How to Effectively Teach Multiple Grade Levels In One Special Education Classroom

Monday, May 6, 2019

Teaching special education has its own set of super unique challenges, between behaviors, social skills training, communication needs, and planning for inclusion, we often have a huge disparity in academic skill sets AND multiple grade levels in one classroom. Is there really any way to target ALL of the needs and requirements sitting in front of you? Well the answer is, yes.

One of my most frequently asked questions is, "How do you teach all of the standards to all of the grade levels in a multiage special education classroom?!" It feels impossible, but with the right set up, YOU CAN DO IT!

Center-Based Classrooms

Centers get an interesting reputation for being play-based or for early childhood classrooms only. Let me say it loud and clear: that's not true! And centers are arguably the only effective way that you'll get all of your academic instruction in for your wide variety of learners. Centers can be used in general education, resource classrooms, self contained settings, and with early childhood through transition age learners. It's all in the way you execute!

So, why centers? And how can you set this up in your classroom? I thought you'd never ask...

How do I set up my classroom?
Typically in center-based classrooms, your students may not ALWAYS be learning at a center. Determine in your classroom and your schedule if there are ever times that you will teach whole group, or when your student may be working independently and need their own desk. Do you teach lessons like social skills or science whole group? Be sure students have a place to sit for this type of whole group instruction. Then, determine what times of the day you'll need to be teaching your students in smaller groups at their grade and/or academic level. Typically, this is in language arts and math, but can easily be done for other subjects as well. How many groups will you need? If you teach in a 3-5 grade behavior classroom, you may want 3 groups, one for each grade level. If you teach a 3rd grade autism classroom, you may still want 3 groups to target their specific needs.

Once you've determined this, let's figure out where students will be for their center time. You will likely want a table (I personally like teaching at horseshoe/kidney bean shaped tables) to teach a mini-lesson/direct instruction (more on that later!), and students will need other places to go when they are not learning with you. If you have divided your class into 3 groups, your students will need at least 3 centers to learn at during your rotation block. Now it's the fun part to find the tables and flexible seating options that students can use during each center. Remember that centers don't necessarily need to be a PLACE, but a set of activities to engage in during a certain time period.

What should they do at each center?
This is where grade level content and differentiated activities SHINE through! As students rotate to each center, all of the activities at that center can be different, as long as each student knows what's for them. For instance, each student can have a bin or a folder with their name on it, and their individual work is inside. This way, students are gaining access to materials that are just right for what they need to learn.

Centers can also be a great opportunity for paraprofessionals or related service providers to jump in. A paraprofessional can run a sight word fluency center, prompt students in completing multiplication file folders, or supervise students playing an academic game together. This could also be a chance for an occupational therapist to work with students in real time on handwriting or sensory integration, or a behavior therapist to work with students on frustration tolerance through a tough academic subject.

I also LOVE incorporating technology in centers, if you have access. You can assign work to students using Google classroom, have students watch videos and answer questions using Edpuzzle, practicing math facts on IXL, reading on Epic Reading, engaging in content on Khan Academy, and more. There are awesome apps on iPads that can target specific skills students are working on, as well.

Center time is when a mini-lesson on a new skill, reteaching, and pre-teaching can occur from YOU. When students come to your teacher run center, they gain access to that explicit instruction that is so hard to deliver in a multi-age classroom. You can run a guided reading group, deliver a math lesson on grade level content, and goal set with students while the rest of your students are engaging in other activities that are also at their academic and grade level!

How will I manage the routines and the time?
How long is your content block for each subject? If your math block is an hour, you could do three centers that are 15 minutes long, and at the end, students complete an exit ticket. This simple example shows that you can easily divide up your block and make each minute count while you're executing centers.

Centers make a lot of teachers nervous - so many moving bodies, so much seemingly "unsupervised" time as you're trying to maximize your direct instruction time with each group of students. Remember that piece of advice from your professor in undergrad - "Spend the first three weeks focusing on routines and procedures!" Well, it's for routines like centers. The first few times you execute centers it will probably feel like you're herding cats. That's okay. Give students really simple activities at each center just to get them used to the process. It's okay. If you focus on routines and expectations now, you'll maximize your time for the rest of the school year!

There are some great visual tools to help students understand the timing and flow of centers. If you can project on a board or a screen in your classroom, I love this website so students can see a visual countdown of how much time they have left for each center rotation. It has an option to have an alarm when time is up, too.

I also love these visual and auditory helpers for structuring timing and allowing students to really be independent in their ability to transition through centers:

I hope this breakdown helps you conceptualize possibilities for your special education classroom. How do you manage multiple grade levels and ability levels in your classroom? Comment below!


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