I was speaking in an online program this week about the autism spectrum and visual strategies and needs of students. When attendees had an opportunity to ask questions, one Mom asked, “My son with Asperger’s will be going to Middle School and I’m afraid. How do we prepare?”
Worthy of more than the couple of minutes I had to answer it in the online program. Even a blog post will only start the conversation. But I offer a few things to think about. Of course, this conversation will extend to students with related special learning needs.
1. Plan the paperwork for a support system
Some students have an IEP. Some need a 504 Plan to help them achieve success in that new school environment. A student with a diagnosis like Asperger’s or ADHD may be able to handle the regular education curriculum but may need support in some of those “hidden” skills like social or personal organization or needing additional time for test taking.
Keep in mind that it can be easier to prepare this type of support for a student before he or she actually enters the Middle School. Arriving with support already in place can be a benefit for the student.
Here’s a brief comparison between IEP and 504 Plans.
2. Choose a support person
Students can benefit from knowing a specific person who is their “go-to” person for information and problems. It can be a counselor, a specially designated teacher or someone else with the specific role of being accessible to the student. Developing this relationship ahead of time can be a benefit for both.
3. Become familiar with the environment
Visiting a new school is not a “once and it’s done” event. Go there often, for many reasons. Walk or drive? Visit when no one is there. Visit when the classes are changing. Spend some time with the support person. Find other students there that the student may already know.
I’ve talked with parents who have spent the summer before a school move visiting the new school frequently. Walk there with neighbor children. Take photos. Make some videos walking down the halls to the bathrooms and lockers and places the student will be traveling to. A lot of this information is available ahead of time. Familiarity reduces stress.
4. Target the classes for success
By middle school there are more choices for levels of classes and a variety of teachers. There can also be more choices in non-academic classes, too. Being strategic here can make a huge difference in student success.
5. Focus on teaching the “right” skills
As students move up in the educational system, it’s common for more attention to be directed toward academic skills. For some of our targeted students, that’s not the issue.
Here’s an example. I had a wonderful conversation last week with a very bright middle schooler with ADHD. She showed me her grades so far for the year. Interesting pattern. It went something like this: AAAADAA or AAAEEAAAA. I asked her what was happening. She told me what each low grade was for. One was for not turning in her homework because she forgot it at home. Two Es were because she forgot her musical instrument two days in a row for orchestra. Another low grade was for a test that she didn’t check her work on.
That led me to tell her this. “I‘m not sure if anyone has ever told you this before. Did you know that sometimes kids with ADHD have difficulty with organizational skills?” She responded, “Really?” Somehow this was new information for her.
That led to a conversation about why ADHD kids can have organizational challenges and how her “bad” grades all seemed to be related to organization. It ended with some strategies to help her organize herself better. Not sure if the elementary teachers addressed this, but I think this one “slipped through the cracks.” That can happen if we only focus on academics without looking at the bigger story.
6. Find something fun
By middle school there are more options. It can be a class like cooking or shop or technology. It can be an after school opportunity like a sports team or a robotics club. Perhaps wearing a team uniform or a club t-shirt will be enticing. The goal is to tap into individual interests and strengths. These situations can take the pressure off academics and open a chance to develop talents. It can also open social opportunities.
7. Identify a social network
Have you ever walked into a cocktail party with 1000 people and you didn’t know anyone there? I had that experience. Not fun. I’m sure there are people who would love to jump into such a situation but most of us prefer smaller groups. Well, that’s what middle school can feel like. Too many people. No familiar faces. How do you even begin to socialize, in all that chaos, especially if social is not your strength? Our targeted students probably need some help to build their network. Help them find a buddy. Design lunch time groups. Foster friendships between students who are in several classes together. Be strategic about lab partners, project partners or other groupings. Social often does not “just happen.” It’s developed.
8. View Middle School as the beginning of the future
I remember a family that I consulted with who had a son in middle school. I asked some questions. “Where do you see you son after high school? What can you envision him doing? Is he college bound? What career direction?” I also wanted to explore, “What are his personal strengths? Biggest challenges?” These questions created some anxiety for mom and dad. That’s understandable. Middle School seems so young to start thinking about the future. But these are important questions to begin to answer. And I always say that when I make a decision or decide on an answer, I reserve the right to change my mind later on.
But consider this
Middle School is a perfect time to focus on strengths and explore interests. In a way, Middle School is a preparation for High School, and that where a lot of pre-vocational opportunities emerge.
It reminds me of a favorite verse of mine. “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” Imagine a camping lamp and a flashlight. The lamp shines down to guide each step we are taking. The flashlight shines out so we can see the longer path. That, in its own way, describes the Middle School journey.
I hope the Mom who asked the question looks toward Middle School with less fear and more of a sense of adventure. Things will change. But that’s OK. Just remember that more planning ahead will provide the most opportunity for success.
P.S. Visual strategies work really well in Middle School. When students get older, the form usually changes from lamination and velcro. Technology is a great help. Students can use a phone or iPad to provide visual structure but still look like other middle school students. Then, instead of rejecting visual supports, students desire the “cool” tech tools. There are lots of apps to help.
P.S.S. Did you miss the live program? Watch the program here
What are your thoughts? Are you a Middle School educator? Please tell others how to prepare. Are you a parent? What are your biggest concerns? Have you developed some transition strategies for your students? What has been successful? Please share.