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The Transition to Elementary School

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Best Practices in the Elementary Years

The Transition to Elementary School

By Jim Ball, EdD, BCBA-D

Autism Asperger’s Digest | January/February 2011


For the past year or so of this column we have been exploring the world of Early Intervention, federally defined as birth to age 3 services. As a whole, EI is very family focused and child directed in making sure skills are being built to the maximum extent possible to ready the child for moving into public school. We’ve addressed topics ranging from RTI to critical life skills, milestones to meltdowns. Readers acquired a firm foundation of knowledge about ways to help their children during the early years, and hopefully, this inspired you to see the endless possibilities that exist in your children. You learned that over and above the services, parents are truly the driving force in the education of their child, no matter where that child falls on the autism spectrum.

This year, it’s time to move on to the next stage of your child’s development, the transition into public school, and for the purposes of this column, the elementary years from ages 3-9. It’s a whopping change that catches many parents off guard, leaving them scratching their heads and saying, “Whaaaat???” You need to be prepared and understand the shift in focus, and know how to deal with it best. And, that’s what we’ll do over the next six columns. We’ll explore what this transition entails, how to pick the best type of programs for your child, and how you’ll want to look at your child from a whole new perspective than you did during the EI years. Let’s get started!

Federal legislation defines the school years as ages 3-21. That means that once your child celebrates his or her third birthday, the child ages out of EI services and programs, and the responsibility for the child’s education falls to your local public school system. And with that shift of just one day, the world as you know it can change, often dramatically. Does your child magically change? Of course not! Your son or daughter won’t recognize this shift in who does what, and how, and how often (at least, at first he won’t notice) but you certainly will! If you both are to be successful as you learn to navigate this changing landscape, you need to prepare yourself and your child.

Just how is public school different from the Early Intervention system? Some of the differences are obvious and some are nebulous. Some differences are purposeful and others arise when the public school program falls short of its intended mission and structure. Among the differences you might notice are these:

  • A shift in focus from services that address the family/family needs to services only for the child.
  • A shift in the location of services, from at home or natural settings to classroom-based services.
  • Teachers replace parents as the child’s primary learning guide.
  • Parents no longer qualify for direct training on issues related to the child’s behavior, communication, social skills, sensory needs, etc.
  • Related services are reduced to those that mainly impact the child’s education; services such as respite care, family/individual therapy, daily self-help skills are no longer provided as part of the program.
  • Unless the child has an aide, teaching shifts to group settings, with reduced one-on-one attention given to the child.
  • A shift in the teacher’s expectations of the child. Children entering public school programs, even preschool programs, are expected to have a basic skill set, know how to play with others, follow the teacher’s directions, say please and thank you, act appropriately in a group, be able to pay attention, stay seated, etc. Teachers do not expect that “regular classroom instruction” includes individualized attention in helping the child acquire these skills. They expect them to already be there in the child.

This may look and feel a lot different from the family-centered, child-focused environment that was Early Intervention. And it is! This is your new reality, and you need to prepare yourself for this transition. How? First, you start by making sure you know your child well: what are his strengths? How does he learn best? Where, and to what extent, does she lag behind her peers in communication, social skills, basic skills? Are there behavior challenges that may affect his ability to fit in and learn within a group environment? Second, you do your homework and become educated about the federal legislation that governs this part of the child’s education. You learn, through research and a lot of conversation with the school and especially, with other parents, what options exist for educating your child, what services exist to help remediate the weaknesses, and what the “best practices” are when it comes to kids with ASD. Third, you acquire new personal and professional skills that will help you be an effective member of the team that designs the education program for your child. You learn to really listen, to clearly describe your child and his needs, to be open to the opinions and knowledge base of others. You learn to bite your tongue and put aside your emotions or be vocal and forceful, as each situation dictates. You learn the art of negotiation, and acknowledge – and accept – that every team member comes to the table with preconceived ideas that may need adjustment at times – including those you hold within yourself. Sounds like a tall undertaking, doesn’t it? I won’t sugarcoat it – yes, this is one of those significant transition periods for both you and your child, one that asks parents to “get down with it.”

Right from the start, your mindsets will be different, despite the fact that you and the school are equal partners in this process. Federal and state legislation puts the onus on schools to provide for the education of the child. Parents want what’s best for their individual child while schools are obligated to provide an education according to guidelines written for the majority of children.  Parents focus on one child; schools are responsible for all. These differing mindsets will clash at times.

Throughout this process it behooves parents to remember that they are a mighty force in securing the best possible education for their child. You know your child best, and need to be her strongest advocate. And, whether you come to this transition kicking and screaming, or with solid “group dynamic skills”, please hear this: the ultimate success of this transition from EI to public school, and the type of program your child ends up in, is largely up to you. It’s not just what you do during this transition that matters. More importantly, it is how you do it that will result in you securing the program you want for your child, or end up acquiescing to something that doesn’t meet your child’s needs.

I can’t impress upon you enough that you need to be prepared and act intelligently though this transition. Bring the skill set you (hopefully) learned during the Early Intervention phase of your child’s life, and apply it throughout this transition to public school programs and services. Always keep in mind your child’s strengths and challenges, his learning style, her basic personality outside the autism. This transition is just the next step in the journey… there will be others. And, we’ll be here to help you walk through them all, with information and strategies that keep you firmly on the road to success for your child, yourself, and your family.


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. 2009. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print means prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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