Open house!

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!


Changes for the new school year

As our year winds down, we are already looking ahead to the next one. One of the exciting things about being a small independent school is that we don’t have to do it the way everyone else does. We can find a different way. That is why our students are here in the first place. And we have some changes coming as well as some good things remaining.

•We flirted with the idea of moving, but our board voted to remain in Murphey School for another year. The lack of closet space is outweighed by 15 foot ceilings, light-filled rooms, the merry-go-round, and the world’s best landlord. And there’s the way the light makes the wood floors glow as it shines down the hall early morning . . .

•We love our older kids. But most of our parents knew their children needed this environment as early as kindergarten. It just doesn’t make sense to make them wait, and so this year we will offer a primary classroom, K-3, to a limited number of children. We will offer an enhanced sensory diet, research-based reading and math instruction, positive reinforcement, structure, social skills instruction, and lots of chance for movement. And as is true for every child at JRA, each child will work on their own level.

•As our 9th graders age up, we are adding 10th grade. They will receive high school credit along with structure and support to help them access the material they need.

•We will continue with Michelle Garcia Winner’s Social Thinking curriculum. Our social thinking lunches have proved to be popular with both students and teachers.

•We continue to pull in more resources to help our kids be successful behaviorally. We know that most maladaptive behavior is a kid’s trying to get away from something uncomfortable or to get something he needs. We want to look at each child’s difficulties carefully without the assumption that they are being just manipulative or trying to drive us crazy. Then, perhaps, we can help move them towards more productive coping strategies.

•Our entire staff and many of our contract OTs and SLPs will be trained in Bal-a-vis-X. We are hosting founder Bill Hubert at the school in August to give some of our teachers additional training, while training others for the first time.

Could this be the place for your child? You won’t know until you visit and find out. Give me a call and I’ll show you around!

Open House

Please join us for an Open House on Sunday, October 23, from 2:00 to 5:00 pm to tour the school, meet staff, and learn more about our program.

Gearing up for a great year!

We start back to school on Tuesday, September 6, with 17 students, and we are excited! There have been lots of happy changes over the summer.

All our staff are returning and we have added Marga Pesce as a fourth teacher. Maggie has many great qualifications, but what really sold us was the way her eyes lit up when hearing about our students. Spontaneously, she volunteered how she would engage each child. She will teach English 9, language arts, and science. She and her four-year-old daughter are moving down from Vermont. Welcome Maggie!

We also welcome Katie Reily, who will contract with us as a speech and language pathologist. Every child will receive services in articulation, language, and/or social thinking. Katie has completed the mentor program in Michele Garcia Winner‘s social thinking curriculum, one of only two people in the area with that training. This is one of many arrows in Katie’s quiver, and we are happy to benefit from all of her gifts.

We’ve added the 9th grade and have three students in that program. This year they will take English 9, World History, Earth Science, Spanish or Japanese, math, art, and social thinking. Next year we will add the tenth grade and continue until we have our first graduating class.

We are adding an emphasis in Social Thinking, something that we experimented with last year. Katie will not only work with the students, but she will also coach the teachers in this curriculum. We will send our first teacher to a social thinking conference in October. This emphasis will help our students develop strong skills in communicating, having healthy social relationships, sharing space, and responding to those around them.

With a new teacher, we have added a fourth classroom. Like the others, it has high ceilings, big windows, and hardwood floors.

Swings! I haven’t mentioned the swings! Thanks to a generous donation, we will be adding two swings for our students’ enjoyment.

Thanks to St. Thomas More Academy in Raleigh, we have several new bookcases and tables, along with a skeleton for our science room.

And, most important, we’ve added seven new students to our ten returning students. We still have spaces for three more, but we hope to hold steady at twenty this year.

Many things haven’t changed. We will still have Ryoko Honeycutt teaching Japanese and Sarah Flanary, assisted by Ms. Pesce, teaching Spanish. Natalie Mason, from A Place to Grow, will be providing individual occupational therapy to our students who chose to do this. The merry-go-round still spins and Lockhart’s Trading Post will continue to bring us lunch once a week. Mr. P’s puppets still visit on a regular basis. Our students will continue earning points every 15 minutes, based on being kind, following directions, and participating in a positive way. There will be plenty of movement and hands-on learning.

As we start our second year, we offer our profound gratitude to all who have helped build JRA into a safe and educational place for some of the most brilliant kids around.




A Vision for Our Community of Social Thinkers

We’ve Come A Long Way: A guest post by Jen Minnelli, SLP

Looking back over the year at everyone’s social development gives me hope for an even better year next year. We have gone to amazing places with our social thinking. Many of our children have come to us as veterans of social skills and manners groups, but they came lacking the thinking skills to generalize beyond the social scripts. Therefore, there was work to be done in knowing and really understanding what is appropriate, based on the setting and the others in the group.

