Setting Up the Classroom to Optimize Learning Opportunities and Effective Instruction

This month’s ASAT feature comes to us from Melissa Taylor, BCaBA. To learn more about ASAT, please visit their website at You can also sign up for ASAT’s free newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment, and like them on Facebook!

I recently accepted my first teaching position.  It’s a new classroom for the district serving students with autism. I have lots of materials, but nothing is organized or set up in my classroom. What are some tips to set up and organize the classroom to optimize learning opportunities and effective instruction?

Congratulations on your first teaching position! This is a common question for new teachers. When we talk about classroom organization, there are several things to take into account. Good classroom organization effectively makes use of space and barriers, has accessible materials for instruction and data collection, and facilitates efficient time management. It is critical that when you set up your classroom, you review the needs of your individual students as well as make sure to address the core characteristics of autism. You probably already know that many of your students will present with deficits in social interactions and communication, including challenges with requesting items from adults and peers. It will be important to create an environment that makes it necessary for students to interact frequently with other people to increase communication opportunities.  Once the environment is conducive to optimizing instruction, the instructors can implement effect behavioral strategies to teach desired behaviors.

Organizing the Space

Seating. When organizing a space, we want to make sure that the seating arrangement will allow students to access the materials needed for activities and respond accurately to instruction. For younger students, make sure the chairs allow their feet to touch the floor. Likewise, older students should be able to sit up straight with feet on the floor and legs at approximately 90-degree angle. Try to arrange seating so that you have space for group, as well as individual sessions. Also, allow enough room that additional support staff can sit behind students to make prompting less intrusive (e.g., sitting behind student and using physical guidance to help them learn the expected motor responses during the, “Wheels on the Bus” song).

Pathways for transitions. The furniture should be set up in a way that enables smooth transitions from one area to another without traffic jams. Walking between areas will be easier if there are not large dividers or barriers that slow down transitioning. Having open spaces and clear pathways between defined areas could also allow instructors to move quickly to different areas of the classroom if there is an episode of problem behavior or an unexpected opportunity to support a social interaction.

Defining areas. Some instructors find that using dividers helps clearly separate sections of the classroom. Keep in mind that every area should be open enough that the classroom teacher is able to see every student and classroom assistant. This will allow the teacher opportunities to provide immediate feedback to staff on interactions with students and to offer frequent student praise.  Try to avoid tall dividers that make it impossible to see into the other areas and dividers that are easily knocked over. Shelving units, desks, carpets, and tables can create more natural space dividers that can help define the areas. Keep in mind the function and purpose of each classroom area, and make sure that the instructional materials needed are in the area and replaced as needed. For example, if students are going to be required to request items during circle time, those items should be easy for the instructor to reach during group rather than requiring the instructor to get up, leave the group and look in a cabinet for items.  

Putting away preferred items. Children, including those with autism, are often good at finding and gaining access to the things they like without the help of other people. By keeping items out of reach, in clear containers that are difficult to open, and on high shelves, you can create new requesting opportunities and make communication with adults more valuable to students. Resalable plastic storage bags, totes, bins, shelving units, and aprons with pockets may all be useful to make it more likely that the students will need to request help from others to access the items they want or need. If the student already has a valuable item, you have lost an opportunity for communication.  By restricting access to valuable items, teachers can prompt requests for specific items and deliver items to students. Furthermore, when delivering the item, the teacher becomes more valuable to the student, who learns the significance of communicating. When these types of natural communication trials with preferred items occur in areas where instruction will occur, it becomes more likely that students will approach instructors and instructional areas. One important consideration with using such materials that in some cases, direct visibility to highly preferred items can be distracting to students or result in attempts to retrieve items outside of appropriate or scheduled times. In such instances, evaluate the situation and determine whether moving the student’s seat so that it is not facing those items or moving the items themselves will address the issue.

