As a special education teacher, one of your chief goals should be to create a classroom environment that is as warm, safe, and inviting as possible. Whether your work primarily involves an inclusive or self-contained classroom, you're responsible for designing a curriculum that meets the needs of all students. This comprehensive, layered process calls for numerous strategies, several of which we've outlined in detail below:
IN THE CLASSROOM
Your special education classroom should feel like a safe haven for students. No matter which challenges they face outside of school, they should expect a brief reprieve from all this the moment they enter your classroom.
1. PROVIDE A POSITIVE CLASSROOM ENVIRONMENT
First impressions matter in special education classrooms. Everything from layout to decor should be considered, as should your lesson content and general demeanor. The specific makeup of a positive classroom will vary based on the teacher and the needs of the students, but the following strategies are common:
- Using humor to lighten the mood
- Establishing healthy routines such as greetings at the beginning and end of each day
- Positively reinforcing desired behavior
- Encouraging students to practice self-care
2. UNDERSTAND BOTH INDIVIDUAL AND CLASSROOM CHALLENGES
Making students feel safe is only possible if you truly know which obstacles stand in the way. We'll touch on the value of getting to know your students in more detail below — but in general, you want to be aware of the most significant challenges they face. These may relate not only to their individual cognitive or emotional conditions but also to their physical health or home life.
Challenges will also emerge at the classroom level. As with each student, every classroom has its unique personality that must be acknowledged and cultivated. The unique setup of each class may influence which delivery model is implemented. Levels of inclusiveness must be considered; children in a more inclusive environment will naturally face different challenges than those served by self-contained classrooms.
No matter the preferred setting and delivery model, it's vital that you continue to assess individual and classroom challenges over time. These will change alongside your students as they continue to grow and learn.
3. SHARE LEARNING EXPECTATIONS
Goal-oriented learning helps students feel safer and motivated. This is especially true of special education students, who may feel anxious if you spring unexpected topics on them. Instead, begin each semester, week, and day with a brief overview of expectations.
4. PROVIDE PARENTS AND STUDENTS WITH SCHEDULES FOR THE CLASSROOM
Routines help students know what to expect, boosting their confidence daily and providing reassurance when other aspects of their day don't go according to plan. However, students (and their parents) often need a better sense of how classroom schedules work and why they are necessary.
Provide helpful insight by ensuring easy access to both physical and digital schedules. These should be posted somewhere visible in the classroom, attached to parent emails, and given to parents as physical copies. Provide ample notice when classroom schedules and routines change over time.
5. SUPPLY STUDENTS WITH THE PROPER MATERIALS
Many lessons call for the use of special tools or materials. Obtaining and using these can be a significant source of stress for many students, particularly when they struggle with executive function. This distress can easily be limited by having the proper materials available in advance.
Organization is just as important. Develop a storage system that allows you to access essential materials easily. Place these items strategically by assessing where they're most likely needed. Bins, color coding, and labels should help.
6. LESSON PLAN TOWARD STUDENT STRENGTHS
Keeping students engaged is always a struggle, but this becomes that much more essential in a special education classroom, where interest must be exceptionally high to overcome limited attention spans and other challenges.
The solution? Select themes or topics that align with your students' interests or natural talents. This could provide a much-needed boost of confidence while also reminding students that lessons from school can complement and even amplify their everyday life.
7. MAKE THE MOST OF LEARNING TOOLS AND TECHNOLOGIES
These days, special education teachers enjoy access to a wide array of tech-oriented solutions that were out of reach just a few short years ago. These versatile tools are ideal in special education classrooms, as they help a wide variety of students overcome significant physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges. This, in turn, promotes a more inclusive classroom. Examples include:
- Interactive whiteboards
- Tablet computers with text-to-speech apps
- Mind mapping software
- Socially assistive robots
KNOWING YOUR STUDENTS
The suggestions highlighted above can help students feel safe and cared for, but they're a lot more effective if you make an effort to truly understand these unique individuals. This means assessing their cognitive abilities and struggles and getting a sense of their personalities, passions, home life, and more. At a minimum, you should strive for the following:
8. UNDERSTANDING BEHAVIORAL EXPECTATIONS
From day one, students should know what is expected of them from a behavioral perspective. Outline class rules in detail and the consequences for failing to follow these guidelines. Students also need to know why these rules exist.
