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February 01, 1998  |   Comments (0)   |   Post a comment

How to Organize a Special-Needs Roadeo

Emphasis on learning, teamwork and fun makes competition an enjoyable and morale-building event.

by Jim Ellis and Maureen Arnitz-DeLisio


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We think we've hit upon a great way to improve special-needs training and have a little fun in the process. Modeled after traditional school bus roadeos, special-needs roadeos are designed to recognize and reinforce the skills required of special-needs bus drivers and attendants. They're not difficult to organize and definitely worth the effort. Comments by contestants after participating in a special-needs roadeo have included "This was a wonderful learning experience," "Surprised at how much new information I went away with," "Loved sharing ideas with other drivers and attendants" and "When's the next one?" The first special-needs roadeo for school bus staff was held in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1987. Since then a number of them have been held around New York state, culminating in the first statewide event held in Albany last year. Teams and observers from several states participated, and roadeos have now been conducted or are planned in a number of other states and Canada. Special-needs roadeos are an idea whose time has come. Ingredients for success
Three principles make special-needs roadeos unique: 1. Learning, not competition. Although the roadeo is a competitive event, the primary purpose is learning. This focus on learning instead of competition is explained in the registration materials for contestant teams and is emphasized during the roadeo. Focusing on learning affects roadeo procedures in many ways. For instance, the written test is sent to contestants ahead of time and is "open book." Contestants are encouraged to "research" test questions by going to their supervisor, trainer or school special-needs staff for help. One beneficial side effect of this approach is that discussion about special-needs procedures is stimulated in the bus garage. Another example of the priority of learning is that unlike traditional roadeos, only the top three teams are identified as "winners." Scores aren't posted for teams that didn't do so well. This helps lessen contestants' fears of being embarrassed. As pointed out above, many special-needs staff members have had little formal training, and feel understandably nervous about revealing their ignorance. At the conclusion of the roadeo, a "What did you learn?" debriefing is held to allow contestants to talk about the events. Judges and roadeo organizers participate in the discussion to answer questions about procedures. Incidentally, judges and organizers usually learn just as much as the contestants! 2. Teamwork. Like special-needs transportation itself, the roadeo stresses teamwork. Contestants compete as driver and attendant teams instead of individuals. (By the way, attendants appreciate being included - they're usually forgotten.) Another way teamwork is promoted is by grouping the contestant teams (three or four groups depending on how many teams are competing) and rotating groups through the events so that the teams in each group stick together over the course of the day. This has proven to be a great way to give teams a chance to get to know their "competitors" and to share ideas and experiences with them in a relaxed setting. Traditional roadeos often have lots of "dead time" while contestants wait their turn at each event, but by grouping teams together the waiting is enjoyable and productive. A "group leader" from the roadeo staff is provided to each group to help guide it to the next series of events and to answer questions or concerns during the day. 3. Fun. It's fun for all of us — new information goes down easier when you're enjoying yourself. Because competition is downplayed and there's a chance to interact with other teams, contestants have a great time in this roadeo. And because they're having a great time, contestants are amazingly receptive to learning new tips and ideas about safely transporting special children. In our experience, a lot more "training" gets accomplished in a special-needs roadeo than in most formal training classes. List of roadeo events
Pre-check: This is conducted on a lift bus and all special-needs items (lift operation, securement straps, fire blanket, seat belt cutter, etc.) must be checked. Drivers and attendants can conduct the pre-check as a team. Wheelchair loading and securement: This event focuses on critically important wheelchair loading and securement procedures, including the "little things" that sometimes get overlooked but can easily lead to a student injury. Drivers and attendants load and secure two wheelchairs and are judged on items such as making sure one staff member has a hold on the chair at all times while it's on the lift, setting wheelchair brakes on the lift and checking for head clearance before pushing chair through the lift door. A demonstration bus using the same type of securement system as the event buses is available for teams prior to the competition. Special-needs evacuation: The driver and attendant are presented with an emergency evacuation scenario on a special-needs bus carrying "students" with a variety of disabilities. They are graded on their real-time hands-on response to the emergency, including whether they select "the best exit" for the specific scenario they face, whether they move students far enough away from the bus and whether they're able to complete the evacuation within "two minutes." This event is always an incredible learning exercise for everyone involved. Driving test: The course includes "serpentine," "alley dock" and "railroad crossing" events that are similar to those in a traditional roadeo, but with two unique twists: During the driving course, drivers and attendants face a "challenging passengers" scenario in which they're graded on how effectively they handle two "severely emotionally disturbed students" acting out on the bus. (The student roles are realistically played by judges who are familiar with the characteristics of such children.) At the same time, drivers are being graded on their "TLC" driving skills — the ability to carefully maneuver a bus through turns and over bumps while carrying fragile passengers. TLC driving skills can be accurately judged with the help of a clever device developed by our friend Al Schoonmaker. The device measures how much the rear of the bus sways and shakes as it stops and starts, turns and goes over bumps (we use 4x4 beams) placed on the driving course. A ping pong ball placed on top of a soda bottle stuck into a box of (clean!) kitty litter in the rear of the bus also works. Tips on organization
We've had the honor of working with a wonderful committee of volunteers who conduct a regional special-needs roadeo every year. The Wayne-Finger Lakes (N.Y.) Special-Needs Roadeo Committee has learned how to make a special-needs roadeo look easy. But behind the scenes there's plenty of hard work, time and dedication involved. We'll share with you some of the valuable lessons the committee has learned: Create an organizing committee made up of supervisors, trainers, drivers and attendants at least six months prior to the target date of your roadeo. Elect a chairperson, treasurer and secretary and establish a monthly meeting date and time. One of the committee's first tasks is acquiring a suitable site — a school campus is usually perfect for a weekend roadeo. A parking lot with room for a one- to two-mile driving course, along with adequate space for separate areas for pre-trip, loading/securement and evacuation buses, is necessary. Access to a large room (school cafeterias are ideal) next to the parking lot is important. Additional classrooms for judges, snacks, etc., are needed as well. Equipment needed for a typical (25 teams) special-needs roadeo includes:

