Returning to School Following Closure

August 17, 2020

Using what we learned to guide future goals and planning.

David Celiberti, PhD, BCBA-D and Mary Jane Weiss, PhD, BCBA-D
Association for Science in Autism Treatment

The abrupt cancellation of educational services following COVID-19 put families in the challenging position of cobbling together home-based learning opportunities. Every family is unique in terms of the resources that they may have to support learning, especially considering possible fluctuation in availability and resources to carry out home-based instruction. Before we provide you with questions that may help guide your conversations with your school, we want to first acknowledge some of the many contributions of parents.

Parents were already important information providers:

  • Parents, like yourselves, have rich, firsthand knowledge of their children.
  • Parents inform the selection of potential motivators (reinforcers) that can be used at school and in other settings (e.g., “My son loves basketball.”).
  • Parents provide useful input about treatment targets (i.e., goals, new skills to be taught, behavioral challenges to be addressed).

And now after a period of instruction in the home:

  • Parents may more deeply participate in the selection of goals.
  • Parents may be better positioned to identify what skills are valuable for their child to possess right now and in the future, as well as behavioral concerns and effective strategies.
  • Parents can provide information about carryover across materials, people, situations, and settings; whether mastered skills continued over time; and unexpected benefits such as social skill development.

The questions below may help you better communicate feedback and concerns to your team at school.

Your Role

  • What role did you play in your child’s education before COVID-19 and how has it evolved since?
  • Are you comfortable with your role? What aspects are more challenging?
  •  What might you do differently to better communicate with the school (e.g., check in more regularly, set limits, say no, ask for support, request help with prioritization)?


  • Is the motivation system that you are using clear?
  • Do you need clarity in how best to deliver the reinforcer (i.e., how it should be set up)?
  • Are the motivators powerful? Does your child remain interested in them?
  • Are new motivators needed?


  • Do you need help structuring the day? What role can visuals play in supporting and conveying that structure?
  • Do you know which mastered skills should be practiced?
  • Will you be teaching new skills? Do you understand how the new skills build on old ones?
  • When targeting new skills, can you effectively provide (and fade) prompts?
  • Would it help to arrange a video session to have someone watch and give guidance to you?
  • Do you need assistance in developing a “user-friendly system” for collecting skill acquisition data?

Retention and Carryover of Skills

  • Are previously mastered skills still present? Are those skills consistent? Are they produced independently and fluently? Are you concerned about their consistency or quality?
  • Are you observing limited carry over of already mastered skills such as occurring with one person or in one situation? Do you think this may be related to different set up? Different instructions? Different materials? Different instructors?

Challenging Behavior

  • Are there any behaviors that were easier to manage before but now are more challenging?
  • Are you observing an increase in challenging behaviors? Are these new? What are the recurring triggers or antecedents (i.e., what happens right before the behavior occurs)?
  • Do you feel safe implementing a behavior intervention plan for your child in the home? Is there a need for safety training in the home?
  • Do you have a sense of what “replacement behaviors” can be taught and/or reinforced (i.e., desired behaviors that may “replace” or, at least, decrease the likelihood of the challenging behavior)?

Family Life

  • What has this experience been like for you and each member of your family?
  • In light of any shifts in family life and activity, are there new skills that you believe you are well positioned to target (e.g., more independent bathroom routines, texting grandma, participating in outdoor gardening, following a simple recipe)?
  • Do you need guidance in teaching these skills, such as assessing present level of performance, laying out a progression of teaching steps, or prioritizing desired outcomes?
  • With respect to sibling interaction, are there any new or different behaviors you would like to see more or less of?

This list of questions is by no means exhaustive, but aims to provide you with a framework for communicating your questions and concerns with greater precision.

What should be shared with the school team?

We would like to highlight some of the things that families may learn that can also be shared with the school team. Here are some hypothetical COVID-19 “epiphanies” to provide a framework for what can be shared with the school team.

  We realized...Lesson Learned
“He needed a lot of help with making lunch.” Let the school know which skills required a lot of your support and what type of help you needed to provide.Weak skills that are observed at home may become new IEP goals. Alternatively, your providers may give you suggestions on how you can target those skills now.
“I had no idea that he couldn’t sign his name.” Given participation in home-based instruction and more opportunities to go into the community (to the extent feasible and safe), skills that are missing may become evident for the first time. Although IEP meetings are a wonderful opportunity to express your priorities and needs, it is never a bad time to provide input to the school.
“Wow! I had no idea that he could actually load the dishwasher all by himself!” Over the last few months, you may have discovered some skills of which you were previously unaware. Share this observation with the team, as the responsible parties will be happy to learn of skill carryover.Be on the lookout for emerging skills that may have been targeted at school. As progress is shared in the future, ask for examples of newly acquired school-based skills, and how these could be practiced at home
“My son is now an expert at watering plants, setting the table, and can double knot his shoes.”
In a related vein, it is quite likely that new skills you have taught– perhaps even some that are unexpected– have emerged while your child has been at home. Share these clearly and proudly with school staff.
It is far better to overcommunicate than to under communicate, when it comes to newly acquired skills. Communication about expectations is the soil in which consistency can take root.

Looking to the Future

Finally, we want to offer six “take-away” suggestions that may help you look to the future and guide future communications:

  1. Keep a running list. A notebook can go a long way in jotting down the things you want to share with your child’s school.
  2. Advocate for yourself. If you need more help, ask. If you feel overwhelmed, say so; and ask for assistance in developing a more manageable role. If you need more training, ask yourself what you want to do better.
  3. Go easy on yourself. There was and is no blueprint for how to manage the disruptions, obstacles, and losses associated with COVID-19. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemy- so give yourself grace. It is OK not to be amazing every day. Perhaps realistic weekly goals can be helpful (“Next week, I want to try to do better at …”).
  4. Embrace what you have learned. Although this pandemic has brought much stress to so many families, it has provided opportunities for learning. All of us – parents and professionals alike – can grow from the many lessons learned. The task ahead is how to translate these new skills, knowledge, and experiences into long-term gains.
  5. Work toward a shared vision for your child’s future. Such a vision should be discussed widely, operationalized, and revisited frequently. Questions for teams to consider may include:
    “What do we want most to accomplish?” “What is the single most important IEP goal?”
    What are the biggest barriers and obstacles for future success?”
    “Are we on the right path?” “If so, what needs to continue?” “If not, what should change?”’
    “Is my child able to participate in conversations about goal selection?” “What would be needed to make that a meaningful experience for him?”
  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate: This would pertain to your concerns, your questions, and your achievements as a family.

Check out related articles in ASAT’s newsletter, Science in Autism Treatment  A longer version of this article can be found here>>

The Association for Science in Autism Treatment (ASAT) promotes safe, effective, science-based treatments for people with autism by disseminating accurate, timely, and scientifically sound information, advocating for the use of scientific methods to guide treatment, and combating unsubstantiated, inaccurate and false information about autism and its treatment.

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