Campus Orientation Checklist

Article
Aug. 9, 2022Updated Aug. 12, 2022
Learning how to navigate a new school and classroom is an essential step to help students not only get where they need to go, but be able to access everything they need — from their curriculum to daily living tools to socialization. We spoke with Massachusetts-based orientation and mobility therapist Kristin Zottoli to get the inside scoop on what parents should look for and questions to ask when touring a new classroom or school to ensure their child has the most comfortable transition possible.
Zottoli says she likes thinking from big (outdoor spaces) to small (bathroom stalls). To make sure a student can access everything they need, break down the activities of daily living in a sequential way. From washing their hands to getting their snack bag out of their locker or cubby, is each element accessible, and if not, how will the school make the necessary adaptations?
To begin, approach the school campus by starting outside the school first, then go inside, and finally, to each classroom.

Entrance and exit

  • Can the student get into the building from the outside?
  • What’s the general school protocol at the start and end of the school day? Will your student follow the same protocols as most other students?
  • Look at the threshold: Are there metal thresholds? Is there carpet? Some thresholds can be difficult for students to traverse in a wheelchair or mobility aid.
  • Can the student open the door, hold the door, and then ambulate or push themselves over the threshold?

Bathrooms

  • Lighting and contrast in bathrooms can be difficult for some students with visual impairments. Focus on the most important features in the bathroom so students can differentiate between surfaces.
    • Are there any safety-related issues if there’s a water spill anywhere in the area?
  • If a student uses a wheelchair, can they turn it around in the stall? Can they reach the sink handles? Can they reach the soap and the paper towel dispenser?
  • Can the student use the stall lock to get in and out independently and maintain their privacy?
  • If the student needs a gender-neutral bathroom, is there one available?

Lunch area & cafeteria

  • Are the tables accessible? If the student needs more supportive seating, are there seating options in the cafeteria? Will benches be supportive enough so the student can eat with peers?
  • If they’re going to purchase lunch, can they reach the card slider or interact with the cafeteria worker? What will the student need to do and say?
  • Can they see the food on the other side of the display case? Can they manage a tray while moving? If not, how will staff or a peer help them?

Recess, playground & gym

  • Does the playground equipment contrast with the ground surface? For example, is there a lot of beige on brown that blends in? Do the surfaces have holes in them? (These can release rainwater and blend into the ground, causing a safety hazard.)
  • How does the student navigate the stairs? Do they need highlighting on the edge of the steps? If areas that are low in contrast would be a concern for students who struggle with depth perception, does the student need training in those areas, or can the school highlight or reroute certain activities if it’s possible?
  • Some playgrounds can be really challenging and hard to navigate. Does the school have a plan to support a student in the playground who needs it?
  • If there are groups of kids playing basketball or running games, are those games accessible? Should the student and IEP team meet with some of the guidance counselors or PE instructors to brainstorm activities that are more accessible? Investigate the culture of the school, recess, what games are being played, and how that works.
  • How is the space in the gym utilized and what does the school need to do to adapt to that space?
    • Lighting in the gym can be really challenging (there’s a lot of glare) and sound can echo.
    • Lines painted on the gym floor can be low-contrast. Do they need to be adapted?
    • There’s often no tactile information on the floor; for a student with low vision, can staff use rope and tape to create a raised line the student can trail with their mobility aid or foot?
    • Are the balls high contrast? Does the student need sound in the balls?

Emergencies & fire drills

  • What are the exit routes for emergencies and fire drills? Does the school have an exit plan specific to the student? For example, if a wheelchair user is on the second floor, how is that student going to get out of the building?
  • If there’s a stay-in-place order and the lights go out, can the student get where they need to be to remain safe and to follow the school protocols?
  • If a student is sensitive to bright lights or loud noise, can they stay calm and quiet? Some students have a to-go bag that will have ear protection or headphones, and a coat if they’re temperature sensitive or have temperature-induced seizures. Visors can be included if the student is photophobic. You can go through the motions of what is expected in an emergency in order to prime the student for what is to come.

For a checklist of all the above concerns that you can bring with you on a campus tour, check out our printable list here.

Mapping the campus

Mapping is a great tool to understand how a student takes in information. Zottoli says one of the most important things she does is simply watch a student when they enter the new space and see what they notice. She explains that observing how a child reacts to a new setting is one of the most valuable ways to connect and understand the way they learn. Parents and staff can key into that and create maps and share information in a way that is meaningful to the child.

Start at the front of the building, then move to the perimeter and hallways.

  • The nurse’s office and the main office are usually close to the front of the school, so it may be easier to use those as anchors in the event the student gets lost or needs to reorient themselves.
  • For students who are rote travelers and need systematic, unchanging routes, map only their schedule and leave out anything extra. As time passes, you can add more information as the student gets comfortable.

Mapping the campus

A lot of teachers of students with visual impairments conduct a learning media assessment to determine the primary learning channel that a student uses — auditory, visual, tactile, or a combination — and get creative with how they create the maps. This approach works well for all students: it’s important to come up with a format that includes landmarks that will be meaningful to the student. Creating landmarks a student will remember can help them find an anchor when they also have to deal with crowded hallways.

Zottoli recommends the app Book Creator to map the school using photos, videos, and sound effects.

Mapping without a tour

If there isn’t time for a student and their family to tour a new school or classroom, Zottoli recommends the following:

  • Ask one of the specialists your child will be working with — PT, OT, orientation and mobility therapist, or a combination — to create walk-through videos that show the building layout. This way, the student can rewatch as often as they want and even slow it down.
  • Go to crowded places to see how your child reacts! Some will plow right through people while others freeze.

    • Zottoli says, “Letting your student take the lead when you travel is something really simple and powerful that caregivers can do.” It can be as simple as letting your child enter the store first. Let them take the lead and see what’s comfortable for them. If not, what can be done to help them gain a bit more independence and courage?
  • Build a relationship with school specialists. Zottoli explains that for her, gaining insights from a student’s family makes her work with students so much more impactful. “That’s the ultimate goal,” she says. “I can run through all the textbook terminology and approaches to navigation, but if I don’t connect and understand the student and how they’re interacting on various levels with the world around them, I’m just not going to get very far.”

What additional questions can parents ask?

  • If your school hasn’t developed an emergency plan specific to your child yet, you’ll want to request a meeting to discuss adding it to their IEP.
  • Ask for your student’s schedule ahead of time, and request that it be provided in the appropriate format for the student (for example, large print, Braille, auditory access, etc.).
  • Will there be a monitor on field trips? Will there be someone familiar with travel needs and adaptations? Can the family be notified ahead of time in the event they want to preview the field trip area with their child?
  • If the student uses assistive technology that is large or difficult for them to carry, who’s going to transport that from classroom to classroom? How will that work? When the equipment comes home at the end of the day, who will help the student get it to the bus or pickup?
  • Who’s going to provide the accommodations? Sometimes, that can get confusing. Is it the teacher or the specialist?
  • What happens in all of these scenarios when there’s a substitute aide, teacher, or specialist? There can be a lot of breakdowns when there is a substitute teacher or provider, Zottoli explains — especially when accommodations don’t get passed on to the substitute, making for a very difficult day for the student.
“Create a backup plan with the student so they know who they can go to, what they can ask, and how they can help themselves when systems break down, because they will,” Zottoli says. “Having these conversations and asking these questions ahead of time is really going to help prevent confusion for the student prior to the start of the year.”
Make sure to check out our back-to-school toolkit for more checklists and resources!
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Contents


Overview

Navigating the campus: thinking from big to small

Mapping the campus

What additional questions can parents ask?

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