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Best Practices School Wide

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Best Practices School Wide

By James Ball, EdD, BCBA-D

Autism Asperger’s Digest | September/October 2011


In previous articles in this 2011 series on “Best Practices in the Elementary Years” we’ve focused on topics ranging from legislative mandates for using best practices to teaching and behavior management strategies best suited for the student with ASD. Today we back up to address the younger child and parents’ initial quest to find an elementary school that offers an environment and curriculum designed with ASD best practices in mind.

As a parent, you understand that your child with autism or Asperger’s has a very unique learning profile. Your goal is to find a school that understands this as well. Your child’s learning style, his strengths and challenges, may be markedly different than that of another child with autism. The school right for the child of parents you met at a support group meeting might be disastrous for your child and your family. Your job, as a parent, is to carefully and thoroughly investigate potential elementary schools to find the “best fit.” You have a right – and a responsibility – to ask questions and expect intelligent answers from the professionals at those schools.

That said, there are common factors you should look for in your initial evaluation of a school. A good starting point is to familiarize yourself with the National Institute of Mental Health guidelines on choosing the right school environment:

  • How successful has the program been with other students with autism?
  • How is their track record in placing other students in their school program?
  • Do staff members have training in working with students with autism?
  • How are activities planned and organized?
  • Are their predictable daily schedules and routines?
  • How much individual attention will the child receive?
  • How is progress measured? Will behavior be closely observed and recorded?
  • Will the child be given tasks and rewards that are personally motivating?
  • Is the environment designed to minimize distractions?
  • Will the program carry over home in the home?

It is critical that you get quality answers to these questions. They will give you a clear picture of what the school environment has to offer to your child.

— Through assessments, observation and your input, the School team will learn this profile and assist in knowing what’s a “right fit”.

A very important area to probe into is staff training – perhaps the most important aspect of any program. Through assessments, observation and your input, the school’s team will become familiar with your child’s learning profile and be able to determine what will be a “right fit” for your child. That is, if they are first well-versed in ASD and best practices for spectrum children. It’s a prerequisite that the school have teaching staff specifically trained in best practice techniques for students with autism. However, it is equally important that all staff (i.e., gym/art/music teachers, secretaries, janitors, bus drivers, etc.) have some training on how to interact with spectrum children. Also look for peer training – a program designed to teach other students who will interact with the child. Often these programs consist of lessons on “differences” done with the whole class, including the child with autism. I always like to introduce a scavenger hunt that tasks kids to look for physical differences in each other, which then leads into a discussion about behavioral differences and learning differences.

When reviewing the school environment and the program, look for these best practices: the use of visual strategies in classrooms; positive reinforcement practices; functional communication systems; repetition in teaching; the use of shaping and chaining in curriculum; and appropriate prompting techniques. Other “special” teachers who come into contact with the student with autism should be familiar with these same techniques and use them, maybe not to the same degree as the child’s primary teacher. Other staff/program qualities to look for:

Enthusiasm. It is critical that children want to be part of the classroom activities. Teachers who are as enthusiastic as possible capture their students’ attention. They know the child and know how loud or soft to be with him. They choose well-matched partners for the child during group activities based on this same idea. These teachers make the lesson an event the child enjoys, so he wants to come back for more.

Focus on Fun. The activity has to be fun for the child with autism. If it’s not fun, the child’s attention and focus will wander. Participation will be difficult. Teachers who use best practices understand children with ASD enjoy visuals; they use them to capture and maintain attention.

But they also understand that each child is different, and watch the child to learn what he or she considers fun and engaging. One a child is having fun, other activities can be slowly introduced.

Preferred Activity to Start. Does the program lesson start with something the child loves to do and can be successful doing? It should. That creates “buy in” for the lessons to come, and provides teachers with something to refer back to if the child’s attention starts to fade.

Abundant Choices. As much as possible, and in as many situations as possible, is the child given choices? Of course there are the non-negotiables, but aside from these, is there an emphasis on abundant choice-making? Do you want the red or green paper? Would you like to color or paint? Would you prefer to read sitting in the chair or on the floor?

Appropriate Structure. In the beginning, the program agenda should be very tight and structured so children learn the routine and become more comfortable in it. Look for minimal down time, because it is during these nebulous “what do I do now” times that inappropriate behaviors surface. The structure should be flexible however. As the child becomes more and more comfortable, the program should begin to introduce choices and allow a more natural way of learning based on the child’s individual profile of strengths and challenges.

Positive, Supportive Atmosphere. Walk around the school and notice the tone and feel of it. Meet the office staff and school administrators. Ask questions to assess their attitudes toward children with disabilities. Is it positive and supportive, or negative and neglectful? Probe beyond the basic questions until you’re sure you’ve gotten to core attitudes. What kind of support, supervision and encouragement does the classroom staff receive from administration? What is the turnover rate among regular and special education staff? This will tell you a great deal about how supportive the administration is toward staff.

A school with a structured curriculum in place, ample opportunities for basic and ongoing specialized training in all aspects of ASD, a child-focused attitude toward programming, and a supervisor who is knowledge about ASD will be much better equipped to help your child learn and grow to his fullest potential. Be cautious about schools and/or programs whose success depends heavily on one special teacher or staff person who works “magic” with students with autism, an administration that doesn’t display an active, ongoing commitment to teacher training, and program staff who are untrained and inexperienced with autism. As a parent, you understand your child and his individual learning profile; let your gut reaction guide you in finding the school that will be the best match and lead your child to success.


Jim Ball has been working in the field of autism for 20+ years helping children, teens, and adults with ASD. Learn more about Jim’s consulting services at www.jbautismconsulting.com.

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2011. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.


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