How to Set Up Your Self-Contained, Special Education Classroom

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  • Congratulations! You scored your first special education teaching position! One of the first and most exciting things you will need to do before the school year begins is set up your classroom. This can be a daunting task. Whether you are given a classroom with tons of space or just a little, there are certain areas you will need to make your classroom function properly. I am including below the most important areas you will want to have in a self-contained, special education classroom. We tend to overthink our classroom needs in the beginning and that is when we can get overwhelmed. Keep it simple your first year, especially the first few months. Throughout the year, you can jot down ideas for what you would like to add in the future. Small adjustments to your space can be made weekly and/or monthly if needed.
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Find the best tips to set up your self-contained special education classroom. This is a great guide for new teachers.

What Does it Mean to be a Self-Contained Classroom?

  • Special education covers a wide range of services, and how those services are delivered varies from classroom to classroom. Students are placed according to the amount of support they need throughout their school day in order to be successful. In a self-contained classroom, the special education teacher is responsible for teaching all academic areas, and students remain in this classroom for the majority of their school day. For help getting started on teaching in a self-contained classroom see this post. These students have needs that are not able to be met in a general education classroom. Most of my teaching career has been in self-contained classrooms. I have taught all grades, K-12, and the number of students I have had at one time has ranged from 5 to 16. Because students are in my classroom and away from their general education peers for most of the school day, I try to provide as many opportunities as I can to include them with their general education peers when I am planning our classroom schedule.

How do I Set Up My Special Needs Classroom?

  • There are several distinct areas that you will need to have in your self-contained, special education classroom when you begin the school year. You will need designated work areas for large and small groups, as well as for individual or one-on-one work. You will also need a break or sensory area for students to rest, take a break, or calm down after having an intense behavior episode. Lastly, you need an organized system for your materials. In order to keep yourself from getting overwhelmed, start by establishing these areas. I will go into more detail on setting up these areas, and then I will offer more suggestions and ideas for if you extra space for other centers in your self-contained classroom.

What types of work areas do I need?

  • There are 3 areas I usually have set up for work tasks in my self-contained classroom. I use different spaces for large group activities, small group lessons, and independent work.

1. Designate a space for large group activities

  • This space is where we do any whole group lessons, morning circle time, afternoon circle time, and gross motor activities. My large group area is set up by the Interactive White Board, which I use for many large group lessons. Class rules are displayed with visuals under the board. Our classroom schedule, classroom jobs, and calendar activities are all accessible from this area. We have a carpet in front of the board which helps visually section off this space. Determine how you would like students to sit for large group lessons. My students do better sitting in chairs, so I have those arranged in a semi-circle in front of the board. Students could also sit on the carpet in assigned spaces. If we aren’t using the board I am able to sit in front of the group for lessons or to read them a book. This space is also easily altered for gross motor activities- just move the chairs out of the way!

2. Have 2-3 areas for small group lessons, depending on your group rotations and number of students.

  • Depending on how many students you have, you may need multiple small group areas in case you need to have two or more small group lessons going on at one time. For small groups you will need space for 2-3 students and the teacher/paraprofessional who will be instructing. If any students require help from an additional adult be sure there is space for that person as well. My classroom has caddies ready for each small group, including any possible materials/tools students may need for lessons (i.e. glue sticks, pencils, scissors, adaptive materials, stickers, highlighters, etc.). This way you don’t have to scramble for what each student needs for each lesson. Our caddies are kept in a specific location within the classroom, and we just grab them and bring them to the tables when small groups begin.
  • Another thing you need to consider is how you will be rotating your small groups. Will the students rotate to each teacher, or will the teachers rotate to the students? In my classroom, I have students ranging from K-5. Therefore there is quite a range of sizes in my students. I have 2 sets of desks for small group work, each of a different size. Therefore, it is more appropriate for students to remain in the desks that work for them and have the teachers rotate. In addition, I have a large semi-circle table in one corner where I am also able to do group work.

3. Create a space free from distractions for students to complete Independent Work.

  • A small work space is needed for students to work independently, or one-on-one. I use this area for IEP goal instruction, gathering progress monitoring data, administering assessments, and working on independent work skills. This does not require much space- a small desk and 2 chairs will do, as well as having any needed materials close by. Make sure to minimize any distractions in this area to increase student focus on the work provided.

