As more children with autism are served in public school classrooms, teachers need skills to meet their needs. Autism is a highly variable disability, which makes it difficult to train teachers how to best support students with autism in inclusive educational contexts. However, the common learning characteristics of students with autism make certain accommodations, supports and strategies extremely relevant.
Classroom rules are important for creating an effective and pleasant learning environment. Classroom rules should be concise, easily understood and applicable in many settings.
We will focus on three key supports — classroom management, accommodations and modifications, and collaboration. Each of these supports is essential. Classroom management strategies increase the clarity of expectations for learners with autism and make them more successful in these environments. Accommodations and modifications allow learners with autism to comprehend and participate in lessons and assignments that might otherwise be very challenging or incomprehensible. Finally, collaboration is absolutely vital within the interdisciplinary team and with the family.
Teachers can be more successful when working with students with autism if they have effective classroom management strategies in place. This means being prepared and thoughtful about what can be done before and after a student demonstrates appropriate or inappropriate behaviors. Effective classroom management can enhance the learning environment to set students up for success for increased prosocial behavior and academic engagement. It can minimize the opportunity for students to engage in behaviors that interfere with their learning.
To understand how students learn appropriate and inappropriate behaviors, it is important to understand what reinforcement is and how it works in relation to antecedents and behaviors. This is commonly referred to as the three-term contingency or the A-B-C model. An antecedent is what happens before the behavior that we are interested in — e.g. an appropriate behavior such as the student raising their hand or inappropriate behaviors such as throwing their pencil — occurs. A consequence is what happens after the behavior that we are interested in — e.g. teacher praises the student or the teacher reprimands the student — occurs. Antecedent classroom management strategies are strategies a teacher implements before a student’s behavior.
Teachers can take steps to be prepared when working with students with autism. One important antecedent strategy is giving clear and direct directions. How and what we communicate with students can help influence their behavior. Instructions should clearly identify the teacher’s expectations, stating in positive terms what students should do rather than what they should not do. Visual representations, such as pictures, icons and models can be helpful for students to better understand what is being asked of them. This can also include a classroom-wide and/or student-specific visual schedule representing the scheduled classroom activities.
An additional essential antecedent strategy includes following routines. Since unexpected changes to the schedule can often be very disruptive to students with autism, it is important to follow consistent and predictable classroom routines. This can assist in students knowing what to expect in their environment. Transitioning from one activity to another or one location to another can often be challenging for students with autism. It can be advantageous to provide students with warnings prior to transitions or changes in the schedule. This can also be supported with visual or pictorial cues such as timers displaying the amount of time prior to a change. During transitions is another great time to use direct and clear instructions, so students understand exactly what is required and what they are doing next.
Classroom rules are important for creating an effective and pleasant learning environment. Classroom rules should be concise, easily understood and applicable in many settings. Whenever possible, the rules should be stated in positive terms describing what the teachers wants to the see the student doing, not focused on what they don’t want the students to do. Rules should be reviewed with students and posted in the classroom. Since not all students may be able to read the posted rules, it can be helpful to include pictures representing each rule. The keys to classroom rules working is ensuring students understand them and teachers follow through by enforcing them.
If students demonstrate appropriate behavior — e.g. following a classroom rule — the teacher can deliver a consequence that strengthens the behavior that it follows, this is called reinforcement. Whatever is reinforced will happen more likely in the future. In order for reinforcement to be effective, it needs to be immediate and distinct. There shouldn’t be a significant amount of time between the student’s appropriate behavior and the teacher delivering reinforcement. If there is a delay, we can inadvertently reinforce the wrong behavior and confuse students.
In order to effectively use reinforcement, we need to identify potential reinforcers for individual students. Each student’s preferences are different so avoid giving every student the same; it won’t work for everyone. It is beneficial to assess each individual student’s preference to determine what would work best for him or her. You can start by identifying items, edibles, activities or types of social interactions that the student appears interested in or enjoys. Once you have identified appropriate reinforcement, it should be delivered only when the student is engaged in appropriate behaviors to avoid reinforcing undesirable behaviors. Praise is a common reinforcer in many classrooms. Teacher can also use tangible items such as toys or edibles to increase appropriate student behavior. Other reinforcement strategies also include access to special activities or token economies.
Although we try through antecedent and reinforcement strategies to minimize misbehavior, when it does occur teachers need to have an effective response. There are multiple ways of handling misbehavior in the classroom but the key is to ensure that the teacher response does not escalate the misbehavior; we don’t want to reinforce the misbehavior. When considering a consequence to students’ inappropriate behavior teachers should consider:
- Is the strategy working — is the behavior over time happening less?
- Is the strategy the least restrictive option?
- Is there a more appropriate skill to teach the student?
When considering consequences to student behavior teachers should be aware of their reactions. This includes facial expressions, body language, body movement and statements. Often, if possible, it can be best to minimize any change in a teacher’s interactions with a student as a result of their misbehavior. If a student is calling out in order to get attention and the teacher responds by correcting the student each time, this may actually increase the calling out behavior in the future. Planned ignoring of the misbehavior, or extinction, means that the teacher does not deliver reinforcement for the behavior. So if the student is calling out, the teacher does not react or respond to the calling out. Planned ignoring can take time to be effective and often increases the behavior before it decreases. It is also most effective when used in combination with the reinforcement of appropriate alternative behaviors.
