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School Bus Driver Training Focuses on Empathy for Students with Disabilities

Picture yourself sitting in the dentist’s chair. You recline and the dentist shoves as many cotton balls and tissues inside your mouth as possible. Now, the dentist and the assistant start talking to each other about their weekend, but you are unable to speak and join in on the conversation.

Board-certified behavior analyst Patrick Mulick recently had this very experience.

“It was a moment where I had to go, ‘Gosh, this is what our nonverbal students must feel like,’” Mulick explained, who is also a certified speaker and was scheduled to be a keynote at the TSD Conference before it was postponed last week. “Where we start talking about them in front of them and pretend like they are not even there. It was a big eye-opener for me, as I think about our nonverbal students. And I think that same type of training, or providing that same type of training —providing similar experiences on a school bus of what it feels like being an individual with a disability, it’s nothing but an eye-opener to staff.”

Editor’s note—TSD Conference is being rescheduled for June 5-9, to be held in conjunction with the STN EXPO Indianapolis. More details are coming soon.

Dean Transportation, which serves school districts in the state of Michigan, recently provided training that mimicks for participants the auditory and sensory challenges for students who have autism. The private school bus contractor was established 50-years ago, with the primary focus on transporting students with special needs. However, now the company serves around 80,000 students, two-thirds of which remain students with special needs.

The company upped its training goal to include empathy training, which focuses on instruction that is relevant to the unique daily environment of the school bus, said Fred Doelker, safety and training director of Dean Transportation. As new driver applicants are onboarded, the training demonstrates real-life challenges that many of their students are facing daily on the school bus. For example, drivers wear blindfolds while the vehicle in motion, to understand how a visually impaired student experiences the ride. Or the new employees sit in wheelchairs.

“The photo (above) shows an exercise, where drivers are blindfolded while the regional trainer drives the bus and might cut a few corners and make a few quick stops,” Doelker explained. “The [employees] can’t anticipate those moves as they would normally be able to do. It demonstrates what their kiddos, who may be visually impaired or, like many of them, are too short to see over the tall seat in front of them, experience when the driver does not drive respectfully.”

Doelker continued, “[The drivers] quickly develop a bit more empathy for their riders. It’s one example of the simple daily steps that the onboard adults can take to do the right thing and demonstrate respect. Empathically responding to the feelings and needs of our kids does not need to be a daunting task.”

He noted that there are simpler steps that school bus drivers can take to make each student feel comfortable. These include treating each day as a fresh start, being consistent, faithfully speaking a child’s name with a smile, kneeling to a child’s level, especially if they in a wheelchair, respecting personal space including kids in safety vests, using a calm and consistent voice, and driving with care.

Mulick, who is also an educational consultant and the assistant director of autism and student independence at Auburn School District #408 in Washington state, said this training allows school bus drivers to understand the “Why.” Why they should not take a corner so sharply, or why they might want to consider that a student should have a shorter commute based upon their disability.

Mulick listened to a recording of an NPR segment on the program and shared his perspective. “I think, it’s fantastic that it is taking place,” he commented. “I think it provides a stronger ‘why,’ and I think it can give people a little more insight into the ‘what.’ Like what are the small things that we could be doing, especially for the riders, that would help make a bigger difference for them.”

Doelker explained that by having a better understanding of the factors impacting the students being transported, school bus drivers will have a greater perspective relating to the kids in their care. This would in return help school bus drivers care for the students without overreacting or taking some behaviors personally.

The training, which utilizes the Crisis Prevention Institute (CPI) Non-Violent Crisis Intervention class, teaches a skill that Doelker said was “not-taking-it-personally,” also known as rational detachment. He said that it sounds simple to understand this concept from the confines of a conference room. However, its more challenging to grasp with respect to the realities of daily operations, such as in the school bus environment.

“We see empathy as the ability to reach inside ourselves and open up to our own feelings that might reflect the feelings and needs of our kids,” Doelker said. “For example, loneliness or low self-esteem may be common feelings for our kids. We’d like to have the adult understand that feeling, understand that they can’t fix it, validate that feeling, and then try to translate it into a need that the onboard adult can respond to in a short time and in the environment of the bus.”

Mulick agreed, adding that he provides training to transportation staff around the county in the confinement of a classroom and attempts to provide real-world situations that accurately show how disabilities impact student experiences. He added that having the opportunity to do this training in the actual school bus, where individuals with disabilities are experiencing these challenges every day, is huge.

“I can see nothing but benefits from it,” Mulick explained. “I hadn’t heard necessarily of people doing [empathy training] before, but it totally make sense. To put people in the shoes, or in the reality, of wheelchairs, of the students being transported. It doesn’t just provide an interesting perspective, I think it helps people understand the why.”

While the idea is innovative and a more in-tune learning situation, Mulick said he hopes that a diversity of disabilities is recognized.

“The empathy training, what we can’t get stuck on, is that it feels the same for all of your riders,” Mulick said. “Depending on the rider and depending on their disability, they are going to have different sensitivities. I think when you talk about empathy training, it is important, but you need to think about it in relation to the different types of riders that you have. Because the spectrum of disabilities that are out there is quite diverse, it means something different to every kid.”

To ensure this, Doelker said he encourages his district partners to include the transportation team when designing training and presenting to their academic team. He wants the transportation team to receive the same training so that there is a common language and a common expectation for student relations.

“What some of the empathy-related training is meant to demonstrate, is that all of us have needs that are special and unique to us and our own daily lives,” Doelker said. “Plenty of general education kiddos, and us adults who care for them, have emotional needs for such daily self-esteem reinforcements, such as hearing our name said with a smile.


Related: Lessons in Managing Student Behavior on the School Bus
Related: TSD Keynote Speaker Addresses Important Link Between Special Education, Transportation
Related: Preparing for School Bus Fires with Special Care
Related: Recognizing that Behavior is a Powerful Tool in Student Transportation


The year-round training, including CPI training, is fully refreshed every two years, Doelker said, and Dean Transportation includes a portion of empathy training. While Doelker said the training could be considered “out-of-the-box” when compared to traditional skills normally taught to transportation staff, he said it teaches key components, including that drivers need to establish connections with the students being served.

“By nourishing better connections we may be more motivated to take the time necessary to do the right thing more often, and the individuals in our care may better respond to us through greater trust,” Doelker said.

He concluded by saying, “Sometimes we’ll admit to our team that it can be a real leap of faith to put trust in what many might consider soft skills. We hope that giving them more perspective about their kids will also provide [the school bus drivers] with more perspective into their own coping skills and reasonable expectations for managing their own behaviors.”

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