Change is tough for everyone, but for a child with special education needs and a commitment to routine, transitions throughout school and life can be overly stressful and daunting.
“We know how difficult that transition is from elementary to middle school,” explained Eileen Madena, board member of Cal-TASH, a statewide organization to help people with disabilities, “but there are transitions throughout the school experience that need to be addressed.”
Madena’s remarks came during a regional Cal-TASH meeting held at Kellogg School last Wednesday, October 26, where strategies for improving such academic transitions for students with special educational needs were discussed. Cal-TASH is California’s branch of the national TASH organization, which fights against the social injustices that threaten the human rights of severely disabled people and specifically advocates for their full engagement and participation in their communities. When founded in 1975, TASH was called the American Association for the Education of the Severely and Profoundly Handicapped, but changed its name five years later to The Association for the Severely Handicapped, or TASH. Since then, the name has been changed numerous times as the mission expanded, and currently, TASH doesn’t stand for anything as an acronym, but was retained as a name due to widespread recognition.
Cal-TASH board member Brent Elder, who helped organize last week’s meeting, is a special education teacher at Kellogg School. Eight years ago, his program successfully replaced its “Special Day Class” model, which separates special education students, with its current “inclusion program” that educates students with their age-appropriate peers. But not every school operates the same, and that’s a primary concern for parents and teachers about the elementary to middle school transition.
A poor transition, said Elder, offers students few support systems at their new schools, and they may encounter environments that lack trained aides and teachers, the very individuals who can modify curriculum, administrative support, and student acceptance. Altogether, they miss the welcoming environment that they’d come to enjoy at their former school.
Terri Bowen’s son, who has special education needs, recently transitioned from elementary to middle school. Their story highlighted the missteps and successes of current efforts for inclusion and successful transitions and was a springboard for brainstorming solutions. Bowen contacted the receiving school before the transition period, a move that was applauded and advocated for throughout the meeting. The extra time allowed the school to prepare teachers and facilities. Early contact also introduces students to teachers and allows them to acclimate to the new environment and the school’s day-to-day happenings. Ideally, all of this preparation will transfer social supports with children and help them return to their regular school day.
Bowen’s son visited his new school three times over the summer. The teachers saw him flourish in math, and he was warmly welcomed. He also began the school year a little more familiar with his new environment. Bowen was happy for the introduction and said that the more time the better. Participants in Wednesday’s meeting suggested a shadow period when students can experience the new school with a current student.
But when Bowen discussed with the new school her desire for a modified curriculum to ensure her son’s inclusion with his peers, teachers and staff became a bit uncomfortable. Bowen had to know exactly what she wanted and expected from the new school, which Elder said is important when discussing inclusion. People need to state clearly what they want and find out how to help that happen. Explained Elder, “Teachers have varying levels of [comfort] because they don’t have a special education degree.”
While some advocates see teachers as unsure of their ability to effectively instruct special needs students, one Kellogg parent and Autism of America Society-Santa Barbara member, Cathy Abarca, argued some teachers do not try enough. Despite one’s stance, Elder cautioned that everyone needs to be on the same page to accomplish successful transitions, regardless of their commitment or training level. Dealing with current hurdles to healthy transitions, explained Elder and others during the meeting, means dealing with the whole community. Training and informing must take place on the administrative, teacher, student, and community levels. Possible tools include videos of successful inclusion, informational flyers, and inventories of the students’ daily activities and the level of support needed.
For smooth, healthy school transitions, families and staff need to keep change in perspective. Challenges exist, but middle and high school settings provide more subjects and more areas for learning outside of the classroom. “As students with disabilities get older, making the material meaningful and relevant becomes more important,” said Elder. Middle and high schools offer a variety of subjects ranging in abstractness while providing out-of-classroom learning opportunities.
The transition to middle school is inherently tough for special education students because they spent seven years building social supports and familiarity in elementary school. “The junior high school is at a disadvantage in helping students it still needs to get to know,” said Kellogg Principal Nancy Knight.
One of the best ways to help these transitioning students is to foster peer acceptance. At the peer level, students with special needs need sustained connection to their community. Meeting participants discussed recruiting interested students and tutors to grow and sustain the social supports at students’ new schools. School administrators can help with this effort, as can organizations such as Peer Buddies.
“A learning aide is great,” said Abarca, “but nothing beats a buddy.”
To learn more about Cal-TASH, visit this website.