Just about all of our students have sensory integration difficulties. Some are sensory seekers, others are overly sensitive to noises, textures, and visual chaos. As we enter our third year at JRA, we have worked harder to enrich our environment, including many sensory activities that help students stay focused and calm during the day. We have gotten good advice from Katie Reily, our Speech and Language Pathologist, who is also a therapeutic educator in the Waldorf tradition. Linda King-Thomas of Developmental Therapy Associates of Durham provided a great inservice for us, and Claire Marsh, the occupational therapist from DTA who comes to work with students weekly individually and in class, has also been helpful.
We have tried to increase opportunities for movement in several ways. Every morning starts with a rousing kickball game. Students are very patient with those who are just learning, so everyone gets to play. After lunch, the whole school goes walking or running in nearby Nature Conservancy land, where opportunities to climb, jump, carry, and throw abound. We keep a mini-trampoline in the hall, ready for someone who needs to bounce. And all students participate in our Bal-a-vis-x program, where students bounce balls and pass beanbags rhythmically and often in unison.
In most of our rooms, we’ve worked hard at keeping visual clutter at a minimum. Eight foot windows and our high ceilings provide natural light and a feeling of spaciousness. The fish tanks and gecko cage provide calming and interesting things to watch. Boxes of fidgets of every kind are in each classroom. Here, chewing gum is not a cause for punishment, but a coping strategy that we encourage students to use. Some classes keep a cup of disposable drinking straws for kids to chew on. We make sure there are multiple textures and activities to captivate even the most sensory seeking child among us.
Sensory Processing Disorder or even just sensory integration difficulties: come check us out and see how we can help your child!
Early this year we noticed Katie, our speech and language magician, bouncing balls with children as part of their sessions with her. We were intrigued, especially when we saw how much better those children did in the classroom. So in January, five of us piled in a car and drove to Charlotteville, Virginia, to participate in a workshop and learn how to bounce balls with children too. It sounds so easy, but I’ve never worked so hard in my life. When we were through, we had one more tool in our toolbox. We have children who beg for time to do this, and our paraprofessional is kept more than busy working one-on-one with our students.
Founder Bill Hubert started doing Bal-a-vis-X with children in his classroom because he noticed that many children with learning difficulties also had coordination problems. He hypothesized that improving coordination might make learning easier and found that to be true. Over the years he has refined the techniques and taught them to hundreds of people. Check out this video of him in action: watch?v=_mbQv34Zs-w
JRA has invited Bill to come train teachers, parents, and therapists in our area to use Bal-a-vis-X with their children as well. He will be here for a 20 hour training, August 17, 18, and 19, which will be held at Just Right Academy, housed in the Shared Visions Retreat Center just off I-85 near Hillsborough. See flyer for more details and note the early registration discount. We can take 35 participants who will join our staff in learning this technique as well as improving and refining previously learned skill. I hope you’ll join us!
“And at the same time, you are of course a performer, but it’s very important that you understand that your role as a performer is to get the best performance from those wonderful colleagues that you have the chance to work with. “ Michael Tilson Thomas
As we added people to JRA’s staff this school year, I worried that it would be a rocky transition. Last year’s smaller staff had to scramble, but we all knew our parts and had each others’ backs. And we really liked each other. New people, especially those who were not known to us, could make for uncomfortable moments if they weren’t just the right people.
We’ve been together this year long enough that I can say with certainty that my fears were unfounded. Sometimes I step back and watch in amazement at the give and take, the support, and the sense of humor that this great staff exhibits. We play off each other’s strengths and support one another where we are weakest. And while the kids are the beneficiaries, it sure does make work fun.
Marion Houser came on board before we had a name or a building or even paychecks. That first summer, the two of us carried boxes, raised money, and did the nuts and bolts work of making this crazy idea come to life. Marion is a chemist by training and a teacher and organizer by inclination. We frequently know what the other is thinking. On Friday a student asked the two of us a question. We paused, looked at him with the same expression, and gave the exact, not-so-obvious answer at the same time in the same words. Marion, whose middle name must be efficiency, handles many of the logistical details of the day. She gets lunch ready for 17 kids, making it look effortless in the process. She handles our Friday Lockhart’s order and keeps everyone’s accounts straight. She goes with the morning running club and has been known to carry a 120 pound child across a chilly creek when it was the only way to get her to the other side. The kids know that Mrs. Houser will not put up with any nonsense, but she is the first one to advocate for a child who isn’t getting a fair shake. And she sure can teach math!
