Hello! My name is Meredith Walling and I teach in a self-contained high school classroom for students on the autism spectrum. I have taught this type of classroom for 11 years, in elementary, middle school, and now high school where I know I have found my happy place! Vocational, functional, and lifelong skills get me pumped! I may not have the picture perfect classroom, but I give my all to my students and love what I do! I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of the Autism Helper Team!
Just a little background on my joining the TAH crew: during my very first year of teaching (before Instagram or even Pinterest existed), I was Googling “special education classroom set up”. I was looking for any clues on how take on this huge challenge. I stumbled upon the Autism Helper site and I found my beacon of hope! I found someone who had students similar to mine, who understood what my day to day looked like, and who was creating things to make these days go smoother! I spent the next many years following the blog, buying everything that I could afford off of TPT and envisioning what it would be like to meet this brilliant Sasha person in real life. Four years ago, I was in a role to plan a state-wide educators conference and I said, “If I do nothing else of significance in this role, I am bound and determined to bringing the Autism Helper to Texas!”. Many months later, Sasha came to Texas and put on an incredible sold-out workshop. She was just as authentic and wonderful as you would imagine and the rest is history. We have stayed in touch over the years and I was recently asked to join to team and share my voice for secondary self-contained classrooms.
Evidence of a young, naive, endlessly energetic, baby of a teacher (circa 2009) who would do absolutely anything for her students…. I just wasn’t 100% sure what that should be exactly.
For my first blog, I wanted to share something that I am proud of in my classroom. This is something that evolved a lot last year and is continuing to improve this year: our Individualized Student Work Stations. We sometimes refer to these spaces as their offices or “cubicles”. I have done some version of this in every classroom that I have ever had, but they have looked different every time due to independence level and space constraints. In this classroom, every one of these stations is unique. As is the case for so many students on the autism spectrum, the academic, sensory, and structure needs of my students are vastly different. I have students that work almost independently and some that work with high levels of staff assistance at their stations. We have designed these stations to look very different because the learning styles and personalities of all of these students are very diverse. I love how they have changed over time to reflect improvements in behavior, need for visuals, and their desire to personalize. Here are examples of some of these stations and the components that make them work.
Physical Set Up:
This is really about thoughtful desk choice, shelving choice, furniture arrangement, and location within the room. These are all things to consider when setting up individualized stations. I have students who are fairly independent on their appropriately leveled work and can have a simple desk without a place for staff to plan to assist. I usually intentionally place chairs farther away from these stations because staff has the tendency to sit down next to them and prompt them through their entire assignment leading to the dreaded prompt dependence! These students also have tall organized shelves that they will directly access to progress through their work. Students love having a designated finished bin to put their work in when completed (theses were purchased at the Dollar Tree). I have these students facing towards the wall because they can get distracted by behaviors going on in the classroom.
Other students with different needs have stations that reflect those needs. Some of my students require staff interaction to complete work, so they have tables instead of desks. They work across the table from a staff member who helps them to move their work from left to right and into a finished bin. In one case, they student accesses his work bins directly and in one case, the staff member is the one to access the work bins. One of my students benefits from a standing desk and frequently requests to work at it instead of sitting. Some student’s stations are placed farther away from the doors for wandering/elopement reasons and other students are farther away from our display screen because of occasional projectiles. All aspects of a student’s personality need to be considered, which is a huge reason why these change as we get to know our students better.
Leveled Desk Work:
In a class like mine, there is no “one size fits all” type of desk work. These work tasks need to be at an independent or nearly independent level. They need to be highly structured tasks with little guesswork, pieces should be readily accessible (attached), and there should be a clear ending. I like to fill their shelves with tasks that they generally like: ones that may reflect their interests (like animals or the grocery store), ones that make them feel successful, and ones that they do not get frustrated with for any reason (i.e. hard to open/close, lots of little pieces to manipulate). My student’s shelves have always been filled with so many tasks from The Autism Helper’s TPT store. My must haves: Addition/Subtraction Mega Pack, Language Arts Leveled File Folder Activities, Life Skills Unit Community Bundle, WH Question Mega Pack, and the Science File Folder Activities.
This could be a hundred blog posts, a text book, a week long training… visual supports are so individualized, ever evolving, and so incredibly important. There must be visual supports in your student stations to tell them which work you want them to do, what order to do it in, where to put the work when they are finished, what they are working for, and what the behavior expectations are, just to name a few. Some students have uncomplicated all-text labels to simply give them direction. Some students have explicit visuals for where there hands, feet, and bottom should go! Some of my favorite visuals in my room are there to support the students in their behavior choices. Several of my students greatly benefit from a Reinforcer Menu. We list their reinforcers and we cross them off as they chose them. They then cannot make the same choice until the next day or later in the day, whatever their expectations dictate. This helps my minimally verbal students so much to indicate what they would like to work for and it helps us to encourage other choices beyond their most preferred items or activities. Another favorite is the visual for my student that uses a marble jar for positive reinforcement. It helps the marble in/marble out to be very clear. (Yes, I know that one would normally not utilize a “marble out” strategy, but we are doing our best to maintain continuity at home/school… so compromises are sometimes made.) The marbles are very effective for this student and he benefits from frequent reminders of his expectations. As a recovering perfectionist, I have had to learn that a less than beautiful, temporary visual is better than none. This means that at times we have stick figures on sticky notes instead of laminated loveliness. Visuals are just not optional.
This is the most fun aspect of the stations and the one that varies the most. Some of my students have pictures of their families and friends. Some students have their favorite characters: Annoying Orange, Oobi, Marvel Characters, just to name a few. Other students have generalized interests like dogs or graphic lines. My favorite item that someone has brought in is the huge dog beach towel. The parent that sent this item in is so tuned in to their teenager and their needs. He loves dogs, silly faces, textures and bright colors. He also has a habit of frequently spitting. This item can be easily taken down and washed. It’s highly reinforcing and practical! I love it! We have also encouraged fidgets or small toys from home that can be used as reinforcers. This year is the first that we’ve encouraged the student and their families to get involved in personalizing the stations and it’s been so fun and heart warming to see!
Hope a little peek into our classroom was helpful and fun! If anyone would like to connect further and know more about the everyday goings on in my high school self-contained classroom, follow our adventures on Instagram @ausometeaching. I feature a ton of TAH products that I use, daily inspirations and victories, and little doses of reality to keep things transparent and honest. I think the worst feeling as a special educator is isolation, but thankfully social media and communities like this one can help fight against it.