Remember the saying the only thing that stays constant in life is change? Sometimes change can be new and exciting, however, when it comes to changing from elementary to middle school, parents with children on the autism spectrum feel anything but excited.
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; workloads 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. Unlike elementary school where a student had 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.
The key to all these changes is plan ahead and practice. Summer is a great time to focus on this and allows the student the time to process the changes. Using technology, such as Social Skill Builder CD’s School Rules! & My Community this summer can boost confidence come the fall!
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. Take pictures and video to help the student play and re-play how to get to their classes and locker. Use a keen eye to discern parts of the environment that might be potential trouble spots, and plan extra supports. 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.
Rules. This is an extremely challenging part of the middle school transition for many of our students. Ease them into it slowly. Use Social Skill Builder curriculum, especially School Rules! to talk about different teacher’s rules and expectations is very helpful. Some of these skills take months or years to learn, and a social skills session once a week is not going to be enough. 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 the You Are a Social Detective CD. With our students, direct teaching is a must; these skills won’t happen by osmosis alone.
Peers. In middle school, it is a great time to join the band, chorus or drama. In addition to the studies that show that kids who participate in a music/drama program do better academically, children on the spectrum often get a chance to participate in a structured group activity, generalize social skills they may have learned and create friendships/acquaintances based on a shared interest.
Sometimes it is not just developing close friendships but, learning how to work well within a large or small group, valuable life skills.
Also, think outside of school. Chess Club? Science Club? Ski Club? FCA (Fellowship of Christian Athletes)? Video Game Club? Art club Why is this important ? At the end of the day, kids need a place where they can do something fun, that they enjoy. It also gives them an opportunity to create friendships and relationships based on a shared interest.
For example, if your student has trouble initiating a conversation, but put him in video club perhaps, and he can talk about video games, animae and YouTube videos until the sun comes down. The most important thing about after school activities, in my opinion, though, is that the student gets to do something fun at school, creating a positive experience at school where he has the opportunity to naturally interact with peers.
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.
The idea of moving up to middle-school can be scary for some kids and parents. But it’s important that children understand that middle-school offers many benefits and opportunities. Be sure to check in regularly as this transition will be an ongoing process throughout the years ahead.