Behavior management on school buses transporting special-needs students can be a difficult proposition. Not only do drivers and attendants have to deal with the everyday discipline problems that can arise, but they also need to be prepared for misbehavior that may be linked to a student’s disability.
Below, I’ve listed 10 strategies to help your driver teams handle behavior management problems. When these strategies are implemented, negative student behavior on the bus will be greatly reduced. If the teams continue using the strategies throughout the school year, each day of bus service will be a truly satisfying experience.
The behavior of special-needs students on the school bus is usually very predictable when the adults on the bus understand each student’s individual personality, stressors, family members and siblings.
The driver team is part of the family of every student with disabilities on the special-needs bus route. As such, the driver and aide should be able to communicate effectively with their students.
However, understanding a student’s needs requires effective observation and listening skills on the part of the driver team. Psychologists say that these skills can be broken down in the following manner: 80 percent listening and observation skills, 15 percent student’s body language and 5 percent the student’s words.
Driver teams that don’t observe their students cannot predict 80 to 95 percent of the time when their students will act out on the bus, when they will have a seizure or when they will be resistant to their requests. It is an essential behavior management strategy to know the students on the bus by carefully observing them.
Boarding is key
Observe every student very carefully as he or she boards the bus. This is special-needs driver team “homeland security” in action. To emphasize the importance of this point, here’s an example: One of our drivers was looking out the front window as an adolescent student boarded the special-needs bus. When the student got to school, a police officer who routinely searches all students found a loaded .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver in the student’s underwear.
What's the solution? Always make eye contact with everyone who enters your bus. Look for signs of distress or nervousness. Note which students avoid your eye contact or exhibit any unusual behavior. Your “personal radar” helps you prepare for something that might — or might not — occur on your bus.
Use seat assignments
Assign seats and do not change them unless absolutely necessary. But assigning seats is not enough. The bus assistant should be seated behind the last student seated on the bus. As students leave the bus, the assistant can move forward while continuing to remain behind the students. Assistants who sit in the front and talk to the driver and do not observe and work with the students are not doing their job.
Stay in touch
Make face-to-face contact at the beginning of the year and once a month throughout the school year with every building principal or supervisor who will be reading your behavior reports and determining what to do about them. If you have confidence in the administrator and the administrator has confidence in you, then the behavior management options available to the administrator will work with your students. The administrator will know that you have already tried everything that might make a difference before writing the bus safety report.
Meet the parents
Do not avoid parent meetings — encourage them. Participate in every parent meeting, keeping the focus on the student rather than the parents’ feelings toward you or school officials. Build a positive relationship with parents so they will look forward to hearing from you rather than avoiding all possible conversations with you.
For efficient and timely communication, obtain key phone numbers from your passengers’ parents — home, work and cell — and make sure they’re up to date.
Share the ride
Communicate often and show that you fully trust your driver team partner, whether you’re the driver or the bus assistant. Avoid statements and attitudes of non-support for your coworker such as, “It’s my way or the highway!” or, “You drive the bus, and I’ll handle the students.” These are “one-way statements,” when almost all route service responsibilities are shared — as in driver team.
One is better than none
Both team members must know the route completely. If there is a substitute driver, the assistant should provide specific information to expedite a normal route experience for all special-needs students. When both driver and assistant are substitutes, the transportation supervisor can expect problems since change of service for the special-needs students may trigger student outbursts. Severely autistic students respond negatively to any change in the routine. When new faces are behind the wheel and seated beside the student, there is going to be trouble. Try to avoid both driver team members being absent at the same time.
Don’t bring your personal life on the bus. Your personal concerns or problems are not to be shared with any of your students or with your driver team partner. Your professionalism means that when you step on the bus, you are focused on your students’ needs and bus safety — not on yourself.
Give positive attention
Don’t create an environment that makes acting out on the special-needs bus the only way your student riders can get your attention. When students are not being given sufficient attention, they will create problems to receive negative attention, which, to them, is
better than no attention at all. As adults on the special-needs bus, you may never know if the parents and siblings provide a negative environment for your student at home. It may be that your student’s family is very loving and supportive. Your job as a professional is always to be fair, firm and friendly. Don’t forget the “friendly,” though other adults may misinterpret the best of your intentions as being “non-professional.”
The students instinctively know the difference between adults who genuinely care for them and those who do not. They sense who may be on the bus because it is the only job they can find at the moment. Students won’t place their trust in those who are ready at a moment’s notice to leave the bus for a better-paying position. Students with disabilities may know more about you than you know about yourself.
Expect the worst
Trusting your students with disabilities who regularly ride your bus is not enough. Loving them in an adult, professional way is not enough. Hoping that they will not act out is not enough. Expecting that the students will have a normal, uneventful ride on the bus today is not enough.
Hope for the best, but expect the worst. That is not a negative attitude. It is a positive, realistic and proactive attitude that avoids crises before they can boil over on your bus.
Ray Turner is a national special-needs transportation expert and author of numerous books and newsletters. He recently retired as special-education transportation coordinator at Northside Independent School District in San Antonio. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.