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  1. 1. Strategies for Transitioning Preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorders to Kindergarten Anthony M. Denkyirah • Wilson K. Agbeke Published online: 31 July 2010 Ó Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2010 Abstract In recent years, there has been a rapid increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), worldwide. Since children with ASD have limited social interaction and communication skills, they tend to lag behind their peers without disabilities in many areas. In particular, they are unable to easily transition smoothly from one stage of their life to another. Transitions from preschool settings to kindergarten and beyond should be a critical issue of concern for educators and parents of young children with ASD. The results of a survey com- pleted by 65 preschool teachers from Ghana and 210 of their counterparts in the United States of America, about char- acteristics of effective transition programs for children with ASD, are presented. Implications for preschool teacher preparation and transition planning are discussed. Keywords Transition planning Á Preschool Á Autism spectrum disorders Á Vertical transitions Á Horizontal transitions Introduction The life of a child with autism spectrum disorders (ASD), like all other children, consists of several transitions. Some transitions require greater coping skills than others. The nature of transition that preschoolers with ASD experience, as they move to kindergarten, can have long-term impact on their school and post-school life (Forest et al. 2004; National Research Council 2001). The education of children with ASD has received greater attention in the last 20 years. For instance, in the United States of America (USA), comprehensive federal government support for the education of children with ASD was accepted as a public responsibility as part of the Education Act of All Handicapped Children in 1975 [now the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA)]. However, there have been considerable variations in how states provide services to children with ASD, and courts have been increasingly called upon to determine appro- priate educational services for those children (National Research Council 2001). In Ghana, it was in the last decade that early childhood general and special education programs became well- organized and supervised under the Ministry of Education (UNESCO 2007). Early childhood special education per- sonnel preparation programs in Ghana are, therefore, a recent addition to that country’s educational system. Research confirms that early intervention programs for children with developmental disabilities produce positive outcomes (Dawson et al. 2009; Rice and O’Brien 1990; Rosenkotter et al. 2001; Rule et al. 1991; Stoner et al. 2007; Wittmer et al. 1996). For instance, Rice and O’Brien (1990), Rule et al. (1990), and Wittmer et al. (1996) found that children with ASD, who receive appropriate services in their preschool years, are better able to face academic challenges and to continue to develop long-lasting cogni- tive and social skills. How smoothly a child with ASD transitions from preschool to kindergarten and beyond depends partly on strategies educators adopt when working with that child and his or her family (Harris and Handel- man 2000; Wolery 1997). A. M. Denkyirah (&) Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville, IL 62026, USA e-mail: W. K. Agbeke University of Education, Winneba, Ghana 123 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 38:265–270 DOI 10.1007/s10643-010-0407-z
  2. 2. Children with ASD experience greater transition diffi- culties because of social and communication deficits associated with their disability (Forest et al. 2004). Spe- cifically, social and communication deficits limit the child’s interactions with peers and care-takers, thus making transitions to new social, academic, and physical settings stressful (Forest et al. 2004; Fowler et al. 1988). Addi- tionally, children with ASD, unlike children with other developmental disabilities, are typically not diagnosed until they are about 3 years old (Heflin and Alaimo 2007; Howlin and Moore 1997; Stoner et al. 2007). Though, there could be evidence indicating that a child might have ASD before he or she is 3 years old, there is often a ‘‘wait and see’’ attitude on the part of parents and physicians (Young et al. 2003; Wetherby et al. 2004). This could delay early intervention programs for those children, resulting in loss of critical years of intensive intervention. Effective tran- sition planning becomes even more crucial once the diag- nosis is confirmed (Woods and Wetherby 2003). Transition planning is a process, purposely designed and organized to support children with developmental disabil- ities to move from one program to another, such as from a home-based or family-based program to an inclusive pre- school program (Simon et al. 2009). Delays in diagnosis of children with ASD adversely affect preparation needed for them to transition smoothly from family-based programs to inclusive school settings (Earles et al. 1998; Simon et al. 2009). Earles et al. (1998) concluded that problems that accompany transitions, such as unpredictable behavior outbursts from children with ASD and unreasonable expectations on the part of receiving schools and teachers, can cause anxiety and confusion among children and their parents, teachers, and other service providers. Transitions between early intervention and preschool ser- vices, as well as preschool and kindergarten services, can pose several challenges to the child, his or her parents, and the receiving school (Colorado Department of Education, Early Childhood Initiatives 2000). For instance, transition times for young children from family-focused programs to child-cen- tered programs can be emotional for all parents, and even more so if their child has a disability. Similarly, the receiving sitehas todevelopnew servicesand adapt tothe specific needs of the child (Marghetts 2003; Sutherland 2008). Young children with ASD experience two major types of transitions; namely, vertical transitions and horizontal transitions (Stoner et al. 2007). Vertical transitions involve movement from one program to another, such as from a preschool program to kindergarten. Vertical transitions are predictable and developmental in scope. In most instances, vertical transitions are designed to meet the needs of children with ASD over time and require different pro- fessionals to work collaboratively with parents to ensure successful transitions for a child with ASD. For instance, professionals can collaborate in planning for environmental changes at a receiving school site that will facilitate a smooth and successful placement of a child with ASD from a sending school setting. Ineffective