Organizing Materials

Materials for data collection. In preparing materials for instruction, we want to make sure that all instructors have easy access to necessary materials such as data collection tools and sheets. These items should be able to be easily accessed at any point of the day, so that instructors are more likely to capture all opportunities of the behaviors they are tracking. When data are recorded immediately following student behavior it is more likely to be accurate. Clipboards that have pockets attached to them are good for storing writing utensils, timers and additional data sheets. Student item lists, teaching stimuli, and data sheets can be kept in a cart with drawers to make it easily accessible during teaching. When collecting any type of data that require instructors to count the number of occurrences of a behavior, instructors can use clickers attached to their clothing with carabiner clips for convenience. Blank student specific datasheets can be carried with the student on clipboards, kept in a drawer on a cart, or hung on bulletin boards in centers where instructional activities occur.

Materials for instruction. Pencil cases or small craft boxes help organize small materials such as pieces of edibles, small toys, pencils, highlighters, picture cards, visual schedules or index cards for instruction.  For larger instructional items such as toys needed for teaching imitation skills, items needed for simply following direction tasks, or items needed to teach daily living skills, boxes, rolling carts with larger drawers, or labeled shelves can be used to organize materials by student or goal areas.

Consider posting wall cues, table/desk cue cards, or other reminders in places where staff will easily see them. These cues can be helpful to guide instruction without the need to flip through pages in consultation notes or program books to reference procedures. Types of items to post include specific teaching protocols and prompt hierarchies, reinforcement schedule reminders, behavior management strategies, toilet training schedules, reminders of how to teach play skills and student to student requesting, or other items that you want to generalize from one classroom area to another. Cue cards, wall cues, or student data sheets with specific targets listed can also guide instructor presentation during less structured teaching opportunities.  For example, if the student has been working on labeling the picture of gloves, and during circle time the teacher is dressing a weather bear, the instructor can ask that student to label the weather bear’s gloves. Additional targets to be posted for staff could include specific peer-to-peer requests or interactions (e.g., give item to peer, accept item from peer), specific motor skills (e.g., copying a line, opening a container), self-help skills (e.g., putting on shoes, washing hands), and other activities.  This allows for easy implementation of strategies such as natural environment teaching and incidental teaching.  Another point is to consider limiting other “wall clutter” that often serves as highly distracting stimuli to students. When possible, keep to salient items such as a classroom schedule, current student work or points of study (e.g., pictures of alphabet) but don’t feel the need to cover every available space with something!

Classroom Schedule

Time is valuable, and students with autism do not have time to waste. It is important to make the most of your day by having many opportunities to practice all targeted skills. Having a classroom schedule that allows for enough instructional time to make significant progress is critical. When creating a classroom schedule, make sure to address the who, when, what, and where questions. In other words, it should be easy to see who is working with a student at any given time as well as what skill they are working on and where they are working on that skill (e.g., red table, art table, hallway, etc.). Assigning student names to specific instructors can save valuable time during an emergency situation (student elopes, fire emergency).  Avoid unnecessary large chunks of non-academic or unstructured times. What each student will be working on should vary based on assessments conducted in the classroom. Instructors should consider posting the schedule on a wall, centrally located and large enough that all team members can see it. However, if you have many students and paraeducators going in and out of the room, you may consider having a master calendar but printing out individual copies for each staff member.  When you have a master schedule that is easy to change when students and staff are absent will cut down on unnecessary talk about who is with specific students and what they should be working on. Additionally, color-coding by students or staff will allow for staff member or administrators to easily follow from across the room or with a quick glance. Staff should be assigned to students at all time.  If a student is engaged in independent work, having a staff member still assigned to that child will help everyone know who is tracking data or responsible if an emergency occurs. 

If you take all of these suggestions into consideration when you begin planning your classroom, you will be well on your journey to make a big difference in the outcomes of your students. An organized classroom allows teachers to focus on effective instructional strategies and behavior management strategies that are individualized to each child and not waste valuable time locating materials, guiding staff behaviors, and planning groups.  We wish you well in your new teaching position and in the years to come.

About The Author

Melissa Taylor, BCaBA is a Consultant on the Autism Initiative for the Pennsylvania Training and Technical Assistance Network. Her current position focuses on training educators on the principles and implementation of behavior analysis within classroom settings. In addition, Melissa provides in-home behavior consultation to children and adults with autism. Currently, she serves as the Sponsorship Coordinator for the Association for Science in Autism Treatment.