On your end, it's essential to determine whether students understand classroom rules — and how capable they are of abiding by them. This is particularly important when adopting an inclusive model, as not all students will spend the same amount of time in your classroom. Without frequent reminders, they may struggle to recall your class's specific rules or procedures.
9. RECOGNIZE STUDENT ATTITUDES
Unfortunately, special education students often encounter — and internalize — negative attitudes. Teachers should be aware of this, along with opportunities for combating these attitudes and replacing them with a more positive mindset. Additionally, teachers should encourage special needs students to share their genuine thoughts and feelings in safe spaces where they can learn and practice healthy coping mechanisms.
10. CREATE A SENSE OF BELONGING
Your classroom should feel like a close-knit community. This is best achieved by encouraging students to get to know one another. Creative projects and games are beneficial, as are large and small group discussions.
Additionally, a community-oriented classroom celebrates diversity in all its forms — including neurodiversity and cognitive diversity.
This is especially important when pursuing a more inclusive model of special education, as special needs students who spend time in a general classroom environment may sometimes feel singled out.
11. FIND STRENGTHS TO HIGHLIGHT
Every student brings unique strengths to the table, and they love when their teachers recognize them. This provides a powerful sense of validation and motivation to keep working hard when the going gets tough.
Highlighting strengths doesn't always involve verbally calling attention to your students. Written notes are also valued. Furthermore, students appreciate when their natural talents are incorporated into your curriculum or assignments.
12. LET STUDENTS SHARE
Don't fall into the trap of relying on passive learning. Students will be far more engaged if they can share their thoughts and experiences. This can occur during class discussions or through artistic projects that allow students to express their feelings.
Traditional show-and-tell is also a classic favorite, and for good reason: students love sharing their prized possessions or telling classmates about their passions outside of the classroom.
OUTSIDE OF THE CLASSROOM
Your efforts to make students feel safe at school should extend beyond the classroom. After all, their home life and community heavily influence their academic performance and general well-being. To that end, these holistic techniques are essential for promoting learning both in the classroom and in everyday life:
13. ENCOURAGE FRIENDS AND FAMILY MEMBERS TO GET INVOLVED
The cliche "it takes a village" definitely applies to special education. Students with highly engaged and involved parents are more likely to achieve stronger academic outcomes and greater emotional stability.
While parent volunteers within the classroom are often more disruptive than helpful, they can still lend their talents in fundamental ways, such as gathering supplies for class libraries or planting classroom gardens. Let parents know how they can assist with homework and class projects — or how simply reading to their children and asking about their schoolwork can make a world of difference.
14. HIGHLIGHT ROLE MODELS WITH DISABILITIES
Some of the world's most accomplished people have not only overcome significant disabilities but also drawn on those conditions to set themselves apart. These role models can be a huge source of inspiration for special education students. They certainly don't need to be celebrities or famous politicians to qualify; faculty members or even local high school students can make a massive impression if allowed to share their experience with your class.
15. PLAN COMMUNITY FIELD TRIPS
Encourage students to make memories outside the classroom by planning field trips that reflect your curriculum. While these trips may require extra planning and adult involvement to accommodate various physical and cognitive limitations, it'll be well worth the effort as students are exposed to a wealth of new ideas.
As you plan field trips, be aware that departing from the typical routine may be difficult for some students — especially those with sensory concerns. These changes may be easier to manage for a self-contained class with smaller student-teacher ratios. Extra support and resources may be required when special needs students join inclusive classes for field trips.
Put the Special in Special Education with University of the Cumberlands
Implementing the above strategies will be much easier if you thoroughly understand child development, classroom management, and other core concepts covered in today's best teacher training programs.
All this is covered in detail when pursuing an elementary or middle school education degree from University of the Cumberlands. We also offer certification for aspiring special education teachers. Reach out today to learn more.