Teaching Children With Disabilities How To Succeed

September 1, 2001
Amy Vicker
Volume 18, Issue 9

The Child School in New York City provides a unique learning experience for children with learning and developmental disabilities. What teaching methods and curriculum are employed at the school? What is the link between parent and teacher involvement and the children's progress at The Child School?

Founded in 1973, The Child School is a unique learning environment that makes educational success possible for children aged 5 to 21 years with low-average to superior intelligence who are learning disabled, emotionally disturbed and/or speech impaired.

Maari de Souza, founder and director of The Child School, started the school in a small apartment in New York City with five students. She wanted to incorporate her experience as a staff psychologist at a special-needs grammar school with what she felt was missing in the education that was provided. De Souza was aware of the students' lack of social skills, recognizing that they were unable to initiate and develop friendships among their peers. She was disappointed by the minimal academic standard for these students and the lack of an afterschool program where children could interact on a casual basis.

The Child School has evolved into a unique therapeutic and academic facility for children with learning and developmental disabilities. Each student must succeed in satisfying the public school system's prescribed curriculum, develop the life and social skills that result in the recognition of and respect for the community, and learn to comprehend the impact of their actions and words. The ultimate goals for the students are to perform at their maximum potential and to become fully contributing members of society.

A focus on the whole child is reflected in The Child School's education methods, therapeutic techniques and daily routines.

The staff provides a diverse background with Ph.D., master's and bachelor's degrees. Additionally, de Souza believes it is imperative that the staff has skills and strategies not acquired in college or learned in a workshop or conference. Teachers work toward achieving their own emotional and psychological equilibrium and recognizing and eliminating negative emotional responses from their vocabulary. The staff is required to reach beyond theoretical knowledge and develop an individualized technique for each child-classes are small with approximately 62 teachers for the 161 students.

Parents are also required to participate in their child's education and meet with the staff regularly. The staff shares effective strategies for each step in the development that parents can adopt at home. This interaction promotes a consistent approach to each child's development.

At the elementary school level, The Child School's sensory-motor integration teaching format emphasizes cognitive development and language skills. Music is utilized extensively to increase learning rate and retention, develop appropriate learning behaviors, and foster socialization. The curriculum treats each child as a "gifted" child, according to The Child School's mission statement.

The middle school emphasizes preparing youth for high school. It follows the standard New York state 7th and 8th grade science and social studies curricula but regroups the children according to achievement level in reading, writing and math. However, the program recognizes that even with specialized attention, some students may not have the capacity to achieve a regents' diploma. The staff will then incorporate independent living, social skills and pre-vocational development to promote skills and behavior needed to succeed in the workforce.

Legacy High School was established in 1996 to extend The Child School's commitment to older children with special needs. The goals of the high school program are for each student to earn their diploma, by passing all regents exams, and develop a code of ethics for themselves. It also prepares the students, whether college-bound or not, for careers. The staff achieves these goals through techniques such as "camouflaged learning," which helps students make up for extensive gaps in learning caused by their disabilities; interdisciplinary curriculum; problem solving; and real-life learning opportunities. All four students in Legacy High School's first graduating class were accepted into accredited colleges.

The Child School also offers special services outside the academic classroom. These include speech and language therapy, counseling, occupational and music therapy, adaptive special education, and art and computer science classes. The school has two-day trips to destinations such as Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. There is also an opportunity for students to participate in an annual seven- to 10-day spring trip designed to take the children outside New York City to explore other cultures and environments. Recent trips have been to Jamaica and Costa Rica. Numerous teachers and chaperones, including de Souza, accompany the students.

Success stories abound: Aidan, a student who was diagnosed with severe brain damage and whose parents were told he would never learn to walk or talk, graduated from middle school, receiving the New York State Attorney General's Triple C Award honoring those whose behavior has consistently been distinguished by courage, commitment and character. Another student, Brett, who had been diagnosed as institutionable and could not carry out the most basic life skills, is now traveling to national and international destinations and receiving commendations for his deportment. He is participating in a formalized physical education program, has been termed musically gifted and recently carried on a lengthy conversation with his mother.

The Child School is not the only non-public day school accredited to serve students who are legally classified as learning disabled, emotionally disturbed and/or speech impaired. However, in terms of their format, routines, structure and strategies, The Child School does not know of other schools with similar methodologies.

When asked to summarize the teaching methods for those who may want to use them in their practice, de Souza told Psychiatric Times, "We work with the 'whole' child encompassing academic, social, behavioral, emotional, and moral and values-related issues. We focus on building the student's ethics, social and emotional intelligence, and their understanding of their issues and disabilities, all of which are tied into the diagnosis and unraveling of the problem. We do not compartmentalize the problems and say this is a learning disability or this is a processing problem, we look at the entire child in terms of this human being functioning as an independent person." The child does not learn how they can live with their family when they leave the school, but is intensively pushed in different directions so that they may stand independently in the world.

De Souza added, "Without a dedicated, united team surrounding each child, a community which includes the administration, teachers, in-school therapists, outside therapists and family members, we will not be very successful in helping each child maximize their potential."