Provide an Area for Students to Take a Break

  • Students in self-contained, special education classrooms often require frequent breaks throughout their school day to stay regulated and focused. A break area is essential to provide a calm space to take a break, have access to sensory materials, or de-escalate from any behaviors. This area does not have to be large, but should be free of distractions and have comfortable places to sit and relax (i.e. bean bags, mat, etc.). Depending on your students needs you can add a pop-up tent to get inside, weighted blankets, pillows, a box of fidgets, or other needed sensory materials. For some students I have set up a visual schedule of sensory activities. This is beneficial for students who need a more structured sensory break. This area can be used as a scheduled part of the day, or on an as needed basis for students who are becoming escalated. If you have students with self-injurious behaviors, be sure to include plenty of soft, cushion-like surfaces to provide a safe space for them.

How do I organize my materials in my Self-Contained Classroom?

  • You will need designated places to store and quickly access needed materials for your lessons. I have 2 tall bookcases for all lesson and IEP goal materials. I use large buckets that contain materials for each small group and large group lesson area (i.e one bucket for each ELA small group, math groups, story time, science, etc.). I use plastic containers for each student’s IEP goal materials, labeled with their name and picture. I also have binders set up for behavior data, IEP goal data, and Curriculum Data/Assessments.
  • In our classroom, we utilize the Unique Learning System Curriculum. This curriculum is accessed online and I print materials for each month based on a monthly unit. I organize lessons for this curriculum file box, with tabs labeled by lesson number. I get all materials ready a few weeks prior to the new month beginning.
  • The materials for each day’s small group lessons are kept in a cart of plastic drawers just like the one pictured below. I like this cart because it has large drawers included for materials used in our supplemental programs that have lots of hand-on materials. I set up the materials for each subject’s lessons for the day in separate drawers. I put a sticker label on the drawer for each subject or program. I can then easily pull out the entire drawer and bring it to the table for small group lessons.

What Other Centers Could I Add to My Self-Contained Classroom?

  • So, your work areas are set up, you put together a sensory/break area, and your materials are organized. Do you have some extra space? And do you have more time and resources before school begins? If so, here are a few other ideas you may wish to include in your self-contained classroom set-up. But remember, do not work on these areas until the others are finished!
    • Play Area: Your play area can include various toys to work on turn taking, pretend play, independent play, and social skills. Toys can be switched out weekly or monthly as you work on different skills and to keep students motivated and engaged.
    • Reading Corner: Have a comfortable area for students to either read independently or with an adult. Include books organized by various reading levels or by subject. As with the toys, books can be switched out monthly to go along with different seasons and curriculum units.
    • Technology Access: Make a designated area for students to work on iPads, laptops, etc. Have headphones easily accessible in the area. Also be sure to display clear rules for students regarding the use of your devices.
    • Life Skills Area: I wish had enough space in my classroom for a designated life skills area. I was able to have more room for this when I taught middle and high school. You can include safety visuals for cooking, materials for measurement, canned and boxed goods for stocking shelves, etc. There are so many different life skills areas to work on and if you have the room to designate a space it could provide amazing opportunities for practice.

One Last Thing About Setting Up Your Self-Contained, Special Education Classroom

  • Remember, your goal is to have a functioning classroom beginning on the first day of school. Take a look at your time and priorities before adding more to your plate! Make sure you have a workable space for small and large groups, a place to work one-on-one with students, materials organized and prepared, a schedule in place, and classroom staff prepared for that first week. I strongly suggest you and your staff communicate throughout your first week about what is or isn’t working so you can make adjustments as needed. Much of what we do is trial and error, especially when we get new students we are not familiar with. If you get the basics of your space in place, it usually doesn’t take much to adjust when you are thrown a curveball. Prepare the best you can and expect adjustments will be needed.
  • If you have found this post helpful in getting your self-contained classroom set up please share with your friends and colleagues. Also, please comment below if you have any other great suggestions for setting up a special education classroom for a successful school year. I would love to hear from you!
Find the best tips to set up your self-contained special education classroom. This is a great guide for new teachers.

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