How to Create a More Inclusive Elementary Classroom for Students with Special Needs

Inclusive Elementary Classroom

A few years ago, I was asked by another teacher to observe their classroom to provide some insight for a student with attention issues. At the time, I was a preschool special education teacher. Although the teacher had her heart in the right place, she used old-fashioned strategies to try and get the student to comply with her directions and stay on task. She would place the student at the very back of the classroom and ask him to remain quiet and still. If the student was unable to do that, she would take minutes away from his recess time.

I know the teacher believed she was doing what was best for both the student and her classroom, but her strategies were counter-productive. Elementary students have short attention spans — especially students in younger grades. Students with attention issues struggle even more than their peers to stay focused. These students need moments to wiggle their bodies so they can get out some of their extra energy, they need to have distractions minimized (other students being off task, movements/weather outside the classroom, etc), and they may need prompts to help them refocus.

In this blog, I’m going to share some simple adjustments you can make that will motivate your students to manage their attention better. Instead of going into different educational classifications, I’m going to talk more generally about the problems our students face. Remember, you can also consult and collaborate with your school’s special education teachers and speech-language pathologists. I firmly believe that collaboration leads to better outcomes and less frustration for the student and their teachers.

Attention Issues

What it can look like:

It may be more difficult for them to focus, pay attention and stay on task without extra help. They may struggle to sit in their seat, they may talk or fidget consistently, or doodle and draw in a notebook while you are giving instructions. 

Many people like to focus on ADHD as the culprit for attention issues, but remember it can have a variety of causes. Students with anxiety, trauma, cognitive delays and more can all struggle with attention issues.

How you can help:

  • Sit these students toward the front of your classroom. It may be helpful to place them toward the front of the room or even in the front row so there are no other distractions in front of them. 
  • Establish simple redirection prompts. This can be a short phrase by itself or paired with a hand motion that causes all your students to redirect their attention. Try not to single out the student with attention issues too often. Instead, use the prompt with everyone and never use the prompt as a punishment. The prompt should be short and simple — no more than a few words.
    • Example: Keep it short. These redirection phrases maybe things you end up using often. In my classroom, I used phrases like “Hands to self” or “Time to sit” 
    • Example: When I needed students to be quiet and focus, I would make a “wolf” like shape with my hand and sing “Eyes are watching. Ears are listening.” Once the students got familiar with the prompt, sometimes all I had to do was make the wolf shape to get them to refocus. 
  • Give them time to move. There are adaptive seating options, like yoga balls and other seats that allow movement, that might help your student focus. You can also take “breaks” from instruction to have all the students in your classroom stand up and “shake” their wiggles out. Sitting for 6-7 hours can be tough for adults, so it is good to remember children also need breaks to move their bodies. I also talk more about why recess is super important for children with attention issues and really, all children, below.

What not to do:

  • Limit recess – Preventing students with attention issues from moving can be really detrimental to them. They need recess to run and play so they can get some of their extra energy out. By keeping them in from recess or limiting their active time, you limit their ability to expend that energy and that can worsen their attention issues. Studies have actually shown that moderate exercise can help improve behavioral and scholastic performance for students with ADHD and the American Academy of Pediatrics believe that recess is important for all children.
  • Single out the student for repeated off-task behavior – Calling attention to the student’s behavior several times in front of other students can actually do more harm than good because it makes the student feel excluded. If they feel excluded, they are not going to be invested in the classroom community and they will act out more.


Social/Communication Issues

What it can look like:

Students with communication issues may struggle to communicate with the teacher or others in the classroom, this could be due to a speech delay (how we pronounce words) or a language delay (how we use and understand language). Students with social issues may have trouble making friends, understanding basic social cues like greetings, or have trouble engaging in play with their peers.

