10 Things Educators Can Do Before Day One to Support Students on the Autism Spectrum (and a Giveaway!)

Today we have a guest post from Barbara Boroson, author of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom, How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD. Barbara is a nationally-recognized professional development provider with 25 years of experience in autism spectrum education, and is the mother of a teenage son with ASD. She brings her unique perspective as both educator and parent to guide teachers in creating learning environments that are attuned to the needs of children with ASD and allow all students to learn and grow together. Here, she provides valuable and practical insight on how educators can prepare to support their students with ASD before the first day of school.

Every student on the autism spectrum will enter your classroom bearing a backpack full of worries. If they can’t put those worries down when the new school year begins, then toting that heavy load will become a way of life at school, a learned behavior. Each day they will return to school burdened and compromised by the worries on their backs. Seize this time during the summer to prepare a classroom that exudes comfort, clarity, and consistency, so that students can offload their worries and be ready to learn, even on day one.

Here is a basic list of what you can do before day one to ease the transition for students on the spectrum:

1. Reach out to families. Send home a questionnaire that asks about strengths, challenges, anxiety triggers, and comfort anchors (find one specially designed for this purpose at www.barbaraboroson.com). Learn what makes your students tick—as well as what makes them tic. Any anecdotal information that emerges from these contacts will help you pave the way for day one and beyond.

2. Talk to colleagues who may have had experience with these specific students so that you can benefit from both their struggles and successes. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel; instead, plan to use tried and true strategies both to establish continuity, and, of course, to avoid known provocations and potholes.

3. Spend some time with your co-teacher and/or classroom paraprofessional to clarify roles together.You and your co-teacher may prefer to take turns leading the class, or to divide lessons and tasks according to your own strengths and interests. Get yourselves in sync in terms of decoding and responding to behaviors (as described throughout my new book, Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom: How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD). With paraprofessionals, review professional expectations and rules of confidentiality, and share the Fact & Tip Sheet (p.233), which was created just for them.

4. Arrange for students on the spectrum to visit your classroom shortly before the school year begins. The issues that are important to them may be quite different than you’d expect. They may be comforted by discovering what the classroom smells like, what they can see from their assigned seat, what kind of clock is on the wall, what color your hair is, and more. With students on the spectrum, first impressions are really lasting impressions. Try to make this visit a good one.

5. Create a visual schedule for the first day of school. Students on the spectrum have a compelling need to know what to expect. If possible, have the first-day schedule posted when students visit. Show them how to interpret and manipulate it. And when school begins, stick to it!

6. Avoid seating these students near expectable distractions or sensory provocateurs, such as the loudspeaker, the windows, the easel, the gerbil cage, the Bunsen burner, the microwave, the bathroom, and so on. Remember, it may all be perceived as much louder, brighter, and smellier to students on the spectrum than it is to you.

7. Restrain yourself from decorating every inch of wall space. A disorganized external environment fuels a disorganized internal environment. Instead, create clear, uncluttered spaces with minimalist decorations that are comforting and comprehensible, while still attractive to others. Eventually, as students on the spectrum become familiar with the classroom, you might be able to add more elements to the decor; but at first, less is definitely more.

8. If possible, designate a small corner of your classroom as a Cozy Corner or Sensory Space. Soften it up with some basics comforts: pillows or beanbag chairs, a small rug, a couple of stuffed animals, a few friendly books and magazines. If you’ve learned what might specifically comfort certain students, add that, too. This may become a comfy place for any student who needs to decompress a bit, but for your students on the spectrum, it will be a sanctuary.

9. Post basic classroom rules in clear, simple language. Students on the spectrum may not generalize that some rules are consistent from one classroom to the next, while others vary from teacher to teacher. They also won’t necessarily infer that classroom rules are different from, say, gym rules. But once they understand the rules, these students are likely to be your most reliable rule-followers.

10. Brush away your doubts and polish up your confidence. You can do this. Really. It’s important to believe that, because thinking positive will keep you feeling optimistic. And staying optimistic will optimize progress and sustain the positive atmosphere. It’s an upward spiral.

These ideas are just a beginning—alone, they won’t get you through the year. But, they’ll help get you and your students on the spectrum off to a gentle start. There will be plenty of fine-tuning to do later and you can read all about that in Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom: How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD. But for now, just lighten the load.

As a national keynote speaker on Autism Spectrum Disorder, Barbara travels the country, providing presentations and professional development workshops to educators. Barbara’s full list of schedule speaking events, which can be found here, includes the International Literacy Association (ILA) conference in Boston, MA on July 9th.

