Part II – Environmental Supports for Your Classroom #TeachingPrimaryCFM

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L. Williams holds a Masters Degree in Speech-Language Pathology, and is currently completing work towards a PhD. For the last 7 years she has provided speech therapy to children in private clinics, public schools, and research settings. Her background includes training in applied behavioral analysis (ABA), and she specializes in supporting children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who are minimally verbal. This post is the second of a two-part series.

The previous post outlined how you can begin to thoughtfully consider the challenging behaviors you see in your classroom. Many challenging behaviors can be addressed simply through environmental supports.  In other words, how you physically structure your classroom can make a big difference in how your kids behave. If you spend time in the schools and special education, you won’t be surprised by anything on this list.  For everyone else, I hope you find these suggestions helpful.

Disclaimer: I absolutely recommend you consult with parents, primary presidents, and bishops before you purchase any special equipment or make physical modifications.

Lighting/Noise/Temperature

Returning to the topic of sensory differences, think about the lighting in your classroom.  Often kids with special needs have a hard time with fluorescent lighting.  These lights flicker or buzz creating unpleasant visual and auditory stimulation. Even if you don’t notice it, trust me that your child with autism does.  If possible (i.e., if you have windows in the room), consider keeping the lights off. You can bring in your own lamp if necessary.  Another possibility is equipping the room with a fluorescent light filter, which is usually a blue or green plastic film you attach to the lighting assembly. I’ve also seen classrooms where they just hang a fabric rectangle across the light.  Obviously check with your bishop/building coordinator when making physical adjustments to the building.

Don’t be afraid to advocate for a less noisy room or a room with better temperature control when necessary.  In one ward I was called to help create a classroom for several children with special needs.  At first the adults (3) and children (5) were put in one of the smallest classrooms. There was little room to move around and we all came out hot, tired, and cranky by the end of Primary.  We took it up with the bishop and Primary presidency.  Eventually, the bishop moved the high priest group and we ended up with one of the biggest classrooms in the building. The kids had plenty of room to run around and we had some control over the temperature of the room (Just as a side note: I don’t know how the high priests felt, but the bishop made it clear that he wanted our classroom to succeed).

If changing or modifying rooms is out of the question, many children do well with headphones to reduce noise, and some kids will also tolerate sunglasses to reduce visual stimulation.

Seating

How important is it that kids sit in their seats? Or that they sit at all? Little kids need to be up and moving around, especially after Sacrament Meeting. For most of my students, I tell them, “I don’t care if you sit in your chair, sit on the floor, or stand as long as you participate in class and don’t bother your classmates.” The goal is not necessarily to teach them to sit, but just to teach them. This goes back to the idea of arbitrary rules and customs—be deliberate and considerate in what you ask children to do.

Also, young children and those with developmental differences may not have great awareness of where their body is in space, and the folding chairs stocked in church buildings are less than ideal in meeting their particular needs. In some cases, children could benefit from a chair that provides physical boundaries (e.g., arms, back, etc.) like this or this.  Many teachers add “wobble-cushions” or “wiggle-seats” to chairs for kids who need to move around a little. Having mats or carpet squares on the floor is another easy way to provide visual and physical cues for where their bodies need to be.

Routines

Children love routines.  Routines are especially critical for children with special needs, as it lessens their anxiety by giving their world structure and predictability.  Think about ways you can explicitly incorporate simple routines into your classroom.  For example, you could have a weekly routine that looks something like this:

  1. Song (e.g., “Here We Are Together”) or finger-play (“Open Shut Them”)
  2. Sharing Minute: each child gets to share something from their week
  3. Story Time: Talk about the current New Testament story
  4. Creative Time: Prepare some art, dress-up, coloring, etc. activity related to the current lesson
  5. Clean-up Time: Clean up and put away materials (sing a “Clean Up” song).
  6. Goodbye/Transition: children go home or transition back to the primary room

The actual “titles” in your routine can be as broad as you need them to be to allow for flexibility in your lessons.  But do give each step a title, and use that title consistently.  As you follow and use the routine, kids will start to remember what comes next and anticipate each step.

Note: Because routines are so powerful for our kids with special needs, please understand that any deviation from the routine can result in unpleasant side-effects.  It is very distressing for some kids to have their routines disrupted. Be thoughtful when making any changes.

Visual Supports

One of the quickest and easiest ways to improve behavior is to implement visual supports.  Most of these can be made very simply and cheaply (also check out sites like Pinterest and Teachers Pay Teachers for more ideas).

Visual Schedules: I’m sure we’ve all made a “To-do List” for ourselves. Visual Schedules are just that—a To-Do List in picture form.  You can make these as fancy or as simple as you want.  If you have a consistent classroom routine, you can use the same pictures every week (and I recommend that you do). You can find free pictures and clip art in Google Images or Microsoft Office.  There are also pay sites like Boardmaker and LessonPix with a variety of pictures and pre-made templates.

Use Visual Schedules just like a traditional To-Do List. Help the kids understand what activity you’re on, when you have finished, and when you’re moving on to the next activity. Find a way to check-off items as you complete them.  If you must disrupt the routine, make sure that you adjust the visual schedule accordingly.  I’ve found that most kids are able to roll with changes as long as it’s on their schedule (you can also make visual schedules for individual children if that is helpful).

