Back to School Tips for ABA Providers, Parents, & Practices
By Christan Griffin, M.Ed., BCBA, LBA
Many families, teachers and ABA practitioners are enjoying the final days of summer, while some are already daydreaming about the return of the pumpkin spice latte. It is the time of year we are all too familiar with, school bus, pick-up lines and picture day; although, this year will be slightly different. Our country will be returning back to school after a global pandemic that rattled the nation for the past 18 months.
These unique circumstances will require additional planning and collaboration to ensure a smooth transition for children and their support system across all settings. You might be asking yourself; how will I best support my child, students or client throughout this journey? It may be beneficial to begin by reviewing the variety of evidence-based practices defined in Steinbrenner et al., (2020) EAB report published by the National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team. Evidence-based practices have been correlated with positive outcomes when utilized with autistic children and youth (Steinbrenner et al., 2020).
Strategies for Parents & Caregivers
Caregivers of children with developmental or intellectual disabilities may be riddled with a mixture of emotions in the upcoming weeks ranging from excitement to anxiety. Planning ahead and organizing new or modified routines is an important step to helping your child feel comfortable and safe when returning to school. There are many procedures to choose from that may help you and your child have calm and stress-free morning routines. Starting the day with structured routine and ensuring your child has plenty of time to complete the routine without feeling rushed will help set a positive tone for the rest of the day. These strategies are not only intended to be meaningful for the child, but parents as well.
Research suggests caregiver’s of children with disabilities are at a greater risk for experiencing long durations of chronic stress. Hume, K., et al. (2020) released a publication with The UNC Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute discussing seven strategies for supporting individuals with autism through uncertain times.
The article highlights the need for caregivers to identify and prioritize their self-care routines during these unprecedented times. When parents fail to practice self-kindness and do not provide themselves the opportunity to recharge, then it is extremely challenging to be the best caregiver and show kindness in return (Hume, K., et al., 2020). Some simple but effective environmental and antecedent interventions to consider include:
- Visual supports such as breakfast menus and morning schedules
- Provide choices whenever possible including what to wear, eat, sit or color of an item
- Environmental modifications such as setting out 5 sets of clothes or pre-made lunches for the week
- Priming of morning expectations and routines before bed
- Acknowledge and validate your child’s fears and emotions through collaborative problem-solving
- Set reasonable expectations and celebrate even the smallest step toward success
Another benefit of identifying routines in advance is it allows time to test the strategies or routines in advance and make changes to anything that isn’t working. It may also increase compliance with new routines when your child is provided opportunities to practice and provide input prior to the first day of school.
Considerations for ABA Practitioners
With school just around the corner, many ABA therapists are excited for the change of pace and eager to get back out in the field with their learners. Some ABA providers will only be assisting with the initial transition into the school, while some ABA therapists will actually support their learners in person throughout the school day. Regardless of the location of service, there are best practice strategies to consider when assessing how you can help increase the likelihood of success for the learner. Miller (n.d.) from The Child Mind Institute shared some helpful tips for establishing a positive partnership with your learner’s teachers as they enter the new school year. Let’s review some considerations for ABA therapists to be mindful of as they renter the school system with their learners, either virtually or in person.
Consider the following tools as you navigate ways to assist your learner with having a positive experience when transitioning back to a full-day school routine. Attend the open-house and get pictures or videos of the room and teacher to review with the learner again prior to the start of school
- Schedule an outing for back-to-school shopping to support the student’s preference and choices
- Practice routines and schedules in advance with the learner and parents
- Request information about new school policies or school modifications to review and practice with your learner
- Provide the school and teacher with an informative, concise summary consisting of foundations of ABA, specific company information and contact information
- Assess preferred methods of contact and a communication routine or schedule
- Request the class schedule and review, model and role-play applicable activities with the learner
- Provide the family with summarized reports and foundational information to share with the teacher including current behavioral strategies, progress, and target behaviors
- Make sure to praise and acknowledge teachers for things that are going well
Approaches for Teachers & School Professionals
Many teachers are overjoyed to be returning to the classroom where they can once again have in-person learning time with their students. However, it is undeniable the upcoming transition back to school after a year of musical ‘classrooms’ consisting of virtual, hybrid and in-person learning modalities has many experiencing a mixed emotional experience.
Again, it is important to highlight the need for self-compassion. Teachers and ABA therapists are not exempt from the potential risks of burn-out and compassion fatigue which is why it is essential to Understanding behavioral strategies (Sheldon-Dean, n.d.). Implementing best practice procedures proven to have positive behavioral effects on those on the autism spectrum are going to help ensure everyone experiences a calm and smooth transition as they adjust to new routines.
