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Setting Up the Learning Environment: Tools and Strategies for Successful Instruction

By Molly James
April 19, 2021
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In our Safety Care curriculum, we focus heavily on the importance of our physical environment(s) and how modifications and intentional placement of materials can help prevent and/or decrease negative situations from occurring, to begin with. More importantly, it also increases learning opportunities, the quality of the services we provide and sets the individuals we work with up for success. But, with such variety in our service environments, what specifically should we consider adapting? And what happens if the environment isn’t mine to adapt in the way I might want to?

Whether you’re a direct care worker at a group home, a therapist in a clinic/home/community setting, an educator, foster care provider, hospital staff, parent, or the like; there are many ways to tailor your physical environment, even if we have to get creative sometimes to accomplish it. To make this process a little easier, I’ve created a “Learning Environment Checklist” as a quick and easy guide! Take a look at the description version first, followed by an example, and a blank template version for your own use:

Explanation - Learning Environment Checklist

  1. What are we trying to accomplish?

This could be described as:

  • A goal (academic task, Activity of Daily living, social goal, etc.)
  • Specific time period (mealtimes, transitions, outings, etc.)
  • Expectations during specific activity (during a doctor appointment or while in the grocery store)

2. What tools do we need/stimuli?

  • For the activity: what is needed for the above-mentioned goal?
  • For the individual: what the individual needs to be set up for success i.e. a communication device, their jacket, review of a social story beforehand, etc.
  • For staff: what do staff need to have to be set up for success i.e. their cell phone, backup reinforcers, protective gear, etc.

3. Our Physical Space

  • Furniture: things like tailored seating, lamination of materials, Velcroing materials, plastic covers, turning shelves towards the wall to avoid climbing, etc.
  • Removing materials/make the area safe: Locks on drawers, cover sharp corners, slip mats when working with water, non-slip grips while eating
  • Peers/others in the environment: seating and spacial arrangements, for outings: lookup or go to the space ahead of time, call the space beforehand to ask questions, etc.  

4. Back-up Plan/Plan B (or C or D or F!)

What to do in the event of unexpected changes, like:

  • Fire alarm goes off while working at the table
  • Store we came to is unexpectedly closed
  • Location/material we need is occupied
  • iPad I brought as a reinforcer isn’t working
  • Stimuli for this activity broke, etc.

4. Emergency or “Just in case” materials

  • Things to have with or nearby staff, like first aid kit, important phone numbers, extra snacks, etc.


Learning Environment Checklist Example #1

  1. What are we trying to accomplish?
    • Grocery store outing
  2. What tools do we need/stimuli?
    • For the activity: reusable bags (around 3)
    • For the individual(s): wallet, store value card, money from the week, jacket, headphones
    • For staff: 10 passenger van (keys), emergency contact sheet, cell phone, HIPPA compliant “community cards”
  3. Our physical space
    • Furniture: Use a smaller pushcart for the individual to shop with (easier for them to manipulate and serves as an incompatible), use cashier for check out vs. self-checkout
    • Removing materials/make the area safe: Avoid Sea Market at the back of the store (trigger: lobster tank), stay no further than 6ft from individual at all times; you should always have a visual on, with no obstacles in between (i.e. display items)
    • Peers/others in the environment: call store first and let them know you’re visiting that day- ask for Jim or Paula if available
  4.   Back-up Plan/Plan B
    • Use hand basket if a cart is unavailable
    • Use corner store if the market is overcrowded/closed (call ahead)
    • Sometimes their store reward card doesn’t work- ask the cashier for assistance and/or its ok to use yours if/when that happens
  5. Emergency or "Just in case" materials
    • Safety Backpack for outings:  first aid kit, emergency contact protocol, granola bars, back-up headphones, cell charger

Learning Environment Checklist Example #2

  1. What are we trying to accomplish?
    • Eating with a fork during lunch
  2. What tools do we need/stimuli?
    • For the activity: Spaghetti w/ garlic sauce- avoid red sauce to decrease stains while practicing this skill, large bowl, on top of the slip-grip mat, w/ plastic OT fork, napkins, bin for dirty spaghetti/food (reinforcer = Graham cracker bears)
    • For the individual(s): Communication device w/ cover screen wipes for the screen (food can sometimes get on the screen when communicating during mealtimes) and a water bottle (stays w/ them throughout the day)
    • For staff: Feeding program sheet, spare forks, plastic gloves (multiple), hair up (close proximity during mealtimes)
  3. Our physical space
    • Furniture: use the corner table, armless chairs angled away, velcro comm device to the table (so it doesn’t slip), keep dirty food bin on the floor next to the staff, create a clear path to sink
    • Removing materials/make the area safe: clear all other items off the tabletop, remove teaching bin from side of the table, and replace with dirty food bin
    • Peers/others in the environment: One peer can utilize the same table on the other end (not directly next to)  
  4.   Back-up Plan/Plan B
    • See behavior plan/feeding program in addressing challenging behaviors. If the table is unavailable, use the snack table w/ no other peers. If the individual is not hungry, offer to practice moving spaghetti from one bowl to another w/ fork and move on- try again later in the day or with garlic rice as a backup.
  5. Emergency or "Just in case" materials
    • First aid: kit in the kitchen
    • Extra food/water: in the kitchen
    • Emergency/back up reinforcers: chocolate chips (see behavior plan)
    • Mom’s number for change of food approval: 555-555-555


Learning Environment Checklist

  1. What are we trying to accomplish?
  1. What tools do we need/stimuli?
    • For the activity:
    • For the individual:
    • For staff:
  1. Our physical space
    • Furniture:
    • Removing materials/make the area safe:
    • Peers/others in the environment:
  1. Back-up Plan/Plan B
  1. Emergency or “Just in case” materials

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