Structure Specials for Success

Less structured times of the day are more difficult for some students with special needs, especially those with autism and sensory differences.

P.E., music and art are typically unpredictable, just by the nature of those classes. This may present a huge challenge for those who crave predictability. These classes often rotate, inherently creating less consistency. Activities also vary greatly from class to class. Activities that are noisy, messy or abstract challenge sensory systems. It is imperative that teachers support students in order to create success in these classes.

How to Support Students in Specials

  1. Front load students with information to make the class of the day predictable. Announce which specials class students will attend and use a visual, placed in a specific location, so students may refer to it throughout the day. Include a picture of the teacher for each class as well.
  2. Just before going to the class, remind students of the special they will attend.
  3. Ask elective teachers to provide lesson plans before class to inform students of activities to expect. Adapt materials or activities ahead of time.
  4. Pair students with a general education student as a model and support throughout class.
  5. Use a social story to explain an exit strategy to students. If the student becomes overwhelmed and needs to leave the class, this will give an appropriate way out. Practice this exit strategy when the student is calm and the specials class is empty.
  6. Set up a time for the student and the specials teacher to spend 1:1 time together in order to build a relationship.

For students who have more intense needs, create a specific plan for each elective class. Task analyze the process for going to the class, what will happen during the class and how the student will exit. For example, in the area of music:

  • We are going to music.
  • You will sit on the green circle.
  • We will listen and watch for ______ minutes.
  • When the timer goes off, Mrs.Schmidt will ask you to choose a song.
  • Get the drum off of the counter.
  • During the song, play the drum with your class.
  • When the song is over, put the drum on the counter.
  • Give Mrs.Schmidt a high-5.
  • Walk back to the classroom.

In order to add predictability to art, put a certain color folder in the art room for the student. Ask the art teacher to place a variety of art activities in the folder. When detailing the plan with the student, say, “complete work in the green folder.” This allows for an expected routine, even when the actual work in the folder will fluctuate.

It is essential to add some type of interaction between the student and the elective teacher. Once the student becomes more successful with this routine, increase the amount of time in specials. Additionally, add more interaction opportunities between the student and the specials teacher and/or peers.

I have worked with many students who dart toward the piano, drums and xylophone in the music room. Student inevitably want to climb the rock wall in the gym. Instead of constantly blocking the student from these activities, work with the specials teachers to set up a time that the student may receive access. If possible, use the items as reinforcement.


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