Transition Assessment Planning

Justin is a five-year-old kindergarten student diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). He is the third of four children in a loving, intact family with a . The family is low-income and resides in a rural district where no public pre-school or Head Start programs are available. Justin is nonverbal and is often frustrated by the demands of school and his inability to communicate his needs. He has sensory issues and works best in a quiet, structured environment. A diagnosis was made for Justin before starting kindergarten, so he began the school year with a full-time aide, “Carrie,” who had previous experience as a general classroom aide but no direct experience as a one-on-one paraprofessional for a student with special needs.

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Justin plays with his siblings at home and particularly enjoys drawing and building with Legos. He enjoys these activities in the classroom as well and can become angry when asked to stop these activities he enjoys and focus on academic work that he finds difficult. It is not unusual for Justin to have a tantrum, at which time he may hit Carrie, repeat the word “no” over and over, or just let his body go limp. Justin has become very attached to Carrie since the beginning of the school year and appears troubled if she is mad at him. When Carrie says “That hurts,” Justin immediately goes to hug her. Justin seems to regret his tantrums if it appears that Carrie is bothered by them, so she has used this strategy effectively, in most instances, to diffuse Justin’s outbursts.

Justin’s teachers and his parents have several main goals for the kindergarten year. First, school is a new experience for Justin and he needs to learn the purpose of school and appropriate behaviors. Unlike his time at home, Justin’s time at school is structured and outcome-oriented. He must learn to transition from one activity to the next upon request. He must understand that he cannot only do what he wants to do. He must learn to manage his frustration when tasks are challenging. It is also hoped that Justin will acquire some verbal language in preparation for learning to read and write. Kindergarten is only half-day, so the transition to first grade and a full day of school may be a challenge for Justin. Justin’s parents want him to spend as much time as possible with his peers. Justin’s siblings are all above-average achievers and his parents have high hopes for him as well. They feel that time in the regular classroom with peers will do much for Justin’s social skills and that academic achievement will follow. Their goal for Justin is that he lead a life that is as independent as possible. They acknowledge that he might need to be in a group home but believe he will someday be able to hold a job. Both parents have pledged to support teachers and staff any way they can to help Justin meet these long-range goals.

Justin spends most of the day in the regular education classroom with the aide. He spends sixty minutes per week working with a speech and language specialist. He spends sixty minutes per week with an occupational therapist, who works with Justin on gross motor skills. Justin, as has been noted, is fairly adept with fine-motor activities such as coloring and Lego-building, but he is quite overweight and lacks coordination and muscle tone.

The special education teacher created a book for Justin that contains icons representing aspects of his day. The icons are from the software program BoardMaker and have simple line drawings such as that of a sandwich for lunch and a toilet for using the bathroom. There are also stick figures that show various activities, such as sitting down, standing up, and raising one’s hand. The pictures aid in communicating with Justin, helping him to understand his schedule and what is being asked of him, and they provide a means for him to communicate his needs as well.

Some of the most difficult aspects of Justin’s day are the transitions between activities. Researchers have suggested that as much as twenty-five percent of a child’s day in preschool and elementary school is consumed with transitions (Schmit, Alper, Raschke and Ryndak, 2000, in and Jordan, 2011, p. 681).

The special education teacher also creates “work systems.” The work system is a strategy that has been demonstrated to be effective with children as young as three years. Each work system provides concrete information in visual format, specifying the work to be done, its quantity, the time frame for completion, and the next step (Stokes, 2011). An example of a work system for a math lesson would have photographs (or drawings) of simple equations with numeric characters, the same equations represented with manipulatives (e.g., cubes or teddy bear counters), clock faces showing the starting and ending times of the activity, and a child sitting with hands folded to indicate he is finished. The work systems can be somewhat time-consuming to construct but, under the guidance of the special educator, Justin’s aide Carrie has learned to create them. Fortunately, she does not have to create every one from scratch and can use ideas and pictures from previous lessons. Justin requires considerable repetition and is not introduced to too many concepts at once.

American Sign Language (ASL) is a low-cost strategy that has been employed in this impoverished district with students like Justin, although to date there has not been a student enrolled whose autism spectrum disorder has been manifest as severely as Justin’s. He is working with the speech and language specialist with the goal of learning to communicate, reduce his frustration, and enable him to become more receptive to learning. Justin works with flashcards and there are ASL posters in the classroom. The classroom teacher and the other students are also learning signs so that Justin can be part of a classroom community. Talking with Baby, authored by Marsha Peterson, is a series of simple stories using ASL symbols. The special education teacher suggested Justin would enjoy these and the district has them on order for the library.

