Familiarity = Safety: Transition for the Asperger Profile Student

By Dot Lucci, C.A.G.S.
Article

Spring has sprung. It’s that time of year. Usually transition planning begins now in most school systems. However, it’s actually a little late. By the time you get this newsletter you will already be behind the eight ball as far as transition planning goes!! (Try understanding that if you have AS!!) So you better get busy! There are many steps which make this process run smoothly and help inform people so that everyone is on the same page. In an ideal situation much of this process can happen in a timely fashion and with careful input and planning by all players.

The basic tenet is that you want the receiving team to know the child as well as possible before s/he transitions into his/her new class and/or new school. The child needs to feel as relaxed as possible and as safe as possible and the parents also need to feel comfortable and knowledgeable about the new staff and/or building. If the individual with AS, the parents and the receiving team feel comfortable, then the new school year will begin more smoothly.

The more complicated the transition, the earlier the process and planning should start. If a child is approaching what I call a major transition (preschool to elementary school, K to 1 (in most elementary schools), elementary to junior high, junior high to high school, or from school to school at any grade) then the process should start in January or February. Typical transitions are defined as transitions within the same building with most “players” remaining stable and most classroom experiences being similar. The process for typical transitions can start later in the school year. However, both typical and more challenging transitions involve similar types of tasks.

Both kinds of transition rely on the current team having a good working knowledge of the student and parents. From this knowledge a “working document” is written that describes the student’s needs regarding his learning style and guidelines for teacher style. I have found that there are a few main ingredients that are necessary for teachers to possess for successful inclusion of students with AS. They are: humor – the ability to laugh at one’s self and others in a respectful way; an ability to work with an “entourage of other professionals,” flexibility, good communication skills, good team building skills, sharing their classroom with another adult, and to be a proponent of inclusion and have a liking for “quirky kids”. These attributes usually increase the likelihood of successful inclusion experience.

When the transition is within the same building, the special education team usually knows the receiving teams very well and can match learning and teaching style to the child’s advantage. They can also match environmental structures to the child’s need if necessary. Matching the child’s learning style with the teacher’s teaching style is also to the team’s advantage. Matching kids with teaching styles makes for minimal problems as the upcoming year unfolds. Rarely do teams sabotage themselves by misplacing students!

If there is a major transition, then the sending team needs to be as honest, direct and clear in the “working document” as possible so the receiving team has a clear picture of who the child is and who his/her parents are. This allows them to plan more realistically for his/her move.

If the transition is major, then meetings and observations need to start early. Multiple observations should take place. The student should be observed by the receiving team, in classes that go well and classes that are difficult for him/her. Observations of therapies by therapists are also important so the receiving therapists can see specific interventions being utilized and how sessions are structured. (Familiarity brings safety for kids with AS.) The sending team should also observe classes at the receiving school so they are familiar with what’s next, how things are done, what will work, what s/he will have trouble with etc.

Parents should also meet with the principal and special education team at the receiving school. They should also write a letter introducing their child to the staff. This letter in my experience has taken many forms; one parent wrote it as an analogy to a waiter balancing a tray of glasses. However, it usually is a more directed letter that conveys the child’s strengths, areas of need, likes/dislikes, motivators and the parent’s desires for the upcoming year. What is included is basically whatever the parent wants the school to know about his/her child.

Placing the student with 1 or 2 (or more) familiar peers who are “friends” is important. These students should be kind and accepting and be willing to help the student with AS in the new environment; as well as shed some insight into who s/he is to the new teacher(s). For instance a student with AS may engage in a behavior that is “unacceptable” and the new teacher may not understand it. A student who has been with him before can provide the language if the student with AS is getting agitated. For example, “Tom likes to keep his hat on during class because the lights bother his eyes.” If it is a major transition having “friends” in his class(es) is even more critical.

During the summer it is important for the student with AS to connect with one or two classmates. This can be arranged formally (a structured event/setting) or informally ( a play date or family get together).

During the spring two books are written for the student to assist with the transition. These books should be durable (laminated, heavy paper/cardstock etc.). One is called a Transition Book and the other is called a Goodbye (___grade) Hello (___grade) Book. Both are written by an adult at the sending school with input from the receiving school.

The Transition Book’s purpose is to familiarize the student with the things that are the same and different about the environment and structure. Photographs, a map, and a sample schedule may be some of the things included. Highlights might involve such things as: tables to desks, bathrooms in the room to bathrooms in the hall with multiple stalls, cubbies to lockers, fiive-day rotation to a seven-day rotation, one core teacher to four core teachers etc. The Transition Book is most important for major transitions.

The purpose of The Goodbye/Hello Book is to identify the more personal aspects of a transition. It includes such things as: the student’s progress in concrete terms (i.e. At the beginning of the third grade when you were frustrated you use to hide in your locker. Now at the end of third grade you use your words. You say, “I need a break” or “Leave me alone.” When you are in fourth grade you can still use your words.), what he learned about, what he will continue to learn about, what will be new, who helped him this year and who will help him next year etc.

What’s important about these books is that they help foster a sense of safety between the old and new. If it is not a major transition then the Goodbye/Hello Book and the Transition Book can be combined into one book because the changes aren’t as dramatic. These books should not be given to the student too early as they may increase anxiety. Usually they are read to or the student reads them during the last week or two of school. Then they are given to him/her on the last day, sent home and read again at the end of the summer.

