Amy Moore Gaffney, M.A., discusses classroom strategies that can provide helpful support for students with autism. The speaker emphasizes the importance of structure in supportive classrooms and outlines the ten most essential components of a well-structured classroom. She asserts that these strategies can be used across environments and provides a comprehensive framework for creating autism-friendly environments. Gaffney offers numerous examples for each component and constantly reiterates the necessity for individualized classroom supports.

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In this webinar: 

2:15 – What does structure do for us?
3:46 – Structured teaching
6:23 – #1: Physical structure
8:30 – Examples
12:46 – #2: Visual supports
15:45 – Examples
23:15 – Visual directions
27:03 – #3: Schedules
30:50 – #4: To-do lists
34:45 – #5: Routines
37:52 – #6: Transitions
40:45 – #7: Sensory supports
41:31 – #8: Special interests
43:15 – #9: Emotional regulation supports
48:50 – #10: Behavior management plan
51:30 – Q&A


Gaffney emphasizes the transferability of the strategies discussed across the school, homeschooling, and other educational settings (1:30). She stresses the significance of structure as it helps bring order to chaotic classrooms and aids in processing information, particularly for students with executive functioning challenges (2:15). Structured teaching, she continues, focuses on the conditions under which a person should be taught rather than what to teach. These strategies help develop independence and can be used across the lifetime (3:46). Gaffney highlights ten components of a well-structured classroom and provides examples and strategies for each.

Components of a well-structured classroom

#1 Physical structure

Physical structure is how a person’s physical environment is organized. This includes furniture (desks, chairs, shelves), organization tools, decorations, and overall space in the classroom. Gaffney highlights the importance of arranging the classroom in a way that minimizes distractions and ensures the teacher can monitor students effectively (6:23). Examples include organizing computers specific to student needs and designating particular spaces for different activities (use a rug to distinguish areas) (8:00). She also suggests using tape to establish personal spaces and promote self-monitoring and shows an example of a physically-structured classroom (11:00)

#2 Visual supports

Gaffney highlights that around 65% of autistic students are visual learners, making visual supports paramount to autistic classroom accommodations. She emphasizes the power of visuals in capturing and maintaining students’ attention while helping them comprehend information (12:46). Visual supports can be used anywhere and include labels, charts, and graphics that aid in understanding expectations, routines, and group work activities (15:45). Gaffney mentions the use of index cards with pre-printed phrases to guide group work and social interactions (18:30). She urges viewers to only post visuals they currently need to avoid overstimulation and discusses using “classroom business” boards and colors for organization and structure (21:05). She touches on the usefulness of visual directions (for tasks and behaviors). She underscores the need for teachers to direct students toward visual supports instead of constantly providing all of the information (24:50)

#3 Schedules

Gaffney emphasizes the effectiveness of schedules in providing predictability and reducing anxiety for students. Individualized schedules are critical for autistic students to help address sequential memory, lessen anxiety, and alert students to changes and transitions. Schedules must be explicitly taught and consistently used to ensure students gain their full benefit (27:03). Teachers can use visual supports like pictures and sticky notes to communicate changes in personal schedules and promote understanding of future events (29:05). The speaker reiterates that schedules can be printed or hand-written and can be used at school, home and everywhere in between.  

#4 To-do lists

To-do lists, or work systems, refer to the systematic and organized presentation of tasks for students to learn to work independently, without adult directions/prompts, and increase personal success (30:50). The speaker provides various examples of to-do lists for different types of classroom work and highlights the utility of picture-based to-do lists in art or gym classes (33:20). By outlining specific tasks and preferred activities, to-do lists help students transition between activities and prioritize their work as well. 

#5 Routines

Routines for activities in the classroom can be written down, videotaped, photographed, or turned into a small booklet. Gaffney discusses important routines that should be taught directly, like asking for help, handing in work, making up missed work, lining up for lunch, and sharpening a pencil. Depending on individual needs, routines can be taught with visual directions or personal checklists (34:45).

#6 Transitions

Gaffney underscores the importance of preparing students for transitions and reducing anxiety. She discusses various transition supports, such as transition aids, visual countdown timers, and countdown cards, which assist students in understanding allocated time and managing transitions (37:52). The speaker suggests having peers walk together during period transitions or certain songs or countdowns that signal the end of a class (38:20)

#7 Sensory supports

The presenter recommends incorporating calming areas and activities into the classroom to support individual sensory needs. Sensory support can help regulate students’ sensory experiences and decrease stress levels by providing a space to go when overwhelmed (40:45). She discusses sensory and brain breaks (short physical activities) and different seating options for managing sensory experiences throughout the day. 

#8 Special interests

Using a child’s special interest can help increase their attention to an activity and provide comfort for a student. Gaffney underscores the usefulness of tailoring classroom supports to individuals’ special interests, such as incorporating themes into lessons or creating a reinforcement page around a student’s favorite topic or character (41:31).

#9 Emotional regulation supports

The speaker asserts that having emotional regulation supports in the classroom helps decrease stress, change the level of alertness, and increase classroom engagement. She underscores that successful emotional regulation affects overall quality of life. Gaffney suggests developing a “menu” of what strategies work for each student and prompting them to use their menu when they become agitated or overwhelmed (43:15). She presents a set of free “anger management” cards that give students examples of how to regulate themselves (45:40). The speaker emphasizes the need to teach relaxation routines and mentions the use of the five-point scale, developed by Kari Dunn Buron, as a tool for teaching emotional regulation (47:25).

#10 Behavior management plan

 Gaffney discusses the role of rewards and positive consequences in motivating students. She explains that rewards should be meaningful to the individual student and suggests using short and immediate rewards, such as a small treat or break. The speaker emphasizes the importance of personalizing reinforcement strategies and frequency based on individual preferences (48:50).

During the Q&A, Gaffney further discusses how to create individualized visual supports and reinforcements based on each student’s needs and special interests. 


About the speaker:

Amy Moore Gaffney, M.A., CCC-SLP, is an educational consultant with the Indiana Resource Center for Autism (IRCA) at the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community, Indiana University, Bloomington. She is also a TEACCH® certified advanced consultant. Ms. Gaffney has experience working with young children, school-age children, and young adults. Through her work as a speech-language pathologist and Autism consultant, she has worked with students and their families in a variety of settings, including in-home, public and private schools, and a private clinic.

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