Leaving preschool to enter a more formal educational system represents a major transition for every parent and their child. The environment will be new, the challenges will be different, and new relationships will need to be formed. While parents of children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) may initially approach this time with trepidation, this transition really represents a time of new opportunity for learning and the development of new friendships and relationships.
Some suggestions for parents to insure a more successful and less stressful transition include the following:
- Parents may wish to talk to the preschool teacher about how they can best prepare their child for the new curricular/environmental demands of kindergarten.
- Parents can look on line for their state Department of Education and check the standards for kindergarten; this will help parents be aware of the focus of the standard curriculum and know where their child will need additional assistance or adaptations. This will also help parents to become aware of areas where they might do additional home instruction or practice, with direction from the classroom teacher, once the new school year has begun.
- Parents may wish to check the website www.getreadytoread.org for a checklist about having home support for early literacy development. The site also contains a screening test and is sponsored by the National Center for Learning Disabilities.
- Parents will want to inform the local director of special education via a letter that they will be enrolling a child with special needs for elementary school programming. List the special needs of the child such as challenges with understanding and/or using language, medical issues, the need for a nap, drowsiness during specific times of the day, sensory needs and sensory distractions, responsiveness to visual supports such as schedules, impulsiveness, need for structure, need for supervision, difficulty attending in a noisy environment, and so forth. More detail can be furnished when the parents prepare a file folder specifically for the teacher. A bulleted format may make it easier for everyone to notice each need.
- The notice to the special education director may result in the scheduling of one or more assessments. Further assessment may not occur if the child has attended the public school pre-school program of that district. You will be given a booklet about your rights under the federal law about special education services. You may wish to do more reading about the topic of Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and a child’s individualized education program (IEP). Public libraries and special centers such as the Indiana Institute on Disability and Community have materials available for checkout.
- An individualized education program (IEP) meeting will be scheduled to discuss your child’s needs, goals, and school/classroom assignments. Parents are members of their child’s educational team that considers options and how to best accommodate specific needs.
- During the IEP meeting, parent will want to ask if the local special education district has an autism consultant(s). Find out who will provide support for your child’s school, the type of support offered, and how to contact this individual so she/he can possibly assist the classroom teacher before the school term begins. Ask when training on ASD will be provided to the appropriate staff, if needed. As more children with ASD are entering public schools, more people have already had some training. Training is frequently offered after aides have been hired for the school term. The training might occur after the school year has begun.
- Parents will want to tour the new school and meet the new principal. A formal appointment should be made with the principal so he or she has the time to begin cementing a positive relationship with the family. With advance preparation, the principal will be able to tell the parents about school rules and operations and how parents can be involved in the life of the school through volunteering, organizations, and support for school functions. He or she may be able to make arrangements for taking photos or a video that may help with orientation for the new student. A formal tour of the school may best be delayed until near the start date of school. The principal can suggest an appropriate date.
- Parents may wish to have their child become accustomed to the new playground before the transition, if the playground is open to the public during non-school hours.
- Parents will want to prepare a portfolio that contains easy to read information on their child. This is the time to supplement the material already prepared for the director of special education. List strengths, challenges, likes, dislikes, supports needed and why, and specific strategies for problem behaviors. Keep the file content down to 2-5 pages of information. If the teacher is known prior to the end of the pre-school year, the family may wish to give the teacher the file and some references for books and DVDs/videos about autism spectrum disorder in case the teacher wishes information or wishes to become more familiar with ASD over the summer. Also give a copy to the autism consultant, if there is one assigned to your child’s school. In fall, offer folders with the same information or portions of it to any person who would benefit from the information (e.g., music teacher, aide, occupational therapist, principal.) Include your phone number and email address. Indicate that you are always willing to cooperatively problem solve about your child’s challenges. Indicate that you always also appreciate hearing about your child’s successes.
- Parents may wish to check with their public library for children’s books and videos that might be available about starting a new school year and kindergarten. Some potential titles for books can be obtained from the websites of chain booksellers and information about a video can be obtained from the site https://teachingstrategies.com/. Parents may wish to preview all material to see if any segments might be helpful for a generic advance preparation for their child.
- As the big day approaches, parents can send a note to the teacher. Offer to help him/her develop a picture schedule for the week. If the teacher has not previously had students with ASD, emphasize how having a schedule will make life easier for both her/him and your child. Enclose a sample schedule so there is no miscommunication. Of course, if the child hasn’t already been taught to use a schedule at home or at pre-school, then teaching this new skill on the first day may not be practical. Check if the teacher has any questions. Ask what might be a convenient time for the student with ASD to meet her/him before school starts.
- Parents will wish to establish an acceptable means and frequency of communication with the teacher. Let the teacher know what information is helpful for home. Be understanding if the teacher is unable to furnish more than a quick sentence or check-offs on a chart at the end of a day or week. Dismissal time is chaotic. Perhaps he/she can email you with a little more information at a more convenient time but perhaps not on a daily basis.
- Parents should ask how to best support the teacher in general. They may volunteer to provide some training on ASD, lend books, help on field trips, do the classroom newsletter, cut out materials, and so forth. More specific to their child, they can offer tips on how to handle specific situations. The home environment is different than school and sometimes the same strategies will not work. It will often take time for the relationship with school staff to grow.
- It may also take time for the school staff to realize that the parents care about all children and not just their own, that parents want the school experience to be positive and productive for everyone, and that they have some expertise about their child that may help a given situation.
Keep a positive attitude about this new step for your child. Everyone really does want this to be a successful transition for your child.
Vicker, B. (2009). Moving from preschool to kindergarten: Planning for a successful transition and new relationships. Bloomington, IN: Indiana Resource Center for Autism.