Do you struggle with how to set up your autism preschool classroom? Are you feeling unsure about where to start with the physical layout and daily schedule? I’ve been there. I’ve had so many requests to share my setup and schedule! I’m hoping this information along with my free Autism Classroom Guide will help anyone looking to re-vamp their autism preschool classroom.
Classroom Setup For Autism
When setting up autism classrooms for any age level, you want to think about structure and predictable routines. Is the classroom structured in a way that will make sense to children with clearly defined areas? Does the classroom remain the same and predictable? Is the room free of unnecessary distractions and clutter? These are important questions I ask myself every school year when I set up my classroom.
In my preschool self-contained autism classroom, I make sure to have a clearly defined group area, structured “work” tables, a play area, a calming corner, and at least one table to put activities on to teach task completion and independence. Click here to see my classroom set up for my autistic students on Instagram.
Using Autism Strategies
Beyond the physical setup, it is important to create predictable routines and use systems that students will understand. One way I do this in my autism classroom is by implementing consistent visual supports that create those predictable routines. The first ones I implement are visuals schedules, the all done bucket, the star chart, the wait mat, and calming visuals for self-regulation. The all done bucket, star chart, and wait mat are part of my free Visual Supports Starter Set. You can also learn more about these visual supports inside my private Visual Supports Facebook Group (you can go to “guides” at the top of the page and scroll down to find a video training about each visual in the starter set).
Systems are important in an autism preschool classroom. As my autistic students learn these visual “systems” that are used consistently by all adults, a predictable routine is established. For example, a student will check their schedule, then match the picture to a label at the next location (with help if needed, until they are independent). If they are in the play area, an adult will prep them before it is time to transition by setting a digital timer and using the all done bucket when it is time to finish up in the area. The adults consistently use these strategies so that we become predictable. This helps reduce anxiety, increases cooperation, and builds trust.
Unique Autism Classroom Model
My school district implemented a unique model for the self-contained preschool autism classroom (3-5-year-olds) over 20 years ago. This model has worked so well that we’ve continued to use it. The model saves the district money when it comes to staffing. Instead of having 2 early childhood special education teachers serving 12 students with high needs and running 2 separate classrooms where a speech/language pathologist comes in to service all of the students, our setup works differently. One classroom is run by the early childhood special education teacher, and the other classroom is run by the speech/language pathologist (me!). This way, we don’t need a second special education teacher.
The way this works on a daily basis is that when students arrive in the morning, half of the students go to the special education classroom and half start in the SLP’s classroom. Both rooms use the same visual schedules, visual supports, and predictable routines and systems. Halfway through the morning, the students “switch sides”. Our rooms are connected by a bathroom and a sensory room. So we created a routine for the transition from one room to the other so it is predictable. When the students are on “my side”, we focus on communication, language, and social skills.
On the special ed teacher’s side, they focus on pre-academic skills, fine motor, and social skills. We both work on self-help skills. The awesome thing is that we work so closely together as co-teachers, that we can provide better carryover in each other’s classrooms.
Class runs for 2.5 hours each day, 4 days per week. Each of the two classrooms has up to 6 children and there are 2 paraprofessionals in each room. OT provides push-in or pull-out services depending on the individual needs of the student.
What I Love About This Model
Because I am immersed in a classroom for the entire time, I am better able to identify my student’s communication needs and troubleshoot implementing communication systems (PECS, core boards, dynamic speech generating devices). I’m also able to model the AAC for paras. It’s a win-win for everyone!
A few other details. The SLP case manages half of the students and the ECSE teacher case managers half. We collaboratively do all the paperwork and run parent-teacher conferences. We meet as a team, with our paras, once each month so we can stay on the same page. This is so important!
Autism Classroom Daily Schedule
My autism preschool classroom daily schedule stays consistent and predictable. Once autistic children learn the routine and trust the adults who teach them, you can start working on flexibility. In order to be flexible, children need to feel safe within a predictable routine first. You can start by using a “change” card on the visual schedule, and offering a transition object to smooth the transition.
Below you will find the daily schedule for my classroom for preschool autistic children:
- 9:30-9:40 Arrival – as students arrive, they work on taking off their coats and backpacks and hanging them up. When they enter the classroom, an adult helps them check their visual schedule and they go to their first activity. Typically this is a play activity or other activity that the child really likes.
- 9:40-10:00 Learning Time – during this time, one adult is the “rover”. This person (teacher or para) is in charge of the classroom flow, helping students check their visual schedules and getting them to the next location. The rover also redirects children back to the areas they are supposed to be in and will play with them to get them re-engaged with a toy or activity. This adult also will guide a student through a table with 4 activities on it and eventually back off as the child becomes more independent (see classroom tour on Instagram). The other two adults are working 1:1 or 2:1 at a work table with a student(s). We all take turns being the “rover”, so if I do it Monday, one para will take Tuesday, another on Wednesday, and then it’s my turn again on Thursday.
- 10:00-10:15 Gym Class – 3 days a week we have time in the gym. We work on motor skills, communication skills, and social skills in this setting.
- 10:15-10:25 More Learning Time
- 10:25-10:35 Snack Time
- 10:35-10:45 Group Time (one adult stays with me, while another adult quickly cleans up the classroom)
- 10:45 SWITCH SIDES
- 10:45-11:30 Learning Time
- 11:30-11:40 Group Time
- 11:40-12:00 Playground – unless the weather is bad. During the winter we stay inside and have a longer learning time followed by a group time at 11:45.
- 12:00 Bus & Parent Pick Up
Where To Learn More
If you like the idea of this model and want to learn more, you can reach out to me via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Also, check out this blog post by Erin Tabler about music for special education!