The environmental set-up can impact a student’s ability to focus and follow directions.
This can be true for students who are (and who are not) diagnosed with ADHD or Autism Spectrum Disorder.
In a group situation like a classroom, it can be extremely difficult for an educator to modify every part of the environment to meet every need.
However, it is helpful for those educating our students, to have knowledge of some common strategies that have been shown to make a positive difference for students with ADHD or those on the spectrum.
Related Article: 15 Behavior Strategies for Children on the Autism Spectrum
A distraction-free and structured/predictable environment is most conducive to learning and behavior for kids who:
- become distracted easily
- get overwhelmed by too much input
- have visual-perceptual challenges (e.g., may have trouble visualizing where they are supposed to sit, where their area is in the room is, how to get from point A to point B)
- have trouble understanding what is expected when given verbal directions (such as those with difficulty processing language)
Before creating a “distraction-free” environment at home consider the following:
As a parent, it is easy to become stressed and overwhelmed, especially with all the other things we have going on in our lives such as work, cleaning the house, paying the bills, etc.
When you have a child with learning differences or behavioral challenges, it can be especially overwhelming because you may have frequent appointments with doctors, service providers (e.g., speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, mental-health counseling, behavior specialists), your child’s school, etc.
When you are juggling so many things at once it can be very difficult to ensure that your house is always distraction-free and structured, so do the best you can. You cannot be expected to be perfect and don’t get down on yourself if you don’t continually manage the suggestions in this article.
Additionally, some of these strategies are more practical for the classroom environment, so think about the ones that you think would work for you and your current situation.
Here are 5 tips for keeping your home/classroom distraction-free and organized.
Again, since every individual is different, every strategy will not work with every child. You may need to try different strategies to see what works best with your child.
1. Keep materials out of view when not in use.
Some children, such those with autism or ADHD can become overwhelmed or overstimulated when presented with too much visual and tactile (things you can sense with touch) information so it is important to reduce clutter.
Try to have a specific place for things (e.g., toys in a bin, papers and pens in a drawer, etc.).
If you want your child to get through dinner or homework/classwork without distractions, move distracting material out of the environment or keep it in a closed container.
If you have the containers on shelves, (as is often the case in classrooms) it can be helpful to hang a cloth over the shelves so your child is not distracted by the actual bins (e.g. , wanting to go over to them, take the materials out of them, etc.).
Have a schedule that lets students know when they will be using those materials and/or give specific directions for when students can go get materials from the bins.
For students who have trouble reading and/or understanding verbal language, use words and pictures to indicate what is in the bins.
This will help students identify where to get the items they need and where to put items away. See an example in the image below.
2. Minimize what is on the walls.
Sometimes children get easily distracted by all the artwork and decorations they see. This can happen with any student, not just those diagnosed with Autism Spectrum or ADHD.
To minimize distractions, you can keep the artwork and decorations in one spot, such as on a bulletin board (right outside the room or in a specific location in the room), rather than all over the room.
The same would go for art materials, as shown in the bookshelf images above.
Art and creations can be admired but in a way that minimizes the distractions. If artwork is displayed all over the room, some children may be frequently looking at all the visual stimulation.
Here are some examples of condensing art displays:
Seat students who get easily distracted or over-stimulated away from the decorative board.
3. Give the classroom or learning space clearly defined areas.
This is applicable to classrooms that have different stations (e.g., reading area, seat-work area, computer area, play area, sensory area, etc.).
You can use tape, room dividers, different color carpet (e.g., some carpet stores may donate left over pieces of carpet) or bookshelves to section off areas.
Here are some examples from autismtank.blogspot.com of classrooms with clearly defined areas.
and some more from theautismhelper.com
Students with the following needs often benefit from this type of room delineation:
- easily distracted
- overwhelmed by too much input
- confused about the concept of staying in a specific area
- have trouble navigating the classroom
To help students navigate the environment, use pictures and words to label the different areas.
For example, you could have something like this for your seat-work area:
4. Have a schedule (written and/or visual).
With a schedule, students know when they will be using the different areas and what they will be doing throughout the day.
Refer to the schedule as your students move through different activities.
Related Article: How to Use Schedules to Improve Children’s Behavior
Some students do better with visual mini-schedules (e.g., first math puzzle, then computer).
You may want to have the different sections of the schedule removable so children know which parts have already been completed and what they still have left to do.
5. Some students also benefit from having their specific spot to work, play, or eat, visually defined.
There are different ways you can go about visually defining an area.
For instance, a child who has trouble staying in their assigned area in the classroom may benefit from tape on the floor around their spot, so they know where they are expected to be.
See the image below for examples.
Small area rugs can also be used to define an area.
It is perfectly acceptable to allow students who have the need to move, to stand up while they work, and even have room to move around their desk/chair.
To not single any student out, why not define each student’s area?
This makes it easy to point or show them where they need to be when needed.
Another way to visually define a student’s space is to use cushions or mats when sitting on the floor.
This helps them know where their spot is. You can also delineate spots with tape again.
You may want to use tape if you think students will play with their mats or cushions.
For another option, some rugs, such as the ones teachers use during storytime, have letters, numbers, or squares on them, which can also be used for students to know their space (e.g. “Brian, sit on the letter A).
Here is an example of a rug that uses squares to designate spots (you can also ask students to sit on a letter or image on the outer edge of the rug):
Some children benefit from having their workspace on their desk visually defined as well.
As an example, if you have your classroom set up so that children sit at a table in groups of four, some children may need a visual aid to help them understand their workspace.
You can use tape to delineate that space as well (see below).
Some children with visual perceptual and language processing difficulties have trouble following verbal directions such as “keep your materials in your space,” and benefit from a visual definition.
Additional Considerations for Setting Up Classroom or Learning Spaces for Students with Autism, ADHD, or Other Needs.
This article primarily talks about how to keep spaces visually organized and how to keep visual distractions to a minimum.
Some other things you might want to consider in your classroom is a cozy space/corner for students to relax/calm down such as the one shown in the example below.
You may want to include books, a comfy blanket, and some calming objects. This is one example, but there are a lot of ways to create a cozy corner.
If it works for your classroom setup, you also may want to include a section in your room that allows for movement.
This area can be used as an area for students who need frequent movement breaks throughout the day.
You may want to incorporate sensory/fidget items in the break area as well, or allow students to hold fidget items during learning time.
Students should have clear-cut guidelines for how these items can be used, so they do not become a hindrance or a distraction.
Remember to keep your break space or calm-down space in their own sections of the classroom so it is easy for students to identify where they are.
- Minimize distractions
- Keep materials organized
- Use a schedule
- Delineate spaces
- Include a quiet/relaxing space
- Include flexible seating
- Allow movement
- Include sensory items
Did I miss something? Comment below and let me know!
I would love to see a picture of your learning space!
- Classroom Structuring Methods and Strategies for Children and Youth with Autism Spectrum Disorders
- Environmental Strategies for Managing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Education and Behavior – Keeping Us on the Same Page for Children!
Rachel Wise is a certified school psychologist and licensed behavior specialist with a Master’s Degree in Education. She is also the head author and CEO at educationandbehavior.com, a site for parents, caregivers, educators, counselors, and therapists to find effective, research-based strategies that work for children. Rachel has been working with individuals with academic and behavioral needs for over 20 years and has a passion for making a positive difference in the lives of children and the adults who support them. For Rachel’s top behavioral strategies all in one place, check out her book, Building Confidence and Improving Behavior in Children, a Guide for Parents and Teachers. If you want Rachel to write for your business, offer behavioral or academic consultation, or speak at your facility about research-based strategies that support children, email her at email@example.com.