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Teaching the Teachers: Creating New Opportunities and Outcomes in Educating Students with Special Needs

Educating students with special needs is an inherently challenging task due to the individualized and shifting needs of each student. Different schools of thought emerge when contemplating this issue: inclusion, a variety of special education services, modifications/accommodations, community based instruction, life skills training, technology use in training, and behavioral interventions – just to name a few. When parents and educators attempt to sift through the range of approaches it can become difficult to create a consistent, individualized educational program that takes into account the academic, social, and emotional needs of the student.

The Newmark Schools are state-approved, private schools for children with learning disabilities and mental health disorders such as ADHD, Anxiety, Asperger’s Syndrome and other Autism Spectrum Disorders, Bipolar Disorder and other Mood Disorders, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, and Sensory Integration Disorder. The Newmark model incorporates school-wide behavior modification systems, which includes extensive data collection, and social skills curriculums, combined with a strong use of technology to deliver differentiated academic instruction by highly trained educators – including counselors, occupational therapists and speech and language clinicians.

One of the keys to Newmark’s success is the investment it makes in training its teaching staff regarding mental health, and specifically, how learning about mental health disorders manifest in the classroom. The goal of this training is to help teachers understand the underlying issues that are driving behavioral acting out in the classroom, how to systematically assess what they are experiencing, and to develop individualized interventions to support, challenge and foster success in our academically capable students. Many Newmark students were unable to fulfill their potential in traditional public and private schools settings because of their particular needs – but also because their previous teachers may not have received the specialized training necessary to fully understand and address their unique needs.

In an ongoing effort to fill the needs of special needs students, Newmark Schools is creating a Teacher Training Institute that will contribute to a new model in education. The Teacher Training Institute will not only provide all levels of educators, including teachers, paraprofessionals, specialists, and administrators, with the opportunity to learn the extremely successful teaching methods used at Newmark, but will also afford them the ability to observe our highly skilled teaching professionals in K-12 classrooms.

The goal is to impact educators throughout the country and to train them in the innovative methods Newmark uses to serve our student population. These methods will be useful with “typical” students in regular education as well.

Another component to this education model includes creating a community center, housed in the school facility, to provide support services and community events that will include students with special needs. So often, our students are excluded from social events and opportunities to socialize with typically functioning peers as a result of the behaviors consistent with their mental health and learning struggles. For example, we constantly hear from our families about how they are unable to bring our students to events for fear of their behavior, and how it may impact others (quite often siblings). Although it is understandable and more practical to find alternate care for our students during these types of gatherings, our students lose out on the valuable practice and experience these events provide.

One service we often provide to our families is to host celebratory event such as birthday parties and Bar/Bat Mitzvahs. Our teaching staff runs and works the parties and sees these as significant opportunities to train our students how to socialize appropriately. As the community center is open to the public, our students are afforded the chance to coexist with peers in a structured setting that is geared toward their success and staffed with highly trained educators who understand their mental health needs and ensuing behaviors.

The Newmark Schools’ model also sees Life Skills Training as a crucial component to teaching our students to be successful, independent adults. We are building an on-site life skills apartment to assist in introducing our students to a variety of skills, and to give them ample time and space to practice these skills before they are expected to generalize them out in the community.

We know that educating special needs children takes a multi-disciplinary approach to meet the multitude of their needs. It seems clear from the feedback of the many families we have worked with over the years that the missing piece of this puzzle is often a lack of understanding by educators about how mental health and learning disorders manifest in the classroom, in regard to behavior. Although teachers are expected to work with children with increasingly complex mental health issues, whether in special or regular education, it appears that they receive very little training about these disorders. The training of educators needs to include mental health, and specifically, what does mental health look like in the classroom. For example, this training needs to go beyond the cursory understanding that a student with ADHD doesn’t pay attention. It is important that this training includes the other aspects of the disorder such the associated executive functioning deficits and its impact on social-emotional impairments. More importantly, what does a real student with ADHD look like: yes, unfocussed and disorganized, but also perhaps socially inappropriate, agitated, blaming, not interested in learning, oppositional, and dishonest. Quality training will result in an educator who, when presented with a student with ADHD, will be understand the nuances of behavior and find ways to teach to the student’s strengths and come to understand that the student is not actually dishonest or lazy or not interested in learning. The educator will learn that these negative behaviors are also maladaptive strategies that the student has developed to cope with their deficits.

Investing in mental health education for teachers is also important as a means to address “burn-out.” In our experience with teacher training, most educators report that their most challenging aspect of their job is to have a classroom with students who are dealing with significant mental health and learning issues, and to feel ineffective in dealing with the associated behavior. These teachers feel competent to teach the academic requirements but are often frustrated by a lack of confidence in dealing with behavior. However, once teachers truly understand what is driving the behavior they tend to feel more empowered and in control of the interventions available to them. They also report that, once they understand how mental health issues impact executive functioning, they are better able to differentiate instruction to meet the specific needs of their students.

 

Cathleen M. George, LCSW, is Clinical Director of Newmark Schools. Ms. George has fourteen years of experience in the mental health field, with the last 10 spent as a school counselor at Newmark Schools. She has also worked in foster care and in a hospital setting. In addition to providing counseling services to students, she focuses on training staff on mental health issues, and shaping student behavior.

Ms. George received her Bachelor of Science degree from Caldwell College, and her MSW from Fordham University. She also maintains a private therapy practice and is a member of the National Association of Social Workers. For more information about Newmark Schools, please visit www.NewmarkEducation.com.

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