Setting Up a Self-Contained Classroom

I’ve noticed over my journey that most districts have trainings or support for resource/inclusion programs, lifeskills/autism programs, and preschool programs.  The one thing I’ve noticed to be consistently lacking across all districts is support and resources for teachers of behavior/EBD programs.  This is so surprising to me considering the high turnover rates in these programs.  I also remember when I was first starting out that I would scour the internet and teaching blogs for posts on how to set up these programs and I couldn’t find ANYTHING! It was so discouraging to me because I so desperately needed help and guidance.  

Now that I’m 8 years in, I feel confident in the ability to run an effective program, so I’m creating this exact resource for you all.  This set-up has been implemented across cultural backgrounds and disabilities, in a K-5 program, and 3-5 program, and middle school program. The thing I didn’t realize is that the key to a well run classroom doesn’t change across disability areas.


4 Key Areas for Self-contained classrooms.

There are 4 must have areas in every behavior program in my opinion.  These are Whole Group, Small Group, Independent Work, and Calm Down area.  Start designing your layout with these 4 areas in mind.




Whole Group Area


Your Whole Group Area should be a place where the entire class can meet.  I use this area for social skills instruction primarily.  This is often the only time of the day where all of my students are learning the same concepts.  If you implement a morning meeting or morning circle time, you would also use this area for that purpose.  One thing to consider with your Whole Group Area, is how you plan to lay out your expectations for where each student is to sit.  In this photo, I have 2 small rugs with colored dots on them.  I had my older/more mature students assigned to specific dots.

 I had one student who really struggles with staying in place so I had a third small rug that is one solid color.  This was their spot and as long as they stayed within the rug, I didn’t redirect them.  I’ve also used sit spots when we are doing something messy as a group and I didn’t want the rugs to get dirty.

A picture of 2 colorful rugs with dots on them and a third rug that is solid black.

Small Group Area

Small Group is where I spend the majority of my day.  My classroom runs primarily in rotations.  It can be quite chaotic with all of the different kiddos coming and going.  This is where the bulk of new instruction happens.  When I taught ELA, this is also where I would do my read alouds.  It should be set up to allow for all of your lessons and materials to be readily available.  When I taught in the behavior program, I only kept materials needed for the day out.  The rest of it was kept in locked cabinets.  This is one thing that the district BCBA and I discussed is very different between EBD/behavior programs and lifeskills/autism programs. When planning out your areas, it is so important to take into consideration the behavioral needs of your students. 


Independent Work

Independent Work Areas are the area my students spend most of their day when not with me at the small group area. 

This is where their visual schedules, token boards, and any other visuals they use are kept.  I’ve used boundaries for some students who are more distractable and created a standing area for a student who really needs the ability to move between sitting and standing without having to ask. 

Calm Down Area

I’ve heard it called so many different things, but the Calm Down Area, quiet area, cool down corner, Antartica, the igloo, etc. are all the same name for the most important area of the classroom in my opinion. 

This is the area that students whose behavior serves to allow them to escape so desperately need.  Reinforcing these students for using this area can help to eliminate the escape behavior. 


A picture of a small room with study carrels, rugs, and bean bags. There are visuals on the wall with emotions and calming strategies.In this room, we had a large closet that we converted into a quiet room and removed the door.  This is absolutely not necessary.  I’ve used large free standing cabinets and file cabinets in a corner to create an area that is quiet and away from the class as well.  It absolutely works just as well.


Additional Areas

Additional Areas

Once you have these areas established there are some other things you can do.  I’ve found that less is more in these types of programs simply as I said before… all of our students have a history of aggression and destructive behaviors.

You can add:

Classroom Library

Computer area

Early finisher

Choice Time area (basically reward area)

Academic Stations run by paras (I only have one para so she moves around the room helping in the independent work areas or helping students to regulate in the calm down area)



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