Early Childhood Special Education Circle Time
Are you teaching early childhood special education or preschool and looking for ideas on how to structure circle time? What does circle time look like in preschool? What’s important (and not!)? Let's look at some basic questions and answers, first. JUMP DOWN if you want to read a suggest schedule!
What is Early Childhood Special Education Circle Time?
Circle time can be a wonderful way to start your education day with littles. It provides the first structure of the day and sets the tone for a day of learning and fun. There is so much you can do with preschool circle time! You can have singing time, calendar, weather, social activities, physical activities, and even pre-academic skills or working on IEP goals. Let’s dive into it!
What are the four pillars of a well-balanced circle time?
I like to consider four “pillars” of a well-balanced circle time for preschoolers. It’s important to address each of these developmental areas in the short time you have with your littles. These four areas are: physical, sensory, social, and cognitive. Especially if you are working with early childhood special education students or students with autism and other disabilities, providing them with a balanced approach will help them move forward with their developmental goals.
How long should circle time be for preschoolers?
Of course, how long circle time should be will depend on a number of factors including the age of the students, the developmental level, their interests, and their goals. A good rule of thumb is 3 minutes for every year of life. So, for 3-year-olds, circle time should only be 8-10 minutes, for 4-year-olds, maybe 10-15. Toddler? Short and sweet!
How do you increase engagement in Early Childhood Special Education Circle Time?
With early childhood special education circle time, engagement can be one of the biggest challenges! Read the post here for 5 quick tips to increase engagement with your littles. What I found was MOST helpful was to keep students very close to me, within arm’s length if possible, providing me lots of opportunities to switch gears or shift my attention to another student quickly. I also definitely use physical objects whenever possible, little manipulatives for them to hold and interact with.
Some of my favorite "finds" for littles' circle time!
What to do when a student doesn’t want to come to circle time?
There are students who either don’t want to participate or can’t because they’re not ready. Ask yourself these 4 questions….
Is the student developmentally ready for the activities? I would be pretty miserable if I had to sit, day after day, in a lecture of quantum physics. And I’m a full-grown adult (even if I don’t act it). Not every preschooler is in the same place, developmentally. Some of the activities you plan will be appropriate for most of your students, but there will be those not quite ready. Expecting them to participate at the same level may be a hill you don’t want to die on. Think about your plans and your students, how can you modify and accommodate those who aren’t ready? Reading a book? Can you provide pictures of parts of the book to hold? Singing a song? Can the student pass out pieces? Talking about the weather? Can the student match suns on a clipboard?
Is the student in a ready-state-to-learn? Students don’t always come to us in a prepared state. Perhaps they have a difficult home environment. Maybe they have sleep or eating difficulties. Maybe they have a negative learning history around sitting in a group. Maybe they have a favorite movie running in their head, and they can’t break out of it. Sometimes, the solution to a student not wanting to participate is to LET THEM not participate and allow their little systems to acclimate and get centered. That’s OK. Have grace for them and for yourself!
Does the student have a way to communicate their desires? Can the student effectively communicate their needs and wants? Do they have a functional system? Can you honor their appropriate attempts to communicate dissent? Maybe you have a student who has externalizing behavior (e.g., crying, eloping, grabbing items). Can you help them communicate an appropriate request such as “break” or “all done” or “no thank you” using words, symbols, or signs? Then, honor that request! Yes, the goal is to eventually have them participate fully in circle time, but maybe that’s Harvard for them, and we need to shoot for Tech School first. As they become proficient in expressing dissent, then we can slowly ask more and more of them before that request is honored. Baby steps!
Is there another activity that can be provided? If you have a student who struggles to attend to the activities in circle time, can there be another activity ready to go as a back-up? I wouldn’t use preferred activities because I don't want what we’re doing as a group to compete with the most potent reinforcers, but maybe the student can do a puzzle at the table nearby or they can read a book in the laundry basket behind group or they can do their “messenger” duty and take papers to the front office.
