A special needs classroom has to be a carefully thought-out environment. It should be safe and comfortable for pupils and staff, with plenty of learning opportunities for hard-to-reach children.
The starting point for how best to arrange your classroom has to be your knowledge of your pupils. Their needs are diverse and as varied as they are, but here are a few general considerations.
You may have pupils who are physically mobile and keen to explore the space around them, but who could be a risk to themselves or others in doing so. A classroom needs to encourage such exploration, but you must also take potential hazards into account. An open-plan arrangement of furniture and lack of clutter will make it easier for staff to keep track of pupils' activities and equipment.
Classrooms catering for pupils with multiple learning disabilities tend to have lots of equipment: wheelchairs, physiotherapy beds, hoists etc. Room to move equipment about has to be a key factor, although this is easier said than done if you are in a classroom that is small or has an awkward shape.
Smaller learning materials also need to be organised. Special needs teachers can find themselves spending a lot of time thinking about resources, and while there are many wonderful (albeit expensive) things available to buy, with a bit of imagination and time, homemade items can be just as effective. Shredded paper and reflective materials, such as CDs or tin foil containers, are firm favourites - I am forever salvaging things from the recycling bins.
But be warned: anything in my classroom that isn't sealed, secured or locked away seems to be fair game for being tipped up, chewed or posted down the back of a bookshelf. Sturdy and secure storage is essential for prolonging the life of precious resources, ensuring that they are easily accessible, and for keeping the classroom tidy.
For individuals with sensory impairments, the everyday environment can be confusing and unpredictable, hence the importance of eliminating unnecessary clutter. But it is also crucial to consider the effects of the ambient environment. A comfortable temperature and good ventilation, effective lighting and sound quality are all necessary components of a classroom that will maximize pupil concentration levels and heighten their learning experiences.
Having clearly defined areas for different activities can also be beneficial. Quiet rooms or personalised sensory areas will allow pupils to interact and explore without distractions.
But group areas, where social activity can be facilitated, are also vital. As much as my pupils with multiple learning disabilities need calmness and quiet in order to concentrate, experience of a lively and stimulating classroom, with lots of hustle and bustle, fosters a lot of positive interaction and alertness.
Louisa Leaman teaches at Waverley School in Middlesex. Next week: Pacing and structuring lessons.