Are you getting excited for the back-to-school season? It’s that time of year again when we gear up to welcome our amazing students back into our classrooms. Thinking about the first few weeks of school in your autism classroom can always be a little daunting in my opinion. These first few weeks are crucial. The first few days of school are always going to be different than the rest of the year, however you want to start setting up routines and expectations for students.
You are spending time getting acquainted (or re-acquainted) with each other, learning routines and setting boundaries for students. I’m going to tell you below exactly what I did during the first week of school in my autism classroom to help things run smoothly. I hope you find it helpful!
How Do You Structure a Classroom for Students with Autism?
As we gear up for back-to-school, it’s essential to create a well-structured and supportive classroom environment for students with autism. Establishing a structured layout, incorporating visual supports and designing sensory-friendly spaces can make a world of difference.
Building strong teacher-student relationships and encouraging peer interactions are equally crucial. I want to give you three practical strategies for preparing an autism classroom that fosters a sense of belonging, promotes learning and sets the stage for a successful school year.
1. Establish Routines During the First Week of School
Trust me, you will thank me down the road for this. Establishing routines from day one is honestly so important when working with students in special education. Kids with autism especially benefit from structure and a firm routine will help to keep everyone on track. Here are some ways that I do this:
Introduce Visual Supports and Schedules
Using visuals, particularly with students with autism, is a best practice and can increase independence, decrease transition difficulties, increase positive behaviors, provide clear expectations and increase motivation among other benefits. Most everything I do in my classroom revolves around a visual support. I have a class visual schedule up plus students have their own individual schedules to follow during the day.
In addition, I use visuals for making choices, behavior and we even used visuals during specials!
Practice Transitions Between Activities
I know that it might sound crazy but it really is best to start your routine from day one. Think in this way: “strict routine, simple tasks.” You are not trying to teach anything new the first week of school but instead this time is all about laying a solid foundation for the rest of the school year. I like to practice how we transition between activities throughout the day because transitions can be really difficult for students with autism. I even start by showing them our morning work routine from the first day of school. This way, our mornings will go smoother the remainder of the week because students will know what to come in and do and there won’t be a lot of down time (which can increase behaviors truthfully).
For our morning routine, I expect students to come in, unpack their backpack and then answer the morning work question that I have on the SMARTboard. The first week of school we do it together and I show them how it works. Then, students can come in unpack and grab an iPad from our technology area and answer the slide for the day. I like that this morning work is digital because students can drag and drop if they do not have the best fine motor skills for writing yet. It also helps to keep them engaged. Plus, it incorporates essential basic skills that they need for ELA and math.
Implement Clear Expectations for Behavior
Students on the Autism Spectrum respond well to rules and routines. As I said above, I like implementing those things from day one to set clear expectations. I also make sure that we start discussing clear expectations for behavior from day one. Throughout EVERY part of the day, I remind students of these five things:
- Listen to your teachers
- Use a quiet voice
- Have safe hands and a safe body
- Do good work
- Use your words
I don’t just say these behavior expectations to my students, I visually show and remind them using behavior flip books. This book will become a resource the student can rely on to support their communication when they are frustrated, need rule reminders to stay focused or are struggling to express their thoughts.
The behavior expectations above are listed on the front cover and inside are different visual icons to help students succeed. For example, there is a tab that is called “needs” and in this section, there might be visuals of words like bathroom, more, break or help. This way students can point or gesture to the visual needed if they cannot verbally tell you.
2. Use Social Stories to Help Guide Students
It might seem obvious to us, but students with autism might not always understand what the first day of school means. Plus, if they’ve been at school before they just had a really long summer break in which their routines were very different. Using social stories to help guide them through the day to know what to expect can be extremely beneficial.
You can create a simple book with what your classroom looks like, pictures of yourself and classroom aides. If you already know their support staff – therapists, bus driver, lunchroom team etc, include them as well! Grab some pre-made social stories from Autism Little Learners.
3. Set Clear Lines of Communication with Families
Another crucial step that you can take as a special education teacher during the first week of school is to set clear lines of communication with families. Building a strong partnership between teachers and parents is essential for the success of students with autism. The teacher should introduce herself to the families, provide contact information and discuss the preferred method of communication prior to the first week of school.
Even though you may be overwhelmed and busy, it would be great during the first week of school to call each student’s parent and telling them something positive that their child did that first week. Keeping parents informed can ensure that parents are actively involved in their child’s education. Having some positive calls from the start can also help if you ever need to make a more difficult call regarding behavior or something more negative to parents.
I hope you found these tips helpful for gearing up to go back to school in your autism classroom! Which one will you be trying?