vertical transition planning can result in negative consequences for the child’s social and academic development in the future (Stahmer and Ingersoll 2004). Horizontal transitions refer to short-term movements of students with ASD across situations and events (Stoner et al. 2007). Horizontal transitions occur more frequently, on a daily or weekly basis, and are specific to a student’s needs. It is often very difficult to predict problems that would occur in horizontal transitions for children with ASD. For example, it would be difficult to predict the behavior of a child with ASD when he or she is transi- tioning from the playground to the classroom, or from playing with a desired toy in the playroom to engaging in a different activity in another part of the classroom. Schools, therefore, spend substantial amounts of time and other resources to transition planning activities for preschoolers with ASD (Siklos and Kerns 2006). In spite of efforts that schools make toward transitioning preschoolers with ASD to school settings, parents of young children with ASD and other developmental disabilities are generally not very satisfied with special education and related services that their children with disabilities receive (Bitterman et al. 2008; Siklos and Kerns 2006). Etscheidt (2003) found that, though young children with ASD received more services than children with other disabilities, parents of children with ASD often requested schools to give more time and services to their children than did parents of other children with disabilities. It is, therefore, critical for preservice programs for teachers of children with ASD and other developmental disabilities to include skills needed for working with parents. Preschoolers with ASD lack appropriate socialization and communication skills, and they may exhibit such behaviors throughout their lives, unless effective strategies are used to address those needs. Strategies that are critical in ensuring successful transition of preschoolers with ASD to school settings should, therefore, be a legitimate concern for teachers and parents. The purpose of this study was to identify strategies that teachers of preschoolers with ASD in Ghana and the USA considered to be effective in tran- sitioning preschoolers to school settings. Method Participants The population for this study involved 306 preschool teachers from public schools in eight counties in a 266 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 38:265–270 123
  3. 3. Midwestern state in the USA and 82 of their counterparts from early childhood programs in eastern and central regions of Ghana. All the participants were female. The minimum teaching credential of participants from the USA was an associate degree in early childhood education, and their Ghanaian counterparts had a minimum of diploma in early childhood education from a teaching university in Ghana. For the purposes of this study, only teachers who had taught or were teaching preschoolers with ASD and intellectual and developmental disabilities were selected to participate. In all, 275 preschool teachers (USA = 210; Ghana = 65) responded to a survey that was used in the study. Instrument A 10-item survey was developed from major issues iden- tified in Elements for Transition to Kindergarten (ETK) (Forest et al. 2004). The survey items were open-ended, and participants responded to the items based on the importance participants attached to each issue item as they prepared preschoolers with ASD to transition to kinder- garten settings. The survey was piloted on preschool teachers with similar characteristics in the two countries, after which a final survey was developed. The survey covered the following themes: (1) Timing for planning and preparation; (2) Sharing information with family; (3) Dis- cussing placement with family; (4) Helping family find school and community resources; (5) Preparing the child for changes in placement and services; (6) Preparing receiving school and teachers; (7) Relationship between sending and receiving schools; (8) Assistive technology; (9) Home visit; and (10) Parent training. Data Collection Surveys were administered about the same time in the two countries. The first author mailed the survey packet, which included directions for completion, a form for voluntary participation, and a stamped self-addressed return enve- lope, to participants in the USA. The second author gave the survey to teachers in Ghana, who were attending an in- service training workshop. The second author collected all completed surveys back the next day. All the participants in the USA completed and returned the survey within 3 weeks. Data Analysis Data analysis was completed based on the 10 themes of the survey instrument. Data from participants in the two countries were analyzed separately with descriptive statis- tics, and then the results were compared. The data from participants in Ghana were first analyzed by the second author and cross-checked by the first author after 2 weeks. Similarly, data from participants in the USA were analyzed by the first author, and cross-checked by the second author after 4 weeks. Data from participants in the two countries were then compared. Results Participants from the two countries agreed that most of the issues mentioned on the survey were important to pre- school transitions. However, preschool teachers in Ghana did not consider assistive technology and parent training as important in transition activities for preschoolers with ASD as their counterparts from the USA. Specifically, all the participants from the USA considered assistive technology and parent training as critical transition programs for pre- schoolers with ASD before they enter regular kindergarten settings. About one half (N = 32) of Ghana teachers con- sidered parent training important and about one-third (N = 18) considered assistive technology important. The issues both groups of participants identified as most important include (a) timing of planning and preparation, (b) helping family to find resources, (c) sharing information with family, and (d) home visits. Summaries of the com- ments by participants from both countries regarding (a) timing of planning and collaboration with family, and (b) school/community resources and information sharing are presented below. Timing of Planning and Collaboration with Family All the participants in the study (N = 165) indicated that early planning and preparation and collaboration with family are the two most critical initial steps to ensuring a successful transition program for preschoolers with ASD to regular kindergarten settings. Suggestions participants provided include getting a transition team and setting goals early, identifying challenges in the transition process from the onset, gathering information about the child, his inter- ests and preferences, and developing a reciprocal rela- tionship between sending and receiving schools. Planning must begin when there is a strong suspicion for a diagnosis of ASD. In order to allow enough time for the child and his or her family to adjust to the new setting, the participants suggested that sending and receiving schools must work closely with the child and his or her family to identify and address problems that could hinder a smooth transition for the preschool child with ASD to kindergarten. For exam- ple, schools must discuss placement options and expecta- tions for both the child and the family in the receiving school. Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 38:265–270 267 123
