When talking about classroom environment, the conversation is typically centered around the physical classroom space. While I will discuss this briefly, this post is more about the intentional choices I make in order to make my students feel like their classroom is their home. In this post, I will discuss how I create a responsive classroom; an accessible space for all of my students to be seen for who they are and celebrated every day.
Inside the Physical Space
To remind you all, I teach a 6:1:2 ABA class of 11-13 year old boys. Currently, I am overenrolled and have 7 students and all but one of them attend school for hybrid instruction.
In the physical space, I ensure that everything my students would need (books, learning materials, art materials, etc.) are at eye level and labeled. I also ensure that the bins I use are clear and/or colorful so that I can refer to colors when giving directions for students to retrieve their own materials. Students preparing their own materials not only helps them build independence, but I am also about to assess their ability to understand two step directions and their knowledge of prepositions! (Use this SSE resource to teach prepositions!)
In any other school year, I would have my student desks clustered together for easy group work and social skills instruction. This year, I have my desks spaced as far apart as possible and have instead created clustered work areas where students can work with a related service provider or play a table top game with a peer.
The classroom itself has minimal decoration besides for the two bulletin boards (one is student data as required by my school and the other is a positive behavior support). I am by no means a “Pinterest” teacher. I wish I was, those classrooms look beautiful and the students love the atmosphere.
But for me, I create this feeling emotionally.
I build the type of rapport with my students where they frequently and accidentally call me “mom”. The types of relationships where I have instructional control and my students know when I mean business. But at any moment I can start a dance party or break out in song. My kiddos feel safe to be authentically themselves, because I show up as fully myself. This is what makes my classroom a responsive classroom.
Model for them what being a “learner” looks like. Give them examples of things you are learning. Provide the words for them to help when they have a feeling they are struggling to articulate.
The more we focus on building emotional connections, the safer and happier the classroom will be.
Speak Their Language
I mean this literally and figuratively. Whether you have students who are English Language Learners and have limited English proficiency or you have students who are non-traditionally verbal and utilize AAC or verbal approximations, you can show that you are making the effort to understand them as they show up for you now.
Let me provide an example.
A student transferred into my classroom at the start of this school year. He had come from another classroom in the school where the teacher reported that he doesn’t like school and has difficulty developing his work stamina. He also uses his AAC device semi-independently and has a few speech approximations he would use spontaneously.
His first few days in the classroom, I listened closely to the way he answered my questions. We worked on only high interest, low stakes activities to keep him in his seat. Within the first month, I began to recognize his approximations and don’t ask him to repeat himself. Immediately, he begins to be more “smiley” in the classroom. His RS providers begin to notice that he is excited to go to therapies. And in my classroom, he is now working for 30 minutes before receiving a break. In two months, this boy realized that in my classroom, we understood him.
I have an extremely diverse classroom. Yes, all of my students have autism. But that is just about all they have in common. Because of that, having a responsive classroom is critical.
I have students who live in 3 out of 5 boroughs of New York City, coming from extremely different socio-economic backgrounds and racial and ethnic backgrounds. My students are also all at very different places on the autism spectrum. Some of my students are working on single word mand training, while others are learning how to multiply.
When one peer engages in maladaptive behavior such as eloping or screaming, another kiddo may ask why he is doing that. Instead of being so quick to say “mind your own behavior” or something of the like, I answer honestly.
“Your friend is having a hard time right now. They didn’t want to complete their work (or whatever the function of the behavior is) and they are telling us that by screaming. Can you think of a moment when you had a hard time?”
By making this a conversation, we are able to teach students to be more accepting of each other. Having students acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses allow the students to build empathy and compassion for their peers. In a responsive classroom, you follow your students’ leads. Teach them based on the experiences they are living.
None of my students know that they are on the autism spectrum. I don’t feel that it is necessary to name that for them at this time. But we do frequently discuss why all of our friends have different color skin, who we live with at home and what our favorite foods we eat at home are. We celebrate difference through the books we read and the movies we watch.
Below are some of our favorites. For more book ideas check out this blog.
Maintain Student Dignity
If you take only one thing away from this blog post, have it be this. It does not matter how much expressive or receptive language a child has, DO NOT talk to other staff members about them while they are in the room. You may not think that they are listening, but I can assure you that they hear you. If you have something positive to say, say it directly to the student! Extra verbal praise will only reinforce the behavior that you name for them. If you have something negative to say, wait until there are no students in the classroom.
In that time, reflect on if that comment needs to be made. Ask yourself, are you just feeling frustrated by this child and their behavior? How can you change your behavior to impact your student’s behavior? Then ask yourself what behavior needs to be shaped in order for your student to be successful? Discuss these findings with your classroom staff before or after school when there are no students present.
How do you create a responsive classroom environment?
Let me know in the comments!