Tips for Smooth Transitions in a Special Education Classroom

Tips for Transitions in Special EducationEveryone in education knows that transitions can be tough for kids, especially kiddos with disabilities. As special ed teachers, it's our job to find ways to help kiddos transition between activities in the classroom, places in the school, staff in the school, etc. I want to share a few of my favorite tips for smooth transitions.

-Use transition objects/ photos:
The use of objects and/or photos to aid in transitions is a research based strategy and is often a game-changer for students with Autism and other developmental disabilities. Transition objects/pictures are meant to provide comfort and predictability for kiddos during transitions.

Transition objects/ pictures will look different for every kid and should be based on what works for the specific student. A student might hold a picture of a general ed teacher or therapist while transitioning to the specific therapist or class. Another student might hold a ball while transitioning to recess or PE. Other students might just carry a preferred item/ picture (like a stuffed animal, picture of a parent, a Minion book, etc.) during transitions. The point of the transition object is to provide the student with the ability to transition quickly and effectively.

We use transition objects/ pictures in a variety of ways in our classroom. One student transitions with specific therapists in the school with a "go" picture symbol card. Another student holds a preferred item (normally a small Barbie or little toy) when she transitions from recess to the lunch room because this is a transition that she often struggles with. I've had a student carry a picture of the PE, music, or art teacher while he transitions to the specials class. When it comes to transition objects/ pictures, just remember that it will likely look different for every student and need to be individualized for each student... so focus on figuring out works for each kiddo.

I love this quick 3 minute podcast/ explanation of transition objects/pictures.

-Use auditory and visual cues
Using visual and auditory cues to let students know about upcoming transitions is something that most teachers already do. These cues can be SO effective in making transitions go smoothly. However, I often see teachers either using every single auditory/ visual cue possible  (basically over prompting) or using nothing at all. I suggest trying different auditory and visual cues for transitions and paying attention to what works and what doesn't work for your specific students. I have some students who simply need to be verbally reminded, "two more minutes and then it's time for math." while some of my students need the verbal reminder, a timer to go off and a visual. Don't kill yourself giving students every single auditory and visual cue out there for transitions if they don't need it!

One of my favorite auditory cues I use is a doorbell! I have a doorbell on the wall near where my kiddos line up. Whenever my students hear the doorbell ring, they know it's time to quickly and quietly go to the line by the classroom door.
Tips for Transitions in Special Education

Other examples of auditory and visual cues include:
Tips for Transitions in Special Education
We use first/then boards to get students ready for upcoming transitions.

-Have structured routines in place for transitions
It's really important to teach your students structured routines for specific transitions like lining up, going to the carpet, cleaning up, ending free choice time, etc. I want to explain a few of the routines/ structures I have in place in our classroom for transitions that have been really helpful.

One of the best tips I have ever heard (from one of my grad school professors) is to avoid having the entire class transitioning at the same time and instead having small groups of students transitioning. Here's how this tip might look in a special ed classroom: You have three groups of students at tables doing free play, it's time to clean up, wash hands and start breakfast. Instead of having all of the students clean up, wash hands and start breakfast at the the same time, you would have table 1 start cleaning up and washing hands. Then when table 1 is done with hands they could start breakfast and then table 2 could clean up and washing hands and the staggered process would continue. This tip basically eliminates the mad dash of 20 kids all trying to do the same thing at the same time which often causes chaos.

Another tool I love to use to make transitions more structured is videos. For example, I use an educational math video as a transition between gross motor and our math lesson. When our gross motor/ exercise activity is over, I turn on a 2-3 minute math music video on the Smartboard to help aid the kiddos with transitioning to math group. The 2-3 minute video also gives me and my paras a few minutes to quickly prepare any last minute things for math like pulling out materials.

My last suggestion is to really think through the routines built into your transitions... Think about what students will do if they transition quicker than other students. Will students be expected to wait for the other students to transition for an extended period of time? Is there something you can put in place so you can avoid this long wait period? If students are struggling to wait for their peers after they transition, I suggest giving the students something to do (like some yoga breaths, quick brain breaks/ exercises, etc.) while they wait for the rest of the students to transition. Here's how this tip might look in a special ed classroom: Students are working independently or doing free play. The teacher wants the students to clean up and go to the carpet to get ready for circle time. When the students clean up and go to the carpet, they are given brain break sticks/cards or yoga cards so they can do a few exercises while they wait for the rest of the class to transition. This will keep the kiddos on the carpet busy and maybe even motivate some students to transition to the carpet quicker!

-Practice, practice, practice and then modify (as need)
It might seem silly to say, but kids and staff need to continuously practice transitions. At the beginning of the school year, we do so much repetition of our most frequent transitions (like lining up). We will practice over and over again and make it fun by adding in lots of positive reinforcement and praise. If you continue to practice a routine/ transition and it still isn't working, tweak it! Think about why it isn't working and modify it!

What strategies do you use to make transitions go smoothly in your classroom?