The ABC’s of Preschool Special Education

By Killian McIlvain

Structure & Routine

We’ve all seen the student that comes into the classroom first thing in the morning and immediately starts goofing off and wandering around…What if instead of having a loose direction of “unpack and sit down,” she had a checklist that walked her through exactly what she needed to do and showed her what her “reward” was once she was finished?  I don’t know about you, but I’m going to guess the morning routine is going to improve for that student.

Having a predictable and routine structure helps students to self-regulate and stay focused on what is expected of them. Structure begins as soon as students walk in the door, and I find planning for it to be one of the most difficult parts of teaching Special Ed. It involves thinking through every single second of your students’ day and figuring out what your expectation (as the teacher) is for them, what they will have to accomplish, and what problems might arise while this is happening.

For example, if my expectation is: Jimmy needs to wash his hands, throw out the paper towel, and sit down at the table for sensory time.

Jimmy’s tasks are:

  1. turn on water
  2. put soap on hands
  3. scrub hands
  4. turn off water
  5. get paper towel from dispenser
  6. walk across classroom to garbage can
  7. throw out paper towel
  8. walk across classroom to sensory table
  9. sit down

That’s nine tasks!  Something that you, or I, or most general education students could do without any further direction is actually a lot of tasks for my 4-year-old friend with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).  Thinking through exactly what we are expecting of students helps us see where possible breakdowns may occur.  As I was typing that example (and it is a real example from my classroom), I was thinking to myself, “Why is the garbage can so far from the sink?  That’s a huge transition from one side of the room to the other.”  The answer is that it is close to the door so the janitors can grab it easily to empty the breakfast garbage, but getting a second garbage can is a very cheap and easy fix to remove two unnecessary transitions in this friend’s day!

In all of this, I am thinking through my students’ day in a way that allows me to make changes (like fixing that garbage can first thing Monday morning) that will help the day run more smoothly and will help my students be successful.  It is a tedious task that often gets lost because we forget that things like walking across the classroom twice are where a lot of issues come from, but when we have a strong, intentional, structured classroom, we can resolve issues before they even arise, which is always a win!


Language Supports

I don’t know about your caseloads, but in my three years of teaching preschool special education, I have only had one student that did not have some kind of language delay, which means that 99% of them did!  That’s a huge percentage of students with related issues.  So, it has been a big focus in my classroom, and, I believe, in all preschool special education classrooms.

One of the most important language supports in my classroom, and one that completely changed how I looked at language learning, is a Core Board. A Core Board is a visual that includes images for some of the most commonly used, or “core” words, such as “I,” “you,” “want,” “need,” “help,” “more,” “go,” “see,” and many more. Focusing on teaching my students to use these “core” words as opposed to more nouns or one-use-words like “pencil” or “bear” has lead to a huge amount of language growth, because my students are able to use these words across activities and throughout the day.  The blog The Autism Helper has a great post that has a more detailed description of Core Boards with a lot of good examples.  You can check it out here.

While Core Boards have been the biggest game changer in my room, we also use a number of other strategies to help give every child the means to communicate. One way we communicate is to have images of classroom objects/ materials that students are able to physically hand to a teacher in order to request that item.  This is kind of an improvised version of PECS (the Picture Exchange Communication System), which I have not been trained in, but love the concept of.  I am hoping to add PECS in its pure form to my classroom later in the year, once I am able to attend the training.  We also use some very simple signs using American Sign Language, for things like “more” and “help” (though ASL, again, falls into the category of “Things I Need to Learn More About”).  I also have one student who uses an augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) device that I am still learning about, as it is brand new to us.  It uses the Core Vocabulary concepts, so I am excited to get into it.

Overall, I don’t think there is any ‘right’ way to support language in your classroom, because every student needs something different. What is important is that you are making sure that every single student has at least some way to communicate because without that, everything else (behavior, academics, social skills, everything) will suffer.



This one goes hand-in-hand with language supports, but really in a preschool special education classroom, there is no such thing as too many visuals!  I have visuals for communication, behavior strategies, the daily schedule, labeling where items belong on shelves, how to wash your hands, choice boards for which song to sing, options for greeting your teacher when you walk in…You name it, there is a visual for it!  A lot of my visuals I have made myself (because I am overly picky), but there are a ton of ready-made things out there for you to print and laminate and you’re ready to go.  The website is a great resource for ready-made visuals and Boardmaker is an amazing way to make your own.  Many school districts already have accounts, so be sure to ask around!

The most important visuals in my room are the visual lanyards that my paraprofessional and I wear around our necks.  They are small cards that each have an image and a word for common directions such as “sit” and “no yelling.”  Having these right there with me at all points of the day without any scrambling to find them has been invaluable in supporting my students that have trouble following verbal directions.

Another important visual (that may belong in language supports, but bare with me) in my classroom are choice boards.  We use choice boards for everything from picking which song we are going to sing to identifying colors to identifying characters in the story we’re reading.  They are a super easy way to include your non-verbal students in the conversation and to support the students who are verbal, but who may have still have trouble answering questions or making choices.  I make my choice boards on Microsoft Word using Google Images, so they are simple, and I can find whatever images I think best represent the ideas we need.



Being a teacher is rough. Being a special education teacher can be even more so, because it is very easy to feel isolated and alone.  We do not always have teaching partners or even anyone else in the school who has the same type of classroom (in my school I am the only “cluster” teacher), and that can make it seem like no one else knows what we’re going through, but that’s not true!

Talk to the other teachers in your building!  Even the 7th /8th-grade inclusion teacher has been able to help me brainstorm my preschool problems!  Talk to the general education teachers in the same grade level; they may not have exactly the same dilemmas you do, but they can still be a great resource.

Look online!  There are a ton of amazing special education blogs that have helped me so much I cannot even begin to say.  Considerate Classroom and Fun in ECSE are two that are both dedicated to early childhood special education, but there are tons more that have a broader focus, but no less helpful information.

Talk to your family and friends!  My roommate has become quite the preschool expert (despite her job in the business world), thanks to all the times I get home, and I just need to tell somebody about the crazy day I had.

Take a break! Sometimes the best thing you can do for yourself is to step back and say “I’m done with school for the day.”  It is so easy to get caught up in looking for ideas on Pinterest and cutting out materials for tomorrow that we spend all our time outside school, doing things for school.  Step back and take some time to do something for yourself.  It will benefit your students in the long run if you are able to stay focused because you haven’t burnt yourself out.


These are just my ABC’s (and D) on special education, not the whole book, not even the whole alphabet!  There are so many more things to consider, but this post was meant to be something to get you thinking!  I hope some of the pieces are applicable to your classroom, even if you’re not teaching preschool or special education, and that you can take away something new!  I am not an expert, just a teacher, but feel free to reach out if you have any questions or comments!

Killian McIlvain is an ISU ECE alumni, and a third-year, Special Education teacher in a Chicago Public Schools, blended, and bilingual Pre-K classroom.  See Killian’s past post on this blog here.



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