Best practices for special needs transportation
Written by Karen Sampson
When it comes to transportation to and from school, students with special needs require extra support and consideration. A consistent, positive experience on the way to school is important for every student — but it is especially vital for students with special needs who crave structure and regularity.
Students with special needs may have different ways of communicating or may become easily stressed by incidents that won’t affect other students. Anecdotal evidence suggests it can take 45 minutes to help a child focus after an upsetting incident or a disruptive trip to school. When a student’s day starts off on the wrong foot, it can translate into a negative learning experience for the entire school day.
According to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Education, 7.3 million students ages 3–21 receive special education services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). That is approximately 14% of all public school students. School Bus Fleet reports that these numbers have steadily increased over the past few decades due, at least in part, to improved diagnosis and treatment for an ever-wider range of conditions.
In recognition of the growing number of students with special needs, in this article we outline six ways you can help students with special needs successfully navigate the ins and outs of school transportation. As bookends to the school day, positive trips to and from school can help to ensure that every student gets the absolute most out of their educational experience.
1. Communicate and share relevant information
Clear, effective communication plays an integral part in creating a positive school transportation experience for everyone involved — from students with disabilities or special needs to their parents or caregivers to schools or school districts. Providing relevant student information to drivers, including such things as music preferences and favorite subjects or topics, can help make the ride to school a comfortable and consistent experience.
HopSkipDrive, for example, includes a section for Rider notes that enables HopSkipDrive CareDrivers to be made aware of special circumstances. Making sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to the routines and needs of each student can help to establish a sense of safety and familiarity for the student.
2. Build a consistent routine
All children thrive on routines, but having an established way of doing things is especially important for students with special needs. Creating an entire process that is the same every day — from getting ready for school to waiting for the ride to getting dropped off at school, and everything in between — will set expectations and help students feel safe, calm and secure.
For students with special needs, in particular, consistency helps to foster a sense of independence and confidence in their ability to perform the activities of daily living. They become accustomed to meeting their driver at a designated pickup spot, for instance, and going through the predictable steps of getting buckled up and safely settled in the vehicle.
The HopSkipDrive experience is always consistent across multiple touchpoints, so students can feel comfortable no matter who’s driving. Still, most students get to know a small group of trusted HopSkipDrive CareDrivers who drive in their community. In fact, a student typically encounters one to three CareDrivers over the course of 90 days.
3. Forge empathetic relationships
When you are working or interacting with students in any capacity, building relationships with them is always important. The ride to school is the true start of the school day, so the goal should always be to begin it with empathy, compassion and patience.
Children with special needs may approach things differently or may require alternative instructions (like pictures) to understand directions. Even if a child is taking a long time to respond to a request or complete a task, it’s important not to interfere until asked — and also to positively reinforce independent actions.
For anyone who transports a child to school, it’s essential to understand the critical role they play in setting the tone for the entire day. When transporting children with special needs, trust must be built through consistency — being there at the same time; presenting the same friendly demeanor every day; driving safely; following the same routine. Experienced caregivers are well qualified for transporting students with special needs because they have experience interacting with children at their level.
At HopSkipDrive, our CareDrivers are experienced “caregivers on wheels” who have at least five years of experience working with or caring for children, family members or others who need help. CareDrivers must also meet many additional criteria before gaining access to the HopSkipDrive platform, and receive resources and information related to connecting with and understanding students with special needs or disabilities.
4. Allow extra time for students
Students with special needs may have physical or cognitive differences that require additional time getting onto a bus or settled into a car. They may also have difficulty easily understanding and following directions. In order to avoid rushed interactions with students, it’s important to plan ahead for any additional time that may be needed.
It’s also necessary to demonstrate patience and employ appropriate communication methods. Visual images showing how to buckle up, for example, may be more helpful for a special needs child than verbally explaining the same instructions.
5. Implement technology that provides ride transparency
In this day and age, alternative transportation solutions for students with special needs should use technology to provide end-to-end ride visibility for parents or caregivers and transportation staff. Yet, a recent School Bus Fleet survey showed that only nine percent of respondents use tracking for their special needs transportation (Thompson 2020).
HopSkipDrive’s technology goes above and beyond to improve the student transportation experience from start to finish for everyone involved. HopSkipDrive’s ride tracking technology provides transparency for schools while alleviating anxiety for parents, who can track their child’s ride in real-time. It also enables students to see where their ride is so they know exactly when it’s coming.
6. Provide resources for drivers
Ongoing education and resources are necessary for anyone working with students with special needs, regardless of their experience. The best way to ensure transportation staff and drivers are making the proper allowances for special needs youth is to provide ongoing training.
Communication is one topic that drivers should continually be re-educated on, especially as it relates to students with special needs. Knowledge about trauma-informed care can also help drivers connect to students and navigate any potential issues that may arise.
Approaching transportation using a trauma-informed care lens can help drivers recognize and respond appropriately to trauma signs and symptoms. It’s also important to know how to not re-traumatize a child who exhibits these signs. Even something as simple as asking about the parents of a child in foster care, for example, can be upsetting for the child.
Providing ongoing training and resources on topics like these for drivers can improve school transportation experiences not only for kids who have undergone trauma or students with special needs. A calm, empathetic approach will always benefit every student in any given situation.