Best Teaching Materials for an Amazing Special Education Classroom
- In the area of special education, we are no strangers to creating our own materials. Many of us go through paper, colored ink, lamination, and velcro in a blink. Some of these materials are inexpensive. Some are available to use at your school. But there are many that we end up buying ourselves or spending our limited classroom budget on. We not only want to do what is best for our students, but also what gives us the most for our money, is most effective to help our students, and what will last the longest.
- I have been teaching special education for 10+ years and have made too many visuals, schedules, choice boards, etc. to count. I have also used various forms of technology, software, and devices to help my students be successful. Not all things were effective and not all ideas worked well. So to save you months (and maybe years) of trial and error, I want to share with you the best products for your classroom that are worth your money.
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What are the best basic materials to start with?
- There are some inexpensive materials you will need to have on hand to get started with making materials. Various colors of construction paper to provide backgrounds for your visuals, cardstock to make commonly used visuals and materials more durable, lamination, and of course, velcro.
- Make sure before you order or buy materials for your classroom to check with your school to see what you already have available. I often forget about the supply closet for all teachers before I go picking up black sharpies, pencils, glue, etc. If you know you need a large amount of an item, I suggest adding it to your list of things to purchase just to be fair to other teachers in your building. Most of the items below are things I stock up on myself since I use so much.
Velcro- A Special Educator’s Essential
- Although there are alternatives to velcro to use in a pinch, such as tape or paper clips, for long term use and ease of use Velcro is truly the best option. I use velcro for choice boards, schedules, and to provide picture choices. Velcro can also be used to easily change out choices for switches and communication buttons. Determine which side of velcro you want to have on surfaces and which side you want on your objects or pictures. Then stay consistent with the choice so all materials will be interchangeable. I prefer the large rolls of Velcro so I can easily cut pieces and strips of different sizes for materials. Plus, it lasts way longer! Links to the rolls I use (each side) are above. Be sure to get a roll of both the hook side and the loop side and that they are both self-adhesive.
Cardstock for durability
- For any materials that will be used all year long, or for materials that may be sent home, I use cardstock. Cardstock is much more durable and will definitely extend the life of your materials. However, it is more pricey than regular printer paper, so be choosy about what you use it for. I don’t use it for monthly unit materials, since after the month is over they get recycled into other materials.
Laminators and Lamination Sheets
- You will most likely have access to a large laminator at your school. So is getting your own laminator still worth the investment? Yes! The large laminating machine that is typically available at our schools is great for doing tons of lamination at once. It is also great for laminating large items (posters, file folders, etc.). This machine is what I use for all my monthly materials that go along with my units. I use my personal laminator (an older model of the one pictured above) to make more durable materials that are used throughout the whole year. This type of laminator is great for choice boards, visuals, or GoTalk inserts. Mine has lasted for over 5 years and is still working great! It’s lamination comes out a little thicker and is less likely to peel apart. Also, there are many days throughout the school year when the large school laminator may be out of order. When that happens I am so thankful to have my own!
What are some more advanced tools to help students of different abilities?
- Now that you have what you need to make great materials, what other products will help your students be a part of your learning experience? Before I get into the more expensive communication and participation tools you will need for your students, I would like to share some less expensive options to get you started.
- First let talk about communication. You may be able to obtain some high quality communication buttons from your school, district, or speech therapist. However, this can take time and there will be a limited supply. I use communication buttons for multiple students and activities. These small, recordable buttons can be velcroed around the room or to a wheelchair tray as needed. We keep one on the bathroom door that says “I need to use the bathroom.” My student has one on her wheelchair tray that says “I need help with my iPad.” These are easy to individualize, you can change the messages as needed, and they are small enough to attach to surfaces with Velcro. I use the ones pictured above. The quality is not as good as the more expensive versions, however they are a great alternative so you can still provide communication tools to students.
Fine Motor Tools
- Another area where our special education students need assistance with participation is fine motor skills. Two of my favorite items to help my students in this area are loop scissors and Do-a-Dot markers. For students who have difficulty with cutting activities, loop scissors are a great option to try. Students are able to just grab and squeeze to complete the cutting motion, making the process much easier. I have had several students who could not cut at all begin with loop scissors and then eventually transition to regular scissors. Do-a-Dot markers help my students who are not able to effectively utilize pencils, crayons, or regular markers. They can grasp the Do-a-Dot marker and use it to complete multiple choice questions by placing the dot on their choice. They are also great for coloring and art activities.
