First-Day Strategies for Autism in Mainstream Classrooms

ASD’s: Ten Things You Can Do Before Day One

August 9th, 2011

Today we have a guest post from a presenter at The Scholastic Store’s teacher workshops, Barbara Boroson. She has been involved with autism spectrum education for twenty years and currently supports teachers and school districts as they integrate students on the spectrum into mainstream settings. Her first book with Scholastic Autism Spectrum Disorders in the Mainstream Classroom is available now.

Every student on the spectrum will enter your classroom bearing a backpack full of worries. If they can’t put those worries down on Day One, then toting that heavy load will become a way of life at school, a learned behavior. Each day they will return burdened and compromised by the worries on their backs. Instead, seize this moment to help students offload their worries by preparing a classroom that exudes comfort, clarity, and consistency, even on Day One.

Here is a basic list of what you can do before Day One to ease the significant anxieties of students on the spectrum:

1. Reach out to families. Send home a questionnaire about strengths, challenges, anxiety triggers, and comfort anchors. Find out what makes your students tick (as well as what makes them tic…). Use whatever anecdotal information emerges from these contacts as you plan for Day One and beyond.

2. Talk to colleagues who may have had experience with these specific students so that you can benefit from their successful and failed efforts. Don’t try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, plan to use tried and true strategies both to establish continuity, and, of course, to avoid known provocations and potholes.

3. Try to arrange an opportunity for students on the spectrum to visit your classroom shortly before the school year begins. The issues that are important to them may be quite different than you’d expect. They may be comforted by discovering what the classroom smells like, what they can see from their assigned seat, what kind of clock is on the wall, what color your hair is, and more. With students on the spectrum, first impressions are really lasting impressions. Try to make it a good one.

4. Create a visual schedule for the first day of school. Students on the spectrum have a compelling need to know what to expect. If possible, have the first-day schedule posted when students visit. And when school begins, stick to it!

5.  Avoid seating these students near expectable distractions or possible sensory provocateurs, such as the loudspeaker, the windows, the easel, the gerbil cage, the microwave, the bathroom, and so on. Remember, it may all be perceived as much louder, much brighter, and much smellier to your students than it is to you.

6. Restrain yourself from decorating every inch of wall space. A busy visual field can be overwhelming. Little by little, as students become more familiar with the classroom, you might want to add more elements to the walls; but at first, less is definitely more.

7. Set up organized, plainly labeled spaces in the classroom and designate clear boundaries.Where does the block corner begin and end? Where exactly should each student sit on the rug? An organized external environment will fuel an organized internal environment.

8. If possible, designate a small corner of your classroom as a Cozy Corner or Sensory Corner. Soften it up with some basics comforts: pillows or beanbag chairs, a small rug, a couple of stuffed animals, a few friendly books and magazines. If you’ve learned what might specifically comfort certain students, add that, too. This may become a comfy place for anystudent who needs to decompress a bit, but for your students on the spectrum, it will be a sanctuary.

9. Post basic classroom rules in clear, simple language. Students on the spectrum may not generalize that school rules tend to be consistent from one classroom to the next. They also won’t necessarily infer that classroom rules are different from, say, gym rules. But once they understand the rules, these students may become your most reliable rule-followers.

10. Brush away your doubts and polish up your confidence. You can do this. Really. It’s important to believe that, because thinking positive will keep you feeling optimistic. And staying optimistic will optimize progress and sustain the positive atmosphere. It’s an upward spiral.

These ideas are just a beginning—alone, they won’t get you through the year. But they’ll help get you and your students on the spectrum off to a gentle start. There will be plenty of fine tuning to do later and you can read all about that in my book. But first, just lighten the load.

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