Teachers can also be effective with redirecting students as a consequence strategy. This typically involves interrupting the inappropriate behavior and redirecting the student to an alternative behavior or task — e.g. to the classroom task they are current supposed to be working on. Redirection is usually more effective when it is done discreetly and early in the behavioral sequence. The goal is always to prevent behaviors through the use of antecedent strategies. When needed, redirection or other consequences can be helpful.
Accommodations and Modifications
There are multiple effective ways to teach students new skills; however, most importantly, concepts should be broken down into manageable pieces and taught using repetition. Effective teaching methods include chaining steps together in a task analysis — e.g., tying shoe laces, cooking dinner, brushing teeth — or discrete trial teaching method for discrete skills — e.g., learning colors, numbers, vocabulary. In addition to these teaching methods, there are a variety of ways to prompt students to learn these new skills that range from more to less intrusive prompts. Some prompts can be vocal while others can be physical or gesture. At times, more intrusive prompts are needed so the student understands what the correct response is without making errors along the way and inadvertently learning the errors instead of the correct responses. In addition, group instruction is often used in classrooms, where students can serve as models to each other and students can learn the same skills/concepts with others in the classroom. It is always important to start with assessing individual students’ pre-requisite skills and then build on these skills.
In addition to the classwide programs, another important strategy is to individualize the support approach. Many individuals with autism have strong visual skills. An individualized schedule can be particularly helpful to students with autism. Some of these schedules can be written while others may be picture based. It can facilitate both intra and inter-assignment tasks, and can increase independence as the student responds to the schedule instead of to a teacher’s instructions.
Indeed, many individually tailored visual reminders can be helpful to students with autism. These include instructions, videotape models, timers, checklists, and rule cards. All of these tools can be individualized to include salient information and preferred content — e.g., superheroes delivering the messages.
Lessons themselves can be altered to accommodate strengths and preferences. Instead of writing answers, students might select from an array of choices. Instead of reading a passage, a student might listen to an audio book. Exposure to content might precede class presentation to prime the student for the activity. It is vital to change the presentation of the instructional materials to ensure students are attending, retaining information and generalizing the information across various contexts. It is also important to layer these learned concepts with new concepts so they are always learning new skills while maintaining previously learned concepts. There are many ways to make the content more accessible, the participation more enjoyable and the learning more successful.
Collaboration is Crucial
Never before has the old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” been more apt and true as when serving learners with autism. Due to the myriad of impacts across social, emotional, behavioral, medical and educational domains, educators also need the support of a team approach to affect the most positive outcomes for these learners. This is especially true for educators who may not have had explicit coursework or teaching experiences with the autism population, or even for those special educators who find themselves working with a more complex learner profile.
Teams are most effective when they are truly interdisciplinary and collaborative, with a focus on each team member’s respective expertise and a common goal of promoting optimal outcomes. An overarching commitment to evidence-based practices is one way to align the team members on this shared goal, while recognizing the unique contributions of each member. This approach will also protect educators and districts in complying with IDEA (2004) and NCLB (2001).
The core of every team approach should be the child and by close extension, that child’s family. Parents, guardians, siblings and even extended family not only bring years of experience in determining what works best for their family member, but also are critical in affecting long-term change in their child’s life. For every 30 hours that the child spends in school each week, they spend nearly three times that in the home setting, and that doesn’t even include holidays and school breaks. Thus, engagement of and collaboration with families is essential to ensure a team approach not only among the paid professionals in that child’s life, but in all awake hours by informal and natural supports as well. In a recent article by Swiezy, Stuart and Korzekwa (2008), they emphasized that parents must be integral team members as they bear the greatest burden of facilitating maintenance and generalization of skills across settings and into new environments.
Thus, parents have the most information, yet also the most stress, in navigating care for their child. A family-centered and collaborative approach can reduce caregiver and educator stress in identifying the inter-connected contributions to the child’s outcomes, while ensuring each team member has the needed information, access and supports to be successful in their role.
Learners with autism have complex needs that are best served through many levels of support. Within the classroom, teachers can use class wide strategies to provide structure and to reward effort and productivity. In addition, teachers can provide individually tailored teaching procedures along with accommodations and modifications to utilize the strengths of the learner in mastering the material.
Teachers should teach new skills while embedding previously learned skills. It is vital as teachers to make learning engaging, fun and creative for the diversity of students within a classroom. Finally, all members of the team must work together to understand the challenges experienced by the student with autism and to help them succeed in the educational environment. Indeed, it takes a village to educate students with autism, and all hands are needed on deck. Both classwide and individualized systems of support and reinforcement are needed to assist these learners in meeting the demands of the educational environment.
Parents and professionals must partner to facilitate understanding, support, and communication. When all members of the team share the same vision, work on the same goals, and provide consistent support and guidance to the student with autism, these students can be successful members of inclusive classrooms.