One of the greatest challenges that parents of children with disabilities face is finding the most appropriate educational program. When looking for a school for a child with autism, the parents’ task often is complex and difficult, but understanding instructional and social variables will help in making the right decision.
First and foremost, parents need to determine if the instructional strategies used by a school and its philosophy are consistent with what they feel will be effective for their child. Ensuring this “goodness of fit” is critical and can be assessed by not only asking questions of a school administrator, but also by touring a program and observing classrooms in action.
While observing a classroom, parents should note the engagement levels of students. For learning to occur, a student must be frequently and appropriately engaged with materials, as well as staff and other children. During an observation, select several students to watch and determine if they are watching the instructor (and/or appear to be listening), following instructions, actively completing work, and/or appropriately engaged with recreational materials (such as toys, a computer, a book, etc.). Ideally, students should be engaged at least 80% of the time.
Parents should also carefully note the number of learning opportunities for communication and social skill instruction that are presented. Good programs will systematically arrange their learning environments so students will need to frequently communicate. For example, at snack time, students are encouraged to ask for their snack rather than having the teacher simply present it to them.
There should also be obvious chances to learn and practice social skills. These types of skills can range from something as simple as looking at a speaker, greeting others and taking turns, to more complex skills such as saying “please” and “thank you,” engaging in conversations and giving compliments. Using snack time as an example, students can be taught to take turns pouring their own juice, passing napkins to other students and saying “thank you” when receiving food.
It will also be important that independence and generalization areas are targeted. Families should look for evidence that students are taught not only academics (or functional academics), but also self-care, motor skills, recreational/play, and domestic and vocational skills. Parents should also ask about the level and intensity of a school’s community-based instruction program. For optimal progress, most students should receive frequent instruction in community locations, such as the grocery store, at least weekly. This type of instruction should also be supported by instruction that takes place outside of the classroom in other locations within the school (such as the office, library, lunchroom and/or kitchen, etc).
When observing structured teaching, parents should look for evidence that there is a motivational system in place (such as a token or point card system), fun materials and visual supports to enhance understanding (such as a visual schedule, pictorial reward cards, word/picture prompt cards and social stories). Families should also ask how staff are trained to implement different strategies, as well as what systems are in place to ensure that programs are consistently implemented across time and staff (i.e., how often are administrators or supervisors in the classrooms observing staff). Parents should also determine if the teaching methods and other types of interventions used by a school are supported by scientific research.
A parent should ask about the school’s philosophy regarding reducing unwanted behaviors. Are functional behavior assessments used for program planning? Are these plans proactive and designed to teach appropriate alternatives to replace challenging behaviors versus plans that emphasize reactive strategies and what to do when the behaviors occur? Another consideration is how staff responds to unwanted behavior. Are staff members calm when addressing challenging behaviors, or do they get upset and/or show their frustration?
While it’s crucial to consider the instructional aspects of a school, the social climate should be thought of as equally important. In particular, parents should pay close attention to the frequency and quality of staff-to-student interactions.
Not only do staff members need to be highly supportive with students, but they also need to deliver high rates of verbal praise. This praise should be varied and offered in an enthusiastic and animated manner. Families should also take note of the frequency of corrective feedback and how it’s delivered (i.e., in a kind way as opposed to using a harsh and disapproving tone). If instruction is designed carefully, error rates will be low and the use of corrective feedback can be minimized. Most experts agree that for every instance of corrective feedback, there should be three to five instances of praise.
Also, look to see if staff and students are generally happy, but keep in mind, children with autism are not happy all of the time. Are both sets of people smiling? Do the activities seem fun and exciting? Are the students allowed to make choices throughout each activity during the school day? Research has shown that the use of preferred items during instruction and giving students the opportunity to make choices leads to higher rates of learning and fewer behavioral issues.
Staff-to-staff communication and opportunities for family involvement, both in their own child’s program planning as well as at the school planning level, should also be explored. What mechanisms exist to allow staff to plan and develop activities, discuss specific child and classroom issues, and meet with families, clinicians, related service personnel and administrative staff? Are there formal mechanisms to solicit parent input and feedback about school components and future development?
Parents should also clarify the school’s policy regarding observation procedures and policies of students before enrolling their child.
Finally, does the school help families to learn how to use interventions in the home setting? Most schools, will at minimum, offer seminars and trainings that are open to families. However, not all programs will invite parents into the classroom to practice techniques with staff or be open to coming out to a student’s home to show parents how to implement interventions in that setting. In the end, good schools will recognize that learning doesn’t end at 3:00 p.m., and that continuity across school and home will greatly benefit each child.
As parents face a variety of difficult issues with their child with autism, finding an appropriate school program will enhance the quality of life for the student, as well as their families. The process of finding the best program for the child may not be easy, but it is well worth the effort. Our School Program Evaluation Form is designed to facilitate this process.
For more information, please contact the authors at Devereux CARES (610-873-4930). CARES is an approved private school located in Downingtown, PA. It serves students with autism ranging in age from 5 to 21, using applied behavior analysis instructional techniques and natural environment teaching.