If it is a major transition that involves a new building (elementary to junior high), then it is beneficial if, during the summer, the student has access to the building. Possibly the student could have some portion of his/her summer program take place there. This affords the student an opportunity to familiarize him/herself with the layout of the building, how to use the lockers, get use to the bell system, etc.

Most schools have “Step Up Days” for students going to a new school. This usually involves traveling to the new building with one’s class, going on a tour and familiarizing oneself with the new environment and people. Sometimes an assembly is held by the principal. The student with AS can go on this trip but s/he will need his/her own individual or small group tour as it gets closer to the end of the school year. This tour takes place with a “trusted adult” from the sending school and once at the receiving school they are introduced to “key players.” They experience the change of classes, bell system, observe the hallways and sit in on a class. During this visit, or at a more convenient time, photographs of places and people may be taken to be used in the Transition Book or GoodBye/Hello Book.

The student should know who his teacher will be before he leaves school for the summer (at the pre-K-elementary level) as well as who will be in his class. If known in June then the student should meet his assistant as well and see his new classroom. However, usually assistants aren’t hired until the end of the summer. If the assistant can be identified prior to the start of the school year, then an overlap/training period should take place between the current assistant and the new one. For the upper grades, the student should know which team/cluster s/he will be placed with and meet these teachers prior to the end of the school year. He should revisit classroom(s) and teacher(s) prior to the start of school (August) when other students aren’t there. This visit should occur once the desks are set up; so s/he can see where his/her seat will be and how the room is set up. Some elementary teachers schedule a date for all students and parents to visit prior to the start of school; if this is the case then he/she should attend this date as well.

Older students may want to write/dictate/type a letter to their new teacher that focuses on what they want their new teacher(s) to know about them. This takes whatever form the student wants (CD, video, written work, art etc).

A box of tools, visuals, social stories etc. that were used with the student should move with him/her to the next grade/school (even if they are no longer in use but were once helpful). This box is a history of where the student once was and what tools helped him/her progress to where s/he is now. If after the observations and meetings, new areas of need are identified that will need supports (i.e. changing and showering for physical education classes), then as many of these supports should be created prior to the start of the new school year as possible. They may include any number of things (rule boards, visual schedules, calendars, social stories etc.) Identify areas of potential difficulty and modify if necessary. Also create structures (i.e. homework folders, home/school communication systems, etc) prior to the start of the school year or during the first month or so.

Students with AS need a “safe person” and a “safe place” when they are overwhelmed. During a major transition it is critical that especially the “safe place” is identified prior to or at the very beginning of the start of the new school year. The child may need two spaces, one that is in the room and one outside the room (elementary level). At the upper grades usually the safe place is outside the classroom spaces. This allows it to be built in proactively into behavioral plans. The safe person may be identified as well but s/he may unfold as the year progresses. The person who was identified may not be who the child has chosen, so be flexible. As much as possible should remain consistent from one year to the next regarding expectations, etc. Utilize “tried and true” methods/approaches (behavior, social, emotional etc.) from one year to the next, if still appropriate, and then adjust as the year progresses.

Another useful tool is a “Helpful Hints Sheet”. This handout is passed out at the beginning of the school year to all staff that has contact with the student including regular ed., specialists, special ed., recess and lunch monitors, etc. (with parent permission). This is a two-page document that typically includes the following: 1) a description of what AS is and what it is not (i.e. the aberrant behaviors are not malicious, intentional etc.), 2) a description of the student’s strengths and interests, 3) a description of how the disability affects the child (i.e. attention, sensory issues, organization, etc.) and 4) includes key areas that are impacted and how they are addressed (transitions, unexpected change, fire drills etc.). After giving people a chance to read it (about two weeks), the team chairperson or a primary service provider goes back to each person to check in (i.e. Do you have any questions? Has the information impacted your teaching style, classroom structure, expectations? Can I/team help you in any way? etc.)

Usually, staff training by someone with knowledge of AS should be provided during the summer or at the start of the school year and ongoing to help facilitate the success of the student and the team working with the student.

Make sure the student’s sensory diet/needs are identified in terms of what interventions are calming and which ones are alerting. If the new building does not have an sensory integration space, then begin early to identify how the student’s needs will be met and what will be done to address the problem of space. Prior sensory diets should also be written up and passed on to the receiving team.

Students with AS usually require a lot of planning and modifications. It is important to build into the new IEP consultation time among team members (at least 30-45 minutes a week).

The following sheet, Planning for the Future, was created by Judy Gooen, O.T. It also helps in the transition planning process:

Think back to September; what information do you wish you had been given about your student?

What strategies do you think have been successful?

 

in the classroom

 

during lunch

 

socially

 

during PE

 

during music

 

during art

 

with transitions

 

with organization

 

What helps your student to calm down?

 

What is likely to set your student off?

 
As you can see there is much to be done to assist the student with AS with his/her transition. Hopefully, these guidelines will help you in your transition planning. So what are you waiting for? There’s much to be done-start taking those photographs!

Dot Lucci, C.A.G.S. has worked as an educational consultant with schools and families all over the U.S. She is currently the Program Director of MGH Aspire. She has served on the AANE board and written classic articles about working effectively with students with Asperger profiles.