GIVEAWAY! 

We are giving five readers the chance to win a copy of Autism Spectrum Disorder in the Inclusive Classroom, How to Reach and Teach Students with ASD. To enter for a chance to win, leave a comment below telling us what you are most anxious about as you prepare to work with students on the spectrum in the coming school year. One entry per person. All entries must be submitted by 5:59 p.m. ET on July 17, 2016. U.S. residents, 18 and over, please. See the complete legal rules here.

 

 

 

Comments

In Kinder it's hard to decipher children with ASD as most have not be specifically formally diagnosed. We do our best to accommodate but most aren't evaluated until the Spring semester of the school year. Therefore we need all the help/suggestions we can to help these students to succeed in our classrooms.

Hi Karen. It is, indeed, extra-hard when these students have not been diagnosed yet. They come to you without a roadmap (ie. without an IEP), and without mandated supports in place, so you have to carve out your own path. But as I say in my book, to help these students it doesn't so much matter what their precise address is along the spectrum, or whether they are even on the spectrum. If you see what you believe to be spectrum challenges or behaviors, go ahead and try some of the simple adaptations I recommend. For example, making the day more predictable by providing clear and concrete daily visual schedules can't possible hurt. It can only help, even in the absence of an official diagnosis. Good luck!

Because I am a Teacher Librarian I see students as a specialist...not every day. I'm anxious about how to provide for the structure needs of students on the autism spectrum in my middle school library.

Hi Linda. For sure, libraries and students on the autism spectrum can be a rough combination! These students often have trouble shifting gears, so they may need a little extra time and support modulating their "classroom" or "hallway voices" into "library voices." A couple of suggestions: Visual schedules are very helpful for these students. You might want to work with the classroom teacher to create a portable schedule for these students to carry with them from the classroom to the library, delineating all expectations for the transition. Then have a schedule for library time ready and waiting when they arrive. Another challenge you may face is getting these students engaged in reading. Most students on the autism spectrum have very specific interests that preoccupy them. Find out what your students' preoccupations are, and offer them books on those topics. A great strategy is to get them engaged in a series of books. Once they are familiar with the protagonists, it is much easier to engage them in additional books with the same, familiar protagonists. In my book, I offer detailed strategies for using series of books to engage these special readers. I also have a Fact & Tip sheet specifically for special-area teachers, including librarians. I hope you'll "check it out!"

I have a child coming in whose parent does not see their child's need. I feel this book would be a great help to me.

Hi Kristin. Fortunately or unfortunately, you are in good company. Lots of educators struggle with parents who are having trouble coming to terms with their child's need. I know this because I have been one of those educators AND I have been one of those parents! Keep in mind: No parents wants to hear that their child is struggling or not achieving. I do have a couple of suggestions: First, the best way to support these parents is to let them know that you care about and value their child. These parents don't get a lot of positive feedback or gratification. So start off conversations with parents by sharing something positive: "He's our best calendar keeper!" Or, "She's our SpongeBob expert!" This will demonstrate to the parents that you see and appreciate the whole child as more than just her challenges, and then parents will be more open to hearing the difficulties you present next. Also, if parents doubt your classroom observations, let them know that the child you see at school may be quite different from the one they see at home because school presents a different set of important challenges than home does. I talk about this a lot in Chapter 6 of my book. I hope it's helpful!

It was so nice hearing you speak today. I look forward to using your advice with my students.

Hi Katie. Thanks! It was great chatting with you after my session. Good luck on your new journey and please let me know where you land!

This 2016-2017 school year is fastly approaching and
My number one concern is although I may work for a cooperative in a public school building I want my 14 life skills students to be incorporated with everything the school does, I want to be able to give other teachers insight on incorporating and understanding my students and the reasons behind the disability and being able to really grasp my principal this year to wanting my kids included instead of excluded. It's a big passion of mine I advocate every day for them but feel this is a huge struggle for me as others are quick to judge.. It's me against the school

Hi Margo. Good for you! I love your inclusive spirit! Instead of thinking "It's me against the school," maybe you can think of it as, "It's me leading the way to inclusion!" Inclusion must extend beyond the walls of the classroom to involve everyone from custodians and coaches to superintendents and secretaries. At the back of my new book, I have included four different reproducible Fact & Tip sheets that are meant to help teachers just like you share important information about ASD with all faculty and staff. I'm excited to help you lead the charge toward true inclusion!

