Special Education Careers

How to Apply Structured Instruction in a Special Education Classroom

The best educators understand the importance of teaching students based on their unique needs. This concept is especially crucial when it comes to a special education classroom. All children can benefit from consistent routines and structure in the classroom environment, those with a disability may rely on these routines more than others. That’s where structured instruction fits into the equation. 

What exactly is structured education? In the simplest possible terms, this is a highly visual teaching methodology that promotes a clear understanding of expectations, activities, and schedules in a structured environment. Structured learning helps students manage behavior, improve communication, and enhance their social skills. Visual structure in the classroom can eliminate surprises for students, allowing them to learn without added distractions or situations that would otherwise derail their concentration. 

Whether it’s your first time applying structured instruction in the classroom or you’re looking for ways to improve your current strategy, this guide is perfect for you. I’ll explain everything you need to know about structured instruction and how to implement these practices in your classroom. This guide will make you a better teacher and improve the learning experience for students with special needs in your class. 

The Complete Process of Structured Instruction in a Special Education Classroom

There are five core components of structured instruction. The steps below will walk you through each one and how to apply it in your classroom.

  • Create Physical Structure in the Classroom
  • Make a Schedule
  • Implement Work Systems Into the Teaching Process
  • Establish a Routine
  • Use Visual Structure in the Classroom Environment

Create Physical Structure in the Classroom

Having success with structured instruction all begins with the physical nature of your classroom. It’s the foundation of structured learning, and all of the other steps will build on this concept.

How is physical structure defined?

In simple terms, this refers to the way each section of the classroom is set up. It has to do with the way materials are placed and where furniture is positioned in the room. The goal here is to keep everything organized, so students understand which activities will occur in each area of the class. 

For example, a corner of the room with two bookshelves and bean bag chairs could be a designated reading area. This would be separate from another section of the room that has crayons, colored pencils, paint, smocks, easels, glue, and other art materials. 

Establish Clear Physical and Visual Boundaries

Segmenting different areas of the room for different activities is just the beginning. To truly create physical structure in the classroom, you need to take some extra steps to create a boundary for each area. This will make it obvious to your students where one activity ends and another begins. 

You can create boundaries with different colored rugs, masking tape on the floor, cardboard dividers, filing cabinets, tables, desks, shelves, and more. 

Once this is complete, you’ll need to teach your students how to move from one area of the class to another and what the expectations are for each space. 

Reduce Visual and Auditory Distractions

The physical structure should also eliminate potential distractions in the classroom. This concept helps students focus on the task or lesson without overwhelming them with too much stimulus. 

For example, placing a sheet over a computer in the classroom can be an effective way to eliminate distraction when the computer isn’t in use. You could also use rolling room dividers to help shift focus away from doors, windows, or other areas of high traffic and distraction. 

Think twice about how many posters or materials are pinned to a bulletin board or decorating the walls of the room. These can be very distracting. If it’s not relevant to a class activity, you can probably do without it.

Make a Schedule

Use a visual schedule in the classroom to establish a clear sequence of events and activities for the day. This helps eliminate the feeling of surprise, so your students know exactly what to expect. 

Like the rest of structured instruction, visuals must be a crucial part of the schedule. 

Don’t just give your students a plain sheet of paper with a schedule of events printed in black ink. Try to use pictures, icons, objects, words, or a combination of these to explain where the student needs to be and when they need to be there. 

For example, using a picture of Legos or blocks can represent the play area on a schedule. An apple, sandwich, or milk carton could be a visual cue on the schedule for lunch or snack time.

Tips For Creating a Visual Schedule in the Classroom

If it’s your first time creating a schedule like this, you may be a bit confused or unsure of how to proceed. But the tips and best practices below should help steer you in the right direction:

  • Make sure the schedule can be easily understood by a student on their worst days (if the bus arrives late, there’s a substitute teacher or anything else that breaks routine)
  • Decide whether the student can comprehend a full day schedule or if they should only be presented with one piece of information at a time
  • Show a visual sequence of events from either left to right or top to bottom
  • Create ways for students to get involved with the schedule (like checking off an activity once complete)
  • Consider the location of the schedule and how each student responds to different locations (clipped to their notebook vs. posted on a classroom wall)

Implement Work Systems Into the Teaching Process

Work systems are another way to eliminate distractions and help students with special needs focus on a single task at hand. This concept is designed to communicate the following pieces of information to the child:

  • The task or steps that they’re supposed to complete
  • How many tasks or steps need to be completed
  • A definition of complete
  • What to do when they’re done

Each work system will vary significantly based on the student, task, age, and goal. But one common way to implement this into your teaching process is through a left to right work system.

