Helping Students and Staff Prepare for Transition or The Art of Letting Go

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I recently bade farewell to a class of students when they moved from the high school to a transitional facility for 18-21 year olds. Target behaviors on these students’ behavior plans included hitting, kicking, head-butting, bolting, dropping to the floor, and many others.

I love them but, in technical terms, this group of students that just moved to the transition service is a doozy.

Doozy; dooz -e ; noun; an extreme example of its kind; a challenging class that will make the teacher pull her hair out and wear running shoes to work every day; time to buy stock in Charles Shaw

I knew the group was going to be a challenge. The teachers at the transition facility told me they would be fine. We did our best to make sure the transition would be as seamless as possible.

I worked on IEP goals for students to work independently with fewer supports. I created a detailed presentation and spent an afternoon meeting with transitional staff to explain student needs and behavioral strategies. I wrote simple behavior plans that could be implemented in multiple settings.

We visited the transition facility with the students multiple times and paired it with favorite reinforcers. Facility management installed security locks on all of the doors to foil escape artists.

Transition staff visited the classroom and joined us on community trips with the hope of fading out high school staff and fading in new staff in the more familiar environment.

Well, the students moved on to the new facility at the beginning of this school year. They have been there for approximately 6 weeks. These students are now struggling (aggression, bolting, refusal, pacing, self-injurious self stim) and transition staff are reaching out to problem solve.

When I ask about antecedents to the behavior, I am getting answers as if the student is at fault. The student was angry because a staff member turned off his movie. Or, the student dropped to the floor and refused to move because she is stubborn and wants to do things her way. Staff are frustrated because they feel like they are putting out fires all day and are not seeing behavior as communication.

When I delve deeper into the root of the problems, the antecedents and setting events are occurring much earlier than the staff realize. Students do not have access to the foundational structural elements that they need to be successful.

All of the students that recently moved on required detailed schedules, picture mini-schedules, visually structured work systems and tasks, routines, pre-alerts for changes from the schedule/routine, and work to do at their level.

I offer all of this to my students in my classroom for two reasons: because the students require it in order to reduce their anxiety to manageable levels and because I require it to reduce MY anxiety to manageable levels. My students would agree with me that a good day is a day during which we all know what to expect, when to expect it, and how long we expect each thing to last.

Even in my personal life, I am a list-maker and follow a strict routine. If I brush my teeth before I get dressed for the day, I might as well go back to bed and try again later.

The structural & organizational elements of a student’s day are often the most important. I assumed that these things would be provided because I teach a specific population and all of my students need it. Transition services did not provide it because most of their clients do not need it and do well without them.

I had glazed over these needs in my presentation. Instead, I had focused on reactionary consequences to misbehavior as well as safety plans, feeding plans, etc.

As I help transition staff to repair the students’ routines and schedules for this school year, I am simultaneously looking ahead to future students’ transitions.

How can I help them transition more seamlessly? How can I make sure that the students will get what they require?

The part that makes me nervous is I can’t make sure of it. Students need to move on and they need to work with new staff members. What I can do is make sure that I create visuals that will be relevant moving forward and teach students to use them more independently. I can send over necessary materials to make it easier for new staff members to set up schedules, mini-schedules, etc. with the student.

I can show parents what works well and what doesn’t work well for their student in the classroom so they can use similar strategies at home and advocate for their student in the future. I can teach parents to set up schedules for their student on their personal devices or using icons.

I can create ‘integrity checklists’ for new staff members to use to make sure that the student has everything that he or she requires on a daily basis. If problems arise, staff members can refer to the integrity checklist to see what the student may have been missing.

I can teach students to productively manage their own down time and engage in appropriate leisure activities. I can teach students to ask for structural items if they are cognitively able to recognize that they are missing (ex. I need schedule).

There are some things I can do that are in my control. There are many other things that aren’t. I need to control what I can control. I need to help my students make as much progress as they possibly can before they move on to transitional services.

And then, when students move on, I need to help when I am asked but otherwise I need to let things go. I can’t and shouldn’t protect them for forever. Instead of protecting them, I have to teach them and their families to protect themselves.

For now, I am moving on. I have a new group of students who rely on me to prepare them for the future.

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