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Creating a Learning Environment in the Classroom for Exceptional Needs Students
Special Education students with mild to moderate learning disabilities thrive in a specialized environment that is designed to assist them in achieving academic success. The following are eight things to consider when arranging or improving your classroom to be the most conducive to learning that it can be!
1. Comfort is key. Comfortable seating and some home touches help to make students that are school-shy feel more at ease. For my students at the high school level, they sometimes have years of negative school experiences to overcome. They may be discouraged with school completely, and close to dropping out. I have had big wooden chairs (repainted by students) with cushions (new covers) donated by a restaurant. There is also art, some interesting hanging things, and sometimes fish or plants. If the room feels relaxed, it is more enjoyable for everyone!
2. Minimize clutter. While comfort is important, the room should not appear cluttered. Visual overload can interfere with the learning environment and become a distraction. The majority of the space should be for displaying great examples of student work, and be blank at the beginning of the school year. All schools also have important things to be posted. There should be a designated place for everything. Investing time up front to create a well-organized classroom pays off during busy school days. The teacher needs to be focused on the students, not looking for materials and supplies.
one to one seating next to the educational assistant
a place to focus!
3. A variety of seating arrangements. In the exceptional needs classroom, there are always a variety of learning styles. It is optimal to have a group work area, a pair area, a one on one (with the educational assistant or teacher) area, and a semi-isolated area for the student that is having an off-day or who needs to limit stimuli in order to focus. In my classroom, they can choose to sit where they are comfortable, but I reserve the right to move them around if the learning is not optimized. It is interesting to note that they usually choose a seat where they are going to be able to learn the best.
4. Pay attention to lighting. Unfortunately, my school still uses awful fluorescent lights. Luckily, in Hawaii, we have bright natural light year-round. The best solution for lighting that is neither too industrial nor too relaxed is the ceiling lights half-off, and the top windows open for lots of daylight and wind circulation. Ceiling fans also help on days when there is no wind.
5. Limit visual stimulation. I will never forget my first day of teaching Kindergarten, when all of the students jumped up from story time on the rug and ran to the window to look at a dog walking by. High school is not much different. For ADHD students visual distraction can seriously interfere with learning. Although we can only see the parking lot out of the front of the room, the students love to watch who is coming and going in our small town. My (unpopular but effective) solution is to keep the front windows closed, and the back ones (which look out at an empty field) open. I hope that looking at nature can inspire their creativity!
6. Label everything. It is helpful for the teacher, the students, and any other workers in the classroom to have a designated place for everything. As part of the routines and procedures, students should be taught what is off-limits and where all of the supplies should be accessed and put away. Clearly marked places help take the burden off of the teacher and give responsibility to everyone in the classroom.
7. A place for student stuff. As many students with learning disabilities have challenges with organization, a designated place for student belongings can be a real life-saver. I try to refrain from saying “cubby” like their elementary teacher did, and stumble between “shelf” and “box.” This, too, assists the teacher by putting the responsibility on the students for putting all of their belongings (both school supplies and personal) away.
8. Provide supplies. So many of my students do not bring a backpack or any of their school supplies. I do not want them to have a reason not to work, so I have made the decision to have everything that they need in the classroom in clearly designated areas. In this economy of shrinking classroom funds, I have resorted to trading supplies, asking for classroom donations from family and local businesses, and writing grant requests.
“Readiness is the primary determinate of teacher effectiveness,” says Harry K. Wong in The First Days of School. This was a very influential book in shaping my classroom approach. Fred Jones in Tools for Teaching discusses arranging the room in great detail. Both of them emphasize ease of proximity. I have included links to their books in Amazon below, and highly recommend both of them for teachers.
My hub that plugs National Board Certification!
- Teachers...Five Reasons to Become National Board Certified
National Board Certification requires an investment of time and money. It requires initiative, organizational skills, critical thinking, patience, and perseverance. In the end, though, it is more than worthwhile!