I am anxious due to the wide spectrum. I TSS and that has given me great experience and background knowledge. But transitioning from a catholic school to public I know I will experience a wide range of abilities. I fully believe all students can learn and I would love to add extra backup and support to provide my students with the best learning experience. Thanks for the great tip!

Hi Kristen. Thanks for writing. I'm sure you will need to differentiate even more in public school than you have before. Please let me know if I can help. It sounds as though your students will be very lucky to have you.

I really wished that I had this book last year to work with a student who was diagnosed at the end of the school year. I am looping up to fourth grade with this same child and I believe that this book will help me develop a richer relationship and understanding of my student.

Hi Sheila. It's great that your student will have continuity with you next year. Continuity helps these students bypass a lot of anxiety—especially at the beginning of the year! I LOVE that your goal is a "richer relationship and understanding." Go for it!

I am excited to be in my second year of looping with my students, but still need to figure out a couple reasons for behaviors for my ASD students. I look forward to seeing how our second year together goes in reducing anxiety.

Hi Julie. I'm sure that your presence alone will go a long way toward reducing anxiety. But anxiety in students on the spectrum can come from so many directions: unexpected change, executive dysfunction, sensory imbalance, social stress, organizational difficulties, communication challenges, and many other places. There are lots of ways to ease those burdens on students so the anxiety can lift. You can find lots of strategies in my book. I hope you're able to break through!

I am the principal of an elementary school where we teach preschool -6th grade. We have many students on the spectrum in every grade level. Our teachers are working very hard to learn the best strategies to support these kiddos and do a great job. However, it remains one of our biggest challenges, especially for our newer teachers. I would like to use this book to help me continue our professional learning throughout the school year.

Hi Stephanie. Thanks for writing! Your teachers are very lucky to have you. The teachers you describe are just the ones I wrote this book for: teachers who may or may not be new to teaching, but are new to students on the spectrum. I worked hard to make the book very accessible and engaging so teachers can turn to it easily whenever they need it. (Who's got time to dig in to something dense and dry?) I hope you all find it helpful. I'd love to further support your professional learning efforts by coming to speak at your district. Please keep me in mind!

I am a kindergarten teacher in an inclusion classroom. I am always looking for new ways to make my students feel comfortable and successful. I look forward to reading your book and sharing it with my colleagues.

Hi Susan. Thanks for writing. "Comfortable and successful" are fantastic goals! I love your openness to learning. Good luck!

I'm not so worried about working with the children. My concern is the parents who are in denial regarding their child's special needs.

Hi Debra. You are not alone. Did you know that your concern is the MOST COMMON concern I hear from teachers all over the country when it comes to working with students on the autism spectrum? As someone who is both a special educator and the parent of a teen on the spectrum, I have sat on both sides of the table for the kinds of interactions you describe. Please take a look at my response to Kristin, above. Absolutely, sometimes parents do respond with denial. But there's a whole lot of pain and loss and grief and and exhaustion and fear behind their resistance. I can tell you first-hand that no parents want to hear that their child is challenged in significant ways. But also, sometimes parents really don't see the same challenges at home that you see at school. Really! There are a lot of reasons that can happen, as I describe in my book. One of those reasons is that school poses much different challenges than home does; home may be a lot easier for kids to handle. Explain to parents that school provides important life skills that their kids to learn, and those may be challenging. Assure parents that you want to help their child be the best s/he can be. But please lead with positives and tread lightly. You're in very delicate emotional territory here!

We have a youngster who is moving up to 3 rd grade. As academics get more rigorous I worry about his lack of participation and his disruptive behaviors. Children are less forgiving/accepting as they get older. How can we teach them to hold on to that innocent acceptance they display in primary grades?

Hi Sue. Third grade is a pivotal year, as you know—and not only academically. Just as the curriculum gets more abstract, socialization gets more abstract, too, and the social differences among kids on the spectrum become more apparent to everyone. In my book I offer lots of suggestions about cultivating a classroom community. One of my favorite ways to promote acceptance among peers is to choose books for read-alouds and for your classroom library that exemplify many different kinds of challenges and struggles—bullying, discrimination, persecution, physical disability, cognitive disability, etc.. I'm not talking about heavy-handed books; just wonderful books that happen to model tolerance and acceptance. I have a list of recommended books like these, both non-fiction and fiction, on my website at www.barbaraboroson.com/further-reading/books-for-children/. They are organized by theme and reading level. I hope you'll have a look. Please let me know if you can suggest any great books like these that I've missed!

