centers in special education

Whether you teach general education or special education, CENTERS can be challenging! They take time. Don't feel like you have failed if your centers don't immediately go smoothly, because they won't.  Students need to practice the routine for at least a few weeks, if not longer. Students have to be taught exactly what centers are, what is expected of them in each center, and how to navigate each center. I used this system in a self-contained classroom for years and you would be amazed how well the students adapted the routine! Even if I was out and there was a sub, the students knew what to do. 


  • GROUPING - The first thing I have always done prior to implementing centers in a SPED classroom, is to sort my class into small groups (3-4 students) based on similar ability levels. I used IEP goals and present levels to create these groups. Of course, in many self-contained rooms it's nearly impossible for students to be at the exact same level, but you can get an idea of whether a student is working on letter identification type skills or higher level activities like reading comprehension. Most all other instruction is whole group, but during centers when you are working on specific IEP goals, I have found it is much more effective to group by levels. 
  • CENTER ROTATIONS - The number of staff that you have in your classroom and what technology you have will play a role in how you set up your center rotations.  The CENTER rotations that I have used are: IEP BINS/BINDERS, SMALL GROUP WITH TEACHER, SMALL GROUP WITH PARA, IPADS, AND COMPUTERS (see schedule).



The IEP binders and/or bins are set up in advance and are based on individual IEP goals. For those who are not able to write, I use the IEP bins. You can include items such as matching, tracing, fine motor activities, personal information practice, and adapted activities using Velcro. You want to make sure the IEP bins and binders contain at least SOME items that the students can do independently. This will prevent students from interrupting the small group lessons. These are items they are to be working on while the teacher and para(s) are working in small groups. If you have any additional adult assistance or student aides they can rotate around the room and assist students as needed. 

It is really up to you what you choose to work on during small groups. In my class, we typically first completed a lesson using ULS (Unique Learning Systems), reviewed IEP goal progress, reviewed IEP binder work, and if we had time we took data. Typically, we would set aside additional time on Fridays for data but it really depends on your school schedule. 

  • SCHEDULE - In order to allow for my particular set of students to participate in every center rotation, I created a Day A and Day B. You may not choose to do this, but I wanted to ensure that students received enough assistance in our small group lessons. If your block is two hours it may be too difficult to try to cram everything in every single day. So, in this example there are FIVE rotations; IEP Binder/Bin, Teacher, Para, and Computer or iPad. But, the students only attend FOUR per day. If the student attended computers on Day A, then on Day B they would attend iPads. This allowed close to 30 minutes per center, not including transition time. Again, it all depends on your center time block. **The most important thing to remember when setting up a schedule is to remain flexible. If something is not working, you may not know until it happens and then it can always be modified. For example, your para may have a break or lunch so you will need to make sure they don't have a group at that time.  This schedule was not printed and laminated, it was on my desktop, projected onto the whiteboard. You can also print it, but I would not recommend laminating or making super fancy because it can change frequently. :) 

  • Prepare binders and bins well in advance. Fill them with items that are related to their individual IEP goals, and that fall within their ability level. 
  • BEFORE implementing centers, have a lesson on what center time is, where each station is, what is to be done in each center station, and how to use the rotation schedule. 
  • Review the class RULES for center time. Go over the importance of remaining in each center until it is time to rotate. You may want to use a phone alarm or other timers you have in the classroom. 
  • Create computer login cheat-sheets so that students have access to their log-in information and what websites they are to be using. This will ideally prevent students from interrupting your small group instruction and build their independence. 
  • We were fortunate enough to have multiple iPads so we had our student photos set as the desktop for each iPad so they knew exactly which iPad was theirs. The iPads were pre-loaded with activities/apps based on their levels. 
  • Give a copy of the center scheduled to related service providers, in the event they are able to create a schedule around it. 
  • One thing that REALLY helped my class was to project the CENTER SCHEDULE on the white board or Smart Board (see image above). I used actual photos of myself and my para so the students knew where they were supposed to be. I created the schedule in Power Point and we changed it whenever we needed. It was pretty easy to go in to the table in Power Point and make any necessary changes. You can also easily add and remove students. It was nothing fancy at all, but it was incredibly functional! In fact, the schedule worked so well, our admin suggested other classrooms use a similar system. :)
Remember that center rotations will take time to set up, but after a few weeks the students know the routine and it can be a really productive way to get some small group or possibly one-on-one time with your students for IEP goal practice, assessments, and data! 

Reach out if you have any questions! :) 


  1. Great Article. Thank you for sharing! Really an awesome post for every one.

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