Special Needs Transportation

Using Sight, Sound and Touch to Communicate with Special-Needs Students

Kathy Furneaux
Posted on February 1, 2001

As a school bus driver and transportation director, “Never put them on unless you know how to get them off!” became my repeated catchphrase. That phrase takes on even greater meaning when it comes to transporting students with disabilities, who often experience communication difficulties.

As we all know, communication is critical during an emergency. However, when some of your students simply cannot understand what you are telling them, the usual means of communicating your emergency plan must be modified. Here’s how you can go about opening the lines of communication with your students with disabilities.

Establish a plan
Communication begins during the planning phase. Research must be done regarding students’ academic levels, communication skills, physical abilities and possible reactions to emergency situations. Teachers, administrators, therapists and classroom aides can be very good resources. In addition, parents and other bus driverscan provide insights into a student’s skills and typical reactions to situations. Teamwork, including the sharing of information, can put a plan on a safe and workable track toward desired outcomes.

Unfortunately, you will probably meet with resistance in obtaining information on your passengers with disabilities, despite the fact that legislation allows for the sharing of student information with transportation personnel.

To facilitate the sharing of information, I developed a form that includes all of the information relative to providing a safe ride. I send this form to parents or call them to complete the form over the phone. The parents are usually cooperative and eager to help us keep their children safe and happy.

I then evaluate what I learn about students from their forms and judge their compatibility with the school bus environment. Once I have completed the process of mentally seeing each child through a bus ride, I modify the written emergency plan and drill to match the unique bus environment and the skills of the child, including any communication modifications.

I know many children with disabilities who can communicate as well as anyone else. There are children, however, whose deficits require special consideration and adjustment in the methods of communication used.

Speech, touch, facial and body language, voice tones, sign language and eye contact are useful approaches for communicating with a child with a disability. These approaches can be placed in three categories: visual, auditory and kinesthetic. Each of these approaches can be used independently or in combination with another to fulfill a communication need of a challenged student.

The visual approach
The visual approach to safety training for students with disabilities involves the use of pictures, slides or gestures to teach safety terms and concepts.

Activities are designed to show children what you are trying to communicate, rather than simply telling them. When using the visual approach, employ teaching techniques that will prove to students that a new idea or training action is safe. Develop a handbook with pictures of children during a school bus evacuation drill to visually reinforce the safety message and increase retention.

In the initial phases of an evacuation drill, give the children control. This helps reduce their feelings of uncertainty. For some, this control is achieved visually. Allow the students to play the role of the bus driver or monitor and evacuate the other students and staff. This exercise creates an environment that encourages control of the unfamiliar event and promotes an understanding of what you are trying to get them to do.

The auditory approach
The auditory approach uses lecture, audiotapes and student interaction. Verbal preparation for safety activities offsets confusion on various levels. Start out by telling students, “Tomorrow, we will be doing a drill!”

Use a positive attitude to share your enthusiasm for this exercise and elicit the help of parents by discussing it with them in advance. As the students get off the bus, remind them and their parents. The “partnership” approach will cue most parents to reinforce your message throughout the evening and before loading in the morning. The driver continues this type of verbal preparation until the actual event, making the concept familiar.

The right tone of voice and volume control can reassure and motivate the student who has difficulty understanding certain concepts using other approaches. Voice volume provides emphasis and authority, while reflecting attitude. Students will quickly detect emotional levels consistent with poor attitude and react accordingly. All of these elements come together to provide stability and a sense of safety that the student may not get from other approaches.

The kinesthetic approach
The kinesthetic approach involves the use of touch, which for some students, equates to reassurance and safety. I once transported a boy who was autistic. This student had very consistent negative reactions to the transition from home to bus and school to bus. His frustrations caused him to act out in a physically abusive way.

This behavior dissipated when he touched my arm and handled my watch for several minutes as I buckled him in. After those several minutes had lapsed, I would ask him if it was OK to go to school (or home) and he would let go of my arm. He would then be content to twirl his shoestring and look out the window for the entire ride. This process would add a couple of minutes to the ride time, but it saved me many minutes in the end. More importantly, my student became comfortable and happy!

