Tips for Supporting Students with Autism Transitioning from Virtual to In-Person Learning
Many families have had to adjust to the changes that came from the COVID-19 pandemic when it comes to schooling for their kids. Most kids had to go from in-person school to virtual schooling at some point in the year 2020. However, many kids are currently or have already transitioned from virtual or online schooling face-to-face classes.
For children with autism spectrum disorder, these transitions to in-person classrooms can be challenging. One common characteristic of autism is that the individual may struggle with transitions which means they have difficulty with or find it stressful to adjust to changes. This might have to do with transitioning from one activity to another or being able to cope with bigger changes that have to do with their daily routines and schedules. This includes changes that have to do with their school.
Because effectively coping with changes related to school can be challenging for children with autism and since many kids are or have recently had to transition from virtual learning to return to face-to-face, in-person schooling, we will give you some effective strategies and helpful tips to support your child as they manage this experience.
Follow a Daily Routine
It is very important for kids with autism to have a daily routine. Parents can help their children transition to in-person learning by creating and supporting a daily routine for their children to follow.
It’s helpful if the parent follows a daily routine, as well, especially when the parent’s activities impact the child’s experiences. For instance, a parent can be sure to plan to cook dinner or to do certain household chores at a time that is conducive to their child’s daily activities, as well. The parent could do laundry while the child is working independently on homework or while the child is at school, for example.
Some things to include in a child’s daily routine include:
- What time to wake up each day (be sure to allow enough time for the child to wake up and get ready without them feeling rushed or overwhelmed before school starts)
- Breakfast time
- Self-care tasks, such as brushing teeth, taking a shower, etc.
- After school activities, such as snack time
- Non-school related responsibilities, such as chores, cleaning the child’s bedroom, and extracurricular activities
- Free time/Downtime (time that is not structured in which the child can choose their activities)
- What activities the child should or should not do before bed (ex: Do you allow electronic/screens before bed)
Get Enough Sleep
It is important to support healthy sleep habits in children. One study found that “Children using media after 8 pm and sleeping alone are...in significant sleep debt.” They also found that “screen activities such as TV, internet and cellular phones in a child’s bedroom had a negative effect on children’s sleep/wake patterns and duration of sleep (Mishra, et. al., 2017).”
Although it is every parent’s personal decision on how to manage their child’s use of electronic devices and screen time, some research does show that when children are allowed to engage in screen activities late at night, they don’t sleep as well or don’t sleep as long as other children who do not use electronics before bedtime.
The amount of sleep that a person needs to function at their best and to promote positive health and well-being in their daily life varies from one individual to the next. As a parent, you can use your best judgment about how much sleep your child needs per night by considering the recommendations from sleep experts who provide a general guideline by age along with your observations of your child’s behaviors and well-being as it relates to how much sleep they get.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend the following:
Recommended Hours of Sleep Per Day [Per 24 hours]
- Newborns [0-3 months]: 14-17 hours
- Infants [4-12 months]: 12-16 hours including naps
- Toddlers [1-2 years]: 11-14 hours including naps
- Preschoolers [3-5 years]: 10-13 hours including naps
- School Agers [6-12 years]: 9-12 hours
- Teen [13-18 years]: 8-10 hours
- Adults [18-60 years]: 7 or more hours
- Older Adults [61 years and older]: 7-9 hours
Virtual schooling may have been structured for your child or it may have been more relaxed than typical in-person school. Some kids were expected to follow a daily schedule and log in to a virtual program for their daily classes at specific times throughout the day. Other students may have been given a bit more flexibility with their virtual learning program in that they were expected to complete online activities but they were allowed to complete the activities at a time that works for them since they didn’t have to attend classes with a live instructor.
No matter your child’s virtual learning situation, transitioning back to in-person learning can feel overwhelming for your child. It can feel fast-paced and busy and this can bring about feelings of stress and anxiety for many kids, especially for children with autism.
When your child is transitioning back to typical, in-person schooling, be sure not to completely fill their schedule with activities. Even though we mentioned the importance of creating a daily routine, it’s important not to plan too much for your child to do each day. They do need some downtime to simply relax and to choose what activities they want to spend their time on rather than having other people tell them what they should do all day every day.
Make Expectations Clear
It’s okay to have expectations for your child. However, make sure you make your expectations clear. Also, be consistent with your expectations. When parents and teachers make their expectations for a child’s behavior clear, they are helping the child to feel more secure. The child knows what they should be doing and what happens if they don’t meet those expectations.
Without clear expectations, children with autism might appear noncompliant or anxious or they might even display other challenging behavior like aggression or self-harm.
A few tips for making expectations clear as it relates to transitioning to in-person school for children with autism include:
- Be clear about the time you expect your child to get out of bed in the morning.
- Help your child understand when and how you expect them to complete their homework (ex: at the kitchen table, right after school, etc.).
- Talk to your child about what you expect related to how they behave in school and how they should act when they get overwhelmed or need a break.
- For children with autism who may have limited language and comprehension skills, you can use prompts, visual cues, and being consistent with your actions to communicate your expectations to them.
