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Monday, October 12, 2009

Adjusting to the new physical environment

As mentioned in the previous post, one of the key changes in any transition is the change in the physical environment. The one thing that may cause the greatest concern for us as parents or teachers in this respect is the safety of the child, especially on the playground where fences are not always “child-proof” and the out-of-bounds areas are defined by rules rather than physical boundaries.

Handley (2006) discusses some great strategies to help children learn where they can and can’t go in the physical environment at school. This is called boundary training. Some of the steps she suggests include the following:

Design visual supports

Depending on the age of your child, Handley suggests using photos, line drawings or maps of the school. These should have clearly marked boundaries.

Young children or children with more significant developmental delays are likely to better respond to photos – especially photos of themselves standing in the areas being photographed. This means that they can relate the photo to a real experience, rather than trying to use imagination to put themselves into the picture.

Colour code or sort photos of the child in different areas

To help the child understand where they can and can’t go, sort the photos accordingly. That is, take photos of the child in places they can go, and photos without the child of places where they can’t go.

Make charts with appropriate symbols to cue the child into where they can/can’t go

Handley suggests making two charts – a “I can play here” and an “I cannot play here” chart. She encourages the use of universal colour codes (red for stop, green for go) and signs (see below).

For example, your chart may look like this:

Colour-code spaces

For inside spaces, mark areas with the same symbols and colour-coding. Or, for older children, use maps of rooms and colour-code them. Different areas of a classroom may be “off-limits” at different times of the day. For example, children must stay on the mat during group time, at their desks during work time and outside during play time. Symbols on doors or on the floor can help your child identify these physical boundaries.

Make a video

This would work in a similar way as your photographs. Take videos of the child playing in different areas. Handley (2006) suggests that you say something like “This is John in the playground. This is safe” when filming in safe areas. Alternately, film the unsafe areas without the child and state “John is not allowed to play here. This is not safe.”

Laminate the “no” symbol to attach to “no go” zones. Or carry it around to help prompt the child to stay within the boundaries.

Go on orientation walks

Frequent walks around the boundaries can help the child understand and identify where they can and can’t go. Repetition and familiarity is essential. Only stop these walks when the child can identify the boundaries without any prompting.

Reward successes

Use visual rewards when the child successfully stays within the boundaries. Make sure you get to know what the child responds to – some children love stickers, others don’t. Most children have a specific interest area – use that as a basis for your rewards.

Use frequent reminders

Children can be reminded by parents as they walk in the school gates about where it is appropriate and inappropriate to go - using the symbols, photos and chart where possible. Teachers, before they send children out of the class into the playground, can remind children of the boundaries. Use the visual charts and symbols to reinforce these reminders.

But rather than always reminding the child, get them to remind you sometimes.

At home, before the school year starts:

Start familiarising your child with the symbols and colour-coding. Use the colour-coded charts to identify the areas of your home where your child cannot go. Get them involved in creating and using these so that they are used to it before they actually go to school (or high school). Colour code different spaces according to your routine to get your child used to the fact that some parts of the physical environment are only off-limits at certain times (eg. outside is off-limits after dark).

Once you have decided on what school you are going to you should have the opportunity to visit that school in the school year before starting at the school. With the school’s permission, have family outings to take photos in the school grounds, start making the colour chart at home. You could do this during the day when students are in their classrooms, then try going when the other children are on the playground – gradually getting your child used to the playground atmosphere.

Wherever possible, don’t wait until the school year starts to familiarise your child with the school’s physical environment….get in as early as you can.


Handley. E. (2006). Making Change Easier: Helping Students with an Autism Spectrum disorder prepare for change during the school day, from day to day or transition from school to school. A Guide for Parents and Schools. Autism South Australia: South Australia.

If you want more information, you might want to search for publications or books on Autism SA’s site at Your local library may be able to help you get hold of these.


Annie Oliveri October 13, 2009 at 10:48 PM  

You are spot on with your advice

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