Looking at School From a Different Viewpoint

Very few of our residential or day treatment students come to us having been successful in a traditional school setting. The overwhelming majority have Individual Education Plans. Approximately 40% of them are three or more years behind same-age peers. Many of our students have been placed in alternative schools, self-contained special education classrooms, or even expelled.

Jeff Stephani

Given that the most of our students have been unsuccessful in school, we would be foolish to create the same type of educational environment and expect a different result. So what we have done is blend our knowledge of special education and our understanding of the effects of developmental insults on brain development to come up with effective – and sometimes unusual – interventions, within a safe environment, to enhance social skills and promote healing.

Does this mean that we always understand and get it right the first time? Heck no! Sometimes it takes time and multiple plans. But we keep on trying.

It would not be unusual to walk into the school area and see one of our students walking or bouncing a racquetball in the hallway with a staff member, pacing in the back of a classroom, on an exercise bike, coloring, or possibly sitting under a table. Are these actions disruptive to a classroom? Sure, they can be. Are they what a student needs at that given moment? Yes.

I would challenge tradition thinking that if a student is not in his desk that it is disruptive to the learning environment. Human beings are capable of adjusting to a lot of different situations, and a classroom where more freedom of movement is allowed is just one example. Our students have learned that “fair” does not mean the same thing it does in most contexts. Fair here means that everyone gets what he needs to help ensure success.

We had a student who had a history of not going to school and, when he would attend, just staying in a classroom was a struggle. He often needed constant staff attention to do minimal work and stay on task. Eventually we realized that if he had the right “fidgets” he was able to increase time in the classroom and get more work done.

The right fidgets turned out to be Legos. If he had been allowed, this boy would have brought his entire Lego collection to school every day. What we did, though, was buy him a small Lego set and kept it in the classroom, where he was allowed to play with it. While it may have looked like he wasn’t paying attention, when asked a question, he was able to give the correct answers and demonstrated a good understanding of the knowledge and an ability to synthesize new information with prior knowledge. With the Legos, he significantly increased the amount of time spent in the classroom and reduced his need for one-on-one staff assistance.

What we try and do differently is meet a student where he is at, assess the reasons behind his actions, and then attempt to address the underlying need(s). The underlying needs are diverse and individual to each student. The keys to success are developing a positive relationship between at least one staff member and each student, having high expectations for every student while at the same time knowing that it is we who need to find the approach that works best with each student. Yes, it can be frustrating, and it requires a lot of extra time and energy, but we strive to help each student engage in our educational programming.

And I’m happy to say, that our most creative and unconventional approaches usually bring success!


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