Is there a plan for helping the student move closer to the goal of full participation? If it’s a one-off day, I get it. No plan needed. We all have bad days. But more often than not, you know which students will predictably struggle during circle time. In that case, can you break down the expectations and work on one at a time? So maybe they can only sit for 10 seconds reliably. Maybe have the MOST exciting activity happen first, and see if you can stretch that time out to 30 seconds before giving them an “out.” Maybe the student ONLY wants to sit on the blue dot. Can you switch out the rug so that there are NO blue dots to choose? Or set up a schedule so that they get the blue dot only 4 days this week and then 3 days next week, and so on.
Are there disadvantages of circle time?
Early Childhood Special Education Circle Time is not magic. Not every classroom has to have a circle time, and not every circle time will be successful. Circle time can be not only non-productive but possibly harmful if 1) it is forced, 2) it replaces instead of enhances play and hands on activities, or 3) it isn’t fun! Be mindful as you plan and structure your activities that they are developmentally appropriate and engaging! And if you struggle with that, start small and do simple things first until you’re confident at it and the students are successful, then add to it!
Also, you’ll be amazed at the difference in abilities and focus from the beginning of the year to the end. Remember development is a marathon, not a sprint! They have lots of time to make their way in the world.
What should circle time include? How do you structure circle time?
Keeping in mind everything discussed including developmentally appropriate, engaging, and successful, this is typically the circle time schedule I have used with littles.
Welcome (1-2 minutes): I have each child’s face on a popsicle stick, and I show one and have everyone say “Hello, Mark!” and then sing a quick diddy to that person. When possible, I have them stand up when their face is shown.
Weather / Calendar (2 minutes): We do not spend a lot of time on calendar at this age/skill set, but we do add a number to the calendar, count them, and sing the days of the week song. We love doing Weather Bear!
Question of the Day (2 minutes): I use big pictures of items and put them up on the board. Questions are simple like…. [pictures of snack foods] Who likes chocolate? Do you like crackers? I put the names of who likes what near the pictures, and then we look at what item is liked the most. I have used sports, food items, animals, pets, toys, etc. I throw in some that I know they WON’T like or don’t recognize so we have those options. I have also used this digital Boom Cards version “What I Like.” Really good for early language learners.
Singing Time (3-5 minutes): I use well-known songs, songs that can have manipulatives, anything interactive. I like to use a choice board and do maybe three songs a day. If the song has manipulatives to hand out, I like to have a student hand them out to other students or even give every other student TWO, and that student has to share with the friend next to them. Sometimes, if students are wiggly, we like to use movement songs like Go Noodle or Laurie Berkner (her We Are the Dinosaurs song is the best!!!). Then we run back to our places to say goodbye.
Goodbye (1 minute): Short and sweet with an instruction about what is next on the agenda. If we are doing circle time at the end of the day, it’s getting coats and backpacks for the bus. If next is choice time or line up for recess or whatever, I give that direction there. Then, off we go!
Welcome (1 minute): Quick transition song and bring everyone to the carpet. Say “hi” again to our friends.
Day Recap (3 minutes): Visuals for “What did we do today?” You can use your visual schedule and pull out the pictures that you already finished. Give a picture to each student. They can take turns saying what we did, or they can try to put them in order from the day. Good time to fill out (or have staff fill out) daily reports home.
Story (3-5 minutes): I choose books that are simple but have an interactive element (or I create my own interaction!). I make sure to sit directly in sight of all students, and I move the book around to make sure all students can see each page and as up close as possible. I try to gauge their interest and move quicker/slower depending on how they are responding. I love these 7 books for my earliest learners.
Bubbles (2 minutes): It’s time to get up and move! If not bubbles, anything to get the body moving, get the wiggles out, before packing up to get on the bus. I sing, “There are bubbles in the air, in the air,” set to Raffi’s tune “There’s a spider on the floor.” I change the “where” to be “on our head” or “on our knees.” It's extra fun when I pick a student to tell me where to blow the bubbles!
Goodbye (1 minute): Short and sweet again, and then it’s getting coats and backpacks for the bus.