What Is a Sensory-Friendly School Bus?

For many students, taking the school bus is stressful and overwhelming. A crowded bus, traffic noise and a high-energy environment induce anxiety for many children. Sensory sensitivity, sensory overload and sensory processing difficulties add to the challenge of school bus transportation. Additionally, this research, “A Scoping Review of Accessible Student Transport Services for Children With Disabilities” by Ross et al., (2020), found that children with disabilities are more likely to have to travel farther distances on buses to attend schools that are physically accessible 1

4Seasons Transportation is an organization based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. It provides sensory-friendly school bus transportation services for students with disabilities. Learn here about the importance of sensory-friendly schools buses and the role that 4Seasons Transportation plays in helping support students with complex needs. Read on as Kersti Rasmussen from 4Seasons Transportation shared insights about sensory-friendly transportation.

Student in wheelchair sitting in front of van with trunk open smiling at camera.

Challenges with regular school bus transportation

Noise levels

First, you may wonder if there is really a need for a sensory-friendly school bus. Standard school buses are problematic for many reasons. Rasmussen explains that the #1 problem with most standard school buses is the noise level. School buses are filled with 30 or more students. Often, the only adult on board is focused on driving the bus. For many children, the noise quickly becomes overwhelming. And for children with hypersensitivities, loud noises lead to elevated levels of stress. Additionally, many students have a preference for quieter environments.

Lack of individualized support

Another common issue that Rasmussen identifies is the lack of personalized support plans for students on standard school buses. For instance, most students who take the school bus do not have the option of additional supports to make the travel enjoyable. Consequently, standard school bus services do not accommodate all students’ needs and preferences, even if they extend beyond the provision of basic transportation.

Additional training required

Moreover, staff members on regular school buses are rarely trained to support students with sensory sensitivities. Therefore, they may not have the necessary knowledge and skills needed to effectively help children with sensitivities. Furthermore, they may be unaware of strategies that create a calm sensory experience during the ride.

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4Seasons Transportation as a sensory-friendly school bus service.

4Seasons Transportation goes the extra mile by providing a sensory-friendly school bus service for students with complex needs in Calgary, and the surrounding area. The company safely transports children with a wide variety of physical and cognitive disabilities and disorders, ranging from 3-20 years old. Furthermore, they travel to different public and private schools, including two biggest area school boards and leading private educators.

The company has been in business since 2002. The original owner recognized that the lack of accessible school bus services in the area for students with complex needs. As a result, many caregivers could not find safe and reliable sources of transportation for their children. Ultimately, a huge barrier to successfully attend school. Moreover, it parental stress and worry. Parent want to see their children succeed academically. In response to this need, 4Seasons has developed a reliable sensory-friendly school bus service that acknowledges all children’s differing needs.

What does a sensory-friendly school bus include?

There are unique sensory-friendly aspects to the bus service that 4Season’s Transportation provides that differ from standard school bus transportation.

Infographic describing 4 ways to create a sensory-friendly school bus.

Accommodate all students’ needs

4Seasons Transportation ensures that all students’ needs are met while on the bus. This company recognizes that many students have different needs and sensory preferences. Therefore, they modify the school bus environment and experience to make it enjoyable for each child. For example, if a student is hypersensitive to loud noises, the bus team sit them in quieter areas of the bus. If the student is sensitive to motion, they sit them in seats that are less subject to excessive movement. 4Seasons Transportation strives to ensure students’ needs for a calm and safe ride are met while on the bus.

Rasmussen explains that 4Seasons Transportation creates an individualized support plan for each student. The company works with the school board, caregivers and their in-house team to identify a student’s potential triggers and strategies to reduce stress. Additionally, the bus team determines a child’s interests and hobbies to find ways to best distract them from stressors while on the bus. Finally, they build trust between the bus team and the student.

Attendants on the bus

A unique feature of this company’s buses is the attendants on the buses. These attendants assist passengers who require extra supports. 4Seasons recognizes that the school bus driver is often not able to provide the level of support children need on the bus to and from school. These extra attendants resolve conflicts on the bus, play games with the students, provide distractions, and offer medical support. And most importantly, they build valuable connections with the students.

“They become like a new family member or friend to the students.”

Kersti Rasmussen, Marketing and Communication Manager at 4Seasons Transportation

Specialized training programs

The attendants and bus drivers hired through 4Seasons Transportation complete a specialized training program. It builds on their skills and allows them to acquire the knowledge to support the students. Additionally, 4Seasons hires employees who are calm and compassionate. Furthermore, each staff member who works directly with students successfully completes all the training before placement on a route.

Effective communication services

Lastly, an important sensory-friendly feature of this school bus service is maintaining ongoing and open communication between 4Seasons Transportation’s employees, caregivers, parents, the students’ caregivers, the school boards, the schools and the students themselves. Open communication ensures everyone can voice their questions or concerns. Additionally, communication provides parents and caregivers with peace of mind with regular updates from a reliable source.

The importance of a sensory-friendly school bus

Male student in front of school bus in wheel chair being assisted by employee in front of sensory-friendly school bus.

Rasmussen also explains how a sensory-friendly school bus experience is essential to ensure a child’s success at school. According to her, the school bus ride can help a student to be in a calm and positive mindset upon arrival at school, where they then engage in a day of learning. Therefore, the staff members at 4Seasons Transportation see themselves as a key support to ensure that students are set up to succeed at school.

“The school bus is really an extension of the classroom space.”

Kersti Rasmussen, Marketing and Communication Manager at 4Seasons Transportation

The future of sensory-friendly transportation

While 4Seasons Transportation provides standard-setting transportations services, they recognize additional areas where improvements are needed. This is essential to ensure sensory-friendly transportation for everyone. For example, quieter electric buses and onboard Wifi are two of their recent developments that enhance the transportation experience for sensitive students. Rasmussen also noted that everyone has sensory preferences. Sensory-friendly transportation is appreciated by everyone and not just people with an identifiable diagnosis or condition.

Additionally, she reiterated the importance of putting awareness of student ability and disability at the forefront when designing transportation services. Therefore, it is essential to consider the needs of all potential users to design a service meant to support the concept of inclusion.

“Everyone has sensory sensitivity and we could all enjoy more peaceful transportation services”

Kersti Rasmussen, Marketing and Communication Manager at 4Seasons Transportation

Read more about sensory strategies that help school-aged children:

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  1. Ross, T., Bilas, P., Buliung, R., & El-Geneidy, A. (2020). A Scoping Review of Accessible Student Transport Services for Children With Disabilities. Transport Policy, 95, 57–67. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tranpol.2020.06.002
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