Use Antecedent Strategies (Be Proactive)
To set your child up for success, it’s recommended to use what are known as antecedent strategies. Antecedent strategies are things you do to affect your child’s behavior before they engage in a specific behavior. By using antecedent strategies, you are being proactive in helping your child to have a positive experience in school.
Some examples of antecedent strategies that will help children with autism transition more successfully from virtual learning to in-person school include:
- Modifying the child’s environment
- How can the child’s learning space be set up to make it more likely the child will focus and complete tasks? How can the environment be changed in a way that results in the child having fewer distractions?
- Setting up visual supports
- What type of visual cues and materials can be developed to help the child get through their daily routine and meet expectations? Examples: A written or picture-based daily schedule, List of rules, Token boards
- Identifying and then offering choices
- Where in the child’s day can the adult (parent or teacher) offer the child choice as to what the child will be doing? Examples: What homework to do; What reward to earn for appropriate behavior and meeting expectations
Identify Social Skills/Needs & Plan Accordingly
One of the core characteristics of autism spectrum disorder is for the individual to have challenges with social and communication skills. This could become more problematic for children with autism who are transitioning from virtual school to in-person school since they are probably less likely to have to worry about using “appropriate” social skills when they were in virtual school as compared to the constant pressure to engage in or at least cope with social situations in face-to-face schooling.
To help a child with ASD transition to in-person school, especially when they are coming from virtual learning, parents and teachers should communicate with each other about the child’s social skills.
Specifically, parents should talk to the child’s teacher about any concerns they have about things that might interfere with the child’s experiences at school. Parents can also talk to teachers about ways that the child’s teacher, other school staff, and even other students at school could help support the child’s social experiences.
One example of identifying a child’s social skills or social needs would be, for a child who struggles in group settings, the teacher could give the child tasks to complete that allow them more independence, but which still assists the group as a whole.
Make a Behavior Plan if Needed
If a child is likely to have challenging behavior, parents and teachers should collaborate on making a behavior plan that will support more acceptable behaviors while decreasing the frequency of those challenging behaviors.
A behavior plan should include identifying the function of the child’s challenging behaviors as well as identifying replacement behaviors that serve the same function. A child’s challenging behavior may be maintained by one of the four functions of behavior which include: escaping tasks or situations, accessing items or activities, gaining attention from someone else, or automatic reinforcement which is sometimes referred to as sensory behaviors.
For instance, if a child is known to walk out of class (as demonstrated in previous in-person learning experiences) when they don’t want to be there anymore and the hypothesized function of this behavior is escaping a specific subject, a behavior plan can identify more acceptable ways the child can request to take a break from the schoolwork.
Additionally, the plan can include ways to increase the child’s compliance with completing tasks that the parent and teacher determine to be tasks that need to be completed.
Reinforcement should be a critical part of helping a child transition from virtual school to in-person school. Reinforcement is when something occurs after a behavior which then makes it more likely that the behavior will happen again in the future.
Parents and teachers should be mindful of how the child will access reinforcement for acceptable behavior, for meeting expectations, and for completing tasks requested of them.
Reinforcement for children with autism that supports their functioning in school will be based on the individual child since what works for one child may not work for another. However, some ideas for using reinforcement to help kids with autism with in-person learning include:
- Creating a token board which allows the student to earn a preferred item or activity by filling in the board for demonstrating appropriate behaviors
- Providing a reward for the student completing his homework
- Giving the student tablet time for participating in a group activity or for sitting appropriately in their desk for a certain period of time
It’s important to talk directly to kids about how they are doing. If your child can communicate verbally with you, ask them what they think will help them in the transition to in-person school.
Also, periodically check in with your child on how they are doing. You can ask how things are going and if there is anything they think would be helpful for making their experience in school even better. If your child can’t speak verbally, be observant to check in and see how they’re doing.
Communicate with Teachers/Parents
We mentioned this earlier, but it is worth mentioning again, parents and teachers should communicate with one another about how to support a child’s transition from virtual to in-person learning. They should also continue to be in contact with each other about what is going well and any potential concerns that arise.
Recap : Supporting Kids with ASD Transitioning from Virtual to In-Person Learning
As a recap, some strategies that are likely to support a child who has autism with their transition from virtual school to in-person school include:
- Following a daily routine
- Getting enough sleep
- Not being overscheduled
- Parents and teachers having clear expectations
- Parents and teachers using antecedent strategies
- Addressing social skills and social needs
- Parents and teachers collaborating to develop a behavior plan
- Accessing reinforcement
- Parents and teachers checking in with the student
- Communication between the teacher and the parent
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). How Much Sleep Do I Need? Retrieved June 19, 2021 from https://www.cdc.gov/sleep/about_sleep/
Marsh, A., Spagnol, V., Grove, R., & Eapen, V. (2017). Transition to school for children with autism spectrum disorder: A systematic review. World journal of psychiatry, 7(3), 184–196. https://doi.org/10.5498/wjp.v7.i3.184
Mishra, A., Pandey, R. K., Minz, A., & Arora, V. (2017). Sleeping Habits among School Children and their Effects on Sleep Pattern. Journal of caring sciences, 6(4), 315–323. https://doi.org/10.15171/jcs.2017.030