Strategies for Active Engagement: In the Classroom and on Zoom For Autistic Children

You’ve likely heard the phrase “Busy hands are happy hands,” but the same is true when it comes to our brains. One of the hardest skills for students with autism is what to do in the classroom when they’re expected to “sit and get” their instruction in a lecture format. This is when some minor challenging behavior like blurting out, making distracting noises or pacing might occur—if the student continues to be disengaged in the lesson, these minor behaviors can escalate into major problems like elopement, property destruction or aggression. 

So when starting to plan for instruction, how can we stop the problems before they occur? By having intentional and meaningful opportunities for our students with autism to engage and respond to the lesson. 

girl with autism participating in class on Zoom

Opportunities to Respond

What is it? 

Active engagement through participation means being intentional and frequent in the types of prompts or questions provided for the students and making sure the students can interact with the academic content. It can be done with the whole class, a small group, or on an individual basis. It is most effective when used with concepts the students already have a basic understanding of, or are being taught errorlessly.*


Why do it

The benefits in planning for opportunities to respond are tremendous. If done on an individual basis, it can be a way to quickly and informally assess every student; in small groups, it could provide natural occasions for peer tutoring and modeling. 


Behavioral benefits: 

When students are actively engaged in their learning, they have fewer opportunities to engage in problem behaviors because their minds are too busy being involved in the lesson. With behavior being effectively managed, the actual instruction can flow as the teacher has intended—without having to frequently redirect students off-task. 


Academic benefits: 

Having this increased on-task behavior gives students the chance to improve their skill fluency through frequent application and interaction with the information being presented, increasing their likelihood of content retention. If students are able to fluidly and quickly use their skills through these frequent and intentional opportunities to respond, there’s a higher chance that the information will “stick.”

boy with autism raising hand in class on Zoom

How to do it:

  • Choral Response: The entire group answers, all together. This can be used to answer a question, a fill-in-the-blank prompt, or even as an attention getter to bring the class back on task or topic (“When I say Hey, you say Ho. Hey! ___).
  • Questioning: This is more than simply asking a question to the whole group and calling on one student. To really give all students an opportunity to respond, consider using a cooperative learning style of questioning such as having students move desks to answer questions, perhaps with pre-assigned partners. Dividing the room into 4 corners that each correspond to an answer is another way to have students think, pair up and then share their thoughts or rationale for the answer.
  • Drawing sticks: Having all students’ names or numbers written on sticks can randomize when any will be called on to answer a question. I love this strategy because if you pull the stick toward you so students can’t see, you can actually call on any student you think needs to be re-engaged or may be able to answer the question. Props for sneaky but effective teachers! A word of caution on this strategy—be sure to always replace the student’s stick after you call on them; if you don’t, the student then thinks they’re “off the hook” from answering any more questions and thus more likely to tune out. 
  • Signal: A great and simple way to check for understanding is using a quick signal with students. It can be a simple thumbs up or down or can be more complicated. For example, in the fist-to-five check, after giving students information or some other opportunity to respond, the teacher can ask for a show of hands with a fist meaning the student doesn’t get it, a 1 asking for more help, up to the 5 to show they completely understand.
  • Response cards: This strategy involves students individually or in a small group holding up some kind of card that can be used for true/false questions, agree/disagree, or ABCD responses. 

Variations can be to use color cards or even cups. Another quick way to check for understanding or get a student response can be to use red, yellow, or green cups.

Example: Rate your knowledge of opportunities to respond​

Green – I use it everyday, using multiple ways to respond​

Yellow – I have a few ways to implement opportunities to respond in my classroom​

Red – Not sure what this is, but I want to know more


  • White boards: White board responding can be done on an individual or small group basis. It can be used just like a response card system or students can show their thinking or work for different questions. It’s a quick way to gauge understanding and get students involved. 

  • Guided or Cloze notes: Frankly, sometimes you have to teach lecture style. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find ways to make the information engaging for students and still give them opportunities to call and respond with answers as you’re teaching. Cloze or guided notes are a fill-in-the-blank style of notes that go along with the content you’re teaching. It cues students to be looking for specific information, which helps focus their attention and also provides them an opportunity to respond.  
  • Web-based electronic response systems: With the advent of technology, there are also various online ways to give students opportunities to respond which can be used for in -person or online learning. If you’re looking for some to explore for use in your classroom, you might start with Nearpod, Kahoot, or Gimkit. Embedded in each of these programs are opportunities for students to respond and can even be competitive-based if desired. Each has free trial options, which can then be purchased if you like the format for your classroom. 

Opportunities to respond aren’t limited to in-person learning, but can be implemented in online settings. In fact, setting expectations and encouraging students to interact and respond during remote instruction may be even more important in improving on-task behavior and increasing content acquisition. 

Here are some ways for students to stay engaged using Zoom:

  • Camera: Create opportunities to respond, have the students respond with a signal to increase participation (ex: thumbs up/down, number of fingers, hand gestures).
  • Annotate: Students can share responses on a Zoom whiteboard or screen-shared slide presentation. They can select the stamp tool to mark their answer, they can write something using the text option or draw a picture (ex: respond to a rating scale or 4-corner activity). 
  • Non-verbal feedback: Students can provide feedback and opinions by clicking on icons in the participants’ panel.
  • Meeting reactions: Students can select an emoji that shows on their video by clicking the reactions button. The reactions then disappear after 10 seconds. This can be a great way for students to engage and interact when others are speaking without interrupting.

Providing frequent and intentional opportunities to respond is a best practice for all learners, but even more so for those with autism who can struggle with the processing and comprehension of content. 

Which of these strategies are you looking to implement in your classroom? What are some other ways you provide your students with opportunities to respond?


*Errorless Teaching is a teaching procedure in which the child is prompted to make the correct response immediately, ensuring a correct response each time. The prompt is then slowly faded in order to promote accuracy with the least amount of errors and frustration.

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