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Creating Inclusive Spaces: The Importance of Classroom Design in Special Education
posted by: Guest contributor | October 26, 2015, 02:29 PM   
by Michelle Manno


When it comes to teaching special needs students, it’s important to focus on the physical environment of the classroom. USC Rossier alumna and high school teacher Angelina Clark understands how creating inclusive spaces in the classroom can benefit both the teacher and students.


Through her graduate coursework as a Master of Arts in Teaching candidate, Clark now applies key themes and concepts she learned in USC Rossier’s “Establishing and Maintaining an Effective Classroom Ecology” course to her teaching career. Clark notes that every lesson plan and activity should be laid out in a way that best serves the learning styles of each student. She also emphasizes the importance of an inclusive environment and a classroom layout that facilitates academic growth and success. (The classroom ecology course is part of USC Rossier’s special education credential and focuses on the physical environment of a classroom, especially when working with students with special needs.)


When working in an inclusion classroom, the layout should allow teachers and paraprofessionals to move around easily and walk to students’ desks without obstructions. Such an open-floor layout allows teachers to help students quickly and provides them with an environment that feels both safe and inviting, resulting in better in-class behavior and fewer disruptions. In the two years that Clark has used these strategies, she notes that she has yet to send a single student to the Dean’s office for misbehaving or being uncooperative.


But an effective classroom environment is more than the physical environment. Clark explains how setting the tone for a classroom environment that is both productive and conducive to learning starts with the first day of school, a mindset she refers to as “setting the year right.” Setting clear expectations is just as essential to a successful classroom layout as using the right color of paint. But what does a “good class” look like, and how do you ensure this healthy environment lasts all year?


Clark’s strategy to “setting the year right” is to start every class period with a discussion about students’ expectations and what they think a “good class” should look like. Clark leads this discussion on the first day of school, asking students to write their expectations down and submit them to her anonymously, if they so choose. Clark then reads the expectations out loud and discusses her own expectations with the class (other teachers or paraprofessionals are also present in the classroom).


Clark notes, “You’ll be surprised that most of the expectations are the same.” She then makes a list and has the class vote on them. The results make up the class rules and guidelines for the rest of the school year. The class places the winning expectations on a poster, initials the poster and receives printed individual copies, so students’ parents can sign it, too.


Clark found common themes and rules in every class, including these seven points:

  1. 1. Respect for each other's opinions. When somebody starts to talk, everybody else listens.  Nobody will laugh or ridicule anybody's answer whether it is right or wrong.

  2. 2. Group work rules. Students prefer to work in pairs or small groups. We decide early on that most of the lessons will involve paired discussions or small group work. This also impacts the layout of the classroom. To lessen loss of time due to student movements in re-arranging chairs for small group work, the layout of the room needs to be pre-arranged so it is conducive for paired work and small group discussions.

  3. 3. Submission of work and assignments. It is usually agreed that the teacher will provide clear and repeated instructions on expected student work and assignments. Part of the whiteboard or walls in the classroom will contain the deadlines, instructions and rubrics for each work, project or assignment. A percentage equivalent on their semester grade is also provided so the students know how much weight each project, classwork or assignment is.

  4. 4. Individual and group work grades. Based on pre-discussed rubrics, each project or assignment is clearly defined as either individual or group work. .

  5. 5. Tardy and absences. This will usually follow the school's guidelines on tardiness and absences. Consideration for excused tardy and absence will be given for late work.

  6. 6. Seating assignments. This is usually designed such that the different levels of learners are able to support one another. I usually assign mid-level learners to a high performing student and ELLs with EL students who are one or two levels more advanced. This is designed so that students support each other, not frustrate each other.

  7. 7. Consequences of misbehavior. This is also pre-discussed. When students are fully aware of consequences, they usually stop after a warning.


Want to learn more about turning your classroom into a brain-friendly learning environment? The Science of Classroom Design, a data visualization from USC Rossier, unpacks the research behind how classroom design influences student learning outcomes.




Michelle Manno is the Communications Manager for USC Rossier School of Education and the Managing Editor for Inside USC Rossier, the blog community for the school’s online teaching degree. She is also a graduate student, currently earning her Masters in Educational Psychology + Research. Her areas of interest include digital literacy, cognitive neuroscience, and teacher education. Connect with her on Twitter at @michellermanno or @USCTeacher

Comments (1)Add Comment
Classroom Design
written by Nicole Entwistle-Arizona, November 04, 2015

I did not realize how important classroom design is. Are there other ways to implement ideas and other classroom designs to better help these special needs students?

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