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Middle School Transition: Curves in the Road Up Ahead

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By David F. Freschi, MA
Autism Asperger’s Digest
| January/February 2011

Johnnie, Suzie, Igor, and Ralph are four students on the autism spectrum who are moving to middle school next year. Overall, their parents and teachers have been pleased with the educational program set up for these students during elementary school. Each child has steadily progressed, in some areas more than others, but as a whole, things have been good. The adults in their lives are quietly hopeful that their progress will continue. After all, history tends to repeat itself, right?

Not quite. The transition to middle school of a spectrum student can be a huge stumbling block for many parents – and educators. Adults tend to think of it as “a” transition, happening at “a” point in time, when in reality it involves a continuous series of transitions across many domains that our kids will have to deal with over the next few years. Savvy parents and educators recognize that this significant “life shift” needs to be planned for well in advance of the child’s last year in elementary school, and that some of the tools that worked so well up until now may not work anymore or have to be significantly modified. The transition to middle school requires a pioneering spirit on the part of both adults and the spectrum students: being willing to let go of the old, venture out into uncharted territory, and embrace the curves in the road that lie ahead. That’s quite a tall order for most kids with autism or Asperger’s…and often a shocking revelation for their parents.

Where Changes Occur

Being aware of the different domains where changes occur is the first step. Let’s look at some of these areas of concern.

Environment. The school environment is going to change. In most cases, the child will leave the safety, security, and familiarity of elementary school and experience a new building, perhaps in a new part of town, and everything new within it. Our students will face more movement from class to class, hallways that are less controlled, more sensory input, and in many cases, significantly more students.

Academics and Content. Academic expectations shift in middle school. More abstract concepts are being introduced; work loads mushroom and time pressures increase. Homework and class interaction become a serious part of the student’s grade. Accommodations and modifications will be necessary and yet, will be more difficult to put into place.

People. Adult contact expands. Gone are the days of a student having one teacher; instead there may be four or five teachers and other new adults making up the school day. For some of these teachers, your child may be their first experience with a student on the spectrum. Others may not be as accepting as we might wish. Add to this the pressures that teachers are under in today’s educational setting to get large groups of kids to perform up to standards while managing ever increasing amounts of paperwork, and we have some real-life challenges that can seriously interfere with teaching and learning.

Rules. In elementary school our student spent most of the day in one classroom and lived by that teacher’s set of rules. In middle school our student will have to learn to accommodate the rules of four to five educators. To make matters even more difficult, social rules become more nebulous and shift much more quickly in middle school. Teachers hold higher expectations that a student will exhibit sound social thinking, and situation-appropriate social skills. Middle school can be a daily minefield for many of our socially-challenged spectrum students.

Peers. Those supportive and understanding peers from elementary school may still be helpful, but they are experiencing major changes in their own development. Puberty has raised its confusing head. Social expectations of the unwritten kind change almost daily, keeping peers very busy and self-involved as they try to figure out their path through this stage of development. We may start to see some distancing from our student with ASD.

Schedules. Gone are the days of the predictable schedule that fits neatly on a visual chart. Our students will need to adjust to A weeks, B weeks, longer periods, different lunch schedules and an even busier and more socially demanding cafeteria. Specials will be on alternating weeks or even on alternating days. Shortened school days will run on yet another schedule with different lunch periods.

Strategies to Smooth the Transition

Seems overwhelming – even exhausting – just to read about it, doesn’t it? And, we are expecting our spectrum students to learn to successfully navigate this new world of higher demands, frequent change, and shifting priorities, often without much more than a visit to the new school, or a meet-and-greet with new teachers. The transition to middle school can wreck havoc with our students if we let things get out of control. The key is to think and plan ahead.

Environment. Learn what the environment is going to look like long before our student arrives at the new school, and then acclimate the student to it. This includes locations of classes, support and recreation areas. Identify and introduce staff, especially those who can provide support if needed. Use a keen eye to discern parts of the environment that might be potential trouble spots, and plan extra supports and presetting for our student. A floor plan of the school with routes marked out might be needed. A visit to the classrooms when they are not in use can be very helpful for some of our students. If middle school is in a new part of town or a separate building arrange one or more practice runs on the bus because that route and timetable will probably be different.

Academics and Content. Ramped-up academic demands mean students are expected to work harder and smarter. Some of our kids will get swallowed up quickly and fall seriously behind. This transition merits that educators and parents ask some serious questions. How large is the learning gap? If the content gap between the child with ASD and typical classmates is more than two to three years, any teacher is going to have a hard time modifying content effectively. Are all the academic classes beneficial for this student, or should more emphasis be given to teaching life skills that will be needed after high school? Can tests be adjusted so the student can be successful and get a legitimate grade? If the student requires para support, is the para properly trained in ASD? Does the para understand how to do simple and approved accommodations and modifications? If the student still requires 1:1 support for tests, homework, and discussion, what advance planning needs to happen for this to occur? How much and what type of contact is needed between the regular ed and spec ed teachers to accommodate the student’s learning needs? This can be difficult sometimes, but a communication network is the mark of a good team.

