Robin Barlak, a special education teacher in Parma, Ohio, works with preschool children who have a variety of disabilities: autism, speech and language delays, ADHD, severe behavior issues, and physical and developmental handicaps. Yet despite the added challenges of working with this group of children, “the school year got off to a great start,” says Barlak. “My students quickly became very familiar with the procedures and routines. No stress for them and no stress for me.”

The Need for Structure

More than any other group, special education students at any grade level need structure. To create a caring atmosphere, a safe environment, and a positive learning climate, Barlak teaches her students procedures beginning on the first day of school, and she reinforces them daily. She works with a teaching assistant, three nurses, and five therapists. They function as a team, ensuring that every child can say, “I like coming to school because everyone knows what to do. No one yells at me, and I like to learn.”

Structure for the Day

Robin establishes consistency in the routine of the classroom with a schedule for all to follow.

The many people assisting the students rely on this schedule to maximize their time with the students.

8:20–9:15 a.m. – Free Play
Students work on developmentally appropriate activities that enhance language, social, and cognitive skills. Activities may include the following:

  • Working on an art project
  • Participating in TEACCH, a program to help autistic children develop skills in a structured environment
  • Practicing with speech therapy cards
  • Role-playing

Just before the end of free play, Barlak gives a two-minute warning to help students transition from one activity to the next; the warning gives students time to process what they are expected to do next and transition smoothly between activities. To indicate the next activity, Barlak provides gestures, objects, songs, and extra visual cues, such as a picture of students patiently waiting in line or a picture of a snack. Autistic children, especially, benefit from a buffer between lessons as it allows them to process the closing of the current activity before proceeding to the next.

9:15 a.m. – Clean-Up Time
Barlak sings the “Clean-Up Song”:

Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up.
Clean up, clean up, everybody clean up.

The class works together to put toys on shelves — a procedure students have practiced and rehearsed so they can spring into action and clean up as Barlak sings the song.

9:17–9:30 a.m. – Circle Time
Barlak sings the same welcome song each day. The children sing along, readying themselves to participate in circle time:

Hello, so glad you’re here.
Hello, so glad you’re here.

Hello, so glad you’re here.
One, two, three, let’s give a cheer.

The structure of circle time is consistent each day. There are no surprises for the students.

  • Sing the “Calendar Song”
  • Do a movement activity
  • Dance to a song
  • Learn a poem
  • Study the word of the week
  • Practice a social skill, such as listening, courtesy, or sharing

9:30–9:50 a.m. – Gym
Just before the end of gym, Barlak gives students a two-minute warning and reminds them where to line up.

9:50–10:00 a.m. – Snack Time
Students wash their hands with help from adults in the classroom. Once students are in their assigned seats, the class sings the “Snack Song”:

It’s time for our snack.
It’s time for our snack.
It’s time for us to eat and drink.
It’s time for our snack.

10:00–10:20 a.m. – Circle Time
Students come together again for the activity or lesson of the day.

10:20–10:45 a.m. – Small Groups
Small groups of children rotate to activities every seven to 10 minutes and are assisted by classroom aides. They might do the following:

  • Learn on the class computer
  • Work on a table or floor activity

10:45–10:50 a.m. – Dismissal
The class sings the “Goodbye Song”:

It’s time to say goodbye
to our friends.  (clap, clap)
It’s time to say goodbye
to our friends.  (clap, clap)

Oh, it’s time to say goodbye,
so just smile and wink your eye.

It’s time to say goodbye
to our friends. (clap, clap)

Students then line up and are led to the correct school buses.

Predictability Matters

For special education teachers, or for any teacher who has learned the skill of bringing order to confusion with a classroom management plan, consistency will release the potential in every student.


Question for our columnists?

Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong are coauthors of the best-selling book The First Days of School: How to Be an Effective Teacher and the recently published The Classroom Management Book, which includes a section on the special education classroom.


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Illustration: Chris Gash; Photo: Ramin Rahimian