Tarish Pipkins started last year part-time, but came on board full-time before the year was out. He’s everyone’s favorite teacher, one who makes time for all the kids and shows an amazing gentleness with those who need it. He’s a gifted artist, a magical puppeteer, and a graduate of the university of life, which means the kids listen to him in a way they may not others. I’ve never seen him lose his temper with a child, but I have seen him set one straight with a calmness that no one mistook for leniency. He leads a daily kickball game that includes most of the school. Everyone is welcome to play as he pitches, referees, and cheers for each participant. At least once a game I hear that wonderful Mr. P laugh and I go to the window and watch joy in action.
Maggie Pesce joined us this year in August. She shone in a group of thirteen outstanding candidates for the job, and we have been more than happy with our choice. With a week’s notice, she packed up in the midst of a hurricane and moved down from Vermont. Maggie can be seen one moment bouncing down the hall on one of the hoppity balls, pigtails flying, and then leading a calming class of yoga the next. She challenges each student to be their best, taking great joy in finding an unknown talent in each child. Her classes incorporate drama, graphic novels, building projects, and movement. Trained in Quaker mediation, she often sits two students down and guides them through their difficulties with each other. She looks for just the right book that will engage each of her students, and kids who were previously antagonistic to reading now sneak off to a beanbag chair in her room to read, while they listen to the calming gurgle of her fish tank.
Katie Reily, our Speech and Language Pathologist/ Therapeutic Educator, joined us this year and is with us three weeks at a time, followed by three weeks away to recharge and continue her learning. When she is with us, she works with a few students intensively, either in articulation, expressive or pragmatic language, or in helping a child feel comfortable in his body. She also leads our social thinking lunch groups, calling upon Michelle Garcia Winner’s work. Katie sees the students with such gentle, caring eyes, and her manner has inspired us all to work to reach her level of patience and kindness. She has the uncanny ability to spend a few sessions with a child and help us know just what that child needs us to do. The addition of this gifted practitioner has made us a much better school, and we all love the peacefulness that comes when she is in the building.
Behm Williams, a LSU student, is with us this year as a paraprofessional. He was hired to serve as a shadow for a student who was having a difficult time, but he is so much more than that. He helps in classes and is always willing to take a walk with a student who needs time and space away from the group. He regularly comes out with an insight about a student or a situation that surprises me with its accuracy, often about something I totally missed. His sensitivity to even the most difficult of our students is wonderful to watch. As the youngest of the staff, he is able to relate to the students while still maintaining strong boundaries.
Sarah Flanary, one of our parents, started last year as an Augustine Project tutor for one of our students. It quickly became apparent what a gifted reading tutor she was, and this year we have contracted with her to add four more reading students. She also teaches Spanish twice a week, goes with our morning running club, and is a regular substitute. Sarah expects great things from her students and goes out of her way to find opportunities in the community for our kids. She teaches them HOW to learn and is their greatest cheerleader when they succeed. Her gentle manner and strong advocacy for her students causes them to want to be their best. I have great trust in and respect for her insights and thoughts, and I often bounce ideas off her.
Ryoko Honeycutt is a volunteer who showed up last year wanting to help. We quickly took her on as a Japanese teacher. Her students love her weekly class, and even kids who sometimes have behavior issues learn with respect and diligence. She speaks in a quiet calm voice and gently corrects when needed. Ryoko assured me she did not have training as a teacher, but she is a natural. After her class, she stays and cleans, restoring order and leaving a clean, peaceful building in her wake. This past week she hosted 31 parents, teachers and students at her restaurant, Akai Hana in Carrboro.
