Adapting Physical Space for Students with Special Needs

by Carolyn Ito

Imagine that it is August and you have just walked into your classroom. You are about to begin a new school year. Probably the walls are empty, the furniture is pushed to one side of the room, and all the materials that make this barren room your special place are stored away. Soon you will make important decisions about the use of your physical space. How will you arrange your room? As you walk across the room to begin unpacking a box, the principal, Ms. Hernandez, appears. It seems that a recently registered student, Savannah, will be in your class this year. Savannah has limited mobility and uses a motorized wheelchair. Your principal also mentions Juan, a student with an attention deficit disorder, who will be in the class.

Upon leaving, Ms. Hernandez asks about the plans with the learning specialist for the inclusion of four students with learning disabilities. In light of this new information, you again ponder your room arrangement. A number of factors must be considered in arranging your space. They include the needs of all the members of your learning community, the layout of the space itself including fixed furnishings and equipment, your instructional materials, and your classroom's location within your school.

Your first consideration must be the characteristics, needs, and numbers of all the members of your learning community: students, specialists, para-educators, volunteers, and yourself. Your teaching philosophy and curriculum will also influence the arrangement of space for large group, small group, team or cooperative groups, and individual instruction. Last year's classroom arrangement may not be effective this year if your learning community of adults and students has changed.

A second consideration in arranging your classroom is the layout of your physical space including fixed equipment. What is the basic shape of your room? Is it a rectangle with all areas visually accessible or is your space broken up into smaller rooms, hidden alcoves, or even multi-levels? How do lighting sources (e.g., windows, overhead lights, lamps), the heating/cooling/ventilation source, the floor covering, and the entrance/exit impact your arrangement? Where are the electrical outlets, clock, loudspeaker, bathrooms, sinks, counters, storage cabinets, lockers, bookcases, pencil sharpener, chalkboards or dry erase boards, and bulletin boards? How will you accommodate Savannah's need for wheelchair maneuvering space and Juan's need for a distraction-free environment ?

Although you have little control over these fixed and semi-fixed aspects of your physical environment, some adaptations are possible. Dressing to adapt to temperature differences may become necessary if heating and cooling units are inefficient. Chalk and bulletin boards or the pencil sharpener might need to be lowered for Savannah. Additional electrical outlets may be required for tape recorders, language masters, or computers for the students with learning disabilities. Support bars could be added in a bathroom for Savannah, or carpeting laid in an area for Juan and others to sit or recline on the floor. When needed physical space adaptations are impossible or too difficult to accomplish, your classroom location may need to be changed or undergo significant renovation. These changes must be planned before the school year begins so that budget implications can be addressed and instruction is not interrupted.

A third consideration for classroom planning involves the arrangement of your teaching materials including movable furniture. Where will you put your own desk and those of the students and other professionals? Are the desks designated for one student or shared by many during the course of a day? Where will tables, fish tanks, floor pillows, paper, books, computer carts, mats, art supplies and easels, chart stands, etc. be placed? Is there storage for materials when not in use? Remember Juan and some of your other students may be distracted by these materials. How often will these materials be moved? Who is allowed access to what materials? All these questions must be addressed as you organize your classroom.

In general, areas for individual and small group instruction should be provided along with space for large groups. You or the learning specialist may need a space for small group instruction. Spaces for learning centers, station teaching, and partner work will be helpful. Quiet and noisy areas need to be delineated. Juan and others will need a distraction-free work space. Horizontal and vertical access "paths" need to be maintained so that you can move quickly and reach any student within eight steps (Jones, 1987). A distance of at least 36 inches is needed for Savannah's wheelchair movement. Book bags and coats need to be placed appropriately so that they do not obstruct traffic. You may find it helpful to have the students turn their desks around so that the opening is away from them. This prevents forgotten or unwanted items from accumulating in desks.

A fourth space consideration is your classroom location within the building and your use of common spaces like the halls, lunchroom, playground, library, gym, and auditorium which your class shares with the whole school. Your classroom location may be ideal for your students' needs - that is, close to centers and services, accessible and barrier free, and away from distractions like the cafeteria. On the other hand, your room may face a busy street or the playground, or be centrally located with a steady stream of passers-by. Aside from relocating your classroom, which could take a year's time and great effort, you can adapt your physical space by closing the door, adding curtains to the windows, and by hanging sound-absorbing visual displays from the ceiling.

As a classroom teacher you have little control over the arrangements of the common space within your building. You must assure, however, that your students have barrier-free access and that you assist your students to make effective use of these spaces. Rules for common courtesies like walking quietly on the right side of the hall and using a low voice in the cafeteria and library will help your students adapt to large spaces within the school. Courtesies such as allowing enough space for turning corners and not crowding students in wheelchairs need to be taught. All students, both general and special education, must be especially careful to follow guidelines on the playground and in the gym. When students know how to move from place to place as well as how to act within an area, they will adapt to the space with success.

Now, fast forward to June. Your school year is nearly over. The principal has just informed you that among your students next year will be Lawanda , a student who is visually impaired. Look around your room. What adaptations will you make for her success? If you would like to read more about effective room arrangement, the following books are recommended:

Suggested Readings

Jones, F. (1987). Positive classroom discipline. New York: McGraw- Hill.

Stainback, S., & Stainback, W. (Eds.) (1996). Inclusion: A guide for educators. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes.

Walker, J., & Shea, T. (1995). Behavior management: A practical approach for educators. (6th Ed.) Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Merrill.