This article gives a number of strategies that you can use in the classroom (or at home) to create a physical environment that helps meet the educational and behavioral needs of individuals with autism or ADHD. Very young children or children who have trouble understanding language would also benefit from some of these strategies.
Every person is a unique individual, so in a group situation like a classroom, it can be extremely difficult to modify every part of an environment to meet every individual need. However, it is helpful to have knowledge of some common strategies that have been shown to make a positive difference, specifically in the areas of focus and following directions or routines.
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 can become easily distracted, overwhelmed by too much input, have visual perceptual difficulties (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), or kids who have trouble understanding what is expected when given verbal directions (such as those with difficulty processing language).
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 special needs 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 can’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 some 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. Some children, such those with autism or ADHD can become overwhelmed or overstimulated when presented with too much visual and tactile (things you can touch) information so it is important to keep the environment as clutter free as you can.
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.).
Here is an example. Some children may do well with organized bins such as the ones in the bookshelf on the left. Since the materials are put away, this might be sufficient to keep some children from becoming distracted or over-stimulated by the items. Other children may need the bins to be covered entirely as shown in the bookshelf on the right. It is covered with a piece of canvas cloth.
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 below.
Sometimes children with autism or ADHD, who are in a general education classroom, get easily distracted by all the artwork, decorations, and materials they see. This can actually happen with any child, not just those with ADHD or autism. In a general education classroom it is difficult to keep all these items covered up/not visible because children who do not get easily distracted by this type of input benefit from seeing artwork and decorations around the room and having open access to materials. Try to compromise so you are meeting all students’ needs. Some suggestions include:
Keeping the art 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. Seat students who get easily distracted or over-stimulated away from the decoration board.
Here are some examples:
Keeping materials in book shelves in closed labeled bins, in a certain area of the room (as mentioned above). Again seat students who are easily distracted away from the bins and 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. Label the bins with words and pictures.
Here are some examples from autismtank.blogspot.com of classrooms with clearly defined areas.
and some more from theautismhelper.com
Have a schedule, written and visual, to allow students to know when they will be using the different areas and what they will be doing throughout the day, and refer to the schedule as your students move through different activities. Many children also benefit from having a schedule at home as well.
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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, educators, and counselors 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.