People. It’s a fact of life that our students will need to learn to effectively interface with many more people starting in middle school, and continuing into high school and beyond. Plan ahead to help the student be successful. Arrange for the student to meet the teachers before the first day of school. Ensure that teachers have been given information about the child’s strengths and challenges, learning style, and what strategies work well with the student. This is an administrative responsibility. Teachers cannot be expected to learn on the run. It is unfair to them and the student, and starts the year out on a bad note. In every school where we have had the opportunity to do this ahead of time we have seen better results for our students, higher interest from teachers, and better communication.

Make sure there are at least four to five adults willing to be “safe” stations for our students when problems occur. You can find people in every school who are more than happy to do this, provided they are approached and given the information they need. We’ve seen secretaries, school safety officers, custodians, librarians, and administrators fill this role. This variety helps our students learn to problem solve in different ways and be flexible in their thinking. If our student still needs 1:1 support, some different thinking is in order. It’s time to promote independence in the student’s thinking and acting by creating some distance, stepping back from social settings so that learning can take place, and making every effort to not become (or continue to be) a crutch. How to tell? Observe how the student acts when the 1:1 is nearby. Does he turn to the para whenever he gets stuck rather than approaching the teacher? Does the student’s attention to the teacher decrease when the para is close by? If either of these things is happening we are not fostering independence and need to adjust how support is delivered.

Rules. This is an extremely challenging part of the middle school transition for many of our students. Ease them into it slowly. Use social stories to talk about different teacher’s rules and expectations, or create diagrams of school rules and what can/cannot be done where and with whom. By giving our student this information right from the start they have a much better chance to adjust. If you haven’t already, incorporate social thinking strategies into the child’s learning program. Teach about rule exceptions and rule flexibility, and the “hidden social curriculum.” Teach about nonverbal communication, reading faces and body postures, and give students ample opportunities to practice. Some of these skills take months – or years – to learn, and a social skills session once a week is not going to be enough. Use some of the new and exciting social thinking curricula now available. Impress on those who work with the student that the entire day is a series of social learning opportunities. Passing in the hallway, using the locker room, waiting for class to start, hanging out between classes… these are all opportunities for teaching social thinking and social acting skills. Set weekly targets for learning social skills. With our students, direct teaching is a must; these skills won’t happen by osmosis alone.

Peers. Even though peers are going through myriad changes of their own during middle school, they can still be important members of the learning team. Identify early on students who are mature and responsible. Talk to them, provide basic education on ASD, and enlist their help. We have found it best to identify a small group of support peers and rotate their involvement, both to help our student become more flexible, and to avoid  “burn out” in the peers. If we overuse a peer to the point where helping is a chore rather than an adventure, we close the door to friendships and learning opportunities for the student. It is vital to teach peers positive strategies that help our student learn; we don’t want baby sitters. Be alert to signs of bullying and intervene early.

Schedules. Schedules build independence. If the student is not already used to carrying and using a schedule or planning book, start immediately! Set up a specific time each day to review the schedule and add items to it. Make sure the format is age appropriate as the student moves to middle school. For instance, if the student still requires full visuals and icons try moving them into a foldable binder that is more appropriate. Choose a binder that looks like a day planner instead of a “therapy” item. Capitalize on teen technology! Consider teaching the student to use an electronic device to hold a schedule, or use scheduling apps or reminders via an iPad or iPhone. Reduce “check your schedule” language. As long as you are willing to keep reminding her, there is no need for the student to take responsibility. A great trick is to play “dumb.” When the student shows confusion just point to the schedule or hand it to him without saying anything. Put a problem solving routine in place: First I look at my schedule. If I’m still confused I ask a peer. If that doesn’t work I can then ask an adult.

A successful transition to middle school comes about through advance preparation, relevant teaching, and solid planning. It is not a one-time intervention, but rather an ongoing smorgasbord of learning opportunities and challenges to be met. While the child is still in elementary school, begin looking ahead for these challenges, and teach necessary skills while there is ample time for learning. Maximize all opportunities for learning within the school day, especially social learning. Do this and your students will flourish and be successful in their middle school experience.


David F. Freschi, MA, operates Simple Good Ideas, a nationwide consultation and training service for school districts and organizations, with an emphasis on practical solutions that work. He has more than 30 years successful experience with children and adults with ASD. Visit www.sgilearn.com for more information.

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

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