The kindergarten teacher selected for Justin, Mrs. M., is a ten-year veteran with a reputation for maintaining a calm, organized and structured classroom. She also tries to incorporate academic choice whenever possible. It is a good environment for Justin who, like other autistic children, does poorly with change and thrives in an orderly, predictable setting. Choices and structured routine are not mutually exclusive. For example, classroom routine may dictate that math takes place every morning between eight and nine, but students can be given the choice to do one of three math activities to work on for the day (Kivi, 2011). Students with autism spectrum disorder do well with , and Mrs. M. had already incorporated different strategies before welcoming Justin into her classroom.

One of the greatest challenges in teaching a young, non-verbal student like Justin is assessment; it is difficult to determine what he knows, what he understands, and what he needs. An initial assessment must be made before the education plan is designed. The process “should include testing, reviewing medical recommendations if any, and meetings with the parents” (Kivi, 2011). Because assessment can be difficult, it is also difficult to develop an Individualized Education Program (IEP) for students on the spectrum. There can be tremendous variation in assessment results under different circumstances, such as time of day, different settings, and different people. There may also be other issues such as anxiety or depression (Wilczynski, Menousek, Hunter and Mudgal, 2007, p. 653). Justin, as far as known, does not suffer from these issues. Testing for Justin was done before the start of kindergarten and resulted in his placement in Mrs. M.’s class and the assignment of Carrie as a dedicated one-on-one paraprofessional.

One of the tests administered to Justin before the start of school was the Psychoeducational Profile Revised (PEP-R), an assessment and program planning tool for preschool and school-aged children with autism. The test was important to the process of setting appropriate goals for Justin for his kindergarten year. The test items have simple, concrete instructions and most expected responses are non-verbal. The test will be administered to Justin at the start of first grade. A description of the test, as provided by its publishers, is as follows:

The PEP-R is an inventory of behaviors and skills designed to identify uneven and idiosyncratic learning patterns. [it] is most appropriately used with children functioning at or below the preschool range and within the chronological age range of 6 months to 7 yearsthe on developing functioning in imitation, perception, fine motor, gross motor, eye-hand integration, cognitive performance, and cognitive verbal areas. [it] also identifies degrees of behavioral abnormality in relating and affect, play and interest in materials, sensory responses, and language (Wallin, 2010).

In the classroom, Mrs. M. will conduct functional behavior assessment (FBA), a process in which she will observe Justin and collect data to find out why he engages in certain behaviors. Several assessment tools are available, often using data collection sheets that include items such as direct observation and interviews with adults who closely interact with the student. In Justin’s case, this group could include Carrie, the paraprofessional who works directly with Justin, in addition to the special education teacher, the speech and language specialist, other teachers who regularly interact with Justin (e.g., art, physical education, music and media), and Justin’s parents.

Justin’s tantrums are a cause of concern for their negative effects not just on Justin but on the classroom as a whole. An FBA can be done on Justin; managing these outbursts is the main goal for the kindergarten year so that more learning can take place. It is important that the target behavior descriptions are as specific as possible. For example, “has outbursts” does not provide as much information as “screams, cries, kicks and throws items when upset.” An observation of this type should include information on the intensity or duration of the tantrum. It is also important to include a description of the antecedents to the tantrum, e.g., the activity in which Justin was engaged, the time of day, and other children/adults involved. In a study reported by Blair, Umbreit, Dunlap, and Gilsoon (2007, p. 137), an autistic boy with behaviors similar to Justin’s was better able to participate in whole class activities after an FBA, which highlighted the boy’s strengths and challenges. When his outbursts could be anticipated and managed, there was less disruption in the classroom and the other children were more willing to let the boy participate in work and play groups. The success of the social interactions led to further successes; it is hoped that Justin’s case will parallel this study.

Although Mrs. M., the classroom teacher, will endeavor to be as objective as possible in recording her observations, she is human and the input of others should be sought. The special education teacher should also do an FBA and ideally the principal and the district’s director of special educator could do an FBA as well. This would provide data from several sources and create a more complete and objective picture of Justin and his needs. Results of the FBA can be used in developing Justin’s I.E.P. For first grade, which will be a big transition year for him.


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