How you can help:

  • Observe the student’s communication and help them extend it. If they speak in short sentences or struggle to communicate their ideas, talk with them and elaborate on their statements by adding short extensions (sentence stems) to them. Use questions to provoke further thinking. 
    • Example: If a student is sharing their observations about an elephant, perhaps they’ve made a comment like “The elephant is big.” You can extend that comment by saying back to them something like “Yes, elephants are big, this one is taller than my car.” or you could ask a question “Is the elephant bigger than your house?” 
  • Pair a student who struggles socially with a peer who is very adept at social interaction and communication. Ideally, you want to choose a student who is kind, patient, empathetic, and willing to help others. 
  • Rotate who they are paired with during different activities. This will help the student have a range of social experiences and avoid putting extra emotional labor on a specific well-socialized peer. It will also help them see well-modeled social behavior. Students can learn a lot from good modeling, especially if they are encouraged to try out the behaviors that have been modeled.
  • Additional help can be provided by your school’s speech-language pathologist and they are a great resource if you need ideas to help include students with communication delays.
  • Check out this article from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association.

What not to do:

  • Be obvious with sentence extensions. If you’re trying to help a student lengthen their sentences, changing your tone or speaking too slowly might confuse them. You would not say “I want to go outside” in a loud or slow voice in normal conversation, so don’t model that for your student. Speak normally and give them a chance to communicate naturally.
  • Do not highlight the student’s social issues. Putting extra social pressure on the student can cause them to feel isolated. It’s possible they are aware of their social delays and drawing attention to them could worsen these issues.

Sensory Issues

What it can look like:

Sensory issues are commonly associated with students on the autism spectrum. However, these issues can stem from multiple causes, including things like anxiety, trauma, medications, sensory processing disorders, or even migraines. Students may avoid bright lights, loud noises, or strong smells. They may not like to touch odd or unfamiliar textures (shaving cream, slime) and certain clothing or fabrics may be irritating for them.

How you can help:

  • Watch closely for sensory overload. Create options in advance for students to have a sensory “break.” These options include moving to a quiet part of the room for a few minutes, taking a water break, or putting on sunglasses/headphones for a few minutes to lessen the impact of sensory input.
  • If you are doing an activity that is going to be loud or intense, create a space for your student that is going to be a bit quieter. Be sure not to exclude them, but giving them a spot in a corner or somewhere less intense can help them avoid overstimulation.
  • Remain sensitive and understanding to students with tactile discomfort. They may not want to touch something silky or slimy, and certain fabrics may cause irritation for them. They could use gloves or work with a partner during these activities. Their partner could describe the texture and help the student navigate the activity and still participate.
  • Check out Sensory Strategies for the Classroom from It outlines more strategies you can try in your classroom to help your students’ specific sensory needs.

What not to do:

  • Avoid forcing them to endure sensory input. To us, it may not seem like a big deal, but for students with sensory issues, overexposure or forced exposure can be stressful, painful, and even traumatic. 

Behavior Issues

What it can look like:

Aggressive behavior: pushing, hitting, biting, and bullying. Excessively off-task or disruptive behavior like yelling or purposely trying to distract other students during instructional time.

How you can help:

  • Familiarize yourself with good de-escalation techniques and watch for cues that your student is starting to escalate or participate in poor behavior. We have a great infographic you can use as a quick reference, it will be available for you to download at the end of this blog post. You can also check out our blog on Classroom Management for STEM Labs and Lessons.
  • Discuss frustration and failure with your students and explain why failure is not a bad thing. Specifically, during STEM/STEAM lessons, you can talk about how frustration and failure are part of the process in science and engineering. Scientists and engineers in the real world often have to test and try their solutions over and over again to find the solution that works best. 
  • Notice desired behaviors. If the student is acting out for attention, acknowledging their “good” behaviors can be a great way to reinforce what you want to see from the student. Keep it simple, a statement like “I noticed that you are sitting at the circle with your arms at your sides, which must mean you ready to participate in group share” can acknowledge the student without assigning value to their actions.
  • Remember, behavior issues are often a symptom of other problems. Breaking the Behavior Code from the Child Mind Institute is a great resource if you would like to know more.

What not to do:

  • Be careful with negative reinforcement. Some students use off-task or aggressive behaviors as a means of getting attention. If they get your attention every time they act out, you are reinforcing that undesired behavior.

You can grab a free download of our Inclusion Strategies and De-escalation Techniques using the form below! If you are already subscribed to our newsletter, you will get a direct download link with this week’s newsletter.

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