9 Easy Strategies for a Simple Special Education Classroom Setup
It can be stressful to think of a special education classroom setup, especially as a new (or new to special education) teacher! After 5 years in a traditional classroom, I moved into a special education role and had to re-imagine how I could set up my space to support my students’ individual needs. As special educators, we not only think about our space but about every space our students are in throughout the day. Here you will learn 9 easy strategies for special education classroom setup! Be sure to share these strategies with your colleagues so they can make their space as beneficial to all students as possible!
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Special Education Classroom Types
There are numerous special education classroom types. Your format for special education is determined by your school district, your school building, and your teaching style! These strategies are universal across special education classrooms. Regardless of what type of special education classroom you teach in, these simple setup strategies are sure to set your students up for success.
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Here are just a few types of special education classrooms!
Full Inclusion Classroom
This classroom resembles what most people think of when asked to picture a schoolroom. The differences are important but subtle. Each student is working at their own pace and receiving leveled instruction, including special education services
Service Space/Resource Room
Arguably the most common special education model in the United States is a service space model. Often a shared space between several service providers, students are brought into this classroom by themselves or with 2-3 other students for targeted instruction.
Self-contained classrooms pull students receiving special education services into a small classroom environment with a special educator and several assistants. Related services, such as speech and occupational therapy, may occur in the classroom or the student may leave and join a related service space. Self-contained classrooms often feature an adaptive curriculum and each student utilizes an individual schedule
Out of District Placement
This type of special education classroom places students outside of their assigned locational district. This often occurs with older students after other special education classrooms have been utilized. Out of district placements often specialize in specific impairments and provide small
Determine what type of special education classroom you are utilizing as that will guide your special education classroom setup. Be sure to create an inclusive environment for your students. You can read more about inclusive classrooms, and get tips on how to create a welcoming and nurturing classroom here.
Strategy 1: Determine What Your Special Education Students Need
The first step to having a simple special education classroom setup is to go through all of your student’s documents. Their IEPs, health plans, family communication…everything! A lot of effort now will make things easier as the year progresses. As you go through the documentation, focus on learning style and accommodations. The purpose of focusing on the learning style and accommodation is to think about how you can mold the physical environment to foster student engagement and growth. What visuals do your students’ often utilize? Are they overstimulated easily? How will you adapt the noise level of the space? What writing implements do they use? Be sure to write down all of these factors to refer back to as you set up your special education classroom! You can learn more here about materials that are important to have quick and easy access to in your special education classroom.
Special Education Classroom Design
Special education classroom design is a thoughtful and flexible process. There are some things you can’t change, like the location, your access to furniture, or, depending on your school, wall color, etc… but as the educator, you determine how the classroom feels. What do you want your students to see when they first walk in the door? How will this make them feel? As you determine your special education classroom setup think about your goals for each student. Are you working on independence? Self-advocacy? Write down the top 3 things you want every student to receive in your room. This includes feelings! Having a big picture makes special education classroom design easier, as it helps you from getting stuck in the weeds.
Strategy 2: How Is Your Classroom Designed?
When setting up a special education classroom, you are limited by the physical space. Take note of what can be moved in your classroom (desk, tables, shelves) and what might be a more permanent fixture (sink). Think outside the box! Have a whiteboard or chalkboard you would like moved? Talk to your amazing maintenance crew – they are a huge resource when designing a space for special education.
In one of my classrooms, I had a whiteboard hanging over a shelf by the sink. The shelf was roughly 8in wide and 3ft off the ground. Given that I am a towering 5’2” this whiteboard never was used because reaching it was uncomfortable and I could only write on the very, very bottom of the board. When talking to a member of the maintenance crew, the location of the board came up. She said it was easy to move and could be placed anywhere. Mind blown! I had been struggling with this whiteboard for over a year and never even thought to ask for help. Learn from me, be sure to ask for help for an easier special education classroom setup.
Special Education Classroom Layout
As we’ve talked about, some fixtures in a classroom are easily moved while others are permanent in their placement. Your special education classroom layout can act as a second teacher and improve your students’ overall education experience. Taking the time to create a meaningful, effective, and efficient classroom layout will make a difference in your special education services. To be honest, this is the weakest part of my ability in classroom design. I have a vision but no spatial awareness (self-awareness is important – right?). This is where I call for help. To get the most out of your special education classroom layout, talk to a few different people. Draw a few designs. Imagine yourself in the space and think of where you might access the most important materials.
Strategy 3: Determine Your Classroom Layout – but Don’t Be Afraid to Change It!
Once you’ve done some thinking, drawing, and imaging it’s time to take the plunge and set up your special education classroom! Special education classroom setup is a work in progress. As you live in the space and get to know your students better, the space will adapt to meet your needs. It truly is like a living organism! Many teachers find it takes 2-3 years to really hone in on the ideal special education classroom layout then, they get bored or a student has a unique need and it changes again!