So excited about another great book from you Barbara. While I will not be in the classroom as a head teacher again next year, I will be continuing to run my social skills programs. I am definitely looking to get more information from parents and will check out your questionnaires. Also looking to spruce up our "quiet corner". Great stuff! Thanks so much.

Thank you, Katharine! The kids in your social skills groups are lucky to have you guiding them!

I will have a new student transferring into our school this year. Our school team has met with his previous team and he has toured the school. I am anxious because I do not know him well yet. After hearing your talk we will need to invite him to come in a day or two before school starts to see his classroom again.

HI Bonnie. Thanks for attending my session! I agree that another visit, specifically to your classroom, would help this little guy to know what to expect. Meanwhile, I'm sure you'll feel better once you get to know more about him. Don't forget to send home my questionnaire that asks his parents or caregivers all about what he is interested in, what kinds of things set him off, what helps, and what makes it worse. (www.barbaraboroson.com/wordpress/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/BBFamilyQues...) That way YOU'LL know what to expect, too! Good luck!

Autism needed more library support. This year I have committed to supporting the 27 districts and 99 school libraries I work with to provide better services. I appreciate the opportunity to win this prize.
Thanks

Hi Susan. 27 districts and 99 libraries?! Wow! I hope you'll have a look at my response to Linda, above, who is also a concerned librarian. Good luck!

Hi Barbara, I hope it isn't nepotism for me to enter!

I had several students on the spectrum in my introductory college astronomy class last semester. I mentioned to them and their helpers that my cousin has written books on teaching students with autism! However, if I had a copy of one of your books to learn from myself, I might be an even better teacher to my students!

Bram

Hi Bram! Thanks for chiming in! The very fact that you have college-level astronomy students on the autism spectrum is surely an inspiration to all of the struggling elementary and secondary teachers out there who lose hope sometimes.

(I have no control as to who wins the giveaway. But maybe you can broker a book trade between me and Matthew...)

I am most anxious about doing the wrong thing that will upset the student. I never what to hurt or make a student sad or upset about anything, when they are already nervous about school. I plan and practice for each day so things will go smoothly. Wishing for a good year.

Hi DeeAnn. It's great that you're doing all you can to prepare for your students. Just be careful not to blame yourself if one of them has a meltdown or an outburst on your watch. Things happen. And students on the spectrum can be pretty unpredictable, so what worked beautifully yesterday could blow up in your face today. Probably the best preparation you can do is to be flexible within a highly structured environment. That may sound paradoxical, but you'll want to be patient and supportive no matter what comes, while gently restoring structure as soon as possible. I think your students will perceive the same kindness and dedication in you that I perceive in you, and that will take you--and them--far.

These tips are really helpful! I provide instructional coaching and PD to teachers in Catholic schools where the support is different for students with differing learning needs. These tips and your response to comments are really helpful in my attempts to support teachers who in turn support their students and parents.

Thanks, Michelle! So glad to hear that this is helpful. Thanks for all you're doing to help students on the spectrum, their teachers, and their families!

I am a speech provider in a public school and work with several students who are ASD, it is so frustrating when their parents are not proactive in their educational development an it's left up to the teachers and related service providers to be the ones who are responsible for their education, as well for their general well being.

Hi Lisa. It is truly frustrating when we work so hard at school and then parents don't take initiative or don't follow through on what we put in place at school. But I would ask you to take a minute and consider what it really feels like to be the parents of those children. I can tell you, from my experience: It feels exhausting, exasperating, and sometimes overwhelmingly hopeless. Instead of enjoying their kids the way most parents are able to do, these parents struggle to get through every single day, struggle with the high costs of therapeutic interventions, worry that their other children aren't getting their share of the attention, worry constantly about the future, and often feel quite defeated. So they may not always have any emotional or practical energy left to be proactive or even responsive in the ways you think they should. Many times, those six hours that their child is at school provides the only break these parents ever get from the relentless demands of their special kids; parents place their kids in your expert care and take a moment to catch their breath. So I would suggest that you try to connect with the parents on an emotional level first: Try acknowledging that you can't even imagine how hard it must be to raise a child with special challenges. Ask them what it's like. Reassure them that their child is making great progress in some area (find SOMEthing you can be positive about), and ask them if there is anything they would like you to work on. Then, if they can begin to see you as a supporter and collaborator who is willing to work on an area they're concerned about, then perhaps they'll be able to work on an area you're concerned about. But in some cases, those parents just really need a break. Life with kids on the spectrum can be really hard. Trust that they're doing the best they can.