A child with autism can experience multiple triggers that lead to challenging behavior on the school bus as summer ends and they go back to class.
Brooke Garcia, CEO of 4Seasons Transportation, encouraged attendees at the National School Transportation Association’s Annual Meeting and Convention to imagine:
All summer, you’ve been able to sleep in. Eat what you want. Take it easy. Now, school’s coming back. You’re up early. Parents are in a rush. You don’t like this cereal because of how it feels in your mouth. Mom wants you to wear shoes that make your feet feel like fire and a jacket that leaves you thinking ants are crawling on your skin. She says, “Come on, hurry up.” You’re pushed out the door into the bright morning sun, the air is loud with noises, there’s that yellow bus, and you think: “Oh, my goodness. That’s not my same driver. That’s not my same bus. I’m not going to the same classroom. I’m in a different environment with different people.”
“Then we open that door and tell those kids to sit down, be quiet, don’t touch anybody else,” Garcia said. “It’s not going to work. That’s not going to happen.”
Garcia and Maritza Valentin of AMF-Bruns of America joined me onstage during the Niagara Falls conference in July for a great discussion about trends in special-needs transportation.
Valentin reported seeing more heavy chairs aboard buses. “We saw them 10 years ago, they faded out, and now they’re back.” They can present challenges to securement, she said.
She also noted the prevalence of wheelchair-lift buses after hearing school district officials proclaim years ago that they’d never include them in their fleets. It’s important for drivers to cross-train on those buses to make sure substitutes can safely cover the route.
Disruptive behavior, sometimes caused by these summer breaks, is on the rise and can prove particularly challenging during the first six weeks of the school year, Garcia said. In those instances, “the driver needs to the thermostat in the bus, rather than the thermometer,” she said. They need to control the environment to help those children.
What’s the child’s favorite song? Do they have a beloved stuffed animal? Garcia has one student who hates red lights of all kinds. “We have to divert our route for red lights,” she said.
Don’t write off what seems like chaos, she said. “Take time to get to know them, be open, learn how to manage sometimes extreme behavior. The rewards can be astronomical.”
That means more and frequent training. 4Seasons has partnered with a local university to develop online training. They take longer than average to recruit drivers and put them on the road, but for Garcia it’s about more than someone at the wheel.
“They’re not ‘just a driver’,” she said. “We deal with the highest needs. People say we’re the Advil. We take away the headache. Drivers need to be prepared for incredibly challenging situations.”
Of course, the school bus driver shortage is bad all over. Yet 4Seasons boasts a turnover rate of about 7%. Garcia has put a lot of focus on retention – especially retaining the right people.
“It’s really easy in school busing to get focused on whether they have the proper requirements to get in the bus tomorrow,” she said. “Those people come and go. If you hire the right person, you can train for the skills.”