space behind him or her is less of a concern.
Selecting the right height of tables and chairs is also important. If a student comes for class and is dysregulated, or has a tendency of crawling under tables, a regular height writing table is not suitable as there is a lot of space below the table for exploration. Instead of using a regular table, the teacher could change to a lower table where the space underneath is smaller, less available, and not easily accessible. Under normal circumstances, parents may focus on the ergonomics of a writing table and chair, but when it comes to special needs children, the physical structure must take into account their needs and behaviours.
3. A good classroom has a safe and respectful space for regulation
Students with special needs may face struggles in their regulation and may display challenging behaviours when they are dysregulated or in a meltdown. A good classroom for students with special needs will have a safe and respectful space for regulation for this reason.
If space allows, it is always good to set up a “Cool-Down Corner” for this purpose. At The Radiant Spectrum, we use a simple yet useful strategy for regulation. When our students are dysregulated, they may lie on the floor or squeeze into a corner. It may be challenging to stop a meltdown from happening but they are taught to use a chair for regulation. Their flooring behaviour is shaped into an appropriate action, that of sitting on a chair. We teach them that it is okay to feel sad or angry, or even cry, but we do not lie on the floor when we are not feeling good. We can sit on a chair and wait until we feel better. This simple strategy encourages a more appropriate way to show dysregulation, and it is also a respectful way to redirect our students’ attention and shape their challenging behaviours into more socially appropriate ones when in a difficult situation.
4. A good classroom has alternative learning supports, including Visual and Communication supports
Lastly, a good classroom set-up for students with special needs makes use of visual and communication supports, or alternative methods of communication, teaching, and learning, instead of just the traditional way of teaching in a lecture-style and students passively learning through listening. Our students with special needs learn in many ways, some by watching, some by listening, some by looking and observing, and others by experiential. It is hence important to provide the necessary supports to cater to the different learning needs of our students. Below are some examples of visual supports that are used in our classroom.
So, is a classroom just about tables, chairs, and a whiteboard? It could very well be. But look closer and you will realise that a classroom set-up can be so much more!