FRISCO, Texas — STN President and Publisher Tony Corpin led a Transporting Students with Disabilities and Special Needs (TSD) Conference panel discussion on a new program offered by North American transportation provider First Student that focuses on providing appropriate, uniquely tailored care for students with special needs.
Will McDermott, co-founder and president of Hopewell Transportation and area general manager for First Student, said during the Friday session that FirstServes is designed to mimic the education system, drawing inspiration from the Individualized Education Program (IEP) process that customizes solutions for students with disabilities or special needs.
“It’s not a training program, it’s a culture shift,” said Laura Greene-Halley, director of safety performance and improvement for First Student. Echoing autism specialist Patrick Mulick from a session presented on Thursday, she added that it is important to help drivers understand they are educators as well as to empower them to serve students better.
McDermott added that this has benefits for all students on the bus, even those without special needs.
Allison Blackburn, Ph. D., is a behavioral psychologist at the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital and also sits on the FirstServes advisory board. She recapped tools that FirstServes provides, including plans to standardize equipment and processes on the bus for students, collection of pertinent information from parents, follow up for drivers on training they have received, and behavior tracking to help curb recurring behaviors.
Benefits of Comprehensive Driver Training & Support
A school bus driver is an important part of a student’s morning and can provide the stability and consistency that many crave, Blackburn explained.
Lisa Riveros, director of transportation for Wichita Public Schools in Kansas, which transports 1,800 students with special needs, stressed the importance of having the right information on the right students, so substitute drivers and aides know how to work with them.
Greene-Halley noted that driver and aide training, coaching and reinforcement is crucial to making sure that school staff is equipped and confident to care for the students they help transport.
Driver shortages along with COVID-19 stressors are placing added burdens on both school staff and the students they transport, noted STN’s Corpin. However, driver training is more important now than ever before, Riveros declared. Greene-Halley added that one of the main reasons drivers and attendants quit is due to lack of support, coaching and empowerment.
Serving Students Individually
“We want to service the kids less and have them be independent and successful,” McDermott stated.
A foundational aspect of FirstServes is the “All About Me” informational form developed for each student in cooperation between the student’s parents and the school bus driver and attendants, if applicable.
“We have had so many success stories from implementing FirstServes,” Riveros said. She said her drivers have been able to identify triggers and try de-escalation techniques, rather than simply marking a student down as “having a bad day.”
Another aspect of the program allows the district to better communicate with parents, easing their concerns and recognizing positive behaviors from their child as well as negative ones.
Riveros related an incident in which she assisted a student passenger with special needs who was “in the red,” or at the apex of the rage cycle, a topic covered in FirstServes training. Noticing that there were many sounds that could have been overwhelming the student, she asked staff to reduce as many onboard noises as possible, which immediately calmed the boy down. This technique was later verified by the student’s parent, who also revealed that noise-canceling headphones helped the child stay calm.
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Plans are in motion to digitize the “All About Me” forms so substitute drivers can more easily access them, McDermott stated in answer to an attendee question. While some information on the forms is on a need-to-know basis, Blackburn noted that most parents are eager to share information about their children’s like, dislikes and ways to help them be successful.