By Cindy O'Connell
Establishing a predictable environment built around repetitive routines is one of the most effective ways to help children with visual and multiple impairments make sense of their environment. By creating a predictable environment, we can help them understand that things are not just happening randomly, that there is a pattern. This will minimize anxiety, reduce behavioral issues, and enable them to organize their abilities so they are open to learning and building positive experiences. Here are some ideas on how to create a predictable environment in the classroom, with tips on classroom organization and management.
Classrooms may consist of diverse students on multiple levels of functioning and different needs. Designing a comprehensive schedule can be difficult. One of the most challenging things for a new teacher is the sight of a blank schedule and the realization that it is up to you to fill it with meaningful activities. This is when you try to remember why you wanted to be a special education teacher in the first place. Think of it as an opportunity to be creative, you do get better at this with experience. Often you won't know what will be effective until you get to know your students. Despite this, you still need to start with a structure, even if this structure evolves or is replaced with a better structure as you get to know your students. Sometimes you gain insight by presenting an activity and observing what parts of it are challenging for a student - this is actually a valuable assessment tool and can show you where you need to begin. Before the school year starts, be thinking about potential routines, themes and projects that you can use in the classroom. Look for motivating themes that will address a range of concepts and skill levels.
Get a blank schedule. Blow it up on the copy machine until it is large enough so that you can see clearly how everything will relate. Fill in any slots assigned to clinical services and outside classes (check that your students will be receiving the services written into their service delivery grid). Block in time for snack and toileting routines. Schedule in a consistent block of time for a daily group meeting, a weekly time to review the class timeline, and time to work on interactive communication books (see below). Then sit back and look at what you have to work with. Look for blocks of time when you have several periods together. This is a positive, not a negative. It means you can plan in field trips, cooking lessons, and cooperative group projects without having to worry about being back in time for a clinical service. Map out blocks of times for these projects, as well as daily routines (such as collecting attendance, picking up mail, and delivering daily notices). Don't forget to include time for any related activities your class projects will generate. Be thinking of how you can distinguish each day of the week for calendar use as you map out your schedule. This might mean you will designate Monday as the day you cook, Tuesday as the day you take field trips, or Wednesday as the day you do a class project, such as a pizza shop or packaging gift bags. Schedule in one-on-one time for each student while other students are out for clinical services or on assignment.
Adaptive schedules are an important organizational tool. They provide a tangible way to present what will be happening during the day. As soon as your classroom schedule is in place, you can create individualized schedules for each student using the appropriate medium and format. Represent each class and routine with a Mayer-Johnson picture, tangible object, Braille, large print, or a combination of mediums. An entry-level schedule might focus simply on the concept of before and after (e.g., the class that came before, the class they are going to, and the class that will come after). Or it might focus only on the class a student is transitioning to or participating in. Fasten symbols or pictures to wheelchair trays, transport them in waist packs or fasten to a Nylar board with Velcro (include a strap so you can loop it over a wheelchair or carry it easily). Be consistent and methodical as you introduce students to symbols. For example, "Music is finished" (remove the music symbol as you say it and sign finished), "It's time for Gym" (replace it with the symbol for Gym). When you get to the Gym, label it clearly as they touch the symbol, "Here we are in the Gym, I hear a ball bouncing." As a supplement to adapted calendars, you can create switch-operated schedules using Mayer-Johnson pictures on the computer with voice output. Be sure to update with daily changes.
Adapted calendars are just as important as daily schedules. They provide tangible ways to demonstrate how days go together to make a week and weeks go together to make a month. Simply reciting days of the week and months of the year by rote is not a true measure of a student's understanding of temporal concepts. To determine an accurate level, use an assessment tool that measures time concepts (Texas school for the Blind has a simple and easy to use assessment tool). Once you target the level, create an adapted calendar to remediate any gaps. Confusion might be with the basic concept of before / after, or the concepts of yesterday / today / tomorrow, or last week / this week/next week. As your students consolidate skill, adjust their calendars to teach the next step. To resolve space issues for monthly calendars, simply downsize the tangible symbols and Mayer-Johnson pictures to fit the more confined space.
Tangible timelines illustrate how months go together to form a year. Start your timeline the first week of school. Stretch a sturdy line across a classroom wall and hang tangible markers to divide months and seasons. As things happen over the school year, hang representations of them on the timeline. Start with coming back to school. Use voice output devices to supplement events. Schedule in a time each week to review the timeline.
If your classroom is large enough, try to set up designated areas for different activities, such as a free-time area, a reading area, a work area, a computer area, and a listening area. If you have room, set up a sensory-motor integration area or an area for movement, if not, seek out a space you can access. Have a large table for cooperative projects and group meetings as well as assigned individual spaces for student-specific work and individualized schedules and calendars. Talk to the mobility instructors and brainstorm ways to arrange your classroom to encourage independent movement. Keep the physical structure of your classroom well defined and predictable. Consult with a vision specialist to see if students would benefit from specialized lighting and/or color contrast.
