Here’s a huge secret: there are some choices of my early teaching career that I just cringe. I always had the drive, the compassion, and the caring demeanor. That’s always been there. However, I think it took me a few years to really get how to implement the things that our students with autism need in to my classroom. I heard certain bits of advice many times that just never seemed to come in to fruition. Specifically, I heard over and over that students should be working in centers. I got that part, but it took me a long time to understand how students should be working in centers. Not entirely having the understanding I needed was only reinforced by a handful of other excuses, such as the fact I only had 6 students, or that they were generally lower support students and could do fine in a whole group, or that we were stuffed in what should be considered a closet rather than a classroom. On top of that, my school was not really a place where these type of best practices were really enforced, so there was never anybody I could use as a model.
Two years ago, I made the jump. I researched what other special education teachers where doing in their classrooms and how they set up their centers. I thought long and hard about what I wanted my classroom to look like and committed myself to making it happen. I went in to the school in the beginning of the year with a plan. Let me just say it has been one of the BEST decisions I have made in my teaching career and I would never go back to full group. Nope. Never. It has fixed so many challenges I had in my first few years. There are so many benefits to working in centers, and I am only talking about how it benefits you are your instruction (how it benefits the kids could be its own post!)
So you might be asking yourself "what exactly is so great about working in centers?"
You have a chance to work with all students equally
Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in working with a larger group of students rather than spending ample time with the student with a delegated paraprofessional (who, more than likely, need the time with you more than anybody). Working in centers with a set schedule has allowed me to delegate time to work with these students every day.
It’s way easier to work with less students
Who else has, during a whole group lesson, felt like they need to be here, there, and everywhere? I have spent many times trying to overlook what 10 students were doing and feeling like I have to differentiate 3-4 different ways. When you’re presenting a lesson where you’re only in charge of 3-4 students, it’s so much easier to give them the attention they need. Not only that, you can focus on their specific skills much, much easier.
It keeps your paras busy
Frankly, I find it tiring to micro manage paraprofessionals all day (and it’s probably a little annoying for them). Delegating paras to certain stations allows you to take a break from nagging and making sure everyone is busy every second of every day. It’s so awesome to just get going with what you need to do and not have to worry about instructing the paras all the time. You might also be pleasantly surprised at how much most paras love being in charge of a part of the classroom.
It’s easier to plan
“Work smarter, not harder” is something I have learned to lived by in the past few years. I am down for anything that make the day run smoother. If you are placed in a station where you are doing lessons, you very well could be teaching the same lesson two to three times in one day (give or take different goals targeted and skill levels). Also, since your other centers and more static and/or run by a para, there is very little maintenance involved with keeping them up and running.
It makes the day go faster
I hate when the day drags. I feel like working in centers allows me to be focused and productive, without being overwhelmed. Working with a variety of students prevents me from getting bored. Pretty soon, you realize it’s already lunch time.
If you haven’t set up centers in your room yet, I hope this post has given you the push to try it out. I do not want to continue the cycle of confusion that I was once in, so let me give you some tips that will hopefully get you in the right direction:
- Start with a general idea of what you want your centers to be. It’s okay if you’re not quite sure exactly what every student will be doing.
- It’s totally okay to start a center with a blank slate. It’s perfectly fine to have a center that only has games and coloring pages for a couple of weeks while you get things set up for that center.
- Make a schedule. Share it with the paras so they know exactly who and what to expect.
- I personally could not live without my workbasket system that I have set up in my room. It took me a while to get enough work tasks made, but it was for sure worth it. This is just one idea for a station. You could also set up content specific binder centers, IEP goal binders, discrete trials, flashcards, etc. The list goes on and on!
- Don’t feel like you have to start off with the whole day being center work. You can always try it out just for the morning or just for the afternoon until you feel like you, your staff, and your students have a better handle on how to run them.
Do you work in centers in your classroom? If not and you have wanted to, what challenges do you face with creating a more center-based classroom?