Determining educational placements for students with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is challenging, as those involved attempt to balance philosophical beliefs, legal requirements, evidence-based practices, and the individualized needs of each student. Though successful and meaningful involvement in general education settings is often the ultimate goal and a socially important aim for parents and professionals, many students with ASD are served in more restrictive settings on the service continuum. Due to the heterogeneity of students on the autism spectrum, the level and intensity of services required, the desire for individualized intervention, or the lack of community support for inclusive placements, students with ASD may be educated partially or completely in special education settings.
It is likely that in more segregated settings, in an effort to ensure a low student to staff ratio, that a number staff members, including teachers, therapists, and paraprofessionals, will interact with the students. As the number of paraprofessionals working with students with ASD continues to rise (French, 2003), teachers are faced with the challenging task of coordinating the varied schedules of numerous staff members, as well as their students. Recent statistics show that 75% of special educators supervise one or more paraprofessionals (French, 2001), while receiving little training in the management or organization of additional classroom staff. As staff numbers grow, the role of classroom teachers shift to that of a “planner, director, monitor, coach, and program manager” (French, 1999, p. 70).
The role of a supervisor may be overwhelming to teachers in the autism field, as they struggle to meet the complex needs of their students, facilitate effective inclusive programming, respond to the requests of families and administrators, and attempt to stay informed of empirically validated educational practices. In balancing these demands, providing daily instruction, guidance and direction to classroom staff may not be prioritized or feasible. Giangreco and Broer (2005) found that paraprofessionals received less than 2% of a special educator’s time in training, supervision, or professional guidance.
One solution to the coordination and supervision challenge is the use of schedules for both staff members and students. The use of schedules for students and educational personnel contributes to the development of a structured and comprehensible classroom environment—a vital component of effective programming for students with ASD (Iovannone, Dunlap, Huber, & Kincaid, 2003). Providing an overall schedule for adults and students allows all classroom members to predict what is currently happening and what will happen next. This overall schedule outlines the events of the day, lets teachers know who they are responsible for, and how staff members are being used. The framework outlines who, what, where, and when.
The first step in designing this framework is to plan the schedules of the individual students. While this process may be time intensive initially, it will greatly reduce the supervisory challenges throughout the school year. The South Carolina Department of Disabilities and Special Needs developed seven steps to utilize when planning an individual’s schedule (Boswell, Braswell, & Wade, 1997).
- Describe the individual: Consider age, setting, strengths, interests, needs, etc.
Kevin is 6 years old and is served primarily in a self-contained setting. He enjoys sensory and leisure activities, as well as music. He is non-verbal, yet is beginning to express his wants using pictures through choice making opportunities. He has a short attention span and benefits from 1:1 and small group activities with minimal distractions.
- Divide the hours of programming into short blocks of time: 15 minutes is suggested but this is dependant on the age, attention span, and work skills of the student.
- Block out non-negotiable segments: This includes lunch, transportation times, etc.
- Pencil in “negotiables” with other people: Coordinate with therapists, peer helpers, inclusion settings, community outings, etc.
- Plug in, shift, and balance activities that reflect these key concepts:
- Balance of teaching/supervising
- Meaningful contexts (i.e., teach skills where it will likely be used, such as bathroom, eating area)
- Balance of preferred/non-preferred activities
- Balance of in-seat/movement activities
- Length of activities
- Productive use of “free time” (i.e., teaching appropriate leisure skills during breaks/choice times)
- Productive use of transitions (i.e., reducing the amount of time waiting between activities)
- Partial participation (i.e., allowing a student to watch during an activity or join an activity after it begins rather than participating as the other students do)
- Flexible grouping (i.e., grouping students in a variety of ways depending on the goal of the activity, such as student interest, attention span, communication skills)
- Review to ensure that generated schedule is addressing individual needs as determined by the IEP team: Individual schedule should change throughout the year as educational needs and priorities shift.
- Decide on individualized presentation of schedule: Discuss how the schedule information will be communicated to the student (i.e., concrete objects, photographs, line drawings, words).
The next vital step is to plan for staff choreography and coverage. Following similar steps as those listed above, determine what staff member will be responsible for each student, curricular area, or classroom center for each time period throughout the day. Classroom teams may find several models of staff choreography helpful, including the “man-to-man” or “zone” systems (to borrow basketball defense terminology). Teachers may assign staff members to work with specific student(s) for periods of time (“man-to-man”), and the staff member will move with the student(s) to different activities or classroom areas. Or teachers may designate staff to specific classroom areas (i.e., the art table, a 1:1 teaching area, a leisure center) and students rotate through these centers (“zone”). It is helpful if the schedules for the adults and students are posted conspicuously each day so all personnel can easily see where each student and staff member should be (see example 4 and 5).