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Sunday 5 July 2015

Special Education Summer Blog Hop Week 2!

I am so excited to be participating the Special Education Summer Blog Hop hosted by Kyle from kinderspedadventures.blogspot.com!  You will want to tune in each week for the five week series of informative posts from some awesome special education teachers!   This week is all about classroom set-up!

A while back I posted about the physical set-up of my classroom in my series on Structured Teaching.  You can find that post here.  I don't want to duplicate that post, so today I am going to talk about the importance of using Universal Supports when planning the set-up of your SPED classroom.

Universal Supports are strategies designed for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These are system-wide supports to help educators create an inclusive environment, promote independence, prevent problem behaviours, increase learning opportunities, and assist students in accessing the curriculum.

“Universal” refers to strategies being applicable to the vast majority of students with ASD. They have been proven to be highly effective practices in teaching and supporting students with ASD in integrated and special education environments. Although beneficial for all, the strategies and intensity required are individualized to each student. Overall, they provide students with a solid foundation to learn and access the curriculum (Michigan START project, 2006).

This comprehensive approach was created by the Statewide Autism Resources and Training (START) at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and is based on school-wide positive behaviour support (Michigan START Project, 2006).

Now, even though Universal Supports were designed specifically for students with Autism, they can be applied to many students with special needs.  In my school board we have a saying, "Necessary for some, beneficial for all."  We use this when we talk about evidence-based practices and strategies that have been specifically designed for students with Autism, however, these practices and strategies can be used for many students with a variety of special needs and in a variety of classrooms (regular, special education, etc.).

There are six Universal Supports that I am going to discuss today:
  • Functional Communication
  • Visual Supports
  • Instructional Strategies
  • Classroom Supports
  • Peer Supports 
  • Consistent Behaviour Programming

Functional Communication is a method of communication that allows a student to communicate his or her wants and needs. Communication is not only the spoken word, but includes the use of pictures, gestures, and technology to communicate. If a student does not use speech, he or she will require an individualized and appropriate method to express needs and desires.

A student with ASD who uses speech may not have functional communication. For example, he or she may have a large repertoire of words but is unable to ask to go to the washroom. Some students who use communication systems may also have difficulty.  Their communication device may be understood only by the teacher or Educational Assistant (EA), or their device may not be portable.

Research has shown that if a student does not have an efficient way to communicate his or her wants and needs, challenging behaviours may appear. Success for students with ASD is associated with the ability to engage in functional, spontaneous communication (McEachrin, Smith, & Lovaas, 1993).

Questions to consider when setting up your classroom:

1. Does the student use an effective method of communication to get his or her wants and needs met?
2. Does the student communicate in all environments (i.e., library, gym, classroom)?
3. Can supply staff understand the student’s communication method?

Visual Supports are supports to enhance a student’s understanding of communication. Speech is fleeting, and messages disappear once spoken. Visual supports are stable over time, so they are available as long as needed for interpretation (Surrey Place Centre, 2008). In addition, students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have demonstrated a stronger understanding of visual information compared to auditory (Hodgdon, 1995).

The format of visual supports vary depending on the interests and abilities of the student.
Visual supports can include the written word, line drawings, picture symbols, photographs, miniature objects, or real objects. Visual supports should be similar and as easy to use as those commonly used by peers (e.g., agendas, checklists, reminder notes, iPods, pictures for primary students, text for students who can read, binders for adolescents, etc.) (McClannahan & Krantz, 1999). Visual strategies are most effective when they are used independently and across all environments.

Questions to consider when setting up your classroom:

1. Are visual schedules displayed and used independently by the student?
2. Are visual strategies used to help the student with pro-social behaviour and social skills?
3. Are visual strategies used to display work expectations and enhance student motivation?

Effective Instructional Strategies that are tailored towards students with Autism
Spectrum Disorder (ASD) help promote task completion and decrease challenging behaviour.  It is important that instructional strategies are individualized to each student’s current skill level. 

