Your Back-to-School Special Ed Classroom Checklist

August 15, 2015
Text books and pencils in a pencil holder on a desk

Setting up any classroom takes effort and preparation throughout your last precious weeks of summer, but a Special Education setting requires some additional thinking to ensure that it's student specific and accommodating to the needs of your learners.

Try the following tips to start your program on the right foot!

Know your learners . . . as best as you can

Speak with your students' previous teachers; read through student records; go over IEPs, report cards, and safety plans; and be aware of medical histories, if applicable.

If possible, conduct a brief observation of your future students in their current settings, whether it be at home or at school.

Sometimes we aren’t so lucky as to have a heads up on our role call for September, and while last-minute changes to a class list might sound like a teacher’s nightmare, try your best to determine the overall make-up of your class list if you can’t get to know students individually.

  • What makes your students different and what do they have in common?
  • Do they belong to similar age or division groups?
  • Do they communicate with pictures or words?
  • Are they meeting any grade specific levels?
  • Do they belong to similar cultural groups?
  • Do they have similar interests, likes, and dislikes?

The more you know about your students the better.

However, nothing will help you get to know them better than being their teacher during that first month of school. Students can display different behaviours for different staff, so you might find yourself starting from scratch anyway.

An important note: While we all love to be prepared, I usually refrain from making permanent, student-specific items like name tags and pictures until after the first day because anything can change, and you might find yourself wasting materials.

Divide your space

Your classroom is where students will spend most of their time for the next 10 months, so make it welcoming and friendly. But most importantly, make it efficient for your students. Use large items like bookshelves and desks to create boundaries between spaces, and make sure there's a clear pathway to the “hub” of the classroom, i.e. the Schedule Wall or Lesson Area. In my ASD class, I refrained from using bright colours or distracting wall coverings due to the sensory sensitivities of my students.

Here are some ideas of different spaces you might want in your classroom:

  • Cubby area: A consistent place for your students to put their belongings will foster ownership and responsibility.
  • Group lesson area: This could be a carpet or a table, depending on the ages and abilities of your students.
  • Individual work spaces: This should be self-contained, free of distractions, and close to work materials.
  • Calming space: Check your board’s Special Education Plan for regulations.
  • Play space: Keep student interests in mind when choosing toys and games.
  • Life skills area: Not needed if you have a kitchen area elsewhere in the building.
  • Staff area: A place to post important information for staff.

Create a schedule

Whether your students communicate with words or pictures, an individualized daily schedule helps all students self-regulate and manage their day.

Having a Schedule Wall in your classroom is a go-to that promotes maintenance and consistency during what can be a very overwhelming school day.

Use picture communication symbols (PCS) and Velcro to make your daily schedules, or words for students who can read and don’t require a visual.

For older students, having one master schedule on the wall may do the trick to keep them informed, which is proven to diminish behaviours related to inconsistency and anxiety.

Continue from previous IEPs . . . for now

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is to write and produce new goals for your students over the summer based on their old IEPs. Summer learning loss averages at about 2.6 months in Mathematics and two months in Literacy—for the average, neurotypical student!

Save yourself the time and don’t think about goals for the first few weeks.

Instead, take data on the previous year’s IEP goals to make sure that knowledge was maintained. If your students are able to perform their old skills at a positive rate, then you can begin to think about expanding and writing new goals.

Make some materials

Like any teachers, we will re-use successful materials from year to year. But before school begins, you may want to create a few new materials such as Fine Motor or Life Skills task boxes that you know all students will use and benefit from. Don’t bother making student-specific items until at least after the first week when you will have a better idea on their goals and expectations going forward.

Decide on parent communication

Along with a welcome letter and a Student Survey, you will want to have your method of parent communication ready for Day 1 in order to establish the routine you want with parents.

In the past, I have chosen a daily communication book where staff write home about the student’s day in a positive way that encourages parents to share information with the school about the student’s evening. Make sure that all staff have the opportunity to write in each student’s book, as this will develop a positive relationship with the home.

In addition to staff comments, I like to have students use either pictures or words to communicate about their day. This can be done by writing sentences in a journal, choosing pictures on a communication board, or simply circling an emotion that describes their day.

Enjoy the first week!

Don’t overplan. Spend the first week (or two!) getting to know your new students, and possibly new staff. It will take some time to get into the groove of your schedule (mine usually isn’t concrete until after Thanksgiving), and you might find yourself taking more time to establish rules and routines than completing planned academics. In order to create new expectations for each student, you will need to observe them interacting both as an individual and with their peers.

Most importantly, have some fun outside while the weather is still warm!

Laura Merkle is an advocate for kids with #autism and a special education teacher based in York Region, ON. She enjoys working with her students through Applied Behavior Analysis, speech-language pathology, augmentative communication, and other strategies and supports, and last year she had the opportunity to completely design her own Community Classroom. Follow Laura @asd_teach or visit her blog for more information on how she uses these and other tools in her classroom.

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