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V.5 #2 Social-Emotional Development - Structuring the Environment to Promote Social Competence

Brought to you by Learning Disabilities Worldwide (LDW®) through the generosity of Saint Joseph's University.

The deliberate organization of a classroom environment can provide students with visual clues to positively influence their social competence. The management of physical space to encourage functional independence is known as structuring. “Structuring is the management of time, space, and materials to promote social competence” (Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren, 2012, p. 258). Environmental structuring seeks to alleviate students’ difficulties in three ways: by proactively anticipating and pre-planning for difficulties, problem solving on the spot, and for adjustments that will enhance communication for the maintenance of on-task behavior. Although as educators we would like to be able to anticipate all possible situations, we know that each mix of students is unique and it is important to be flexible in the way we approach working with students. In addition, each teacher must take into account the specific developmental considerations associated with the age of the student, the number of students in the classroom and the inclusive characteristics of the class when planning classroom time, space and materials. Planning Classroom Time

Organizing segments of time into an orderly, predictable schedule for students supports their ability to act autonomously. Predictability reduces the need for constant guidance and contributes to a student’s sense of security, especially when there are clearly defined behavioral expectations that accompany the daily schedule. There are many points to consider when constructing a classroom schedule:

  • Are other teachers utilizing the space to push into or pull out for special instruction? Consider when and where the reading, math or resource specialists will need access to your students.

  • Students accommodate to routines at their own pace. Consider the individual learning time required to teach the schedule so that it becomes routine.

  • Transitioning from one activity to another activity takes time. When planning transition time, consider factors such as how much clean-up time is needed for an activity, whether students are changing activities within the classroom or if they must move to another space in or out of the building, and what materials will needed for the next activity. The disability status of the students should also be considered because students with learning and/or behavioral disorders may need extra time for transitions.

  • Consider the varying degrees of energy and fatigue children experience throughout the day as they move from one activity to the next. Small group and intense work should be followed by activities that allow students more freedom and relaxation in order to recoup their energy expenditure. For example, after students finish a required assignment they may have the option of choosing to engage in some reading for pleasure.

This kind of careful planning erases the anxiety that many students experience associated with not knowing what will happen next. Additionally, the daily schedule forces teachers to take into account the specific learning and behavioral needs of each student in the classroom. With increased accountability requirements, teachers with a well thought out schedule can plan for school based Response to Intervention (RTI) initiatives for the small group instruction associated with students experiencing learning and attentional disabilities. Planning Classroom Space

Research has found that many classroom discipline problems can be tied to either the arrangement of furnishings and space within the classroom or the selection of materials available for students to use (Weinstein & Mignano, 2007). Classrooms should foster a sense of belonging and connection to the other students in the class as well as to the teacher. Personalizing space by utilizing bulletin boards to display children’s work and other material in an uncluttered manner can help children feel more comfortable and be a part of the classroom community. Whenever the teacher can modify aspects of the classroom interior to meet student needs, there will be a benefit to all due to the reduction of disruptive behavior and the promotion of social competence. Some aspects that teachers may want to plan for include modifications to the following:

  • Walls - Wall color should enhance the activity designated to sections of the room. Keep in mind that warm colors such as yellow, orange and red increase stimulation while cool colors such as blue, green and purple enhance a sense of calm.

  • Light - Too much bright light or too little light is associated with disruptive behavior (Jaago & Tanner, 1999). Use lamps to disperse light around the room and to guide spaces designed for social interaction.

  • Sound Control - Rugs can be used to decrease noise and promote places used for gathering or playing on the floor. Noisy environments contribute to fatigue in children while disrupting the attention given to language (Evans, 2006).

  • Furniture - Furniture should be organized to provide for groupings for the whole class, small groups and individual sessions. Keep in mind pathways and flow of traffic as furniture is arranged.

  • Storage - Plentiful, accessible storage is key for promoting responsible behavior toward personal items and class materials. When students know where to put belongings, get materials and where to store items, independence and routine are enhanced.

Planning Classroom Materials

By providing interesting classroom materials teachers can encourage curiosity, learning and competent behavior in their students. Materials must be developmentally appropriate and reflective of the range of competence demonstrated in inclusive settings. When selecting materials to add into a classroom, above and beyond the books and materials provided by the school, teachers should consider the following as a guide:

· Safety- Evaluate the safety of the materials; s the item sturdy or will it break easily, can the item be used without close adult supervision, and will it require ongoing maintenance in order to function appropriately. · Size- Size of items should be considered for safety purposes for young children, such as is the item a choking hazard? Additionally, reflect on whether the equipment adds to the comfort and ease of use by the students such as in balls, scissors, etc. Will using the items in the classroom frustrate or tire the students and are the materials too big or too small? · Quantity- Reflect on whether there are enough materials for all the students to use or will they need to share? Is the item something that can be shared easily or will sharing promote disruptive, competitive behavior? · Storage- Does the classroom have adequate space to store the material? Can it be displayed in a safe attractive manner to encourage students to use the material or will it need to be locked away for lack of space, safety concerns, or issues of destruction and theft? With proper consideration, the organization of time, space and material can promote the development of social competence in students. Teachers are encouraged to reflect on their current classroom structures to determine whether they have set up the environment to maintain on-task behavior, whether they have anticipated and planned for difficulties, and if given the circumstances they can problem solve on the spot and make adjustments that will enhance each student’s social competence. References

Evans, G. W. (2006). Child development and the physical environment. Annual Reviews in Psychology, 57, 423-451.

Jaago, Z. E., & Tanner, K.(1999). The influence of the school facility on student achievement. Unpublished paper, College of Education Research Abstracts and Reports, University of Georgia, Athens, GA.

Kostelnik, Gregory, Soderman, & Whiren.(2012). Guiding children’s social development and learning, Seventh Edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Weinstein, C.S., & Mignano, A.J.(2007). Elementary classroom management: Lessons from research and practice. New York: McGraw-Hill. Micheline Malow, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Special Education at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. She teaches courses in Foundations of Special Education, Research in Special Education and Instructional Strategies for Students with Learning and Behavioral Disorders. In addition, Dr. Malow has presented at numerous professional conferences and published articles on friendship, students with disabilities, and effective strategies for students with disabilities. Dr. Malow has a co-authored book about adolescent risk taking behavior from Greenwood Press, Adolescents and Risk. Contact Dr. Malow at

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