Planning Academic Centers in a Special Ed Classroom

A common struggle in special education classrooms is not being able to get through all instruction and also work on IEP goal skills.

Do you share in this struggle?! Because you’re here reading this, I’m going to go out on a limb and say the struggle is real for you too.

While centers do not solve the bigger issue at hand, they do help us special education teachers meet the needs of all of our learners, while providing opportunities for growth and student independence.

So let’s chat about how to plan academic centers in any special ed classroom.

Before you can plan centers:

Here are a few rules of thumb for any classroom – no matter the age.

  1. Never give up on a child or assume that because they are a certain age that the child may or may not know basics skills, or that they will never learn them.
  2. Don’t simplify the work for your students. Accommodate and modify, not simplify.
  3. Be proactive and hold high expectations. Have work for your students to do at all time, on and above level.
  4. Establish routines ASAP.

How to plan for academic centers:

First, set your classroom schedule. If you need help creating your schedule, this post will be helpful. Knowing what students are in your classroom at what times throughout the day will help you plan your academic centers.

Read your students’ IEPs and know what students you can potentially group together for small groups or centers. Also know what your students are working on to master IEP goals and objectives.

Do your best to keep track of what general ed peers are working on each week. Collaborating with and staying in contact with the general ed teacher will ensure that your classroom centers work on both general ed curriculum and IEP goal topics.

  • You can ask the general ed teacher to send you a copy of his/her lesson plans, or get a copy of the curriculum scope and sequence.


When it comes to implementing centers, it may be best to follow a specific schedule for teaching a new skill and also for practicing already taught skills and generalizing skill knowledge.

Here is the schedule I follow:

Monday – start the week with a whole group lesson.
Tuesday – whole group refresh and break into groups.
Wednesday + Thursday – center rotations: finish up general ed work on lessons, do centers/work bins, and start IEP work.
Thursday + Friday – quiz or test, more IEP work

When implementing centers, I have students work in the following rotation:

Work – “Play” – Work – “Play” – Work – “Play”

Work centers are academic exclusive. Hint: kids know they are working.
Play centers are still academic and educational, but the kids don’t necessarily know they are working.

Play centers can look like:

Centers you can add to build + grow skill mastery:

  1. Keyboarding
  2. Practice basic skills
  3. Learning how to study for a test
  4. Dictionary skills
  5. Unwind or cool down spot

Don’t forget about IEP Work bins (watch a video about them here). You can also keep binders or folders with specific, individualized work for each student. Color coding helps so students always know where to look for their individual work.


Don’t let the first few weeks overwhelm you. You and your students will find the right groove and all of the kinks in your schedule will work out.




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