First…Then…: This is another simple but powerful tool in helping kids get through a less preferred lesson or activity. It works just like it sounds—you say “First (whatever you want them to do), Then (child’s preferred activity or reward).  For example, “First story, Then snack” or “First song, Then drawing.” Again, try to have something available that they are actually willing to work for.  Consult with parents to figure out what might be appropriate. You can also make a physical chart like a visual schedule. Just type “first then” into your preferred search engine to see a variety of examples of how this might look.

Time Timers: Most young kids, and many kids with special needs don’t have a great sense of time. For those kids who constantly ask, “How much longer?” Time Timers provide a visual way to help track how much time is left in class or a given activity.  Basically these are classic timers where the clock face is red, and as time runs out the red disappears (think of an ever diminishing pie-chart).   Visual timers are also available in a variety of apps if you want to have them on your phone or tablet (search “time timer” or “visual timer” in the app stores).

Note: Be aware that some kids may perseverate on the passage of time (i.e., get stuck on or obsess over). I’ve had Time Timers work like magic for some kids, where they literally go from crying tantrums to happily participating just by being able to watch time disappear. I’ve also had kids get really anxious and shut down. Use wisely.

The Incredible 5-Point Scale: This scale provides a visual way for you to help children track the scale of their behavior and/or reactions. It’s a simple Likert rating from 1-5, typically with 1 being green, 2 blue, 3 yellow, 4 orange, and 5 red.  You can use numbers, or find pictures with facial expressions (i.e., 1 = smile, 5 = upset/crying) to create your scale. For kids who have HUGE reactions to simple problems, we teach that 5 is the extreme. You should only be in a 5 if there is a tornado or your house is burning down.  So if you have a complete meltdown when Jimmy touches you (e.g., 5) that reaction is not in scale with the offense.  You can talk about what is an appropriate response instead, what it would look like, and what number/color it corresponds to.  Many classrooms also use the 5-point scale for volume, with 1 being a whisper and 5 being shouting at a football game. “Decibella and Her 6-inch Voice” is a great book for covering the idea of appropriate volume for appropriate situations (the author, Julia Cook, has other great books—I highly recommend “My Mouth is a Volcano” for non-stop talkers). Again, look to Google and Pinterest for ideas on how to build a 5-point scale for your situation and class.

Token Board: Many special education classrooms operate on a token economy.  Basically, children get a token for every task they complete, and when they’ve completed a certain number of tasks, they get some sort of reward (e.g., toy, break, food/snack, sticker, etc.). Type “token board” or “penny board” into your preferred search engine to see how these might look. Along with visual schedules, token boards help kids know what is expected of them, and most importantly, WHEN THEY WILL BE DONE. If you consistently use the token board, kids quickly learn that there is a benefit for them in participating and working.

The reality is that we as adults basically operate the same way. If you work the traditional 8-hour day, 40-hour work week, you know that after so many hours you get a 15-minute break, and then a 30-minute lunch, and then another 15-minute break, and then you get to go home. You do this several days in a row, and you get a whole weekend. After a certain period of time of doing this, you get a pay check (the big payoff!).

Obviously children are not usually able to wait as long as adults to get their rewards for working and attending. For kids with special needs, sometimes just being in the classroom is a chore.  Depending on the child, you can reward them just for being in the room by giving a token every 30-seconds, or every 1-minute.  The number of tokens can vary—usually working up from 1 token (e.g., 1:1 reinforcement, 1 reward for every 1 task you have them complete), to 5-10 tokens (1 reward for every 5 or 10 tasks you have them complete). Consult with parents to find appropriate rewards.  Depending on the child, they may get a break away from the other kids, time on a tablet, food, time with mom, etc.

Self-Regulation: If you want to dive in deeper, the following are suggestions to help children learn to visualize and conceptualize self-regulation.  I encourage you to visit the websites to learn more, as I won’t go into much detail here, other than to say there are valuable resources out there, and these are some of the most common.

  • The Zones of Regulation, by Leah Kuypers, M.A.E.D., OTR/L. “The Zones is a systematic, cognitive behavioral approach used to teach self-regulation by categorizing all the different ways we feel and states of alertness we experience into four concrete colored zones.”
  • How Does Your Engine Run?, by Williams & Shellenberger. This program uses the analogy, “If your body is like a car engine, sometimes it runs on high, sometimes it runs on low, and sometimes it runs just right!” to teach about self-regulation.
  • Social Behavior Mapping, by Michelle Garcia Winner. This book focuses on teaching children and adolescents to map the social consequences of their positive and negative behavior.

Conclusion

Each of these tools are tried and tested in working with kids with special needs, but use your judgment and discretion as you try them out.  Don’t worry if there is no immediate pay-off—many of these suggestions require consistency and time. Share your challenges with the Primary presidency and bishop. They can’t help you if they don’t understand the problems.

The most important thing is that you love the children you teach. I’ve learned through personal experience that Heavenly Father will help you to see His children as they are, and as He sees them. If you approach Him with your struggles and challenges, He will increase your capacity for patience and love.

*Photo by Hannah Rodrigo on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Bro. Jones says:

    Thank you!

  2. Sister Nichols says:

    https://www.lds.org/media-library/images/category/nursery-schedule-primary-symbols?lang=eng
    The church website has pictures that could be used for any class schedule.

  3. Kristin V Brown says:

    Excellent. Thank you for the details.

  4. hwbrookes says:

    Great ideas! Wish I’d had this two years ago when we taught a Sunbeams/ CTR 4 class with special needs kids. Never thought of so much of this!

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