10 High and Low-Tech Tools to Enhance Circle Time Engagement in the Special Education Classroom
Circle time provides many opportunities for communication, participation, and engagement of students. Circle time in my classroom involves 6 areas: Greetings, Attendance, Days of the Week, Calendar, Weather, Today’s Weather (interactive part of Unique Learning System Curriculum), and Move & Groove. More than half of my students are non-verbal or have minimal verbal abilities, so it was a challenge to find ways for each student to be able to participate as independently as possible during all activities. After much trial and error, and determining which tools worked best for each student, I now have a circle time procedure that flows smoothly while also allowing all students to take part. Here are some of the tools I use in my classroom to make this successful.
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1. Interactive White Board
All of my Circle Time activities are on a SMART Notebook file to be used on my classroom’s SMART Board. I mostly use the classroom curriculum (Unique Learning System) so that the symbols for each activity overlap with the symbols used in other activities and lessons throughout our day. I simply used the “screen capture” tool within the Smart Notebook software to copy and paste symbols directly from the curriculum’s core content. Since the SMART Board is so large, all students are able to see it clearly. I made the symbols large enough for each student to be able to see all choices and easily touch and drag the symbols.
For my students with limited mobility I use a pointer with velcro on the tip- they grasp the pointer and and use that to “point” to items on the board to make choices. The SMART Board responds to this pointer just as if they were using their finger.
2. Circle Time Job Schedule
Having a visual schedule of your circle time activities helps both you and your students know what to expect, and helps to establish routine. I made the list of activities on Symbolstix (from the ULS Curriculum). After printing them, I glued them to construction paper to give each one a background so they were easier to see against the white board. I did the same with the student names and included each student’s picture as well. Each student completes the activity assigned as we move through circle time. At the end of the day, we just slide each name down and move the bottom name to the top. This helps us to make sure each student is getting to practice each skill.
3. Music and Movement
A great way to engage all students is through music and movement. Each morning, one of my students gets to choose which video we will participate in. For students with limited mobility, they still enjoy the music. Given appropriate equipment and/or staff assistance, this could be a great opportunity to encourage movement for these students as well. For example, sometimes my student will stand in her gait trainer or stander during this portion of circle time. I provide several different choices including dancing, yoga, and children’s exercise videos. You can do a search for kids movement songs on YouTube and choose what videos you think your students would enjoy the most.
4. BIGMack Communicator
The BIGMack Communicator is a great tool for helping non-verbal students to communicate simple words and/or phrases. I use this switch with a non-verbal student who has limited mobility and strength. This student has a trouble pushing hard enough on some devices, such as a GoTalk, and the switch requires less strength to push to give a response, and provides a larger visual. During our morning greetings, a different student each morning says “Good Morning” to each of their peers, using their preferred mode of communication. I have attached a Symbolstix picture of “Good Morning,” to this switch so my student can respond when greeting, or be the greeter herself.
5. NovaChat 10
I have 2 students who are using a Nova Chat 10 to assist in their communication as their speech is limited and/or difficult understand. This device has smaller pictures and several pictures per page to choose from, and requires some navigation to get to each request. It is user friendly and easy to add and change pages, pictures, and symbols to suit each student. This device can be obtained with the help of your district speech therapist/assistive technology specialist, or through a student’s private therapist if it is determined to be appropriate for a particular student.
Another great feature of this device is that it uses Symbolstix pictures, which coincides with my classroom’s ULS curriculum. The monthly units from the curriculum can even be downloaded each month so there are pre-made pages to go along with our monthly lessons. During circle time I have greetings and attendance activities programmed into the device. Students can choose a greeting (i.e. “good morning,” “hello,” etc.). They can also ask “Are you here today?” and answer “I’m here,” during attendance activities. This device also has pages for calendar activities, so students can participate in saying and choosing the months of the year, days of the week, date, and weather.
6. Sequencing Switch
This is another useful switch that is easy to push and provides a larger visual for students. Two messages can be recorded on one switch. I use this switch for attendance during circle time. On one level, the phrase “Are you here today?” is programmed in, and on the second level the phrase “I’m here” is programmed. This way a single device can be used for both steps of the attendance activity.
7. GoTalk 32+
The Go Talk 32+ is the perfect device for students to count along with calendar activities and choose the correct date. I have one student who holds a fat marker or stylus with a small tennis ball on the end, and uses this with staff assistance to push each number as we count up to the current date each morning. Other students count along with their finger, pushing each button as we count. This has really increased the participation of my non-verbal students in the counting portion of our calendar activities. This is a very expensive tool, so I highly suggest checking with your district speech therapist(s) to see if there is one available. If not, consider fundraising as an option!
8. Teacher-made Student Books
A great low-tech option for increasing student engagement in Circle Time is to make student books. Theses books will allow students to follow along with the activities. It also helps keep them engaged when it is not their turn to participate on the SmartBoard. Each page matches up with the activities we do as a group. The symbols are from the same program (Symbolstix) as the one I used to create the SmartBoard activity so they overlap with all other activities. Print each page on cardstock, laminate, and then bind. My classroom paraprofessionals assist students as needed as they follow along with each activity.
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I have some students with fine motor limitations that make it difficult to point, or to combine the actions of pointing and pushing. A simple way to help with this is to have students use a stylus to make selections. This can be used to point to items in their student book. It can also be used to choose icons on their communication device, such as the NovaChat. Students also find it useful for using in combination with the GoTalk 32+. They count along, using the stylus to point and push. The stylus itself can also be adapted by adding a small tennis ball to the top to make it easier to grasp.
10. Sensory Items
Having the right sensory items available can make a huge difference in a student’s ability to stay engaged. There are so many items and tools available that can help students in this area, and your school or district Occupational Therapist can help you determine what your student(s) need. They may also be able to get you access to those items as well, so make sure to check with them first before purchasing anything yourself. I will share the items I most commonly use with my students.
Noise blocking headphones are extremely helpful for students with auditory sensitivities. Some of my students can get loud at times, and when this happens it can greatly agitate other students. Having headphones available helps these students continue to participate and engage even when there is noise in the room.
Some of my students benefit from the pressure provided by a weighted blanket or weighted lap pad. I even have a weighted pillow with sequins on it that our Occupational Therapist provided. This both gives pressure and provides tactile input.
Another popular item to help students remain seated and engaged are fidgets or stress balls. Giving them something to do with their hands can help some students stay calm and focused.
A Few Final Thoughts…
These ten materials, tools and activities have truly helped all students in my classroom have the ability to participate in some way in every circle time activity. Not all devices and tools work for every student. You will have to try out different tools with different students to find just the right fit or combination of devices to help all students participate.
Please comment below if you have found other strategies or tools to be beneficial in your classroom to increase participation of your special education students during circle time and calendar activities! I would love to continue sharing ideas as a community of teachers!