The below strategies are recommended for increasing the student’s ability to acclimate to the school setting with ease.
- Provide additional processing time
- Use a clear, concise, and direct communication style
- Include the child into problem-solving disagreements or dislikes
- Allow reasonable accommodations
- Use visual supports to facilitate routines, transitions and communication
- Provide plenty of access to breaks
- Have the students participate in creating a safe space to take sensory breaks
- Set feasible and obtainable goals
- Ask for suggestions on how to make learning more fun
- Allow a comfort item from home
- Celebrate differences by decorating individual areas
- Be flexible and adapt to the student’s needs
- Avoid power struggles
Tips for ABA Organizations
Communication amongst team members and with consumers is an important component for ABA organizations. Efficient, reliable, and accurate dissemination of updated healthcare policies is a vital component for all organizations, especially with the additional challenges that have come along with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Going back to school each year has traditionally been a standard activity. With the global pandemic still underway, there isn’t room for error when disseminating information to families and employees related to current healthcare guidelines. Below are some tools for disseminating workplace information (Dowd, 2021). It is suggested that ABA practices prioritize timely and accurate dissemination of CDC, local, and state guidelines to reduce the risk of exposure for their clinical teams, school personnel, and ABA consumers.
- Project Management Software
- Company apps such as Google Workspace and Slack
- Social Media Connections
- Announcements on the Company Website
- Company Bulletin Boards
- Flyers and Posters
- Emails and Memos
- Corporate Intranet
The information dissemination tools shared above are best when used in conjunction with one another. The reality is many administrators and parents are not reading emails, or by the time an employee or parent engages in the task of email triage, it is usually much too late to be of any real benefit. Additionally, with the advances in technology, there are creative and interactive methods for engaging employees and consumers to relay important updates and provide helpful information such as back-to-school tips and tricks!
Best practice behavioral methodologies can increase positive interactions and support a calm and smooth transition back to school for everyone involved. A child’s ABA team can help foster communication and collaboration to bridge supports from the home to school and ABA therapy, thus increasing optimal learning opportunities while reducing disruptive behavior which may impede learning. Planning ahead, organizing and assessing which strategies might work well for the student is sure to set them up to achieve many goals throughout the school year. Not to mention, allow the caregivers, teachers and ABA therapists in their lives extra time to indulge in self-care activities such as breaking out the pumpkin spice flavored coffee and treats a little early this year!
Back To School Tool
The Therapy Brands ABA Team developed a skill/behavior generalization interactive tool for ABA therapists. Download your copy now. (The first page has in depth instructions and you can use the fillable PDF as a digital tool, or print it out for use.)
- Dowd, Mary. (2021, January 11). Tools for Disseminating Workplace Information. Chron.https://work.chron.com/tools-disseminating-workplace-information-11070.html
- Hume, K., Waters, V., Sam, A., Steinbrenner, J., Perkins, Y., Dees, B., Tomaszewski, B., Rentschler, L., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N., White, M., Nowell, S., & Odom, S. (2020). Supporting individuals with autism through uncertain times. Chapel Hill, NC: School of Education and Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Retrieved from: https://afirm.fpg.unc.edu/supportingindividuals-autism-through-uncertain-times
- Kornack, J., Williams, A.L., Johnson, K.A. et al. Reopening the Doors to Center-Based ABA Services: clinical and Safety Protocols During COVID-19. Behavior Analysis Practice 13, 543-549 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-020-00462-7
- Miller, Caroline. Child Mind Institute. (n.d.). Tips for Partnering with Teachers in the New School Year. Retrieved August 11, 2021, from https://childmind.org/article/tips-for-partnering-with-teachers-in-the-new-schoolyear/
- Sheldon-Dean, Hannah. Child Mind Institute. (n.d.). Increasing Cooperation in Kids with Autism. Retrieved August 11, 2021, from https://childmind.org/article/increasing-cooperation-in-kids-with-autism/
- Steinbrenner, J. R., Hume, K., Odom, S. L., Morin, K. L., Nowell, S. W., Tomaszewski, B., Szendrey, S., McIntyre, N. S., Yücesoy-Özkan, S., & Savage, M. N. (2020). Evidence-based practices for children, youth, and young adults with Autism. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence and Practice Review Team. Retrieved from: https://ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/sites/ncaep.fpg.unc.edu/files/imce/documents/EBP Report 2020.pdf