Research has shown that instructional strategies based on Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) are effective for students with ASD. “ABA can be used to increase positive behaviours, teach new skills, maintain behaviours, generalize or transfer behaviour from one situation to another, [and] restrict or narrow conditions under which interfering behaviour occurs” (Ministry of Education, 2007, p. 53).  The goal is to fade adult supports, and increase system-based supports, such as the use of visual strategies to allow the student to independently complete academic and social tasks.

To promote student success, provide various means for learning, incorporate specific interests or motivators, and break skills into small teachable components. The ultimate goal is for the student to access the curriculum or alternative program to attain the required skills to have a high quality of life and be an integrated member.

Questions to consider when setting up your classroom:

1. Is the curriculum/alternative program accessible for the student in all areas?
2. Does the student have various ways to demonstrate learning?
3. Are the student’s interests and motivators identified and incorporated into lessons and activities across the day?

Classroom Supports:  Having a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the classroom may require additional support to ensure he or she is an active participant. This can be difficult for the classroom staff. Prioritizing goals, establishing routines, scheduling regular team meetings, and identifying roles and responsibilities will promote a team approach to create opportunities for the student to access the curriculum as appropriate.

Consider communicating amongst team members: important classroom routines, the educator’s teaching style, personal space issues, and location of team members’ desks in the classroom. Identify the team’s training needs early in the school year to increase the team’s ability to meet the needs of the student with ASD and promote his or her independence.

Questions to consider when setting up your classroom:

1. Have classroom team roles and responsibilities been defined?
2. Does the team agree on guiding principles and support one another with consistent practice?
3. Has the team determined when the student requires support and independence?

Peer Supports:  Using social skills appropriately in multiple settings can be difficult for a student with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Typical social skills deficits include difficulties with: reciprocity, initiating interactions, sharing enjoyment, empathy, and inferring the interests of others (APA, 1994). Many individuals with ASD desire social involvement, however, they typically lack the necessary skills to interact effectively.

An effective strategy to teach social interaction is a peer-mediated intervention. This involves training peers in social skills and how to interact with the student with ASD. Social skills training, however, is still required for the student with ASD. Once peers are taught how to interact in formal and natural situations, this enhances the number and quality of potential interactions.

Questions to consider when setting up your classroom:

1. Are there opportunities throughout the day for the student to interact with peers?
2. Have peers been taught how to interact with the student?
3. Are peers coached daily on how to interact with the student in natural situations?

Consistent Behaviour Programming:  Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has been associated with behaviour that is challenging for educators. The first five universal supports create an environment and educational program that promote pro-social behaviour, learning, and communication for students with ASD. This last component focuses on preventing challenging behaviours that may remain.

A comprehensive educational program for students with ASD includes strategies to prevent challenging behaviour based on evidence informed assessment and data. Consistent behaviour programming emphasizes important preventative strategies for educators to use on a daily basis. These strategies reduce the likelihood of the need for a behaviour support plan.  The resulting decrease in challenging behaviour will lead to an increase in the student’s on-task behaviour while promoting access to the curriculum.

Questions to consider when setting up your classroom:

1. Are programming decisions based on data and evidence-informed assessment?
2. Are preventative strategies used to address the student’s challenging behaviour?
3. Is the student reinforced for demonstrating new skills and desired behaviours?

I find that reviewing the universal supports is useful, whether you are a first year teacher, or a seasoned veteran!  Every year, I review them to ensure that I have everything in place for my students, especially when I have new students or staff coming in to my classroom.  I also use them when students transition out of my classroom to assist their new school team with ensuring that they have everything in place.  Reviewing these supports on an ongoing basis ensures that you will have a successful school year for both staff and students.

I have made a printable planning kit based on the Universal Supports that you can download (for free!) in my TPT store.

Do you have any tools or kits that you use to help you plan the set-up of your classroom?  I'd love to hear about them!  Leave me a comment below!

And don't forget to hop over to Special Little Learner's blog to find out how she sets up her SPED classroom!

Until next time,


  1. I love that you use Universal Supports to design your classroom! That makes everything about your room so much more intentional. Thanks, too, for the freebie. I look forward to downloading it and reading it. I know I'll find great ideas that I need to add to my classroom this year!
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