5 Ways to Develop a Learning Rich Classroom Environment

Special Education Classroom Setup Have you ever walked into a room and within minutes felt your body tense up, making it difficult to concentrate on even the simplest of tasks? On the other hand, have you ever walked into a room and immediately felt at ease, relaxed and ready to tackle any task presented to you? When students enter our classrooms, they experience similar reactions in response to whether or not the classroom feels organized or chaotic to them. The environment we create in our classrooms sets the stage and affects students’ ability to learn and retain information. Making adjustments, even small ones, to a classroom environment at any time of the year can feel like a daunting task. However, these changes have the potential to set a new tone for your classroom and will lead to higher rates of learning for all students. Let’s examine several ways a classroom environment can be adjusted to best meet the needs of the students within it.

Structure & Tone

The foundational element to every classroom is the physical layout. The physical layout of the room includes furniture, lighting, etc. and is pivotal to how staff and students access learning materials, instruction, and social interactions with each other.  The placement of furniture, use of colored tape, carpets, desks, tables, filing cabinets, and so forth, allows students to know where activities occur and will either promote or hinder access to daily instruction. One way to set furniture up to increase focus and learning is through the use of learning stations. Tables or desks should be set up with a spot and/or seat at a table for all students, as well as access to a clean and organized work space. Remember to eliminate obstacles so all students can move around the room (larger pathways may be necessary if students have mobility equipment such as wheelchairs and walkers). Ensure the areas have the materials necessary for instruction as well. This will allow teachers to easily differentiate activities to meet the needs of all students quickly, thus increasing the ability to maintain student engagement. Additionally, inviting classrooms often include the use of thematic bulletin boards, posters, and the display of student work.  Lighting, noises and smells should also be considered when setting up the classroom environment. Utilizing light covers, limiting the sounds to calming noises in low tones and minimizing the use of artificial scents (ie. diffusers, perfumes, etc.) will assist in keeping the classroom environment calming for all students.

Visual Schedules and Supports

How many times do you look at your calendar on your phone or in a planner throughout the day to keep track of your schedule and appointments? Schedules are a visual support used by everyone, but especially important for our students with moderate to severe disabilities. Using schedules for the whole class, each student, or a combination of both provides students with an understanding of routines and predictability throughout their day, teaches time management, and promotes student engagement. When building schedules, consider each student’s learning needs. Schedules may be written “to do” lists (if the student is a reader) or may include drawings, real life pictures, or actual objects that are used during the specific activity (i.e. using a fork to signal time for lunch). Additional visual supports such as signs, labels (written or pictorial), and table numbers, can help delineate items in the classroom further.  Labels around the room assist students in understanding where parts of the classroom and materials are located, allows for abstract ideas to be made more concrete, increases functional vocabulary, and promotes student independence.

Work Areas & Materials

Now that the furniture is set and the visual supports are complete, let’s focus on teacher and student work areas. How areas in the room have been labeled will indicate the type of work being completed there. Maybe you select to have your instructional work at a table next to a white board, or daily living skills taught in an area with a sink and microwave. The preparation of materials for each learning area is crucial to maintaining the instructional day and student engagement. You may consider having a cart, side table, or crate next to each learning area with the work supplies necessary for the particular activity (manipulatives, visual supports, AAC devices, worksheets, adapted pencils, etc.). If you will be having several activities or subjects occur in the same area, develop a system that allows activities to be separated in file folders, bags, binders, etc. This way you are able to keep everything together and the transition between activities will be more efficient.

Routines, Routines, Routines

Just like we teach academics, we need to also explicitly teach routines and expectations to our students. Routines provide predictability in the classroom and teach students the learning behaviors that are required. To get started, consider making a list of all the activities that occur throughout the school day, such as how students enter the room, how they get an adult’s attention, fire drill procedures, preparing for lunch, etc. From that list, prioritize which routines to explicitly teach and practice with your class first. Build into your schedule time to teach routines at the start of the school year as well as times to reteach them throughout the year (especially after long breaks or as often as necessary). Lastly, incorporate a quick review of the routines prior to the start of each activity throughout the school day. By teaching, modeling and reinforcing students following the routines, students will develop skills leading to increased independence throughout their day and around the school building.


Positive interactions, praise, and other forms of reinforcement (i.e. token systems) will encourage students to participate in classroom routines, expectations, and instruction throughout the day.  The more any skill is reinforced, the more likely that it will occur again. Additionally, when we provide praise and interactions with students about non-academic topics we are able enhance their feeling of belonging and sense of community. Building a supportive environment that allows everyone to be included ensures students daily access to their educational community.


Contributor Bio

Megan Wollenburg, M.Ed., BCBA, has been passionate about working with students, especially those with learning and behavioral differences, since high school.  Megan received her undergraduate degree in Low Incidence and Severe Disabilities in 2004, and her graduate degree in High Incidence Disabilities with an emphasis on Behavior Disorders and Applied Behavior Analysis in 2006 from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, TN.  For eight years, Megan taught middle and high school students who received special education services across a variety of classroom settings including self-contained, resource, and general education in New York City. In 2014, Megan relocated to Texas and became an Instructional Coach for one of the largest school districts. During this time, Megan had the pleasure of working with schools across the district and teachers to assist in implementing school wide PBIS systems, Response to Intervention (RTI) practices, district-wide professional development, as well as provide ongoing support of several special education behavioral programs for students on the Autism Spectrum and individuals with emotional and behavioral challenges K- age 22. For the last 5 years, Megan has had the pleasure to be able to work as a school-based Board Certified Behavior Analyst providing support to students, families, teachers, and schools.

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