It's true, back to school time is coming quick! If you are a special education teacher or teach in an inclusive classroom, read on to hear about my favorite necessities for a special ed-friendly classroom! Over the past few years of teaching as a special education teacher in inclusive classrooms, I've developed a list of must-haves that I cannot go without. Many would argue that these items really benefit all students, not just those with disabilities, so even if you don't currently teach any students with IEPs, hopefully you can find some items on this list to add to your back-to-school arsenal!
Must-Have #1: Visuals, visuals, and more visuals!
Arguably the most important item to have in a special education classroom is a wide variety of visuals. Many students with disabilities are visual learners, and benefit from seeing written or spoken information in visual form. Here are some examples of visuals that I use in my classroom:
Must-Have #2: Timers!
Another favorite of mine, timers not only help my students manage time but they help me stay on track as well! Students with anxiety, autism, ADD/ADHD and general executive functioning difficulties have a very hard time understanding the passage of time throughout the school day. Incorporating timers can help them grasp how much time they have to complete a task and how much time they have before the next activity. For students with work avoidance issues, setting a timer for a small amount of time can be a great way to get them to do a reasonable amount of work. For students who struggle to start or complete a task, a 'beat the clock' competition-type game can be just the thing to get them going. I love using 'Time Timers' in the classroom and use the miniature ones for individual students. I also love using online-stopwatch.com for a whole class timer.
Must-Have #3: Calming Tools and Sensory Materials
Every special education teacher needs a toolbox of items to help students calm down and relax in times of distress or during scheduled sensory breaks during the day. See my previous post about my Calming Kit for more ideas!
Must-Have #4: Dry Erase Boards
Just about every teacher has a stash of personal dry erase boards in their classrooms, but I have found them especially helpful for some of my special education students. They provide a great way to quickly draw a visual representation of something, a method for non-verbal students to communicate, and a larger space for students to work out problems. I had a student with autism this past year who absolutely REFUSED to write an essay on paper, but the second I offered him to write it on a whiteboard (which I then took a picture of, to have an assessment) he was all about it!
Must-Have #5: Positive Notes
For so many students with emotional/behavioral-related disabilities (and all students in general!) much of the work of teaching comes in building a relationship. I use 'positive notes' throughout the year to provide a little extra praise and encouragement for my students. I attached a free template below for you to use in your classroom! I am amazed by how many students save these notes all year--especially the ones who act like they despise me :)
Must-Have #6: Wiggle Seats (or other alternative seating)
Again, this is another item that has lately become popular for the general population, not just special education students. However, the flexible seating movement is nothing new. For years, special educators have used alternative seating methods for students with ADD/ADHD, autism, sensory disorders, or other difficulties sitting in traditional desks. I use wiggle seats the most in my classroom, but have also used folding chairs, butterfly chairs, pillows, yoga mats, etc. Giving students a choice, with clear expectations, is a surefire way to ensure that they are more engaged.
Must-Have #7: Data Charts Galore
Ahh, data. Don't we all just love data?! Special education teachers are constantly needing to take data on various student behaviors and skills and need to have charts o' plenty at the ready. I like to keep a binder of data charts handy, separated by tabs for individual students and skills. See below for a free ABC (antecedent-behavior-consequence) chart perfect for analyzing patterns in student behaviors!
Must-Have #8: Manipulatives
It's always essential for special education students to have easy access to multiple ways of accessing information. For many students with learning difficulties, hands-on/tactile representations of concepts come much more easily. Manipulatives for math include counting blocks, number tiles, place value charts, beads, abacus, number lines, dice, dominoes, base ten blocks. etc. I also love using manipulatives for literacy, such as 'finger lights' for tracking text, highlighting strips for visual discrimination, whisper phones, highlighters, and sticky notes.
Must-Have #9: Calm Lighting
Another great tool for students with autism or anxiety that really benefits all students (and the teacher!) is calm lighting. Sitting under harsh florescent lights all day can be very overstimulating for students who are light-sensitive, and let's face it, no one likes florescent lights! Try turning the lights off and letting the sunlight shine in through the windows. Supplement natural light with floor and desk lamps and string lights for a much more calming classroom environment.
Must-Have #10: Board Games
Unfortunately, many students in special education have learned to dislike school because it hasn't fit the way that they learn. Help students break out of this anti-school rut by making learning fun! Board games are a great way to reinforce math and reading skills, and teach essential social skills. They also provide a great opportunities for teachers or paraprofessionals to bond one-on-one with more challenging students, and game time can also be used as a reinforcer for a student completing a task. Some of my favorites include Guess Who, Uno, and Jenga.
I hope this list gave you some ideas as you prepare to head back to school! Special education teachers--I would love to hear what other items you consider must-haves! Please share in the comments!