My guide to setting up an ASD Classroom
I hope you are all well and have enjoyed the Summer break. I’m certainly glad to be getting back into a routine but as usual am up to my eyeballs in work already and the kids have only been back a day! I am writing this blog post as over the past month (in particular) I have had so many private messages from teachers requesting advice or an outline of how to set up their own ASD classes. Of course, I have replied to each of them individually, but I am sure there are others out there who have not asked and may be unsure of how and where to start. I know myself how overwhelming it can be to walk into an empty classroom and how daunting it can be to know kids are on their way while knowing you need to have a suitable environment set up for them ready to go. I can only speak from my own experience of setting up my own class so it might not be to everybody’s taste or suit every class but here goes…
The first thing I would say would be not to panic. Everything will get done in time. Please don’t be comparing yourself to other classes and teachers and Instagram pages, etc. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will your classroom. I am heading into my 3rd year in my own ASD classroom and still making changes and improvements and building resources and programmes and interventions and reorganising, adapting and changing planning and templates and timetables, etc. Some days I feel like I have it all together and other days it feels like it’s crumbling but at the end of the day I know I am doing my best, my kids are happy and supported, they are learning and making progress and will continue to do so.
The first thing I would start with is to get your class paperwork in order. Please do refer to my previous post on the importance of gathering, reading and using professional reports to get an idea, at least on paper, of the kids you will be working with. From these reports you should be able to garner many of the supports your children will need access to (sensory integration, OT input, fine motor development, auditory sensitivities, behaviours, areas of strength, areas of need, recommendations for specific interventions, programmes and resources). Throughout this post I will mention items and resources that I have in my own class. Some of these are items that I have sourced, used in the past or researched myself and felt the children would benefit from but many also come from the recommendations given to us from the children’s specific report recommendations so please don’t undervalue these reports! My last post went through how I use and organise these so check it out!
Going into my own classroom 3 years ago it was pretty much an empty shell, bar a horseshoe table, 6 massive workstations, an interactive white board and an industrial laminator (that I initially laughed at and thought what a waste of money but oh how quickly I changed my tune and now worship at the feet of the teacher who had purchased it! 😊) I know from my own experience that it takes a lot of work to set up a classroom like ours from scratch but realistically it’s not that different from any other class. Yes, the furniture may be a little different, there will be more visuals and visual organisation systems in place and there are different types of equipment but I feel that in this day and age more mainstream classes are using more visuals and alternative seating and have specialised equipment in their classes too to support the varied needs of all their students so really our classes in some ways are just an extension of this.
The best advice I can give you is to take your time and get it right first time, rather that rushing in, buying everything that is labelled as being for an ‘ASD class’ and then regretting purchases but having zero funds left to get what you actually need. With that said, the first thing to make yourself aware of is the funding available for a new ASD class. and the funding that is given to ASD classes through capitation throughout the year. I only mention this as many of the people who have messaged me about their classes have been unaware of these supports, grants and funds. So here’s the basic breakdown. A once off set up grant of €6500 is given to purchase things like furniture and general equipment for the classroom. If more specialised equipment is needed for specific children in your class and they have this stated as a ‘need’ not simply a ‘recommendation’ then you can make further applications for the cost of this equipment (this can be submitted to the Department through the School Building Unit in Tullamore).
There is also a sensory room grant of €5000 to go towards the purchase of resources to kit out a sensory room. Use this wisely! I feel like the moment ‘SEN’ is attached to an item the price is hiked up so look around for cheaper alternatives such as bubble tubes, fibre optic strings, sensory tiles, projectors, etc and again know the kids you will have. I had 2 children who couldn’t cope with the sound of the projector and it actually acted as a behaviour trigger (the same with the slight humming of the interactive white board in class and so could not be used! You have to be flexible in your thinking and willing to adapt to support the needs of your children.) Don’t get me wrong, these things are essentials and needed in a sensory room but I think it is wiser to shop around and not make rushed decisions just to have something there for the sake of it.
On top of these grants, children in our classes also get a higher rate of capitation. Children in mainstream get €170 per year whereas children in an ASD class get €840 per year. 70% of this total amount is given in January and the final 30% the following June. We use some of this for funding trips, social outings, resources, programmes, swimming and general continuous provision items, etc. All of this above information can be found here:
When creating the classroom environment itself there are many things to consider so I will go through some of the things that I looked at and worked on when I moved into my classroom.
