DEBORAH SCHWIND, DHSc, OTR/L, BCP, SCSS
Occupational Therapist, Loudoun County Public Schools
Certified in 1990
The OT Innovation
For students with special needs, entering the workforce can present new challenges and add anxiety and uncertainty to their lives. Thanks to Deborah Schwind, an innovative OTR working for Loudoun County Public Schools, students are introduced to vocational skills early in their education and use school routines to build transition skills, leading to more positive outcomes upon graduation.
The program that Dr. Schwind developed is rooted in the belief that transition must be a continuum that begins early. She created a community-based instruction (CBI) program that focuses on developing job skills and work behaviors in elementary school rather than in high school.
As an OTR, Dr. Schwind recognized that off-campus CBI trips in elementary school were sometimes more of a field trip, and for some students, being in unpredictable, unfamiliar places without a routine caused anxiety. These students needed consistency, familiar routines, familiar adults, a familiar environment, and predictability.
Dr. Schwind gathered a team of stakeholders—administrators, teachers, related service providers, and parents—who began collaborating and asking questions. They determined that they wanted the students to perform tasks in a familiar environment so academic skills from the classroom could be generalized in meaningful, functional, and purposeful ways. It was clear to Dr. Schwind that the solution was school-based CBI. She hypothesized that by using school-based CBI, students would have additional learning opportunities outside of the regular classroom for generalizing skills consistently. Instead of leaving the school premises for CBI one day a week, students could practice tasks every day at school. A predictable, familiar environment would cause less sensory overstimulation and sensory overload. Instructional time could be enhanced, not lost.
In-school jobs are introduced weekly through live and video modeling, demonstration, and role play, as well as by using adapted books that incorporate the vocabulary for a specific job. With support from the speech-language pathologist, students practice conversational skills with visuals.
Curricular-themed units centering around a specific job have evolved so that they incorporate a range of topics. For example, one job is gardening, which includes the plant cycle, plant needs, the water cycle, parts of a plant, nutrition, and healthy eating habits. The students write about their work, create grocery lists for supplies, make recipe books, and compose newsletters about the jobs.
For students with autism, opportunities to explore jobs through pretend play are usually limited. Dr. Schwind’s jobs program creates interest for different types of work and supports experiential opportunities for job exploration. Not only does the program work on essential life skills such as money management, organization, and prevocational training, it also works on the underlying social experiences that help the students feel that they are a natural part of the school community through the process of communicating with teachers and peers. Establishing this program sets the stage for these young children to develop into confident, productive individuals as they transition into young adults.
Producing Positive Results for Students and the Community
The design of Dr. Schwind’s program uses evidence-based practice to inform decision-making, collaboration, and interventions. The program addresses the issue of lifelong participation through employment by building a foundation of work skills and behaviors starting early in school. The jobs are performed in a supportive community environment that has consistent, familiar, and predictable routines that foster job interests.
The participating students become an integral part of the school community. Their classmates see that students participating in the program can do many things and are contributing to the overall school community.
Dr. Schwind’s in-school CBI design has been replicated throughout the Loudoun County school district. It has resulted in future employment options for students, such as working in a clothing store after gaining job-based skills at the school’s lost and found or working in a grocery store after stocking condiments in the school cafeteria.
The NBCOT Innovation Award recognizes OTRs or COTAs who demonstrate the delivery of an evidence-based, effective, and innovative program or intervention that enhances the quality of life for a person or persons.
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