Best Products to Provide Maximum Participation for All Students
- There are a few products that are extremely helpful with helping your students participate in classroom lessons in activities. The biggest challenge for my students during the activities throughout our day is being able to communicate in some way during our lessons. The following are some of my favorite things to use to help these students. Although the price tag is more, they are well worth it if you can get your hands on them. Again, use the resources and specialists in your school and/or district for help acquiring some of these.
GoTalk AAC Devices
I use my GoTalk 4+ and GoTalk 9+ across so many activities throughout our day. These are great because you can program multiple pages onto each device. GoTalk makes several different devices, even some with a single button. I use these to make interchangeable pages for vocabulary, greetings, and even story reading. In my classroom, we utilize the Unique Learning System Curriculum. This curriculum includes Symbolstix, a software that provides picture communication symbols. This software also includes templates for these GoTalk Devices so I can easily make materials that align with my curriculum to use on these devices. I try to use cardstock for these templates, as it makes it easier to slide into the device.
Large Communication Button
- I absolutely love the BigMack Communicator button. This button is large, easy to record, and the sound is nice and clear. It is also easier to press than the GoTalk devices, so it is a great alternative for students whose fine motor skills are weaker. I use these switches for students to participate in greetings, repeated story lines, and pre-programmed answers during lessons. If you have 2 BigMack buttons so you can provide a choice of 2 answers if working on making purposeful choices. I use velcro to change out the pictures on the button. Again, the Symbolstix software that comes with the Unique Learning System curriculum has a template for a large circle that works perfect for this device.
Trackball- Adaptable Computer Mouse
- This trackball has been one of my favorite discoveries. For our students with fine motor deficits, using a computer mouse, or even a touchscreen can be difficult or impossible. This trackball hooks right to any computer with a USB. A student just has to put his hand on the yellow ball and as he rolls it, it moves the mouse on the screen. The small blue and yellow buttons act as the right and left clicks would on a regular mouse. This has greatly helped my students participate in computer activities that would otherwise not be accessible to them.
What are some resources I can use to get access to these materials?
- There are several options that can help you obtain or purchase these materials before buying them yourself. Let’s face it, some of these products are expensive and none of us got in to teaching for the money! We got into teaching to help students the best we can and want to set them up for success in every way possible. Here are some ways I have been able to get my hands on some of these great materials and products.
School and District Resources
- Your school district and specialists have many of these materials on hand for students. Consult with your Assistive Technology Specialist, Speech Therapist, Occupational Therapist, and Physical Therapist to see what they may have available. When they know you will implement the equipment or devices they loan you, they are much more willing to share what they have. They have great knowledge of what is available throughout the district and various schools, and what items are or are not currently being used. They can be a great resource for the tools I listed above.
- The amount of money in our classroom budgets vary across districts so it is different for all of us. I suggest taking a close look at what to spend it on. If you really would benefit from a more expensive item, would it be worth it to spend your whole budget on that, and then personally buy any basic needs throughout the year (i.e. construction paper, glue sticks, etc.)? This will vary across teachers and school years, so you need to examine these things at the start of each year and do what is best for your students AND your wallet!
Amazon Wish List
- This past year there were several things I wanted to get for my classroom, mostly sensory items. My budget was tied up with other things, so I made a wish list on Amazon. Once you make an Amazon Wish List, you can share the link to your list and anyone can purchase items from the list. Just share away on your favorite Social Media outlets. So easy! I shared this on my classroom Facebook page as well as my personal Facebook page. Soon, I started getting items arriving at my door from people I haven’t seen in years who wanted to give to my classroom. Also, my students’ parents shared the link to their pages, so their friends and family purchased items as well!
- Fundraising is a great way to get funds needed for more expensive items. During my time teaching at the high school level, our class sold chicken sandwiches from a local business once a week and made plenty of money to cover our community outings. Check with your local businesses to see what they may offer for opportunities. Or come up with something your students could do themselves such as selling snacks or coffee to school staff.
The Last Thing You Need to Know About Stocking Your Classroom With the Best Materials
- It is always exciting when the new school year is approaching and I start thinking about what materials will make my classroom thrive. Collaboration with your district specialists will be key in getting you started with everything you need. Then take a good look at the needs of your students and the types of activities in your day before you decide what purchases you need to make to help your students be successful. And remember, you don’t need everything at once. You have lots of years of teaching ahead of you. Aim for one new thing each year and soon you will have a great arsenal of tools to help all your students!
- I hope you found this post helpful in deciding what material and items you may need for your classroom. If so, please share with your friends, family, and colleagues. I would love to hear how you are able to raise funds for your classroom needs, and what your favorite products are. Please comment below!