THE PATH FROM HOME TO SCHOOL
August 28, 2018
Welcome back! I think that we can all appreciate that the most successful transitions are achieved when parents, school and therapists work closely as a team. But what are some of the specific supports that can be included in the transition plan?
When considering specific supports to include in your child’s plan, ask yourself about what has helped them cope with transitions in the past. Also ask the school about what they have found effective for other students.
“A Social Story accurately describes a context, skill, achievement, or concept according to 10 defining criteria. These criteria guide Story research, development, and implementation to ensure an overall patient and supportive quality, and a format, “voice”, content, and learning experience that is descriptive, meaningful, and physically, socially, and emotionally safe for the child, adolescent, or adult with autism.”
Writing a Social Story is a combination of science and art. It is therefore important to reflect on and decide which member of the transition team would be most suited to being an author.
By reading the Social Story when everyone is calm and relaxed, you may evoke the aforementioned "emotionally safe experience" within the story. This may be read in preparation for transition, or prior to specific events such as school assemblies, rides on the bus or excursions.
Most high schools provide students with a transition booklet or handout as part of their orientation program. Ask if you can have a copy before your child's orientation day, and reflect on both the program's suitability to your child and how can it be tailored to their needs. Does the language need to be simplified? Do you need extra photos included? What would work best: paper or digital copy?
Schedules can provide predictability in classroom routines and can thus reduce anxiety for some children. Examples of individual schedules include pictorial, where the student checks items off as they complete them, or written, which may be written by support staff or the student themselves (depending on skill). Whole class schedules may be written on the board by the teacher at the start of each day, or for a specific subject. They can also include the use of class calendars and timetables.
Does your child get a buzz out of watching videos of themselves? Do they help them ‘talk’ through new experiences and emotions? If you find yourself nodding, consider liasing with the school about recording parts of their orientation, organising a separate visit for recording purposes, and obtaining footage of different staff introducing themselves and greeting your child.
For children entering high school, a colour-coded school map may help them navigate the larger school environment. Highlight areas that are important to them; including the library, canteen, main classroom and sick bay.
Photos, photos and more photos! The school more than likely has a bank of pictures that they use for orientation or transition purposes. These may include images of the school site, classroom, different areas and teachers. If you know that your child has a particular school-related interest or fear, raise it with the school as you may need some additional images to assist them.
Photos can be used in Social Stories, transition booklets, schedules or perhaps a personalised album.
Does your child need a visual reminder to help them to ask for help (a help card)? Or to let someone know that they are feeling overwhelmed (an "I need a break card")? Are they able to ask for the toilet without a visual cue? Remember that your child is not only going to be learning to communicate with many new people they are also going to be learning how to be a student and the set of new behaviours that comes with the role. At home they may be taking themselves to the toilet when they need to but now they need to learn to ask if they can leave the classroom.
Peer buddies / mentor or buddy system
Is there an established peer to peer support program at your child’s school? Or does your child already have a relationship with some of the students that can be further fostered?
Central to peer support is the relationship. Ideally, we want to find a student or small group of students with similar interests, consistent attendance, that are social and reliable, and engineer ways of enabling a budding friendship to grow.
“Buddy classes” are popular in primary schools, where two different age classes are paired up to form cross-age peer relationships and supports. Instead of the usual 1:1, your child may benefit from having an extra buddy or two, providing them with additional supports in the playground and 'back-ups' due to absences.
For students entering high school, consider how they will navigate between classes. Will they find the crowded hallways overwhelming, or find it challenging to locate the next classroom? Perhaps they would cope better if they were allowed out a few minutes early or had a clear colour-coded map. Also consider how they will spend their break times. Are there any groups or clubs that they can join? Where does their year group congregate? These points can also be marked on the map.
Some primary school students may need a more structured playtime than their peers to encourage them to explore the playground and socialise with other students. Social Stories, activity schedules and use of buddies may therefore help them to understand and navigate the social complexities of the playground.
Some primary and high school students may require a safe place or person to whom they can go for support during recess and lunch if they are experiencing feelings of distress.
Think about how your child manages their stress. Do their emotions escalate quickly? Do they respond to specific triggers? Or is it more gradual; an accumulation of events? Do they need assistance to self-regulate? How can staff tell that your child is distressed?
How does your child gauge and monitor their emotional state? Are they able to do so independently, or with visual or adult support? We want to encourage them and their support staff to recognise the different emotions that are being experienced so that appropriate coping strategies may be implemented in a timely manner.
There are many programs and resources available for self-regulation. For example: Emotion Thermometer, Alert Program ®, Zones of Regulation ®, and Feelings Chart. As the language and tools vary between programs, look at what your child is currently using and share this information with the school.
Discuss with the school your child’s need for time, space and tools (including equipment and techniques) that assist them to calm themselves. They may benefit from a quiet area with items of security (such as a cushion, blanket, or toy), running an errand, or listening to music. Your child may also need assistance in transferring strategies and tools that they use at home to a new environment.If they have an occupational therapist or psychologist on their team, ask for their input.
Also, consider ways that some of the stressors may be minimised. For example; noise cancelling headphones at school assemblies.
Consider if it would do your child good to have some low-key days on their non-school days or weekends. This, like everything, is specific to your child’s and family’s needs. Some children are absolutely shattered when they start school and need a rest day, whilst others thrive on routine and may find a ‘rest’ day unsettling.
Physical Supports or Accommodations
Ask your transition team how inclusion can be promoted inside and outside of the classroom?
Consider your child’s learning style and how it can be accommodated within the classroom. For some this may mean adjustments to the physical set up of the room, including seating options, lighting or noise level. Whilst for others it may mean presenting classroom material in a different format (digital and audio text) and having flexible options for demonstrating their understanding and learning.
Outside of the classroom look at the accessibility of the playground, toilets, canteen, library or where special interest groups meet. Can your child get to where they want to or need to go? How easy is it for them? And how much time does it take? Ideally you want them to be able to use the same route as their peers as it is harder to join in a group if you arrive after everyone else and on your own.
I want you to remember that transitioning to school signifies the start of a new phase in your child’s life and that your relationship with the school will continue well beyond the transition period. Remain proactive in fostering the partnership you have established to provide the best possible educational experience for your child. Collaboration is the key, after all!
Maria' professional paediatric Occupational Therapy experience spans rural, public and private practice. She is passionate about working with children and their families. When she isn’t working she can be found supporting her four children’s sporting and artistic endeavours, or walking the family’s crazy cocker spaniel with her husband.