I can’t believe it’s already August, which means a new school year is upon us! As related service providers, we aren’t necessarily preparing a classroom, but there are so many things we need to take care of as the school year begins. I find myself focusing the most on the following types of tasks as the school year begins: communication and teaming, documentation, caseload/scheduling and treatment planning. I’d like to take some time today to break down each area and offer some of my thoughts and tips for starting the school year on the right foot.
Communication and Teaming
I can’t stress this enough – effective communication and collaborative teaming is so incredibly important as related service providers. Ineffective communication leads to frustration, which does not bode well for successful teaming. Here are some things I try to really focus on at the beginning of the year in this area:
Introduce yourself to building staff. This seems really silly, but I try to take the time to introduce or reintroduce myself to building staff at the beginning of the year, in person especially if it’s a building I’m new in or have limited time in.
Communicate schedule and contact info. It is so important to let people know when you will be in the building and the best way to get a hold of you. I make sure to communicate this info not only with classroom teachers, but paras, other related service providers, office staff, the principal and special ed director. I usually do this in an email so people can go back and reference it.
Touch base with families. In the past I have sent a letter home with the student, introducing myself and giving the parent my contact info. I’ve moved towards sending an email now, as it gives families my contact info right off the bat and gives an opportunity for the parent to respond back to me directly, as opposed to the letter home. I love hearing from families with regards to their child’s strengths, interests and goals for the upcoming school year.
Be helpful and present. In the first weeks of school especially, I try to be available to help to help setup classrooms, help students learn classroom routines, help students who may be having a hard time. This supports collaboration and teaming and can start things off on a positive note with your teams.
Get into the classrooms. It’s so easy sometimes as related service providers to take the students into our office or space, do an activity, and send the student back. What actually happens in the classroom? How does the student do in those routines? The beginning of the year is a great time to get into the classrooms to understand the environment that our students need to work in.
Try to get on the email list. I can’t tell you how many times I didn’t get notified of the all school musical. While these special events can sometimes be a great way for me to support students in different settings, it is also sometimes helpful to know that in advance so I can plan for it or reschedule sessions if needed. If you go to different buildings you may not automatically get these notifications. Try to get in with someone so you can get this important info – not just about special events, but also things like when IEP report cards are due, or notifications of important meetings.
Build repoire. Take time to build relationships with staff members. Engage in the small talk, try to get to know people. If the people on your team feel like they know you and trust you, it will lead to great things for your team going forward!
Documentation in the school setting can be so overwhelming, but with a little bit of planning, it doesn’t have to be.
Pick a system and stick to it. Will you exclusively use electronic documentation, paper documentation, combo of both? Spend time at the beginning of the year setting up whatever system you choose, and stick to it ! I am notorious for getting bored with my system a few months into each school year. My system also changes depending on the caseload I service. When I am fully integrated into a preschool, I use a quick paper sheet for documentation. During my inclusion pull out sessions, I can more easily access the computer for electronic documentation. It definitely takes trial and error to see what works for you.
Block off documentation time in your schedule (if you can). Try to build documentation time into your schedule. Not only do we need to document daily sessions, but as IEPs and evaluations come along, we need time to write those too!
Caseload and Scheduling
I think many related service providers shudder at the thought of scheduling student sessions every year. Here are some ways I try to manage the beast that is caseload and scheduling:
Make a list and check it twice. There is no greater fear than possibly missing a student, or having incorrect service minutes for students. Check that caseload list and IEP over and over to ensure you’ve got it right from the start!
Group when appropriate. Grouping students who are working on similar goals can be really helpful, not only for scheduling purposes but also to work on social interaction and turn taking. Take a look at each student’s IEP and talk with the team to see if there are any students who naturally work well together, and see if that may work for your therapy sessions.
Push in when appropriate. I am a HUGE proponent of the push in therapy model. Could it be appropriate for you and your students? You can likely work with more than one student at a time while also working the natural environment. It’s a win win in most cases, if you ask me.
Schedule consult time. Put this time in your schedule. This way you can ensure that each week you are touching base on those consultative minutes. Sometimes we tend to focus so much on the direct session scheduling, that the consult time kind of floats around out there. Put it in your schedule to help make it more concrete.
Consider meeting days and times when forming your schedule. If your school has a designated IEP meeting day, and you are at that school more than 1 day per week, try to lighten your schedule on that meeting day as you know you will be frequently pulled for meetings. If you are only in the school 1 day per week, try to make it on the meeting day. You will save yourself the hassle of rescheduling across buildings when you inevitably get invited to IEPs.
Finally, the fun part!
Check the IEP and ensure tools/accomodations are in place. Does Johnny have his move n sit cushion? Is Sam’s sensory break schedule in place? Check on your students’ tools and accommodations they need for the classroom in the first weeks of school, and put anything into place that is missing.
Plan ahead. Try to plan therapy sessions a few weeks ahead if you can at the beginning of the year. This way, as the year goes on and you are bombarded by meetings and reports, you will have some good go to treatment activities to easily pull out.
Organize therapy bag for easy access. Do you start every session with a gross motor task? Spend time at the beginning of the year to print all your movement cards and have them ready to go in your bag. Do you incorporate fine motor strengthening in a lot of sessions? Have those tools easily organized and accessible.
Have a great start to the school year!