Firstly, I looked at the furniture, layout and environment of the room. I started by drawing out and planning my layout. A checklist that I found useful and have used in mainstream, special class, SET, whole school etc was the NBSS (National Behaviour Support Service; now encompassed within the NCSE) learning environment checklist which can be found here: https://www.nbss.ie/sites/default/files/publications/nbss_learning_behaviour_checklist_lec.pdf
I completed this checklist (not all of it as not everything relates to my classroom) but was also well aware that the layout that I had set up may (and was) need to be adapted when the kids came into class as it has to work (again) for the specific children you will be working with.
When purchasing furniture or workstations for an ASD class consider the long term functionality of it. If your school only has 1 ASD class like ours did at the time (we now have 2) it could have to cater for Junior Infants to 6th class in one room. This is what I had in my first year so make sure furniture is adaptable, for example workstations not having tables built in. Our workstations allow us to put any table from any class into it therefore can be used by any age/size child. Also remember that not every child likes to use them, I have 2 children this year who hate them and much prefer to sit at a round table, rectangular desk or horseshoe table.
If your classroom has open presses or shelves, get them covered and doors put on them. In my first year in the class, we had to explicitly teach children to respect objects, toys and resources. Almost everything had to be kept behind closed and sometimes locked presses as it was safer to do so. Very little was left out, even pencil pots and colours had to be put away until children were taught how to use and care for them through discrete and explicit teaching. We are at a point now where resources can be left out and set up but of course we still have days where the classroom is turned upside down and we have to tidy away everything, based on the behaviours and actions of our children. Thankfully these days are getting rarer and rarer but it is the reality of a class like ours.
For safety a lot of schools put a lock on the classroom doors. My classroom has a keypad lock on the door but personally I don’t like or use it. I understand there is a need for safety but you could just as easily have a double handled door (one low, one high) to use as a safety measure.
Consider lighting and noise, for eg. the IWB. As I mentioned earlier the slight humming from the IWB acted as a trigger for some of my kids and so it was usually off and only really used if those kids were going for reintegration time. You have to be adaptable and suit the needs of your kids. The same can be said with lighting, fluorescent lights can make a humming noise and the light can over stimulate children too so be aware of this. Consider putting safety plugs into open sockets. You can get packets of them in Dealz for next to nothing. Also consider putting foam pool noodles on radiator edges if they are not recessed into the wall and make sure cords from window blinds are securely tied up and out of harms way. Also check that doors have safety snaps on them to prevent fingers getting caught in them (this is on my next to do list).
Before the kids come in try to complete an environment risk assessment for your classroom where you are highlighting the areas that pose risk or danger and what you are going to do to minimise these. Remember to get down to the children’s level too as we can sometimes miss things as adults walking around (that said I’m 5ft nothing so I don’t have to go too far to get down to their level!) Share this risk assessment and any concerns with your principal and BOM as they have a duty of care to you and the students.
Displays and backing paper
Backing boards is something that I would recommend waiting to do until you know your children. I have bright colours up in my classroom as I know my children this year are ok with this but I am aware that for some children they can be visually over stimulating. I have had some years in school where I have used neutral hessian for the backing or simple brown paper and kept displays to a visual minimum to prevent over stimulation and distraction. There is no rush for these things to be done in the classroom, there is plenty of time to get them up over time and in my opinion they should be used as working walls so the kids work goes up on them or support systems to aid learning as the term or year goes on, however frequently you wish to change them.
In my class I have a board for each child up for their specific learning aids and targets. This year we will have an emotional check in display/Zones of Regulation, a birthday display, a life skills/cookery working wall, a Wow Wall/Arts display and a season display (boards are backed but no displays are up yet!) I have also changed one of our white boards into an interactive calendar for circle time morning activities. Again, this is just what works for me and my class.
I also always keep one display board for myself to have near to my desk (a desk which is never actually used so again not really needed, only for storage on top and underneath) and on this display board I keep my photocopied paper work, child protection folder, parent meeting forms, spare ABCs, timetables, weekly planning, cúntas míosúil, as well as yard duty timetables, etc. Handy to have all these bits and bobs close to hand but out of sight at the same time.
