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Early Vocational Skills Program Is a Key to Job Success for Elementary-School Students With Special Needs

Deborah Schwind is an OTR from Virginia who developed a program that teaches young students job skills and work behaviors.

Deborah Schwind, DHSc, OTR/L, BCP, SCSS

Occupational Therapist, Loudoun County Public Schools

Location: Virginia

Certified in 1990

2020 NBCOT Innovation Award Winner

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.

“Transition must be a continuum that begins early. Job success depends on job interests, work behaviors, independence with job skills, and foundational skills, the development of which should start in elementary school.”

Deborah Schwind, DHSc, OTR/L, BCP, SCSS

2020 NBCOT Innovation Award Winner

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.

Three students sit at a table with various items while an adult supervises. Two other adults look through the items on the table.
Students practice their jobs skills by greeting customers and selling vegetables and other products.

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.

“Deborah Schwind’s work on behalf of children and youth, occupational therapists, educators, and families in the Commonwealth of Virginia and throughout the nation, and her commitment to the profession of occupational therapy have been profound and lasting.”

Judith Schoonover, MEd, OTR/L, ATP, FAOTA

Award Nominator

Related News

January 26, 2021

NBCOT launched the Innovation and Impact Awards in 2020 to publicly recognize the exceptional work OTR and COTA certificants do in their daily practice.