Why You Need to Be Utilizing Centers in Your Autism Classroom

June 29, 2016 5 Comments
Working in centers is an evidenced-based practice that is utilized in autism classrooms.  Not only is it effective for our students, it can actually make your teaching more effective and easier.


Here’s a huge secret:  there are some choices of my early teaching career that I just cringe.  I always had the drive, the compassion, and the caring demeanor.  That’s always been there.  However, I think it took me a few years to really get how to implement the things that our students with autism need in to my classroom.  I heard certain bits of advice many times that just never seemed to come in to fruition.  Specifically, I heard over and over that students should be working in centers.  I got that part, but it took me a long time to understand how students should be working in centers.  Not entirely having the understanding I needed was only reinforced by a handful of other excuses, such as the fact I only had 6 students, or that they were generally lower support students and could do fine in a whole group, or that we were stuffed in what should be considered a closet rather than a classroom. 
Two years ago, I made the jump.  I researched what other special education teachers where doing in their classrooms and how they set up their centers.  I thought long and hard about what I wanted my classroom to look like and committed myself to making it happen.  I went in to the school in the beginning of the year with a plan.  Let me just say it has been one of the BEST decisions I have made in my teaching career and I would never go back to full group.  Nope.  Never.  It has fixed so many challenges I had in my first few years.  There are so many benefits to working in centers, and I am only talking about how it benefits you are your instruction (how it benefits the kids could be its own post!)
Working in centers is an evidenced-based practice that is utilized in autism classrooms.  Not only is it effective for our students, it can actually make your teaching more effective and easier.
So you might be asking yourself “what exactly is so great about working in centers?”

You have a chance to work with all students equally

Sometimes it’s so easy to get caught up in working with a larger group of students rather than spending ample time with the student with a delegated paraprofessional (who, more than likely, need the time with you more than anybody).  Working in centers with a set schedule has allowed me to delegate time to work with these students every day.

It’s way easier to work with less students

Who else has, during a whole group lesson, felt like they need to be here, there, and everywhere?  I have spent many times trying to overlook what 10 students were doing and feeling like I have to differentiate 3-4 different ways.  When you’re presenting a lesson where you’re only in charge of 3-4 students, it’s so much easier to give them the attention they need.  Not only that, you can focus on their specific skills much, much easier.

It keeps your paras busy

Frankly, I find it tiring to micro manage paraprofessionals all day (and it’s probably a little annoying for them).  Delegating paras to certain stations allows you to take a break from nagging and making sure everyone is busy every second of every day.  It’s so awesome to just get going with what you need to do and not have to worry about instructing the paras all the time.  You might also be pleasantly surprised at how much most paras love being in charge of a part of the classroom.

It’s easier to plan

“Work smarter, not harder” is something I have learned to lived by in the past few years.  I am down for anything that make the day run smoother.  If you are placed in a station where you are doing lessons, you very well could be teaching the same lesson two to three times in one day (give or take different goals targeted and skill levels).  Also, since your other centers and more static and/or run by a para, there is very little maintenance involved with keeping them up and running.

It makes the day go faster

I hate when the day drags.  I feel like working in centers allows me to be focused and productive, without being overwhelmed.  Working with a variety of students prevents me from getting bored.  Pretty soon, you realize it’s already lunch time.
If you haven’t set up centers in your room yet, I hope this post has given you the push to try it out.  I do not want to continue the cycle of confusion that I was once in, so let me give you some tips that will hopefully get you in the right direction:
  • Start with a general idea of what you want your centers to be.  It’s okay if you’re not quite sure exactly what every student will be doing.
  • It’s totally okay to start a center with a blank slate.  It’s perfectly fine to have a center that only has games and coloring pages for a couple of weeks while you get things set up for that center.
  • Make a schedule.  Share it with the paras so they know exactly who and what to expect.
  • I personally could not live without my workbasket system that I have set up in my room.  It took me a while to get enough work tasks made, but it was for sure worth it.  This is just one idea for a station.  You could also set up content specific binder centers, IEP goal binders, discrete trials, flashcards, etc.  The list goes on and on!
  • Don’t feel like you have to start off with the whole day being center work.  You can always try it out just for the morning or just for the afternoon until you feel like you, your staff, and your students have a better handle on how to run them.
Do you work in centers in your classroom?  If not and you have wanted to, what challenges do you face with creating a more center-based classroom?
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  • susan berkowitz, slp July 28, 2016 at 8:25 pm

    I find that centers work best in special education classrooms when there is some link between them – a theme that is the focus of the vocabulary used in each and the topic for each. It reinforces the learning of the same thematic information while focusing on different types of skills – linguistic, motor, etc. I agree that the paras and teachers are all happier when there is a plan that helps to reduce the nagging and micromanaging. Thanks for an insightful post.

  • kghilarducci22 July 28, 2016 at 8:26 pm

    I teach a k-2 SDC mild/ mod. I have a center like structure during academic instruction that works well most days. My biggest challenge implementing centers throughout the rest of the day is making the activities structured enough for the paras to know the best way to use the materials for the different groups. Another challenge is figuring out different activities for the different centers.

  • The Autism Vault July 28, 2016 at 8:29 pm

    Thank you for sharing, Susan!

  • Anonymous August 28, 2016 at 8:44 pm

    Could you share what your schedule looks like? I have a room of 7 kids and three adults, very small space and I have been wanting to operate solely on centers but havent quite figured out the scheduling/space aspect. Do you have your kids move or bring items to their seats? Thanks!

  • Vicenta Montoya August 11, 2020 at 12:12 pm

    The classroom I was in had 4 centers. Students were assigned to groups of similar levels. Students would rotate from center to center in a defined pattern. Each session would be 20 minutes. Morning English Language skills, afternoon Math. One center would be instructional, second center reinforcement with the para with work sheets, games, third, computer reinforcement through i-Ready or specific computer programs, 4th center student directed center play word or math games. After morning students would go specials i.e. art, drama, P.E. return from lunch would be group reading work.

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