For some children, the only way that recognition is felt is through a pat on the back or a squeeze of the hand. At times, the effectiveness of touch is enhanced when combined with words. There are some students, for example, who will not acknowledge communication at all unless they are touched before speaking begins. The touch approach is very useful in assisting a student with transition confusion (children who become very confused in the transition from one activity to another — a disability that becomes heightened in a school bus emergency).

Use student strengths
The implementation of an effective emergency plan for all students requires using many different forms of communication at the same time. To tap into the best your students have to offer, establish student teams of varying function levels.

At one point in my career as a school bus driver, I was transporting pre-schoolers (5- to 8-year-olds) with multiple disabilities and older regular-education students. The behavior of one of the regular-education students became a concern for me, so I asked the young man to become a “big brother” to a pre-schooler who was having difficulty.

The instructions I gave the young man were, “Teach him to tie his shoes and help him when I do safety training.” The results for both students were positive. Attendance improved dramatically for them both. Safety drills went quickly and smoothly, and the little guy actually learned to tie his shoes! The older student’s self esteem skyrocketed. As for me, I was smack in the middle of a “win–win” situation!

At pivotal points in an emergency, the extra help students provide will make a difference for everyone. Even in times such as these, when people’s opinions about youth are mixed, a student’s willingness to help can surprisingly shine through. Set reasonable expectations and help students rise to meet them. The effect of improved communication and understanding between student and adult will spill over into other areas of student management.

Try different approaches
Some disabilities, such as deafness, blindness and autism, lend themselves naturally to specific teaching approaches. Emotional disturbance, on the other hand, often requires a combination of approaches and a sensitive, caring instructor.

Some children will respond to only one approach to safety training, while others benefit from a variety of methods. And there are invariably those who will not respond at all, no matter what approach is used. To determine which approach or combination of approaches will work, you must first become familiar with the student and his or her specific learning style. Seek out a classroom teacher with greater exposure to the student’s response to these approaches to act as an adviser. This will save time and reduce frustration for both student and instructor.

Children with disabilities are at times very flexible and at other times very rooted in the type of setting they will be comfortable in. When determining the appropriate path for safety training, consider the student who will not tolerate the limitations of space on a school bus during instruction. I have often stumbled upon the opposite problem — a student’s fear of groups or open spaces when placed in a classroom environment. These hurdles must be crossed.

As instructors, we must use all of our senses to monitor students with special needs as they progress through training. This monitoring will enable us to identify triggers that will inhibit their learning. Once the triggers are located, we can modify training approaches to help students to reach their full potential.

Practice regularly
Repetition must be part of the training program. Attention spans and memory deficits may not allow students to retain the safety information for long periods.

Training environments must become a normal part of their routine, thereby reducing the impact of change. Practicing evacuation on a regular basis will allow students to begin to see it as part of their routine.

I started a small program called “Wednesday Is Talk to Your Students About Safety Day.” Every Wednesday I gave a safety topic to the drivers and monitors to discuss with their students. I also provided a related handout for the parents. As the program progressed, I asked my trainers to provide the topics and handouts. We all gained from the safety exercises. The weekly drill reduced possible adverse reactions to change and helped students who had difficulty remembering safety rules and practices.

The issues that special communication approaches bring to the surface are as varied as the students, drivers and monitors that we’ll be challenged to train. In any particular drill, students will be functioning at different levels academically, socially and emotionally. Information gained in the IEP process is crucial in deciding where best to place these students in the safety plan and what to expect from them.

New hurdles mean new approaches to communicating safety concepts. Certainly, questions abound and there is no single answer. Consistent use of objects, words, phraseology, touch and activities enhance smooth and effective communication with bus riders with disabilities. Practice helps students build on the foundations these approaches provide, which, in turn, results in successful safety training.

Author Kathy Furneaux is a training specialist for the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute in Syracuse, N.Y. For more information about PTSI, visit www.ptsi.org, or call (800) 836-2210.

Related Topics: driver training, evacuation drills

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