Claudia Kaplan joined us our first year as school administrator, and it’s fair to say she is indispensable. Claudia is the left brain to my right; together we make a great team. She balances the checkbook, pays the rent, organizes fund raisers, makes sure we have supplies, reminds us to have fire drills, and deals with all the frustrating minutiae that go into running a school. A gifted writer as well, she takes on so many of the day-to-day details that would never occur to me, and does them with grace and competence. And I’ve never met anyone who can nag in such a gentle, understanding way. That’s a gift in itself. Administrators often gain the reputations as bean counters who have no patience with vision; we are so lucky to have Claudia who truly gets and supports what we do.
While not officially on our staff, Natalie Mason, Occupational Therapist from A Place to Grow, joins us on Wednesdays to work with three students, and we count her as one of us. She does a great job of listening to the difficulties we have with her students and gives us great ideas to help them. She is calm, exceedingly competent, and cares for all of our kids. This is her second year working with our students at JRA and we respect and appreciate the work she does.
What all these people have in common is the ability to make the work we do more important than their egos. They love these children and aren’t afraid to tell them that. Their boundaries are strong and so is their sense of humor. Even after a hard day, I never mind going to work, knowing I’ll come in to a whole group who are willing to try again each day and laugh about the day before. We may have a beautiful building and the world’s best parents, but what makes Just Right Academy such a great place is the staff. There is no question about that and I am honored to call them collegues.
The story is told of a man who found a chrysalis. He hung it up and watched it eagerly. Finally the time came for the butterfly to emerge. It struggled mightily to free itself from the hole in a process that took hours. Then it stopped and seemed to be able to go no further. The man, being a kind man, took scissors and cut the remaining cocoon off, allowing the butterfly to emerge. He was surprised to see that it had a swollen body and shriveled wings. He waited for the swelling to go down and the wings to expand, so the butterfly could fly out into the world.
It didn’t happen. What the man didn’t realize was that the small hole and the insect’s struggle to get through the opening were designed to force fluid from the body into the wings. Without the struggle, this didn’t happen and the butterfly was unable to fly.
Our first academic year at Just Right Academy is coming to a close. We promised less stress and anxiety, but we never promised a struggle-free time. Our students have worked so hard this year to overcome academic and social difficulties. Students worked in language arts and math, going back to the areas that had been skimmed over and relearning that material, sometimes going over and over and over it, sometimes learning it easily and moving ahead. In Achievers class, our older students argued and listened, learning the interpersonal skills that will help them be successful in life. A wonderful occupational therapist and a speech and language pathologist from A Place to Grow came twice a week to work with students who needed this support. Reading tutors worked one-on-one with some students. Our Japanese neighbor came to teach a weekly Japanese class to four students. Social studies, science and Spanish classes helped us to make sense of the world we live in. And every fifteen minutes, our kids received feedback in three areas: following directions, being kind, and participating in a positive way.
It worked. The child who couldn’t follow a direction if he tried, now does—most of the time. The quiet one, who hid his work because he knew it was wrong, shoves it at me confidently and waits for me to check it. Students have learned that apologies don’t have the word “but” in it, but sound like this: “I’m sorry I ____; what can I do to make it better?” One seventh grader finished pre-algebra in three months and is making his way through the algebra book that he and his teacher chose together. Calling students on every unkind remark now means that they have begun to monitor themselves and each other.
One child’s story is an example. She came with an attitude that wouldn’t stop and regularly had a number of dots on her point sheet. She was disrespectful and perpetually angry over her work—it was either too babyish or too hard in her eyes. She would slam down her book and stomp out when we “picked” on her. Her academic skills were woefully behind her grade level and she had developed a number of behaviors to keep from having to show those underdeveloped skills to the world. Working with her was exhausting.
A twice a week reading tutor trained in the Orton-Gillingham technique was our first prescription. The tutor also became somewhat of a mentor to her and gave her a great deal of encouragement. A speech and language pathologist worked with her on pragmatic speech. We took her back to the beginning in language arts and math and practiced, practiced, practiced, until she had learned the missing skills to automaticity. Our art teacher found in her a gift for art and nurtured it. Constant and consistent feedback, structure, and lots of positive reinforcement address her behavioral problems.
Our post testing shows that she has gained about three years in reading and made significant progress in math and language arts. She has a new confidence and has developed real leadership skills. She enjoys working with the younger students and often seeks them out during group work. She is a joy to be around. It hasn’t been an easy time for this child and she will continue to develop her newfound talents. But then learning to fly is supposed to be a struggle.
