Structured Teaching: Strategies for Supporting Students with Autism?

by Susan Stokes Autism Consultant

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Structured teaching is an intervention philosophy developed by the University of North Carolina, Division TEACCH (Treatment and Education of Autistic and related Communication Handicapped Children). . Structured teaching is an approach in instructing children with autism. It allows for implementation of a variety of instructional methods (e.g., visual support strategies, Picture Exchange Communication System - PECS, sensory integration strategies, discrete trial, music/rhythm intervention strategies, Greenspan's Floortime, etc.). The following information outlines some important considerations for structured teaching to occur. It is one of many approaches to consider in working with children with autism.

Eric Schopler, founder of Division TEACCH in the early 1970's, established the foundation for structured teaching in his doctoral dissertation (2) by demonstrating that people with autism process visual information more easily than verbal information.

 

What is Structured Teaching (1)

Structured teaching is based upon an understanding of the unique features and characteristics associated with the nature of autism.

Structured teaching describes the conditions under which a person should be taught rather than "where" or "what" (i.e., "learning how to learn").

Structured teaching is a system for organizing their environments, developing appropriate activities, and helping people with autism understand what is expected of them.

Structured teaching utilizes visual cues which help children with autism focus on the relevant information which can, at times, be difficult for the person with autism to distinguish from the non-relevant information.

Structured teaching addresses challenging behaviors in a proactive manner by creating appropriate and meaningful environments that reduce the stress, anxiety and frustration which may be experienced by children with autism. Challenging behaviors may occur, due to (the following characteristics of autism:

Structured teaching greatly increases a child's independent functioning (i.e., without adult prompting or cueing) which will assist him throughout life.

This article will address the features of a structured teaching approach. It is important to remember that to effectively use the features of this approach, the individual's strengths and needs must be taken into consideration.

 

Primary Components of Structured Teaching:

Physical structure

Visual Schedules

Teaching method

 

Physical Structure


"Locker / Cubby Areas"

Definition: Physical structure refers to the way in which we set up and organize the person's physical environment: It emphasizes where/how we place the furniture and materials (1) in the various environments including classrooms, playground, workshop/work area, bedroom, hallways, locker/cubby areas, etc.

Close attention to physical structure is essential for a number of reasons:

The amount of physical structure needed is dependent on the level of self-control demonstrated by the child, not his cognitive functioning level. As students learn to function more independently, the physical structure can be gradually lessened (5).

Example: A high functioning child with autism may display limited self control. He will need a more highly structured environment than a lower functioning child displaying better self control.

Physical structure consists of a number of components:



By strategically placing furniture to clearly visually define specific areas, it will decrease the child's tendency to randomly wander/run from area to area. Visual physical boundaries can also be further defined within a specific area.


Example: During group story time, a carpet square or taped-off square can provide the child with autism clear visual cues as to the physical boundaries of that activity. Floor tape can also be used in gym class to indicate to the child with autism the area in which he should stay to perform certain motor skills, like warm-up exercises.

Example: Color coded placements (according to each child's assigned color) can be used for snack or mealtimes. The placements will visually and physically define each child's "space" (and food items) on the table.

These visual cues will help children with autism better understand their environment, as well as increase their ability to become more independent in their environment and less reliant on an adult for direction.

By painting the entire environment (walls, ceilings, bulletin boards, etc.) a muted color (e.g., off-white);

By limiting the amount of visual "clutter" which is typically present in most classrooms in the form of art projects, seasonal decorations and classroom materials;

By placing sheets/curtains to cover shelves of classroom materials, as well as other visually distracting equipment (e.g., computer, copy machine, TV/VCR, etc.);

By storing unnecessary equipment/materials in another area.

 

Example: In the play area, limit the number of appropriate toys which the children can use and then, on a weekly basis, rotate in "new" toys, while putting away the "old" ones.

Through the use of natural lighting from windows to reduce visually distracting fluorescent lighting;

By controlling the amount of light through the use of blinds, curtains, or shades, thus creating a warm and calm environment;

By placing study carrells and individual student work areas, bordered by a wall or corner of the classroom, away from group work tables can also reduce environmental visual distractions;

By carefully considering where the child with autism will sit in the regular education classroom.


Example: Tony, a student with autism was seated in the front of the class, facing away from the door or windows and away from shelves with instructional materials in order to minimize visual distractions.


Auditory distractions can be reduced through the use of carpeting, lowered ceilings, acoustical tiles, P.A. system turned off (or covered with foam to mute the sound) and headphones for appropriate equipment, such as the computer or tape players.

Again, these specific areas should have clear visual boundaries to define each area for the child with autism. It is also important to keep in mind the various distractions which may be present in each area, and make accommodations accordingly.

Example: A sectioned-off storage area (with high dividing units to keep materials out of sight of the students) within the classroom can be very helpful to keep the environment "clutter and distraction-free" yet provide easy access to needed materials.


"Picture Jig"

Students with autism can also be taught to keep the physical environment structured and organized through the use of pictures, color-coding, numbers, symbols, etc.

 

Example: In the play area, pictures of the toys can be placed on the shelves to provide structure when putting things away.