There are some kids who would be outside all day if we’d let them. They are the ones who sit by the window, gazing wistfully outside, not able to focus on their work. Or perhaps they are the kids who have so much energy, and they are exhausted trying to keep it together for two more hours. You know the kids I’m talking about. You may even have one yourself.
Faced with the prospect of four of these kids, this year we began the Outdoor Academy. Taught by Behm Williams, these guys head outside in the afternoon while others are doing Spanish, art, and projects. Each day they begin by setting up a tarp together, both to give them shade and to practice working as a group. They have read a variety of books together: My Side of the Mountain, Hatchet, Where the Lilies Bloom, Lost on a Mountain in Maine, and The Other Side of the Mountain, all books that focus on living and surviving in the outdoors. They have discussed these books and written about them in their journals.
Practice in knot tying, fly tying, and fishing kept them engaged and worked on fine motor skills. They have built different kinds of outdoor structures together. They’ve learned about plant identification, cleaned up the property, and played outdoor games. And sensory experiences abound.
We have found that they are much more able to focus on their morning classes knowing they will be outside and active in the afternoon. It’s all part of our thinking outside the box approach to each child’s needs, and it’s served these guys well.
It is often difficult for prospective parents to really understand how we are different from traditional educational programs. We feel we have many solid educational components to our program, many of which can be found in traditional schools. We are fans of Touch Math, Saxon Math, Wilson Reading Systems, Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking Curriculum, Bal-a-Vis-X, multi-sensory learning, a rich sensory diet, walks in the wood—and you will find many of these things in traditional public and private schools. What makes us different is how we approach our students.
Where we first diverge from the norm is in how we accept students. We are not required to be blind to our applicants’ needs as public and charter schools are. We know what we can do and we try to be honest with applicants about that. But we don’t accept just the easiest kids either. Many of our children have not been successful in other settings, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be successful here. We want parents to visit during the school day so they can see our program in action. I ask them to see if they can imagine their child at JRA, given the program and present children we have. I have found most parents are very honest. After all, they want the right place for their child and it’s to no one’s benefit if we waste time in the wrong place. We also ask students to come spend a day with us.
Another way we differ is that we may be the only private school around that does not ask our parents to sign a contract. Parents pay on a monthly basis and they begin paying in July, so they are always two months ahead. But should a parent choose to take a child out for any reason, that is the most they will lose. We believe so strongly in what we are doing that we don’t feel we have to tie parents to us with a contract. If it’s not working, why would we want to keep the child in a bad situation? Time is precious for special needs kids, and it’s imperative to find the best place as quickly as possible.
We also welcome parents to come in at any time. Parents are the real experts on their kids and so if a child is having difficulties, we solicit their observation and help. And even if a child isn’t having difficulties, all our kids love having the parents there. One parent often sits in her child’s science class and serves as another pair of hands. We have a grandmother who has been methodically cataloging our library over two years. Another parent comes in and cleans. Still another bundles Boxtops for Education and makes copies. Our parents are our best substitute teachers because they truly GET these kids. Having trusted people in and out helps our children be more flexible and open to new experiences.
We see misbehavior differently too. Behavior is communication and it is our responsibility to interpret what a child is trying to tell us. Are there sensory issues that are causing problems? Too much noise? Is the work too hard? Some students have utilized learned helplessness as a coping strategy. Others have other maladaptive behaviors that need to be unlearned. I look for staff who use detective eyes and have compassionate hearts; they must leave their egos at the door and think first about what the child needs. We begin by changing the environment and our way of interacting with the child. We call in experts, including the parents. All kids want to succeed and they want to do the right thing. And we find that with a lot of help, most kids can succeed.
Just Right Academy is now enrolling for the 2013-2014 year, grades K through 11. We have a very limited number of spaces left. Please call if you would like one of them.