Come visit us at our upcoming open house on Saturday, May 21, 2011, from 9:00 am to noon, and see if your child might find JRA a place that both challenges and supports him.
One of the greatest gifts Wright School gave me is a unit coordinator who told me stories. I stop in from time to time to hear a new one. On my recent visit, Pete didn’t disappoint and had a new story waiting.
It’s about a tired man who has walked around barefooted for many years. Finally he goes to a wise and holy man complaining that his feet hurt. The holy man closes his eyes and thinks for a very long time. Finally he says, “I know—let’s cover the whole world in soft, supple leather to protect your feet.” The man protests that, while that would help, it really isn’t very practical. Again the holy man thinks and then says, “How about just covering the paths you take and WILL take with leather?” Irritated, the man protests once again and says that there is no way to know where he will go. Then the holy man says, “Then why don’t we just make shoes for you?”
The temptation to cover the world in leather for our children, to soften their experiences, is huge. Who doesn’t want to protect their child? And our kids have already had more than their fair share of knocks. But that benevolent longing to give our kids a frustration-free environment does them no favors. It is not a practical wish to cover their world nor their path in leather. By doing so, we limit where they can go and what they can experience.
At JRA, our hope is to pull together the best cobblers we can to cover each child’s feet with the protective covering that lets them go where they want and achieve what they can. An occupational therapist may help a child write smoothly and move with coordination. A speech and language pathologist teaches one child to enunciate and another to use words to get what he wants rather than to make people mad. We directly teach social skills and require our students to use them. We remediate in the academic areas that need it and push in areas of strength. “I can’t” is regularly met with “Yes you can. I’ll help you.” We regularly call upon them to be flexible while respecting their need for structure.
In doing so, we hope to give our students the tools to go where they want to go and achieve all they’re capable of achieving. There is a lot of untapped brilliance at JRA and I think you’ll be seeing great things from some of these kids. They just need the shoes to get there.
It’s been an exciting few weeks at JRA. We had a phenomenally successful open house, resulting in our adding five new students in January. We are aware that this will stress our existing students, but we feel they are ready to handle it. My co-teachers and I occasionally look back to where they were in September and are amazed by their growth. But we aren’t taking anything for granted. We continue to look for ways to wrap each child in services and supports. Sometimes I feel like a conductor, pointing this one to speech, another to OT, yet another to Achievers class. We have been lucky to identify and bring on board some top-notch people.
We are thrilled with the services that we are receiving from A Place to Grow. There were many good OT/Speech groups that contacted us, but this was the one parents requested. Natalie, our great OT, comes on Monday and works with three students. Jen, Speech Language Pathologist, comes on Monday and Wednesday. She works with six of our students, either individually, in a social thinking small group, or both. On Monday, Jen leads a group for the whole school called Bucket Time. They also consult with us to help us make modifications to our environment or teaching methods to better support each student. And wonderful SLPs Tracy Vail and Mae Rant consult with us for two other students. The days when speech therapy was only for kids who stutter or are speech-delayed are long gone; we’ve renamed speech “Getting to yes,” and that has made a big difference in how they perceive it.
Our Japanese class, taught by Ryoko Huneycutt, challenges two of our very bright boys. Ryoko teaches both reading and writing, and these guys love it. Yesterday they were whispering to each other during my class. I was ready to call them down until I realized they were talking about Japanese verb forms. The majority of our kids are college bound and we want to work with both their interests and challenge them to succeed.
We continue to individualize according to each student’s needs. We have students divided into three groups, which move through our morning time. Our groupings are based on learning styles and needs, and within those groups are further divisions. One seventh grader finished pre-algebra in three months and is on to algebra. Another student, equally bright, somehow missed out on learning to tell time and do simple multiplication. Once students realize they are accepted where they are academically, their anxiety decreases. And guess what? When their anxiety decreases, so do behavior problems.
We are working harder than ever. But our work is so satisfying because as the kids feel safe and supported, we have begun to see what they are truly capable of. I won’t tell you our students’ names, but I promise you, that many of these kids WILL make a name for themselves doing something positive and amazing.