The end of the school year is a busy but exciting time of year for students and their parents. School parties and summer fun is just around the corner. Kids are eager for vacation and looking forward to all kinds of summer activities. For many children with Autism Spectrum Disorders and other special needs, the end of the school marks an important transition time for families and teachers including assessing student progress, reviewing Individual Education Plans, developing appropriate goals, and preparing to transition to new teachers, classrooms, or schools. Few programs offer systematic and thorough support for these students and their families to ensure the smoothest transition possible and maintenance of annual gains. Many programs do not offer continuous educational support and most fail to allow time or resources for the current teachers, aides, and specialists to collaborate with next year’s educational team. Therefore, parents are often responsible to make this transition happen. Here are some tips for getting through the summer and planning for fall for your child with special needs!
Gather Information from Your current Teacher
Being proactive not only helps your child during the school breaks, but also sets him or her up for greater success when school resumes. Your child’s current teacher has gotten to know your child very well during the year and has likely worked hard to learn techniques to effectively instruct your son or daughter. Some teachers create visual supports, implement communication or work systems, or develop behavioral programs. For example, your son may have his own picture schedule to let him know and predict the daily activities. Your daughter may have her own behavioral rewards program for finishing her work or for socializing with friends at recess. Ask your child’s teacher if you could keep a copy of any of these materials that have been successful. Also, write down strategies that have been attempted and those that have been successful to share with your child’s next teacher.
Meet in Advance with Next Year’s Teacher
It is important to establish a good relationship with your child’s teacher. Teachers need to feel valued and trusted. Sometimes, small gifts like baked goods, gift cards, or crafts your child makes go a long way! Other strategies are to share the information from the previous class teachers with the upcoming teacher. While your daughter may have had many excellent specialists to support her, it is likely that that person no longer works with your child. Let the new teachers know what has been helpful and what has not worked in the past. Find out what strategies and routines the new teacher typically uses for students like your son or daughter and ask how you can prepare your child before school starts. Create a plan for ongoing communication between you and the teacher – something quick & simple, like a simple checklist of the day rather than writing a long daily journal.
Meet Other Parents
You may be able to establish social relationships prior to the first day of school by learning which students may be in your son or daughter’s class. For children with Autism Spectrum Disorders, social interactions can be the most challenging situations. Instead of waiting until the new school year, work on establishing social relationships over the summer before school begins. Make plans that include short and structured activities for children to get to know each other. Play dates without structure have not been shown to be as successful as when planning is involved. For example, invite a few classmates over to bake cookies, eat lunch, and then eat their cookies for dessert. Meet at the park to play Duck Duck Goose, Red Light Green Light, and Follow the Leader. Or, prepare an arts and crafts project where the kids are encouraged to work together and share materials. Having an advanced plan allows the children to get to know the expectations and also helps the adults facilitate social interactions between a child with autism and her peers.
Prepare Your Child
The one who will benefit the most is your child! You can practice routines and lessons with your son or daughter before school starts. Visit the school and your child’s classroom in advance.
Create a photo book of the different places on campus your child is likely to visit (library, lunch tables, yard, classroom).
Make a short video clip of your child at each of the locations as practice for getting around campus independently. For example, have him enter the school grounds, walk to class, sit in his assigned seat and have materials ready. For a younger child, take photos of his classroom and his seat location for circle time. Include activities that are available for recess.
Ask the teacher if you and your child can practice coming to class a few days before the academic year begins to become familiar with the environment. Many teachers are on campus anyway preparing the room. Be respectful as they are very busy getting ready for your child and all of the other students in their classroom – a short visit!
Get a copy of the books or lesson plans that the teacher will use in advance. Some teachers know the exact page numbers and details of their lessons well in advance while others have a general idea (e.g., First week will study dinosaurs, Next week we study habitats and maps). Either way, this information will be useful to discuss and practice with your child before the materials are presented in class. Children have been shown to be more on task and engaged with lessons when they are already familiar to them.
Hopefully these techniques can help you and your child be prepared for another academic year. Now, you just need to go shopping for a new lunch box, school supplies, and a new first day outfit!
About the Author
Jennifer Symon, Ph.D. BCBA-D is an Associate Professor in the Division of Special Education and Counseling at California State University, Los Angeles. She is also a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and consultant for early intervention preschool programs. Dr. Symon coordinates the autism programs at CSULA and is the Project Director for a federally funded grant to train general and special education teachers, speech therapists, and related professionals how to support students with Autism Spectrum Disorders. Dr. Symon’s background includes work in homes, schools, and community settings with individuals with mild to severe disabilities and across the age ranges. She publishes her research findings in peer-reviewed journals and in texts and also presents at local and national conferences. Her research interests include parent education, early intervention, teacher and paraprofessional training, and program evaluation for individuals with special needs, particularly those on the autism spectrum.