“Alex is thriving because of Vernon’s Special Education program. It’s a collaboration between parent and school,” Anna Colon* said.
She is the mother of Alex, a rambunctious soon-to-be eight-year-old, who will be entering third grade this fall. He is on the autism spectrum, and although Vernon Township School District does not have separate programs for autistic children, his mother is very pleased with the district’s Special Education program.
Alex was diagnosed early, at 18 months, and was in New Jersey’s early intervention program, for children from 0-36 months, then transitioned into the school system, first at Walnut Ridge, where Alex’s special education teacher was Suzanne McDougall. “It was such a blessing because the experiences we had were just amazing,” Colon said. Then after preschool, he moved to kindergarten at Cedar Mountain School. When the pandemic hit, the option of in-person learning for special education was available at Rolling Hills, where Alex is in the Applied Behavioral Analysis program.
Alex’s ABA class has seven children with autism or other special needs. “He receives speech and occupational therapy and has an aide at all times, one to one, who anticipates his needs and guides him through the day,” Colon said.
He participates in inclusive general education classes — art, music and gym — to transition him slowly. He enjoyed the extended school year, in a different district building, mornings from July 5 to August 5. It helped learning retention and provided opportunity for socialization with friends. Yet he was hesitant at first.
“My son was struggling; he was going into the building and a little boy nearby, unprompted, said, ‘It’s all right, we’re only here half a day, you’ll be home in no time.’” Colon was amazed at the child’s empathy.
What could schools do better? “Help teach our children, especially the little ones, empathy and compassion. “It depends on the parents, too. Kids imitate parents.”
* Pseudonyms are used to protect the family’s privacy.
Vernon’s success with Applied Behavior Analysis
Applied Behavior Analysis is more a one-to-one, student to staff, special education instruction model as opposed to a traditional class with a larger group.
Students and staff work together in brief, 10-minute “trials” on a specific skill, face-to-face with a teacher or paraprofessional, according to Russell Fay, Vernon Township School District’s director of Special Services. This may be done in the morning, followed by more traditional activities throughout the day. Fay added that the program starts in preschool and was extended last year to the middle school; he said it will eventually extend to the high school as well.
Applied Behavior Analysis is a data-driven method of teaching. A younger student might be working on a special problem or skill, like addition, in a 10-minute time frame. The teacher records the accuracy or attention of the student and uses that data to inform an assessment for instruction, which is graphed and shared with the Child Study Team, Fay noted. The district uses software for sorting the data and the data guides the curriculum, as well as the level of student engagement required, and informs the individualized education program goals.
Behavior could include actions like a student’s attention span or comprehension skills. The continual data collection helps mark improvement over time, or the need for intervention. The data includes narratives written by the teacher to go with the material graphed. In addition, “We have two district staff who are board-certified behavior analysts; it shows how committed we are,” said Fay.
Superintendent Karen D’Avino added, “Board-certified behavior analysts are incredibly valuable.” They are available to any teacher and provide services to students in general education, too. The focus is on catching positive behavior, where students can earn a privilege or reward.
“The district is excited about a new Emotional Regulation Impairment program at the high school. It will be a class for students in need of emotional regulation and may be a full or partial day, depending on the individual student’s level of impairment,” said D’Avino.
Each school is working on a sensory room or space for students who need it, a place to visit briefly if the student is feeling anxious, to regain composure, to be ready to learn when they re-enter a regular class. It’s a calming space with calming colors, softer lights, and things that can help a student relax — music, nature sounds, puzzles, fidget spinners, squeeze balls, or material that feels different.
Each school building usually has two speech therapists to support students with communication difficulties as well.
“We offer a very individualized approach to the education experience for all of the students. Special education is a busy department in Vernon — we’re a little remote, we want to keep students in the community to be with their peers rather than send them to a specialized school,” said Fay.
Chester UFSD’s multi-faceted approach to special education
Chester Union Free School District doesn’t have specific classes for students on the autism spectrum; they’re either in general education classes with support or special education classes for students with a variety of special needs, including autism. “Speech therapy is often needed and counseling is important; that helps them to develop communication skills and interact with peers and adults,” according to Rachael Loftus, Chester’s director of Special Education and Pupil Personnel Services. “It helps with appropriate expression of emotions, including frustration.”
There are students on every part of the autism spectrum, from those who are high-functioning, who might just need support like counseling or speech therapy, to students who are non-verbal and use communication devices, according to Loftus. “The district works cooperatively with other agencies for students whose needs are greater than Chester can provide: Orange-Ulster BOCES, The Center for Spectrum Services, The Center for Discovery (Sullivan), and also Rockland BOCES. Placement depends on needs and space — we always start close to home,” said Loftus. Chester contracts with outside agencies for an occupational therapist and a certified occupational therapy assistant.