Daily Group meeting can be the most organizing thing you do in the classroom. It can create a reassuring structure and encourage a sense of group. Design a consistent format and stick to it. For example: begin by welcoming everyone to group meeting and thanking them for coming. Give each student a role. Start with the date. Introduce it with "Let's check in with our friend David and see what today's date is." Divide the components (day, month, year) among the students. Use personal communication devices, pre-programmed switches, and adapted calendars as needed. Identify the weather. Have the appointed weatherman or woman activate a talking thermometer or use a pre-programmed switch to share what the weather is - or send them outdoors to check on the weather personally. Represent the day’s weather with Mayer-Johnson pictures or tangible symbols. Make announcements. Do this systematically, starting with highlights from the day before, then the day's events, tomorrow's events and the rest of the week. Clearly label time vocabulary (yesterday / today / tomorrow, this week / next week / last week). Include a "Good News" segment and encourage peer reinforcement. Post a clipboard in the classroom and jot down all the good things you see a student do. Encourage clinicians and assistants to add to the list.
Have a "Joke of the Week." Practice the joke at group meeting and then try it out on peers. Sign up on-line for News-2-You (a national newspaper for special education on multiple levels) and discuss current events at the appropriate level. Keep an on-going list of meaningful vocabulary and review the words at Group Meeting. Terminate Group Meeting clearly and thank everyone for coming. To facilitate being able to sit with the group for the duration of the meeting, look for ways to help your students. One student may need a box of sensory items to stay seated, another a fidget item of choice, a third may benefit from sitting on a ball seat that provides sensory input. The objective is to increase the length of time a student can stay with the group.
If you have students with known interfering behaviors, you need to be on top of things by being both informed and prepared. Managing a behavior may be your top priority with a student until you get a handle on it. Before the school year starts, read files, talk to previous teachers, assistants, and house parents. If you know your class assignment at the end of the previous school year, see if their teacher will let you observe. Talk to the Behaviorist; see if there is a behavior plan. Memorize it and share it with your team so you can implement it the first day of school for consistency. Ask what you can use for rewards and reinforcers to have them ready. Understand that the change in teacher and setting will be hard for some students. You want to set up a series of positive experiences to acclimate students to their new classroom. Help them adjust to their new surroundings by using familiar things and comforting routines for the first few days. Start collecting data on behaviors you want to address with the behaviorist and schedule in regular weekly meetings to update plans or come up with a new one. Send out memos to outside teachers and clinicians when you are implementing a new approach or behavior plan. Keeping the team updated and informed is your responsibility. Coordinate distribution of information with the Behaviorist.
Parents are an integral source of information; they can provide you with valuable insight and support. Good communication is imperative. Tell them how you prefer to communicate and ask if this will work for them. Maintaining a written Communication Book that goes back and forth from home to school is a standard means of keeping everyone informed, but including students in the communication process can be a valuable educational tool and a perfect opportunity to develop meaningful communication and language skills. Multi-step switches, with voice output, are a good example of a simple way to include your students. Use language support strategies to structure the recorded message as needed, e.g., open-ended sentences, fill in the blanks, phonemic cueing or carrier phrases ("On Monday, I ________."). Talking Scrapbooks also make good interactive devices for communication. They are battery-run, with voice output and pages for inserting Mayer-Johnson pictures, photographs, or small tangible objects (Attainment Catalogue). Incorporate choice making by providing a selection of items on a tray that reflect the week’s activities so students can reach out and touch what they want to talk about. The accompanying script can be recorded by the student with language support or programmed in by staff (always record as though it is the student talking). As a low tech means of communicating, a tangible diary (a remnant book) is also interactive and can be an effective means of communicating the week's events to families. The student can select what they want to include in the diary from an assortment of remnants from the weeks activities (e.g., the lid from the yogurt container used in making smoothies, a paper bag from the field trip to the grocery store) and attach them to the page with assistance as needed (giant masking tape dispensers are good for this). Staff can provide a description of the activity at the bottom of the page. Photographing classroom activities and compiling them into scrapbooks is also a good way to communicate. Import the pictures onto the computer (or use Mayer-Johnson pictures) to create teacher-made experience stories with voice output. Print the pages out and compile the stories into spiral notebooks for students to share at home with parents, siblings and grandparents.
Your teaching assistants are essential to the success of your classroom and the growth of your students. Make the classroom atmosphere a positive one. Your assistants are your immediate support team and represent you outside of the classroom. Show them the way you want something taught. Share your assessments and explain the level a student is working on. It's important that they understand why you do something a certain way. Some assistants will be really good at following behavior plans while others may be really good at breaking down a task, or keeping coats zipped and shoes tied. You need all of those things. Go with their strengths. Watch what student they have a feel for and assign them to work with that student. Seek out their feedback. They can tell you things you may not have picked up on which can help you determine direction or rethink a strategy. Be fair to them, address their concerns and tell them when you like the way they handle a situation. Be clear about what you expect of them and be supportive.
Many of your teaching assistants will go on to become teachers, clinicians, and program directors. You may influence the way they teach long after they leave you.