Outnumbered? Use A Zone Defense!

June 19, 2012

Preventing Behaviors

If you have all the volunteers that you can handle in your special needs ministry…then this article is NOT for you!  However, if you’re trying to do special needs ministry with less adults rather than more, then read on!

Teaching Students Should Not Be Hit-Or-Miss

When I worked for the Rockwood School District as an Autism and Inclusion Specialist, part of my job was to stay current on research-based strategies for self-contained classroom management.  I wanted to ensure that we were utilizing best-practice strategies in order to maximize our effectiveness with our learners.   There is no reason to approach teaching our students in a hit-or-miss fashion with all of the research available on this topic.

When Students Outnumber Adults

As it turns out, there is a nice area of research that has been conducted at Vanderbilt University on improving student engagement in classrooms where the ratio of students far outnumber the staff.   Why is this area of research important?  Because the reality is that the number of students with learning challenges is increasing while the number of adult staff in classrooms is decreasing.  Kinda sounds like the same challenge many of you face in your special needs Sunday school classrooms, doesn’t it?  If you have a special needs Sunday school classroom that has many more learners than adult volunteers then this research-based strategy is for you:

The Zone Defense Schedule (ZDS)

ZDS is a great strategy that I’ve successfully used in classrooms where we had only two adults and six or more students.  It is a best-practice strategy that’s used in many cutting-edge self-contained classrooms in public school systems and can also be implemented in the same type of classrooms in a community of faith.  In fact, if you’re running low on volunteers the ZDS strategy may be exactly what you need in order to manage your students well and keep them proactively engaged in your curriculum.

There are 3 key components of the Zone Defense Schedule:

  1. Break up the middle of the classroom–  wide open spaces in the middle of the classroom is not a good thing!  By breaking up the middle of the classroom thru rearranging the furniture (or using partitions) into a L- or T- shape you prevent children from running laps in wide open spaces and it divides the classroom into zones (thus the term ZONE defense!).
  2. Plan activities that encourage engagement– plan activities that allow every student to do something meaningful and that involve purposeful actions!  If activities are boring for students, their engagement will be low!  At First Baptist Orlando we use the Special Buddies curriculum which offers a variety of activites that engage the visual, auditory, and movement sensory sytems.  In addition we incorporate technology such as the iPad to increase the motivational level of our students.
  3. Assign adults a zone of activity– adults are assigned a “zone of activity” in the classroom.  Instead of assigning one adult to one child (which increases your need for volunteers), adults are assigned a zone of activity.  In other words, once your classroom is divided into zones by breaking up the middle of the classroom, you assign an activity for each zone and an adult who will be responible for only one specific zone/activity.  Kids who are in that zone are engaged by the adult in an activity.  If the child leaves that zone s/he will end up in a different zone and now become engaged by a different adult in a different activity.

The Zone Defense Schedule is not that complicated.  Though I cannot share the ZDS in great detail here, I have made a training video about it for our new volunteers on how we implement it here at First Baptist Orlando.  The video briefly discusses one way in which we use of the Zone Defense Schedule.  However, there are a variety of ways in which it can be adapted to your classroom needs!


Please make sure to subscribe to our blog or click “like” on our Special Friends Ministry facebook page to be notified when our next post is published!  Michael Woods, M.A. BCaBA CPI

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About Michael Woods

Christ-follower, husband, chocoholic, and peanut-butter lover! I'm a father to triplet boys...each on the autism spectrum.

View all posts by Michael Woods


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