Staff work with a student’s particular area of strength or interest and incorporate it in reading and writing to interest and engage the student.
Chester uses some assistive communication devices and “some out-of-district placed students may use an iPad, loaded with an app, like ‘TouchChat’ or ‘Lamp: Words for Life’. The Committee on Special Education will look at a student’s evaluation and, in consultation with the speech therapist and teacher, will decide on an appropriate app.” Loftus said.
Students who are overstimulated by noise might use a headphone or take lunch in a separate location, so they’re not overwhelmed, said Loftus. “Sometimes it’s just over-stimulation and we can work on sensory strategies to help students calm down.” Loftus said.
Monroe-Woodbury’s on-staff experts aim to elevate students with special needs
The Monroe-Woodbury School District offers a continuum of special education services from kindergarten through age 21. Students on the autism spectrum are part of the special education program; there are no separate programs just for autism. “Evaluations are typically done in-house by a special education teacher, psychologists, speech therapists, social workers, and physical and occupational therapists. All are on staff — not contracted out,” according to Eric Eulau, director of special education for Elementary. The district has a committee on pre-school special education as well.
The Committee on Special Education meets and discusses the needs of the student and makes recommendations and plans for programming and services for that student.
All students, classified or not, receive computers: kindergarten and 1st grade get iPads; all students who are in second through 12th grade are given Chromebooks.
For communication facilitation for students with individualized education programs, strategies can range from picture cueing systems to communication devices. Speech and language therapists may use different systems: “Whether it’s group or individual therapy, or going in to some of the classrooms, it’s not just a system, but also a related service that assists students with severe expressive and receptive language communication disorders,” said Christine Ricker, director of Pupil Personnel Services.
Monroe-Woodbury uses positive behavior interventions and support. “It’s not used in every building in our district; it’s a building-by-building decision,” according to Eulau. “Monroe-Woodbury also has three behaviorists that work in the school district with the staff on doing behavioral assessments and plans,” said Eric Hassler, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
“We look at the data and the data tells a story; it tells us if the child is behaving well in one area or situation. What are the circumstances? What are the antecedent conditions?” said Karen Jordan, director of special education — secondary. “If there is an uptick in [inappropriate] behavior, we try to really focus in on that area through positive interventions to help with their behavior so they can stay in the least restrictive environment.” There are no psychiatrists on staff but the district does have psychologists and social workers, and additionally, school counselors at the secondary level.
For some low-incidence-related services, such as a teacher of the visually impaired or a teacher of the hearing impaired, Monroe-Woodbury contracts with BOCES.
Delaware Valley: special education, plus programs for autistic children
Delaware Valley School District offers a continuum of services for students with disabilities to meet all needs.
In addition, DV has two special programs, available at the primary, elementary, middle and high school level, to help students on the autism spectrum. According to Delaware Valley Supervisor of Elementary Special Education Cheryl Nielsen, “Both programs are based on the principles of applied behavior analysis: understanding behavior — how behavior is changed or affected by the environment and how learning takes place. Behavior refers to skills and actions needed to talk, to play, to live and to interact.”
The Supplemental Autistic Support Program offers verbal and behavior support for grades kindergarten to 12. The district partners with Step by Step, an outside agency. Staff from the agency work in the classroom to help support the student and the school with behavioral intervention and language facilitation.
The basis of that program is language acquisition. If appropriate, a student is given assistive technology to communicate and may use iPhones, iPads or an iPad mini, with communication apps, some with picture icons, loaded on them. “The iPads can speak for them. It’s a team effort by our speech/language therapists, our teachers and Step by Step,” said Nielsen.
“There’s always an emotional or behavior component, because when kids have difficulty communicating, how do they communicate? Through behavior,” Nielsen said. “That’s why it’s called a verbal behavior program.”
They use positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior. For example, in younger grades, they get a favorite snack. There are also strategies used after a student acts out. If necessary, the team meets to review the behavior plan. The emphasis is on positive reinforcement.
Delaware Valley has two behavioral health technicians who work with students overseen by a behavior specialist who ensure treatment plans are followed or modified when needed. The whole program is overseen by a board-certified behavior analyst, who works closely with school staff.
Another program Delaware Valley is known for is its Itinerant Autism Support program. “It’s for students who struggle more with social skills, who need support for social skills acquisition and coping skills,” said Nielsen. “We look at each student individually and see what is needed to meet their needs.”