  4. 4. Family Resource and Information Sharing All the participants from the USA (N = 210) and all but one of the participants from Ghana (N = 64) indicated that schools should provide families of preschoolers with ASD sources of family and community support during the transition process. Consequently, early childhood service providers should work with the child and his or her family before the child enters preschool. Other specific sugges- tions participants gave include (1) schools must get a transition planning team for the child with ASD; (2) schools and parents must collaborate to identify challenges that the child and his or her teachers will face in kinder- garten; and (3) schools must collect information about the child, his or her family’s interests and preferences before the child enters kindergarten. Table 1 is a summary of issues that preschool teachers from the two countries considered as important in transition programs for pre- schoolers with ASD. Discussion Results from this study indicate that, with the exception of the usefulness of assistive technology and parent training, teachers in Ghana and the USA agreed on the effectiveness of many other strategies that ensure smooth transitions for preschoolers with ASD to kindergarten. Reasons for dif- ferences between the two groups regarding assistive tech- nology and parent training could be attributed to economic and socio-cultural differences in the two countries. For instance, preschool teachers in a developing country, such as Ghana, do not have access to as much assistive tech- nology as their counterparts in the USA. Second, parents of children with disabilities in Ghana may not participate in their child’s school programs because of their cultural and superstitious beliefs and practices regarding disabilities (Avoke 2002). Implications for preschool teacher preparation and practice are many. First, early childhood special education teacher preparation programs must address parent-profes- sional collaboration as a critical area in their curricula. This will help early childhood special educators to develop skills they will need to effectively work with parents. Second, preschool teachers should initiate transition plans early and prepare the child and his or her family, at least, 6 months before the child moves to kindergarten. Without appropriate early intervention programs, social, behavioral, and communication problems of a child with ASD will worsen as he or she moves from preschool to kindergarten. Third, preschool teachers must share information with the child’s family in the family’s preferred language. Families must be given information outlining the steps in the transition process, their role, and the role of other individuals who will be involved. Teachers should present such information through interpreters if they cannot do so in the language that the child’s parents can understand. Fourth, an important step in the transition process is discussing placement options with family members. Pre- school teachers must assist parents to visit potential kin- dergarten programs and explore opportunities and experiences of the staff. They should provide parents with information about open house days, application procedures, registration dates, parents’ orientation, and similar events from different kindergarten programs. Fifth, parents would require additional support as their child with ASD moves from preschool to kindergarten. For instance, the child will be in a different school, travel on a new bus with unfamiliar students, and follow new pick-up and drop-off times. Such new experiences can be over- whelming for the child, and can also disrupt the family’s Table 1 Participants’ selection of effective preschool transition strategies by country Issue Participants (N = 275) USA (N = 210) Ghana (N = 65) # % # % Timing for planning and preparation 210 100 65 100 Sharing information with family 210 100 65 100 Discussing placement with the family 206 98 63 97 Helping family with school/community resources 210 100 64 98 Preparing the child for changes in services 208 99 64 98 Preparing receiving school and teachers 205 97 60 92 Sending and receiving schools’ relationships 205 97 61 93 Assistive technology use 210 100 18 27 Home visit 208 99 64 98 Parent training 210 100 32 49 268 Early Childhood Educ J (2010) 38:265–270 123
  5. 5. schedules. Preschool teachers can help find community resources that will support the family to deal with changes such as an after-school program. Preschool teachers must take steps to prepare the child for changes in service delivery, including steps to help the child to become suc- cessful in the new placement. They should encourage parents to involve their child in family activities, even if the child shows little interest. Sixth, teachers in the future kindergarten program will have to be adequately prepared for the in-coming child and his or her parents. In addition, the sending preschool pro- gram and the receiving kindergarten school must commu- nicate regularly about the child’s progress when the child is formally enrolled in the new program. Reciprocal follow- up activities between the sending and receiving programs are necessary, particularly, in the first few months of kin- dergarten life. Conclusion Evidence exists in the literature confirming the importance of transition planning for preschoolers with ASD prior to kin- dergarten placement. The effectiveness of preschool transi- tions for children with ASD depends upon the strategies used, the time planning and preparation were initiated, support that parents receive in identifying community resources, parent training and participation, the establishment of reciprocal information-sharing system between sending preschool and receiving kindergarten school, and how much kindergarten teachers are prepared for the in-coming child. Results of this study indicate that, despite the socio- economic and scientific disparities that exist between the USA and Ghana, preschool teachers in both countries share similar experiences regarding strategies that are relevant to transition programs for preschoolers with ASD. 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