Classroom Essentials for the New Special Educator

Ready for the first year. Getty/Fancy/Veer/Corbis

When we approach the school year all teachers will be evaluating the strategies and classroom structures that are important for behavioral success and instructional efficiency. That is doubly essential for the new teacher creating their first classroom.  

Perhaps the most important actor in your classroom is the environment. A classroom environment is not just a matter of lighting and decorating (although they may contribute.) No, it is the emotional as well as the physical environment that create the canvas on which you will be providing instruction. For some special educators who push in, they carry their environment with them. For teachers who are in resource room settings, they need to create an environment communicates expectations for students and create an efficient place for them to engage in instruction. For self-contained programs, the challenge is to create an environment that will provide a structure that will work for the teacher, the classroom para-professional, and the range of abilities your students will probably bring with them.

In our experience, self-contained programs often have as wide a variety of skills and challenges as a regular education classroom with three to four times more students. 

Pro-Active Means Preparation

Preparing a classroom for students will require planning and anticipation, including: 

  • Seating/Seating chart: How you plan to provide instruction will change how you seat your students. Anticipate those seating arrangements to change. For a classroom where you anticipate behavioral challenges, start with desks in rows separated by an arm's length in each direction. As your year progresses, you will be able to modify how you mediate instruction and how you manage behavior. A group that needs constant monitoring will be arranged completely differently from a group that focuses on independent work while others are in small groups or working in learning centers. Also, the first group, with consistent feedback, teaching, and reinforcement, might just become the second group!

Comprehensive Behavior Management System

How you intend to reinforce the behavior you want, especially independent behavior and how you want to provide consequences for behaviors you do not want, you will need to choose and implement one of several different comprehensive plans: 

  • Whole Class and/or Individual Behavior Management Systems: Sometimes a classroom system will work without implementing individual behavior management, especially when the focus of your program is remediating academics and not managing behavior. Or, you can start with a group plan and then add an individual plan. Or, you can use individual reinforcement plans (i.e. token boards) and then a classwide system for group activities or transitions. 

Whole Class Behavior Systems Require 

  • A visual cuing system. This can be a board, a digital system (such as Class DOJO)  or an interactive cue system, like a clothespin clip system or a color wheel. 
  • Clear expectations and outcomes. These include rules and routines, which we will explore later. Be sure you know exactly when you place a token or move a clip up or down. Be sure you know what consequences will be moving to red or whatever your least desirable color is. Be sure your consequence is truly a consequence and not a threat, in other words don't make a consequence something that is either unreasonable (no p.e. for the rest of the school year) or something you are unwilling or unable to do (two swats with a paddle. Corporal punishment is illegal in most states and doesn't work in any case.) 
  • Rewards or Reinforcement. Be sure some of the reinforcers you offer (positive) are social so you are pairing reinforcement with appropriate social behavior. How about tickets for a game day? (Play board games as a class on Friday afternoons.) Access to preferred activities or classroom jobs with status (such as line leader or lunch basket) is also great reinforcers. By pairing reinforcement with appropriate positive behavior, you also reinforce the social behavior. 
  • Consequences. Sometimes the absence of reinforcement is consequence enough to change future behavior. Sometimes an appropriate consequence (because it makes undesired behavior less likely to reappear) is to remove access to a preferred daily activity, such as recess or reading in a kindergarten classroom. 

Individual Behavior Systems Require

  • A visual recording system.  Sticker charts or token charts work well.
  • Clear expectations. It is best to focus on no more than two behaviors at a time. Be sure students know why they are earning stickers or tokens when they get them: i.e. "Wow, you did a nice job getting that spelling page done, Roger. Here's your sticker. Just two more till you get your break!" 
  • Targeted reinforcement: As above, target specific behaviors and be sure you define those target behaviors clearly. Reinforce no more than two behaviors at a time. 

Deciding Which Behavioral Strategies to Use

As you are setting up your classroom, you will need to decide a few things:

  • Do you start with individual behavior management systems or group? As a new teacher, you are best to err on the side of too much structure, not too little.
  • How easy or hard will the system be to administer? No structure is chaos, too much structure may lead to default because you can't keep your eyes on everything. Know your team, as well. Will you have one or more paraprofessionals who could administer one of your reinforcement systems? 
  • Can you and your staff administer the system with as little effect as possible? You don't want a system that you are tempted to use as a punishment. If the focus of your system becomes your relationship with your students.  

The Physical Environment

Arranging supplies, pencil sharpening and all the mechanics of supporting academic and social interaction for school success is invaluable. Sharpening pencils, handing out materials, all those simple tasks are tasks your students can manipulate to avoid tasks, to move around the classroom and disturb peers, to establish their pecking order in the classroom. New teachers may feel that those of us who are long in the teeth make way too much of organization, but we have watched students dither away the day sharpening their pencils. Oh, and they can burn those babies out! So, you need to be sure your routines include:

  • Pencil Sharpening. Is it a job, or do you have a cup where pencils can be swapped out? 
  • Desks: Trust me. You want the tops of desks clean. They are students, not insurance agents. 
  • Supplies:  If you put students in groups, each group should have a carry all or tray for pencils, crayons, scissors, and other supplies. Put someone in charge (and assigned on the job chart) to refill papers, sharpen pencils and do whatever you need. For small groups, put someone in charge of paper passing.
  • Turn in: Have a routine for turning in completed assignments. You may want a tray for finished assignments, or even a vertical file where students turn in their folders. 

Bulletin Boards

Put your walls to work. Avoid that temptation of some teachers to spend big at the teacher store and clutter up the walls. Too much on the walls may distract students with disabilities, so be sure the walls talk but not scream. 


Behavioral Systems

Physical Resources

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Your Citation
Webster, Jerry. "Classroom Essentials for the New Special Educator." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Webster, Jerry. (2023, April 5). Classroom Essentials for the New Special Educator. Retrieved from Webster, Jerry. "Classroom Essentials for the New Special Educator." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).