Supporting children with autism and special needs - The School Edition

Effective partnership between schools, families and other professionals

The partnership between schools, families and other professionals (particularly the ABA therapy programme supervisor) is very important especially when it involves helping a child with special needs, in particular, autism, to transition to a new learning environment. In order to have a fruitful partnership, schools and families are encouraged to have regular communication so that a better understanding of the child’s needs are formed, thus providing better support. Having regular updates from the school, the family and other professionals will help ensure everyone has a consistent and comprehensive support plan to maximize a child’s opportunity to progress.

THE INITIAL MEETING:

To begin with, prior to child’s enrolment, an initial meeting should be set up between the school, the family and if necessary, other professionals (for example, the child’s EAP Supervisor who oversees his or her ABA intervention programme). Below are three main areas of discussion that should be included in an initial meeting:

  1. Child’s background information

Parents need to inform and communicate to the school regarding their child’s diagnosis and disabilities. This is to ensure that everyone has a better understanding of the child’s abilities, behaviour and current skills.

This information needs to be thorough and needs to include dietary, toileting and sensory needs as well.

Included in this meeting will be a discussion of the child’s strengths and challenges. Through recognizing the child’s strengths and challenges, the school and family can better support the child appropriate to his or her level of ability.

Skills that the child has already learned: It is important to follow up on the skills set that the child has mastered in the home therapy with families and other professionals. For example, if the child is able to communicate functionally and respond to instructions at home, the child should be able to do the same in school. If the child is unable to demonstrate these skills at school, the child is likely struggling to generalize the skills and will need specific broken down strategies to assist with generalization.  

  1. General recommendations for a successful transition to school

It is important to share the strategies that have worked for the child in therapy and to encourage the school to implement a similar strategy in order to provide continuity for the child. This includes in particular a specific behaviour plan as well.

During the initial meeting, critical support strategies can be decided, specifically when it comes to:

a. The requirement for a transition shadow/personal learning assistant

We typically recommend a gradual transition for a child with autism into school and thus the Shadow/PLA plays a vital role in this transition. For continuity and the child’s overall progress, the PLA/Shadow may also work with the child in the home setting depending on the programme the child is on. (Note: It is vital that this Shadow/PLA has been screened thoroughly, trained and provided ongoing supervision. At EAP, our Shadows/PLAS are hired through a thorough 3-level Screening Process and receive thorough initial training at EAP before working solo with a child. All EAP staff receive continuous training in ABA as well as school shadowing. Ongoing weekly supervision is also given to the EAP PLA/Shadow.)

The Shadow/PLA’s responsibilities include:

  • To implement a support plan for the child based on the EAP Supervisor’s recommendations.
  • Maintain communication between home, school and the child’s team (through regular data taking and during fortnightly team meetings at home)
  • To update EAP Supervisor on a weekly basis on the child’s progress, the effectiveness of recommended strategies and new challenging behaviors in school.
  • Provide information to the home therapy staff (through observation and note taking) regarding difficulties to address at home.
  • Fade and eliminate the transition shadow when mutually agreed upon by school staff, parents and home therapy program.

b. Gradual transition into school

One of the key principles of the ABA approach is to break complex skills down and to start where a child is successful. This needs to be applied to transitioning to school as well. Rather than throwing a child into the deep end (in this case a full day at school), we could start the child off with a shorter day and just a few days a week initially. Gradually this would build up to longer days and then eventually every day as well. It is important to remember that school has its own sets of challenges, for example, the size of the class, the noise, the numerous transitions, the expectations as well as the lessons.

c. Having a trial class for child

During the trial class, we would recommend that the Special Education Coordinator uses a standardized checklist to note down the areas that child is successful in and the areas that he/she needs support in. These areas should then be discussed during the child’s Individual Education Plan (IEP) meeting.

d. Dropping certain subjects

In the initial meeting, as the weekly timetable and subjects are discussed, there may arise the need to pull the child out of certain classes that are irrelevant or too demanding. Again, the principle of keeping the child successful and for the child to have a meaningful schooling experience.

e. The requirement to modify the curriculum

It is important to discuss how the lessons will be taught and if the lessons need to be simplified. This can be done by the school’s learning support team or by the EAP Supervisor.