Areas you might like to create in your class:
Quiet zone: using something like a black out den or a pop-up tent with cushions and soft toys inside to relax and decompress in. If you don’t have these but have a spare table lying around why not throw a blanket over it and create your own den? It will work in the very same way and give you time to get something more long term. Alternatives like a sleeping bag that you can zip around fully have worked well for me in the past too. Places like Mr. Price, Ikea, Tesco and Dealz have very cheap pop up tents or alternatively you can get full black out tents from websites like Thinking Toys. I simply pop a few cushions, maybe a vibrating cushtie, some teddies, blanket inside to make it comfortable and store the fidget and sensory boxes close by so kids can grab them and go to the tent if and when they feel they need this. And if you are stuck for space, try finding an alternative area around the school to have a quiet zone. I made one by clearing out the space under the stairs and the kids love it. It adds in a movement walking break for our kids to get to it and can be used by the whole school.
Sensory area and fidget boxes: I got simple plastic lidded boxes in Mr. Price and filled them with everyday items, threw in a few bought bits and recycled items and they work a treat. Simple boxes made up with various material, rice, shells, dough, foam, slime, hard chickpeas, shredded paper, pasta, Styrofoam pieces, jelly, sand, salt, marbles, glitter, sequins etc. Sensory toys such as vibrating toys and cushions, light up squeezy toys, handy bands, rollers, spikey balls, blowers, horns, bubbles, straws, balloons, etc. are also stored in the same area. For the fidget boxes, I just got some small boxes in Mr. Price to store little fidgets in. PLEASE make sure children are taught how and when to use fidgets, you do not want to be creating extra anxiety and attachment issues for children using fidgets; this is a huge bug bear of mine as I have seen first hand the damage allowing and encouraging children to use fidgets 100% of the time creates.
Tuff trays: If you follow my Instagram page you will know by now that I have a slight obsession with tuff trays and that is simply because they are a fantastic way to encourage interaction, pair play, parallel play, group work and all in a self contained space. What’s not to love? Children can work independently, in pairs or in groups. They can work at different levels; on the floor, lying down, kneeling down, standing up, sitting down, etc. I find it easy to set up activities to support sit down teaching lessons and give kids the practical hands on learning experiences they need to consolidate learning. Oh and lets not forget that they help to contain the mess to one area!
Fine motor stations: I use the back of a library stand and little baskets from Dealz to hold bits and bobs for fine motor development. Easy for kids to access and use throughout the day for early finishers or extension tasks.
Library area: As I have a large age range in my classroom I have 2 library areas set up, one for the younger children and one for the older. If you are caught on space you could have 1 or simply a basket of books that you take out and kids have access to, even popping a few books down in the tent quiet zone or a few cushions or bean bags in the corner of the room with a magazine rack holding a selection of books. In my libraries I have a mixture of picture books, wordless books, novels, interactive books, sensory books, social story books, dry wipe books, etc (age appropriate and engaging for the children you will have in your class).
Art area: A simple table with an oil cloth (stored in presses: paint, brushes, finger paint pads, cotton buds, cotton wool, lollipop sticks, glue, PVA glue, glitter, sequins, oil pastels, chalks, fabric paints, marbling paints, shaving foam, matchsticks, clay, clay tools, paper, card, cellotape, washi tape, scissors, printers, palettes, sponges, baby wipes, crayons, markers, pencil colours, general arts and crafts supplies). Again, not all of these are needed straight away so build up your supplies as you go along.
Seating: alternative seats as well as your normal chairs; bitty bottoms, wedges, move and sit cushions, pillows, doughnut balls, exercise balls (with and without stabilising base), stools, peanut ball, cushions, neck comfort cushions to sit on, etc. Try putting tennis balls on chair legs for feedback, allow kids to use bitty bottoms to sit on or put feet on, same for sit and move and wedge cushion. Look at the resources you have and think of alternative ways to use them.
Resources to stock up on:
General: A good laminator and book binder.
Fine motor skills resources: threading toys, beads, buttons, laces, peg boards, pressure boards, pressure laces, dough and cutters, lego, tweezers, puzzles, jigsaws, interlocking cubes, objects to sort (Maths sets are great for this and double up for use in Maths), bottles with lids to twist off, squeezing bottles (washing up bottles), syringes, droppers, chop sticks, etc.
Gross motor equipment: peanut balls, exercise balls, doughnut balls, gym mats, yoga mats, balance boards, skittles, whippsider, whippwalker, body sox, therapy bands, scooter boards, weighted blankets, compression vests, weighted vests, skipping rope, zoom balls, etc. (Lots of these kinds of things can be bought more cheaply in places like Home Store and More and Mr. Price in the exercise sections).
