My son’s school is closed for the next few months. What information should I get from the teacher in order to effectively teach my son, and what can we do to promote carryover from school to home?
Answered by Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA-D and David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D
As we all know, we have been thrust into a world in which education for individuals with ASD is occurring at home, and the instructors are largely parents like yourselves. Planning carefully for home instruction may smooth the process and may also lessen the loss of skills or reduce behavioral challenges that could occur with reduced time in school. In preparing for potentially months of at-home instruction, we encourage you to coordinate efforts with the school staff and get the information you need to maximize success.
While home-school, collaboration is certainly not novel or unexpected, it is indeed quite different now. For some parents, this may be the first time that they have been thrust into or officially recognized as having a significant instructional role. For others, for whom instruction might be an already assumed role, instruction is likely more extensive, more time-consuming, and may be complicated by other changes in schedule and lifestyle. For example, you may need to balance working at home with child-care and instructional responsibilities for multiple children. In addition, the disruption in routines and community-based opportunities may be creating additional behavioral challenges for the individual with ASD. Furthermore, conveying information about the COVID-19 pandemic may be challenging, because our understanding of it is a moving target and because it is difficult to explain the health concerns, social distancing, and other needed safeguards in developmentally appropriate and understandable way. For more information, please see a related article in this issue that provides resources for this important discussion.
Given your question, our reply focuses on the here and now of transitioning into the schooling-from-home change. The most important aspect of this transition will be learning more from your child’s teacher about a number of elements of schooling that will help inform home efforts.
What are the goals that should be worked on now? Which goals are most crucial from a functionality perspective; in other words, which goals are most useful/what skills are most needed? In all likelihood, the teacher will recommend prioritizing skills that will be used in environments in the near future, promote independence, and focus on daily living skills. Some high priority skills might still need to be taught, while others might need to be maintained or generalized to the home setting. Finally, the current situation might warrant new priorities as well. In addition, if challenging behaviors are a significant historical or current concern, be sure to ask for teacher support to carry out proactive strategies that may reduce risk, to understand the behavior plan, and to familiarize yourself with the best de-escalation strategies for your son.
Make a list of goals to be continued, goals to be modified, and goals to be placed on hold
It is likely that the high priority goals will be identified as needing continued practice at home. It may be that some of these goals are being actively taught, and are not yet mastered. Working with the teacher to understand how those skills were practiced at school will be helpful. It may be possible to use technology as an advantage as well, by having sessions in which the teacher observes your instructional sessions, coaches you in prompting procedures, and makes suggestions about materials or other elements of the instruction.
Some skills may be important/prioritized, but were progressing slowly. Perhaps these skills were already a concern before the closure of school. Your son’s teacher might be able to problem-solve and strategize about specific adjustments that can be attempted. Perhaps the materials can be altered, the sequence of steps can be changed, different prompts can be embedded or expectations can be adjusted. This may be an excellent time for telehealth meetings, in which the teacher can observe the difficulties and suggest modifications.
On the other hand, this may not be the time to work on skills that have not been proceeding smoothly and that are not identified as priorities. These skills might be placed on hold, until more thorough troubleshooting is possible. If something is placed on hold now, it would be prudent to revisit that decision at a later time.
Focus on the maintenance of skills
Preserving established skills is crucial at this time, particularly given all the changes that your son is experiencing. Without practice, some skills may weaken or even disappear from your son’s skill set. To prevent this, work with the teacher on a list of essential skills to be practiced. Ask the teacher how often they should be practiced daily or weekly schedules for practicing the skills that have been identified as essential. Since maintenance skills are generally easier, and associated with less frustration, talk to the teacher about when to practice these skills or what contexts might be best for practice. For example, perhaps it would make sense to begin instructional sessions with maintenance tasks. This would increase motivation and build momentum for your son, particularly when fatigue may be an issue.