  1. School Policies

Lastly, to have an effective partnership, it is important to check in with the school on their school policies. For example reinforcement, some schools have daily Golden Time, some schools have a policy that the students are not allowed to bring toys/rewards from school, but depending on the child’s needs, reinforcement is key in a successful transition, we would suggest using natural reinforcement such as a break or to get to choose a favourite play activity. Other important policies are on child safety, bullying as well as behaviour management (e.g. we may try to extinct and redirect a behaviour but the classroom teacher may have a timeout corner).

DEVELOPING THE IEP:

The IEP meeting enables the school, parents and other professionals to work together to develop an IEP based on the collective information from each party. It is important to set goals for the child so that all parties involved are able to have a clear picture and to implement the right strategies to help the child to achieve the goals. Reports from parents and other professionals as well as evaluations on the assessments provide the areas that need to be focus for the child. The IEP goals must also include measurable term-based goals that describe what the child is expected to achieve.

At EAP, there are 7 areas of focus for each of our children’s school support plan:

  1. Following rules and routines
  2. Functional communication
  3. Responding to group instructions
  4. The ability to regulate behaviours
  5. The ability to be independent
  6. The ability to learn new skills in a group setting
  7. Social Skills and Social Interaction

Once the IEP is developed in these areas, consistent strategies can be implemented at school as well as at home to help support the child learn as quickly as possible. It is important to remember that it will take our children with special needs a lot longer to learn basic concepts and the regular coaching and practice in a 1:1 setting at home will certainly quicken and strengthen the child’s grasp of new skills. 

ONGOING SUPPORT:

It is important to note that because the requirements and needs of a child with autism/special needs is so high, frequent monitoring of the child’s progress is critical to the child’s treatment plan. This information needs to be from all parties. The regular communication of progress ensures we are moving a child along and making the necessary adaptations. At EAP, we monitor each child’s progress daily and have regular weekly, fortnightly and bimonthly reviews as well. 

  1. Regular Monitoring of Progress by Shadow/PLA: Keeping track of the child’s progress daily is important to ensure that the needs are met and is moving towards the goals set specifically for the child. This ties in closely with the objectives set in the IEP. The EAP Supervisor in collaboration with the school and the family will set goals that the Shadow/PLA will note down. These daily data sheets help communicate to the family and the home team on different areas to focus and practice on in the evenings.
  2. Monthly school observations are typically scheduled by our EAP Supervisor in order to observe our child in their natural school setting and to tweak the support plan accordingly.
  3. Following this, a monthly school meeting with parents and the EAP Supervisor should be held to discuss the child’s progress. During this time we will be able to follow up more frequently about areas of challenge as well as new strategies to be implemented in the school as well as in the home.   

ADDITIONALLY FOR SCHOOLS:

We also suggest that schools host regular Awareness and Acceptance Campaigns on Autism as well as other needs in order to create a culture of acceptance in schools. This greatly helps other children become more compassionate and tolerant of differences in their classmates as well as learn to be more helpful and kind as well. This will greatly help our children with autism and other special needs transition into school and feel accepted. Since 2016, EAP launched our Autism Awareness and Acceptance Campaign with the tagline #lovesomeonewithautism. This year we will be focusing on #kindnessstartswithme.

In closing, we hope that as a society, we will demonstrate greater acceptance and support for the families who have to cope with challenges of having a child with autism or other special needs. While it may seem that it requires more effort to work collaboratively, the benefits of the effective partnership will have such a significant impact on the child’s overall long term progress that it is absolutely worth the investment of our time.