While it does take time to find the best special education classroom set up for you and your students, there are some tried and true techniques to start with. Keep reading to get some ideas for your own special education space!
Special Education Classroom Organization Ideas
Whether you’re new to special education or a seasoned educator, you know there is LOTS of paperwork to be kept. Data points, work samples, progress notes, evaluations, IEPs…so many papers and so little space! There are many different special education classroom organization systems so try out a few to figure out one that works best for you.
When I first started teaching, I had a thing against binders. I could not stand them. Now? My binders are my babies. Each student has their own binder that features: IEP at a glance, parent communication logs, session logs and data collection, IEPs, and evaluations. If a service provider or family member has a question about the student’s education the answer is in the binder.
While I love my binders for student information, I utilize my filing cabinet for organizing teaching materials. Teaching students k-2 (aged 5-7) with a wide range of learning capabilities means there is a broad range of skills I cover. Keeping activities sorted by skill allows me to easily plan sessions for my students based on current progress and helps me support classroom teachers as I often use these cabinets as a “lending library” of sorts.
Strategy 4: Determine Your Organization Style
The organization is a key part of the special education classroom setup. While it is nerve-wracking to think about it, as special educators we are governed by numerous federal and state laws (in the United States). This means that at any time, parents and guardians can request any and all paperwork pertaining to their students. So, not only do special educators have a legal obligation to remain organized and have documents easily accessible, but organization leads to student success as teachers are less overwhelmed and more intentional. Organization looks different for everyone. One person’s mess is another’s everything is in its place. The only important thing with an organization system is that it works for you, but it is helpful if others can easily understand as well.
Strategy 5: Create an Organization System
After you’ve moved the physical space of your special education classroom, create (or implement) an organization system. Where will your files go? Your activities? How will you collect data? Keep with your system for 6-8 weeks before re-evaluating and changing it. The best system is one YOU can keep up with! So if you find you are starting to get overwhelmed with it all, take a step back and make some changes.
Strategy 6: Make Your Special Education Data Collection Easy
The best data collection is consistent and seamless! I prefer to use my iPad and the app Notability for all of my data collection. This allows me to easily add photographic evidence into my notes and share to google drive. In addition to my notes, I copy one work sample each week from my students. This allows me to see trends and share growth with families, service providers, and classroom teachers.
How to Decorate a Special Education Classroom
Unpopular opinion: classroom decoration is for adults. No, really. Your students do not care if your classroom is filled with cacti, llamas, or anything cutesy. If it’s functional, it works. That said, there is nothing wrong with decorating your special education classroom as long as their is space for student expression and exploration. If you meld student thought and identity into your decoration then you can create the perfect special education classroom setup!
Strategy 7: To Decorate or Not to Decorate
To decorate or not to decorate your special education classroom, that is the question. The answer: it does not matter! Personally, I choose not to decorate. It overwhelms me and I rarely have the time. I do have a few decor items on my desk and wall to personalize the space a bit, but other than that I choose to have student work and materials adorn the space. With many of my students having attention and working memory struggles, research has shown too much decoration can be harmful to student success. Knowing best practices and the needs of my students, I choose not to decorate. Your choice may be different! Make your classroom space for you and your students. That may, or may not, include decoration.
Special Ed Classroom Rules
The last strategy for an easy special education classroom setup is thinking of the rules and expectations for your space. The physical environment is an important second teacher, but you are the primary guide of your student’s learning. You can learn more about setting expectations in your special education classroom here.
Strategy 8: Creating Rules for your Special Education Classroom
When creating rules for your special education classroom, have an outline in mind but let the process be collaborative. Keep the rules few and simple to ensure your students invest in their implementation. Talk to your students often about the rules and praise when you see they are being followed. Read more here about the best strategies for creating rules for your special education classroom.
Strategy 9: Create a Consistent & Predictable Environment
To set up a special education classroom it is important to create a safe and predictable environment. This allows students to take risks, as they know what to expect from the space. Keep a similar schedule between sessions and hold yourself and your students accountable for the rules that have been established.
Bonus Strategy! Be Flexible and Revisit Your Special Education Classroom Setup Frequently
I know I said 9 strategies for special education classroom set up but I couldn’t resist one more! While there are things teachers can do to easily set up their classrooms, the truth is the best special education classrooms are constantly evolving. After you’ve set up your room take the time to reflect and revisit your space and student learning throughout the year. I tend to re-organize my space before Winter Break (last week of December) and occasionally again before April Break (last week of April). This is not a full re-arrangement of the space but rather a re-organization and check-in. If you choose to fully re-arrange the big materials in your space, give your kids a heads up that the room may look different when they return.
Small Group Special Education
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