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An Inclusionary Model of Support

A Montana elementary school creates a bridge of support for students with autism.
by Darren Schlepp
Principal, May/June 2012

It’s all about building bridges for student inclusion at Edgerton Elementary School, which is the school I lead in Kalispell, Montana. When I became principal of Edgerton five years ago, the school was planning to introduce a cohort of preschool students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) into kindergarten. Everyone at the school felt strongly that these students would be successful in an inclusionary model with the right types of support, and training for both students and staff. We were right.

Ultimately, we want our students with ASD to become independent learners. In order to accomplish this goal, we focused our resources in the early stages of the students’ academic lives, when the brain is most able to construct new neuro-pathways, with the hope that they will need less intense resources in the middle or high school years. A district culture that prioritizes early intervention is necessary to get ASD students ready to transition into middle and high school.

This approach translates to significant cost savings to the district in the long term and allows for students to become more independent, as most students with ASD will not need as much direct paraeducator support and services at the secondary level.

To get started, a professional team of educators and parents applied for a grant to help support district funding to launch the Bridges Program, originally intended to support students with ASD as they entered kindergarten. The program received grant funds from Oro Y Plata Foundation, a private funding organization in Montana, to support this vision and work in collaboration with the school district to create research-validated practices of working with ASD students, provide training opportunities for district staff, and purchase environmental and instructional materials to adapt to the classroom setting. The Bridges Program provides the following supports:

  1. Incorporate research-validated teaching methods when working with ASD students;
  2. Provide state-of-the-art training opportunities for district staff;
  3. Purchase environmental and instructional materials to modify the classroom setting;
  4. Hire a quarter-time ASD facilitator to train, coach, and support district staff; and
  5. Implement a lunch and recess friendship group to help ASD students with social skills.


With the support of the Bridges Program grant and our district special education department, our team of educators and parents created multiple trainings that focused on autism and communication disorders to enhance our ASD instructional opportunities for district staff. Trainings include TEACCH, an evidence-based methodology and training program for students with ASD of all ages that offers diagnostic evaluations, parent and teacher training, and social play strategies. In addition, Edgerton provides the staff with autism consulting services; language facilitation trainings; and visual learning techniques, including social stories, computer-based curriculum software and tools, and sensory integration techniques. These ongoing trainings offer engaging, evidence-based strategies to provide an inclusionary environment for our students with ASD.

We also employ an ASD facilitator, who is primarily responsible for creating staff development opportunities, as well as modeling techniques and strategies for our staff who directly serve our students with ASD. In addition, the Bridges Program uses ASD consultants, who make recommendations on our overall program on a contract basis. Their opinions help shape our course of action with students and assist us with an overall evaluation of our ASD model.

Classroom Accommodations

Students with ASD often have difficulty navigating the academic and social environments of classrooms because they become overwhelmed as they attempt to understand social rules, switch focus quickly, process auditory content, or deal with sensory distractions. Therefore, classrooms at Edgerton feature environmental and instructional materials—such as ball chairs, rifton chairs, visual charts and schedules, fidget tools, earphones, iPads, sensory stations, and canopy lighting—to meet the needs of individual students.

For example, creating social stories provides students with ASD a visual and auditory format to front-load, or pre-teach, important routines, transitions, and skills across all school settings, primarily using pictures and simple words. Ball chairs have a positive impact on ASD students’ sensory needs, and are used to help regulate their behavior so they can attend class and process information.

A key to the Bridges Program’s success is the use of paraeducators during classroom activities. Paraeducators serve as classroom interpreters for ASD students. They provide direct teaching as needed, re-teach procedures or classroom expectations, and assist teachers in providing information to parents about student progress.

The team—which consists of the ASD facilitator, principal, special education and regular education teachers, speech pathologist, school psychologist, school counselor, paraeducator, and parents—figures out how to lessen transitions and keep consistent routines within a school day. We also build in occasional flexibility to these routines to help ASD students develop strategies to handle short-notice changes. Because flexibility is a life skill, ASD students need to learn self-regulation techniques and to build resiliency and coping skills.

Social Skill Development

Developing structured ways for students with ASD to build peer relationships is critical because their deficiencies in social skills are a core challenge. Therefore, in addition to classroom instructional and environmental accommodations, another signifi cant component to the Bridges Program is social skills development.

Edgerton has two remarkable school counselors who developed a model for our students with ASD: Friendship Club. The club is designed to help ASD students with their social and play skills, assisting them in developing true, long-lasting friendships. Staff worked out a schedule during unstructured portions of the day for ASD students to choose non- ASD peers to be part of this group, which has proved to be extremely effective and meaningful for everyone involved.

Team Effort

Since the first year of the Bridges Program, ASD students have made incredible gains in becoming more independent at school. The key element in achieving student success is having a talented and team-oriented staff that is dedicated to coordinating, cooperating, and collaborating with colleagues, parents, and the administrator. We have committed to continuous professional learning by holding weekly or bi-monthly team meetings to address successes or concerns of individual students. Staff involved in these meetings might include the special education teacher; classroom teachers; specialists such as music, library, health enhancement, speech pathologist, school psychologist, school counselor, and paraeducators; parents; and the principal. In these team meetings, we discuss strategies, changes in schedules, instructional planning, and training.

It is essential to create a schedule to give staff time to reflect on how they are educating students with ASD. Having colleagues discuss their practices makes a big difference in validating our overall work. We also proactively set transition plans each spring to build in professional training and preparation for new grade levels and new classroom settings for students with ASD. Developing this framework and support for the new classroom teachers who will be working with these students gives them time to prepare and create a classroom environment that will be successful.


Five years later, the benefits of the program are evident. We continuously collect data on student performance, which go hand in hand with the individual educational plan goals and help ensure growth. Designated staff members chart individual progress on students’ specific behavioral or instructional goals to learn if there are patterns of problematic behavior or if goals are accomplished. We then use our regularly scheduled team time to discuss any concerns and make recommendations for new approaches to diminish these behaviors.

The ASD facilitator helps our staff track data to learn if the supports and strategies being implemented are working. Data sheets with targeted behaviors are documented to see if meltdowns or other behavioral issues are decreasing. Student growth is also measured by showing that less direct support of the paraeducator is needed during classroom or school activities. Our data show that student growth is increasing in general education classrooms.

The Bridges Program gives us a clear vision of how to best serve students with ASD. Communicating the program to our district, board of trustees, parents, and grant-funding sources is a continuous process in building a cohesive program for students with ASD. While outside funding sources provided the invaluable seed money for the Bridges Program, we must take a creative approach in supporting students with ASD, using our existing resources to sustain the program for years to come. With unified goals and research-based practices, the bridge to move ASD students into regular education settings can be successfully erected and traversed.

Darren Schlepp is principal of Edgerton Elementary in Kalispell, Montana.

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MJ12 Schlepp.pdf694.39 KB