For example, let’s say a student is positioned at an independent workstation. On their left, there could be a stack of note cards with a sign above them marked “to do.” On their right could be an empty box marked “done.” You can also have a description or example of what a completed card looks like that the student can follow as a reference (example: writing a word to describe a picture on the card).

This natural flow of moving a card from the “to do” pile to the “done” box meets the criteria discussed above. The stack of cards shows how many tasks they need to finish, the example card shows them a definition of complete, and the “done” box tells them what to do when the task is complete. 

Establish a Routine

In addition to the physical boundaries and visual schedules that you’ve created so far, you’ll also want to make a routine and stick to it. 

Clearly established routines give students the ability to predict what’s going to happen next without too much support from teachers or parents. This allows them to seamlessly move from one activity or station to another without any confusion or anxiety. 

You can teach routines and reinforce your instructions through visuals, pictures, and words. 

The important part here is ensuring the routine is always done in the same sequence of events each time. 

For example, let’s say you want your students to wash their hands every day before snack time. What is the exact routine here? Are you going to have them go to a certain area of the room, take out their snacks, and then instruct them to wash their hands before eating? Or will you go from one activity, straight to the sink, before moving to another area for snacks? There are slight variations between these two routines.

To reinforce the routine, you could hang a picture above the sink every day before snack time. The picture could show soap with an arrow pointing towards water and a third arrow pointing towards an apple. This reinforces why the hands are being washed and what’s coming next.

Use Visual Structure in the Classroom Environment

Aside from the core components and examples of structured instruction that we’ve discussed so far, you should always look for new ways to apply visual structure in your classroom. 

Visuals are a great way to show instructions, and they work well when paired with verbal directives. Using visuals in your class can also help teach your students to work independently without too much need for clarification, as the visuals can be used as their north star.

Examples of visual structure include:

  • A sample of a “done” task
  • Lists with pictures
  • An organized workspace for each lesson
  • Keeping materials organized by color
  • Keeping materials organized alphabetically

There are lots of different ways to get creative here, and it goes beyond the traditional classroom curriculum. For example, you could have an empty can, a crumpled piece of paper, and an empty plastic water bottle taped on the wall above the recycling bin. These visuals serve as a reminder to students.

Conclusion 

Structured instruction in special education is an excellent way for teachers to set their students up for success. Use physical barriers and visual cues to segment your classroom into sections for different activities. Make a visual schedule, and determine the best way to distribute that schedule to your students. 

Create unique work systems for each task, with a clear sequence that needs to happen. Stick to a routine, and always look for new ways to supplement instructions with visuals.

Remember, you don’t need to prep and implement all of this by yourself. Utilize your paraprofessional support. Include this in your training routines with them them throughout the year as needs change.

Sometimes you just need a little volunteer help in getting things setup or materials prepared. Reach out to your PTA or better yet, your special education PTA.

I really hope you found this guide useful and informative! If you still have questions and need some additional tips, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask—I’m happy to help!

About the author

Emily Cummings

I am a mom of two crazy, amazing, independent, little feminists. They bring so much light to my life and a lot less sleep. Since becoming a mother and increasingly in the last year, I have witnessed parents struggling to connect with their child's special education team with no success. I have become more aware of the gaps in our public school system and how parents may benefit from empowerment and advocacy tools.

My work experiences range from a juvenile detention center to an autism specialist in the Issaquah School District and a special education teacher in a self-contained program in the Lake Washington School District. My master's in teaching focused on special education and behavioral disorders from Seattle Pacific University. I completed my BCBA coursework from Montana State University.

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