Jean Zimmerman (top left) of the School District of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Fla., heads special-needs training sessions at school districts around the country. Her sessions offer trainees opportunities to work in the bus with special-needs equipment.
When it comes to transporting students with special needs, pupil transportation and special-education officials, along with therapists and disability experts, agree that understanding students’ disabilities and how to work with the students is an integral part of ensuring a successful transportation experience.
“We have to see things through the students’ eyes and step into their realm. Once we’re able to do that and we understand them a little better, it makes a huge difference in how we work with these students,” says Michelle Brower, special-needs coordinator for Douglas County School District in Castle Rock, Colo.
Providing training for school bus drivers and aides is the best way to achieve this understanding and endow them with knowledge to effectively serve students.
“There are strategies that can really make a difference in the kids’ lives, so training is critical,” explains Jocelyn Taylor, an education specialist for the Utah State Office of Education whose expertise is in autism. “It will also make the adult’s job much more enjoyable if they understand how to work with the students they transport.”
Training session topics
Cheryl Wolf, safety and training supervisor for Lafayette (Ind.) School Corp., offers extensive special-needs training for her drivers and bus aides. Her sessions comprise five modules, including sensitivity training. The staff learns the importance of being respectful of the students’ personal space and of letting students do things themselves, such as latching their own seat belt, if they are able to.
In addition to sensitivity training, many pupil transportation operations cover confidentiality, equipment and how to properly use it, behavior and health plans as well as loading, unloading and evacuation procedures.
Pete Meslin, transportation director at Newport-Mesa Unified School District (USD) in Costa Mesa, Calif., says he also discusses with his staff the different types of disabilities to help them become familiar with them, as well as ways for the staff to communicate and work as a team.
Pauline Gervais, executive director of transportation services for Denver Public Schools, feels that it is equally important for school bus drivers and aides to receive bullying and harassment awareness training.
“Students with disabilities are more vulnerable to harassment and can be taken advantage of,” Gervais explains. “It is the responsibility of the driver and the attendant to ensure that students with disabilities are safe on the bus as well as at the bus stop. It is important to consider the student’s ability, age and gender when assigning seats on the bus.”
Approaches to keep drivers and aides engaged
As with any type of training, the drivers and bus aides must remain engaged during the sessions so that they retain the information and can apply it to their jobs. Changing how the information is delivered and who delivers it can help prevent people from tuning out.
“Drivers don’t want to hear things the same way twice, so we make a very big effort to switch up the training,” Meslin says. “Sometimes it will be a classroom setting with our trainers or me doing the presentation or sometimes it will be a special-education teacher, an autism expert, an occupational therapist or a nurse giving a presentation.”
Meslin also takes his drivers on field trips and organizes training sessions in a game show format. For the field trips, drivers are usually brought to special-needs students’ educational setting — in the classroom or the places where they have their community-based instruction. The drivers watch the students participate in the learning experience to gain a better understanding of how they process information.
For the game show-style training, Meslin says he sets up a Jeopardy-like game, dividing participants into teams and directing questions at them. Drivers can work in teams or individually, and small prizes are awarded for correct answers.
In recent months, Denver Public Schools’ transportation department has begun a practice of having the trainers and administrative officials (including Gervais) take turns teaching classroom training sessions. Gervais has found this approach to be successful because the trainees hear the information from different people and it also requires all of the instructors to become familiar with every component of the department’s training curriculum.
Taylor advocates using coaching to train school bus drivers and bus aides. She feels that having a coach in the bus to demonstrate how to communicate with students, how to properly buckle in a student, etc., is the most effective training method.