We build in a lot of movement at JRA because we know, both from the research and from our own observation, that kids learn better when they are allowed to move. We start the day with kickball, go walking or running after lunch, have regular Bal-a-vis-x as part of our daily schedule, and keep balls, a mini-tramp, plasma cars, and fidgets in the classrooms. Today I was showing a family around the school when a teacher and a child walked by with their coats on. “I’m taking L out for a lap around the building,” the teacher called. We know how important movement is, but even so, it’s easy to forget how powerful it is.
I love all our students, but E always puts a smile on my face. Gentle and funny, he moves at his own speed and is unmoved by peer pressure. Third period is his “make-up” class, when he works with me to catch up on the work he didn’t finish the first two periods. Today I was trying to explain about commas in between items in a series. I’d explain, he’d smile and nod, and then I’d ask him to show me where the commas would go. He had no idea. I explained again, with similar results. I tried again. His face showed nothing but incomprehension. “E,”I said, “Can you tell me what I just said?” This sweet child, who does not have an ounce of meanness or irony in his body, looked at me tentatively and responded, “You said blah, blah, blah, blah.” “Well, that explains the problem,” I said. “I thought that might be what you were hearing. Let’s go jump on the trampoline!”
He jumped 30 times, I jumped 30 times, and then I followed him down the hall as he did his best Rocky imitation. He reached the table before I did, and when I arrived, he had already correctly added three commas. Movement’s powerful stuff and a cheap intervention. And it’s worth using for any child with a bad case of the blahs.
Please join us for an open house on Sunday, November 4, 2:00 to 4:00 pm. Come see our wonderful space, meet our teachers and parents, and find out what we can do to help your child. We’ll have cookies too. See you then!
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!
Today I stopped by a former workplace and visited with two of my favorite colleagues. They asked about the school, and since I love to talk about JRA, I launched into an enthusiasm-filled spiel. One listened and then said, “I see. What you offer is an artisanal education.”
The more I think about this adjective, the more I like it. Wikipedia tells us that “An artisan is a person engaged in or occupied by the practice of a craft, who may through experience and talent reach the expressive levels of an art in their work and what they create.” This stands in contrast to the mechanization of goods produced by a factory-type setting.
Most private schools interview the children who apply to see if they fit their program. We listen to see if our program can fit the child. Our belief is that children want to learn and they want to be successful. If they are not, they will generally show us that by their behavior: acting out, shutting down, withdrawing, being defiant. It is up to us to determine what the problem is and how we can get past that. Our teachers delight in ferreting out where the learning blocks are, what each child’s gifts are, and what will help each child be successful. The teachers know to check their egos at the door; this is not about what makes them look good but what makes each child soar.
After all, each child is a unique work of art and deserves to be treated as such. A mechanical one-size-fits-all approach just doesn’t pass muster. If a child needs assignments broken down into smaller parts, that’s what needs to happen. If he needs a great deal of movement, we offer running at the Eno, active games, swings and a trampoline in the hall that can be accessed at any time. If a child needs one-on-one reading tutoring, five of our staff have the training to do that. If she is advanced in math, let’s put her in a book that challenges her. Our outdoor classroom may be just what the squirmy kid needs.
After two years we can say that this method, which just seems like common sense to us, works. On their end-of-year tests (the untimed, write-in-the-book, no-stress ones) the kids showed a great deal of progress. Many of their behavior problems have settled down and their social skills have improved. Some of our kids, for the first time ever, report that they like school.
This is what we can do for your child. We have a couple of slots left, grades K through 10. Give us a call.
We will be having our final open house of the summer on Sunday, August 12, from 1:00 to 4:00 pm. Please join us to find out how we can help your child in grades K through 10. See you there!
Stop by and visit on either of our two July open houses:
Monday, July 23, from 6 to 8 pm
Sunday, July 29, from 1 to 4 pm
We will soon announce our August open house dates. If none of these are convenient, please call 919-932-0360 and we will schedule a time for you to come by and learn more about JRA.