  • two identical lift buses for pre-check
  • two identical buses for driving portion (do not necessarily have to be lift buses)
  • three identical lift buses with identical securement systems for loading/unloading events and demonstration bus
  • two identical lift buses for evacuation event
  • large cones, barrels or traditional roadeo equipment for serpentine and alley dock events
  • "tracks" and crossbuck for railroad crossing event
  • at least two 12-foot long, 4x4 "speed bumps" for TLC event on the driving course
  • five wheelchairs
  • training dummies (ideally, two each of child and teenage dummies) for evacuation event
  • clipboards, pencils and score sheets for all judges and events
  • PA system for announcing contestants
  • coffee and snack arrangements Judges can be recruited from area supervisors, trainers, drivers, law enforcement, school staff and school board members. Judges should work in teams of two so they can "compare notes" on how to grade complicated events such as wheelchair securement or challenging passengers. "Student" actors are needed for the "challenging passenger" events. Select knowledgeable adults who can realistically portray how emotionally disturbed children would react to effective and non-effective student management techniques. It's important that these actors not exaggerate the acting out, which might portray their roles in a demeaning and stereotyped fashion. Student actors are also needed as ambulatory passengers in the evacuation event. For instance, a visually impaired, hearing impaired and autistic student on each of the evacuation buses adds to the challenge of a rapid evacuation. Student actors are also needed as passengers for the wheelchair loading and securement event. A flier and registration form publicizing the roadeo should be distributed to drivers and attendants at least two months beforehand. Because this roadeo is new and different, many drivers and attendants will be scared and reluctant to sign up at first. It helps to explain that the objectives are learning and a good time. Reassure drivers and attendants that no one will be embarrassed or made to "feel stupid" during the events. If you can give a short presentation about the upcoming roadeo at a safety meeting or in-service beforehand, you might be able to drum up more interest. Judges need to be thoroughly prepared to score their event. Send each judge a score sheet well ahead of time and review it with them. Schedule a judges' practice session before the roadeo. "Dry run" and score each event, and "talk through" gray areas (you will discover some special-needs transportation skills are seldom as "cut and dried" as some would like to believe!) before the roadeo so judging is consistent and fair for all contestants. 1st national event slated
    The first national special-needs roadeo will take place March 7-8 in Orlando, Fla. The event is co-sponsored by Federal News Services' National Conference and Exhibition on Transporting Students with Disabilities and the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y. This promises to be a wonderful event, bringing together contestants, judges and special-needs trainers from around the country. Unlike the traditional bus roadeo, national contestants do not need to have won a state event first. The state infrastructures for special-needs roadeos are still being developed, so everyone's welcome for the first national event — until all the contestant slots are filled, that is. We don't know who will win this event, but we're absolutely certain it will be a tremendous learning opportunity for everyone involved. Jim Ellis is transportation supervisor for Seneca Falls Central School District, and Maureen Arnitz-DeLisio is transportation supervisor for the Red Creek School District, both in upstate New York.

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