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Ideal Arrangements for Special Education Classrooms

Updated on March 30, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He wrote for IHPVA magazines and raced these vehicles with his father (who builds them).

One way to arrange a room for special and/or general education students.
One way to arrange a room for special and/or general education students. | Source

This writer (also the teacher) had a dilemma; a student confined to a wheelchair was to enter his class. Knowing that the student needed a desk adjusted for her size and comfort, he contacted a custodian to help with a search for an ideal table for her.

Also, she needed to be placed in an area near the door so she can have a shorter distance to travel inside the classroom, rather than navigate rows of desks and chairs. A place was found, but it still limited her movement in the classroom since it blocked her from reaching the computers that were to be used for future assignments. This task of accommodating her was – as the old cliché goes – easier said than done. Still, it had to be done.

When it comes to establishing the best arrangement for a special education classroom, two things must be included: accessibility and accommodation. The way desks are placed, where the students are seated, and access to important educational material and technology will go a long way to help a student with special needs access the education he or she is entitled to have.

In many respects, special education is about teaching students with learning disabilities in the best possible way. This usually includes techniques of accommodations or modifications (based on the student’s disability). It also involves some creativity, non-stop adjustments, and the use of learning materials available. In most cases, the first tool special-education teachers have are their classrooms.

One example of table/desk configuration in the classroom for special needs students.
One example of table/desk configuration in the classroom for special needs students. | Source

To Use Rows of Desks or Not

The first place to start is with the rows of desks and chairs. The key to arranging the chair is to make it closer to the teacher and to the board. Usually, a horseshoe pattern works well. This pattern is an arrangement of the chairs in a semi-circle in front of the board or where the teacher often lectures from. Most classes use the chair/desk hybrid; these are very portable and can be easily moved into positions by the teacher or other students.

An important reason for having students seated in the horse configuration is that it brings them closer to the teacher, literally. With the exception of a small space in which a teacher can use (for lectures or Powerpoint presentations with a computer and projector), the most, if not a few students will be a 2-3 yards away from the teacher and the board.

This is beneficial for students with processing disorders, including auditory and visual processing disorder. Also, students with impairments in vision or hearing may benefit due to the proximity.

Still, in terms the students' unique learning abilities have to be taken into account. The horseshoe configuration may not work for all. Another type of arrangement can be group seating (as represented in the diagram shown). In this case, cooperative learning is being encouraged among the students. They can be grouped together and work with one another. This may contribute to a noisy classroom; however, it may help the teacher to encourage students to learn from one another and do group projects.

An important reason for having students seated in this fashion is that it brings them closer to the teacher, literally

Posters on the Wall: Less is Better

Another area that can help with arranging an effective classroom is space on the wall. Here, teachers can place several academic posters or reserve space for student work. The posters can reinforce lessons taught in the class while student work can encourage students to continue learning and producing school work.

Still, it is important to know what to put up there as well as the quantity of posters. Students with attention deficit disorders (ADD/ADHD), autism, or a processing disorder (visual, in particular) may actually become distracted by clutter (or too many posters) on the wall. Moderation in this area is highly advised. After all, keeping students focused is a major priority.

Make Room for Technology

Technology, especially assisted or computer technology is critical in today’s special education classroom. They need to be accessible to the students, especially for those who have dysgraphia (hand-writing disorder).

Some school districts have found a solution to address student needs in this area; they’ve assigned lap-top computers to students. Still, not all districts do this, especially in most inner city schools. The second best thing to do is to request computers for the classroom and designated a station or section in the classroom for them.


Outside the Classroom

Access doesn’t merely pertain to what’s inside the classroom. The best classrooms for students with disabilities - in particular those confined to wheelchairs, exhibiting visual impairments or blindness - are those with ramps and access to elevators (if the classroom is on the second floor). Ideally, the classroom will be on the first floor.

Also, there are times when a teacher may want to conduct a lesson outside. Again, horseshoe configuration can work outside the classroom as well as inside it.

What Does the Law Say?

American with Disability Act (ADA) instituted physical changes to the classroom building and classroom. This particular law ensures that the structures are accessible to all students, including those with disabilities. As a result, many building have ramps and elevators (older schools may not have these).

Despite the use of seating arrangement as accommodation or to be compliant with ADA, the arrangements of a special education classroom will not be set. Adjustments will need to be made. Some students will need more accommodations than others. Therefore, ideas for arranging a special education classroom will keep changing.

She still needs access to the same technology or material as her non-disabled peer

ADA is merely one law to consider when it comes to serving the needs of those enrolled in a special education program. Here are the other two and how they can possibly affect classroom arrangement:

  • Individual with Disabilities Act (IDEA): it lays out the need for accommodation in the classroom through the use of the education contract, the Individual Education Plan (IEP). Usually, they stipulate the need for “flexible setting” such as having the student seated near the teacher or the board (this law pertains to those designated as having learning, developmental, intellectual or emotional disorders or any condition that can be labeled under specific learning disorder (SLD) ).
  • Section 504: Usually a law designed for all students with disabilities. It, too, will mention accommodations such as flexible setting based on the student’s needs.

Access will always be adjusted in the classroom, just as accommodations will differ from student to student. Still, these two concepts are extremely important.

Arrangement for Wheel-Chair Bound Sudent

As for the wheelchair bound student? As it stands, the furniture still gets moved around for her. She still needs access to the same technology or material as her non-disabled peer.

And, if it means scrounging around the school for an ideal desk for her, or getting a laptop or tablet assigned to her, then it has to be done in order for her to be exposed to the same curriculum as her other fellow students (disabled or not).


© 2017 Dean Traylor


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