There are few things in life I find “magical.” Learning is one of those few things, it is a journey that opens up the mind and heart. It has been my passion to inspire children to love learning. I have been lucky enough to have spent the past twenty years working in a variety of classroom settings. I have had the privilege to work with children diagnosed on the Autism Spectrum Disorder as well as a variety of diagnosis. I know what works in a classroom…..and what doesnʼt! I want to share with you what actually works so that you can help better identify which classroom will work for your child OR if you are an educator…I hope some of these ideas can help transform your classroom into a journey of wonderment.
! In order to create the best atmosphere for learning, it is imperative that the classroom environment is set up for success for the students. The actual classroom environment can stimulate learning or it can be so distracting that it hinders learning. Obviously, we want clean and safe classrooms, but more can be done to help foster learning. When you are surveying a classroom, please pay attention to:
- cleanliness – do you see dirt? removable stains? smell awful odors?
I remember walking into a preschool classroom years ago and saw dirt on the floors where the children sat for story time. An adorable boy decided he wanted to play with the dirt instead of focusing on the story. Children should not be sitting or playing in filth. Make sure the classroom is clean.
- temperature – is it too hot? too cold?
I have been in a classroom where the teacher ran the AC to such chilling degrees that her students all wore jackets during instruction in the middle of Spring. Her students were focused on staying warm instead of the lessons.
- lighting – are florescent lights being used?
The flickering and sounds coming from this type of lighting can be highly distractive to children with ASD. I worked with one boy who had to wear a baseball cap because he complained that the lights were “hurting” his eyes.
- specific learning areas – is each learning area clearly defined?
Each learning area should be clearly defined so that children can function successfully in each location. For example, you wouldnʼt want to find blocks and dolls in the reading area or you wouldnʼt want the play area next to the independent quiet reading area. This can become distracting for many children. Each area should be divided in a logical order. Group vs individual learning spaces need to be clearly defined.
- decorations on the wall – is it distracting? does it flow into the lesson plans?
Classrooms should have some color and decorations on the wall. I walked into a classroom recently and the teacher had not one item on the wall. It was barren and felt cold…..it made me think of a prison cell. It didnʼt give her class a sense of belonging or community. Of course, there is also the opposite extreme where teachers put up so many pictures, number lines, stories, calendars, art, and more and more stuff. This can be a visual nightmare for many students who do not know where to focus their attention. Make sure it is the right balance. Visual aids should be clear. Wall decorations should be relevant to the classroom lessons. Classroom rules should be located easily visible to the entire class. A daily schedule should be in an easy to find location. No more is needed. Visual clutter can easily distract attention.
We have now set the stage for the enchanted journey of learning. Now, letʼs talk about the characteristics of a terrifically effective teacher (after-all….thatʼs what we all want!)
Teachers should speak in positives rather than negatives. For example, instead of saying, “Stop talking,” a more positive approach would be, “Work quietly.” Teachers should speak in positives to motivate children to do their best. Instructions should also be given in short and clear statements. Children with processing issues can get lost in a sea of words. For example, “Raise your hand,” instead of, “It is rude to start talking without being called upon. It is easy to remember to raise your hand. In my classroom, if you want to be called upon…you must raise your hand. otherwise I will not call you.” Do you see the difference? Make sure the teacher is speaking in a way that will motivate your child to follow directions. Teachers should also give praise when their students are complying! There is no limit to praise……keep up the high fiveʼs, beaming smiles and verbal praise!!! It will help inspire children (and adults) to keep moving forward!
Effective teachers know how to reward or give consequences immediately. It is my personal belief that children are motivated by praise, that being said….I also believe that certain behaviors require consequences. For example, if a child bullies and hits another child, an immediate consequence needs to happen so that children can learn what is appropriate versus inappropriate behavior. Children respond best with immediate feedback, whether the behavior is positive or negative.
Motivating teachers also know how to use their voice and body language to draw in and maintain your childʼs attention. Teachers who use steady and quiet voices seem to hold attention better than teachers who speak in high pitches. Over the years, I have met countless teachers and have seen first hand how students respond. I have heard children complain about their teachers “squeaky” voices and how itʼs hard to “understand what she is saying.” Using a more calm and quiet voice will also set the tone for the atmosphere in the class. Children need to feel safe and sometimes having loud voices can be jarring. Body language should always match what the teacher is saying (this includes facial expressions). For example, if a teacher is praising her student, she should have a smile on her face and sit up proudly instead of slouching with no eye contact. In short, the verbal message should match body language. By doing so, we are also teaching children how to match emotion and behavior.
Smart teachers use a variety of methods to keep their class running smoothly. Some teachers will use hand signals, song signals and some even lighting signals. This works! Children seem to love it! I have seen some teachers clap a little song, and the class becomes quiet and repeats it back. She got their attention in a playful way. I am all about what works!
Teachers should also be organized. You are probably reading this sentence and thinking, “No duh!” But you would be surprised. I have sat in many classrooms where the teacher is still trying to figure out what lesson to photocopy. While she was flipping through her book, her class lost interest and start talking and fidgeting. It was hard to regain their attention. In essence, she was teaching them to check out during class time.
Fun teachers create customs that fit the personality of her class. You want a teacher who will be fun and creative. A class should have a sense of community and belonging. Fun teachers typically are nurturing. I remember a wonderful teacher who created a good morning song. Every morning it was their custom to sing a song about how fun it is to go to school. It brought a sense of belonging to the class and it started the class on a happy note!
When you have all these pieces fitting together, it can create for a powerful learning experience. The journey of learning is life transforming.
Once you know what to look for, you can help identify the best classroom for your beautiful child!
Sandra Arntzen, M.Ed graduated from UCLA with a BA in Sociology and from Harvard University with her M.Ed in Education. She has been working privately for the past twenty years providing educational, behavioral and social skills services. She recently created The Ultimate Autism Solution to provide parents the tools to become the best advocate for their child. She feels blessed and honored to work in this wonderful field.- Sandra Arntzen, M.Ed - www.ultimateautismsolution.com - www.sandraarntzen.com