Consider the changes in goals in the context of the IEP/IHP
Consider the changes that are being made while in a short-term planning mode. One or more goals might be put on hold for a month or so, at which point it will be revisited. Furthermore, new needs may render it difficult to do justice to all of the existing goals and the team may need to prioritize. With this all in mind, the assessment of what needs to be changed in the annual plan should be done in a methodical and strategic manner with your family’s wants and needs at the forefront.
What reinforcement system did they use at school? What reinforcers were most motivating? Is there access at home to those items? It may be possible to adopt some of the elements of the motivational system that was used at school. The familiarity and structure of the system might appeal to your son, and it may help him understand the expectations for work and for reinforcement.
Strategize about how motivation can be addressed at home
What elements of the plan are manageable at home? In order to use an item or activity as a reinforcer, access to it needs to be restricted when it hasn’t been earned. Consider whether it’s possible to limit this access given the comprehensive changes in all of our daily routines. How can you go about identifying reinforcers that might be able to use?
Speak with the teacher about how to help the learner understand the availability/unavailability of various activities, settings, etc. Perhaps you can use symbols or strategies used at school that help with comprehending this concept.
To identify new motivators, talk with the teacher about the best way to find something new. Perhaps you can make several items available in a free play context, and see what items are attractive to your child, to see what new items interest your child, and to see if your child is drawn to any of them. Perhaps offering items in a choice context is helpful. Another option is to present several new items or activities and see which he chooses, repeating the choice a few times to see if he consistently chooses the same one. Ask your son’s teachers about how they provide reinforcement to him, so that you can present instruction similarly, and in a way your son understands.
Discuss your availability and the ability to allocate time to teaching. Be realistic. Parents will have differing abilities and preferences for instructing at home, and many different models can work. Work with your teacher to come up with a model that works best for your family and revisit if, and when, needed. Think about the day in chunks of time and activities. What times provide the best opportunities for instruction or maintenance of skills? Perhaps meal preparation and clean up are excellent teaching times. Maybe the evening is better for you for leisure skill training, as your own work demands are low then.
Consider what materials you have to use and what you still need. Families may not have needed materials available to them, and may be unsure about how to create them. The school staff may be able to provide or share them, or even create duplicate materials for home. Some materials can be sent electronically as well.
What about parent’s role supporting virtual instruction?
If your son is having virtual sessions with teachers, it might be helpful to discuss exactly how you should support him during these sessions. Is it important or necessary to be available? What are the strategies that might promote success? For example, should the same quiet location be used each day? Should this location be reserved for “school” only? It might be best not to select the location where he also watches television, for example. Should visual reminders of the behaviors expected be displayed? Are there prerequisite skills that should be practiced outside of the session or reviewed just prior to the session? Communicating with the teacher about these details will help make virtual instruction sessions go more smoothly and successfully.
Ordinarily, generalization training is something we discuss around goals, people, or settings. We actively identify goals for generalization, working to transfer skills to the home and community, and across parents and others. In this context, generalization training has been radically increased, as all skills must be demonstrated and worked on in the home setting.
Consider the times and activities that promote the very best opportunities for generalization training. Consider identifying specific skills that will be addressed within daily functional routines. Perhaps breakfast will include unloading the dishwasher, measuring, following a checklist for independently making breakfast, or cleaning the table. Perhaps the routine after dinner will include loading the dishwasher, cleaning pots, wiping the counters, setting the table for breakfast, and planning the next evening’s dinner. Goals can be embedded into these time frames, which may also make it easier to allocate time in your own schedule for instruction. Perhaps a turn taking goal can be integrated into family game night, where the learner takes turns with siblings. Perhaps a pizza preparation goal can be extended into a family pizza night.
Finally, it is important for all of this to be viewed through the lens of this extraordinary time. We are all faced with unprecedented challenges, and the need for adaptation is extreme. Parents need to consider the entire family’s needs and their own health. The most important thing for parents is to support the family in a way that sustains everyone in safety and harmony. Be gentle on yourself and flexible with your goals.
Citation for this article:
Weiss, M. J., & Celiberti, D. (2020). A Clinical Corner on home schooling during COVID-19: What information should I get from the teacher and how I can promote carryover? Science in Autism Treatment, 17(4).