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Engineering the Classroom Environment to Optimize Access

Robert reading with headphones.To address the complex needs of
all children in an integrated or self-contained setting, early childhood teachers must become adept "environmental engineers." A well-engineered classroom environment reflects a delicate balance between constancy and flexibility. To engender a sense of constancy, both Barbara and Susan have organized their classrooms around activity centers that are designed to foster developmentally appropriate exploration and play. The centers themselves are engineered so that all children have access to the concepts and materials of learning, as well as the means to communicate these understandings with their peers and caregivers. For example, centers are generally equipped with picture symbols, communication boards and devices that offer key vocabulary for the theme-based concepts and specific center activities. All electronic devices such as tape recorders, are equipped with switch interfaces so all students can activate them independently. Books can be displayed individually on accessible racks. When students have control of their environment in this way, they can make choices and engineer their own behavior accordingly.

Yet, the well-engineered classroom is not a static place. Rather teachers constantly make adjustments based on their ongoing assessment of students' needs. Barbara and Susan keep careful watch of each student's ability to negotiate and interact within the environment and make adjustments where necessary.

Organization is key. Barbara says, "If the environment is not highly organized, much valuable time can be lost just looking for stuff." Teachers and aides must have ready access to the materials they need to support individual students as they negotiate the environment. In Barbara's classroom, each child with disabilities has a backpack on his or her wheelchair that contains some of the essential high and low technology tools they need throughout the day. Typically this includes some kind of voice output switch or device, a personal set of picture symbols and communication boards, as well as items needed for personal care.

As you continue the tour through Barbara's and Susan's classrooms, both teachers will share with you their perspectives on how engineering the environment impacts on daily activities. You will see how a well-engineered classroom environment can minimize "wait time" and maximizes valuable learning time for all students.

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This material was developed by the National Center to Improve Practice (NCIP)  in collaboration with the Center for Literacy and Disabilities (CLD)  at Duke University.   NCIP was funded by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs from October 1, 1992 - September 30, 1998, Grant #H180N20013.  Permission is granted to copy and disseminate this information.  If you do so, please cite NCIP.   Contents do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the Department of Education, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement by CLD, NCIP, EDC, or the U.S. Government.  This site was last updated in September 1998. 

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