Again, just to reiterate, not all of these are needed straight away so build up your supplies as you go along. It has taken me years to gather the resources I have so get the basics (look to your kids report recommendations) and go from there.
Once the physical classroom is set up and you are preparing to have the kids in your room, I would be ensuring that the following are in place for the first day. My best advice would be to have these visual routines set up in class from day one so you can begin teaching them and giving structure and organisation to your kids.
Visual schedule and schedule tokens. I put these at each station as to have 6 visual schedules in the one area would cause absolute havoc and be a complete visual over load so even if you don’t have separate workstations, place schedules in different areas around the classroom to give each student their own space and area and a sense of ownership.
Now/next or first/then boards.
Other visual systems that you will put in place can be introduced as time goes on but theses are the ones that I would personally start with to ease children in and begin organising their days.
Once the classroom layout and physical set up is in place I would be looking for ways to get to know the children in my class. One way of doing this would be to send home a transition or information booklet to get further and more personal day to day information about the children. Parents can fill this in with or for their children. You may have your own idea of what you want to know or could use a book like this:
When it comes to planning, set your planning for the first few weeks in a relaxed style to allow you and your team to build relationships and get to know your children as well as starting your own assessment process that will then inform the creation of their IEPs and your tailored weekly/fortnightly planning for the term ahead. I tend to spend about the first week and a half to 2 weeks completing my assessments using a mixture of ABLLs, AFLs and my own assessments for phonics, letter formation, number formation, High Frequency Words, Dolch words, etc. It is a lot of work but has to be done. There is no way around it. If you haven’t specific training done as yet you can still be doing your own assessments and informal observations such as phonics, letters, numbers, ability to interact with others, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, etc, Watch the kids and learn from them where their areas of need lie. Leaving the timetable relaxed for these first 2 weeks or so gives you and your team a chance to pair with their kids, get to know them and complete assessments. A book that I found useful and easy to use was the basic skills checklist book (you can get this at www.otb.ie and for 10% off use code ASDCREATIONSTATION10, not an ad or AF, they just offered me a discount code for my followers to use across their site and I paid fully for my copy of this book) so this might work in the meantime before you get training or get access to the assessment you want to use and read up on it and start using it. Most like the ABLLS are fairly self explanatory.
For a typical day in my class for the next 2 weeks I will be following a general timetable of collecting kids, greetings at door, morning routines, circle time, yoga, fine motor activities, exploration (free choice), eating, break, gross motor activities (to settle after break), sensory/messy play, art activity, story time, eating, lunch, life skills (brushing teeth, washing face, brush/comb hair), topic time (picking a few topics like space, dinosaurs, unicorns, magic, under the sea, etc and having practical activities based on these for the afternoon as kids will be wrecked in the first two weeks), fine motor skills again, free choice, calming mindfulness activities before home (calm kits), home time routines, home. I am purposefully keeping it simple to allow children to settle back in, get use to their environments and use to the new adults we have in class (a job share for one of the SNA positions this year so very new to the children and makes this time even more needed). throughout the days I will pull children to do various assessments but keep rotating across children so they don’t get stressed out by the demands I put on them. All children will be doing the same activities at the same time (just broken into groups, pairs or 1:1 whatever each child needs) and in a fortnight or so once assessments are complete and programmes of work are finalised (based on my assessments) children will then be banded by ability for English and Maths and other subjects and will each have their own timetable and visual schedules that relate to their specific programmes that I will set out (including reintegration times).
So that’s how I went about setting up my own classroom, some of the resources I have found useful, things I have learned along the way and some of the ways that I support children and staff to settle back into class in September. Not everything mentioned in this blog needs to be done straight away or at all for that matter, it is simply how I have done things and continue to do so. Remember there are also highlights on my Instagram page @ASDCreationStation that shows the whole process of me creating and setting up my classroom from scratch (physical environment) so check that out too for some tips and tricks and to see most of the resources I have mentioned above and that can be found in my Mash shop. I hope this has been of some help to some of you at least. I will also leave links to the ASD class set up bundles that I have made and my paperwork bundle in case that is of any help in the near future. I’ll leave them here:
Do let me know what you think and as always if you have any questions just contact me on my Instagram page or leave a comment here in the comments box.
Enjoy your first week back, try not to stress, every class is always a work in progress. Don’t compare yourself to others. Do things in a way that suit and matches your own style of teaching and you and your children will fly.
Until next time,