Bucket Filling

We started by talking about everyone’s invisible buckets. Everyone learned how we fill a bucket, by saying or doing something kind and helpful, and how we dip out of a person’s bucket. Some of us needed help with keeping a lid on our buckets, so that others would not have the power to dip out of our buckets, and make us feel bad. Realizing that people who dip out of buckets are usually those who are already feeling really unhappy with themselves helped us keep our own good thoughts about ourselves, so that we can continue down the bucket-filling path.

Dealing with the Bullies: A Community Solution

As with every school community, we had our episodes of bullying this year. People, in turn, played the roles of target, bully, and bystander. We called upon the excellent work of Trudy Ludwig and Kim John Payne to sort things out. In our community, we understand (and research is bearing this out) that children who bully have been the victims of bullying, and should not be rejected, punished or kicked out of a community for acting this way. We have seen that this has been a cry for support, and the adults have worked to provide appropriate consequences and compassionate support for the children who have acted in the role of bully. For the target or victim, we have helped them put together a Power Anti-Bullying Toolkit, with strategies for dealing with bullies, like telling them to STOP, using an I-statement, asking a grownup for help, or making a joke, when that feels safe and comfortable. The bystanders who see this going on know that they are not tattling when they see a person getting hurt by someone else. The bystanders now know the important distinction between tattling and reporting.

The Four Steps of Social Communication (based on the work of Michelle Garcia Winner, 2010)

We have a diverse group of children who are grappling with social communication at all stages. We have used the Social Thinking TM methodology (Winner, 2010) to support everyone’s development along the continuum.

Step 0.5: When you go to school, you realize that you share space with others.

Sharing space has been a biggie. Many of our children have come from more structured environments, and many have come from being home-schooled. Part of sharing space is making the appropriate sensory adaptations so that people can feel comfortable around others. Some children wear earphones to dull the ambient noise. Some children require more movement to learn. They have been comfortable sitting on ball chairs, chilling out in the tent, standing up to do fine motor activities, and walking around to stimulate their thinking. Some children have needed to leave early on some days because sharing space for 6 hours straight is a big challenge. Our community can handle this.

Step 1: When you share space with others, you have thoughts about others, and they have thoughts about you.

We have called on Winner’s SuperFlex curriculum to help the children recognize the thoughts that they are having about others and to realize when we should keep certain thoughts inside our heads.

Step 2: Since we are sharing space with each other, we wonder what the other person’s/people’s plan is.

Many of our children have been working on using their detective skills to understand others’ plans. We use our eyes, ears, and brain to notice things about others, make inferences about others, and then make choices based on those inferences. It has been really okay and helpful to ask questions like, “Does it bother you when I do this?” And, if you are doing something that bothers others, our community offers you support and encouragement, rather than stigmatization.

Step 3: We realize that people are having good thoughts/uncomfortable thoughts about us based on choices that we make.

At times we have used the social behavior map system with children who are having trouble understanding why their choices and actions are unwanted. Usually, when people, especially teachers, are having uncomfortable thoughts about us, we end up having very unhappy feelings. It has helped many of us to see the direct, visual connection between our choices, others’ feelings, the consequence we receive and then our own feelings.

Step 4: Since people are having thoughts about us when we share space, we try to adjust our behavior to keep others having good thoughts about us.

Ever so slowly, the adults have seen a shift in how we all treat each other. This final step is a work in progress. We are all actively engaged in supporting this step with our kids. We repair a goofy thing we might have said. We offer an authentic apology. We think before we speak. We use an I-statement to help others hear our perspective. We stay out of something that does not concern us. We take deep breaths and say, “I hear what you are saying, and I have a different opinion.” This is the work of this community.

Looking Ahead to an Amazing Place

In a few short weeks, I am heading out to the Social Thinking Providers’ Conference, where I look forward to being inspired by the work of my peers and mentors in the Social Thinking world. I will get to hear Dr. Ross Greene, Harvard professor of Psychology, and author of Lost at School and The Explosive Child, offer concrete strategies for Collaborative Problem Solving. I will get to hear Michelle Garcia Winner talk about the latest in Social Thinking research. Professionals will talk about incorporating Social Thinking into daily narratives, casual conversation and physical education. SuperFlex will be there with new strategies to defeat the Unthinkables. I hope to be able to share with others one of our student’s brilliant ideas: a brand new team of “Thinkables” who help a person get through the day with social competence.

I feel blessed to be among a community of parents and teachers who see the direct connection between academic success and social cognition. As we target these important cognitive linguistic goals over the next year, we are preparing our kids for productive, connected lives outside of JRA. Building our community in this way is what defines us and sets us apart from other independent schools.

Open house and staff updates

It’s hard to believe our first academic year is drawing to a close. But that doesn’t mean we’re slowing down any. We have lots of news to share.

—Our spring open house will be held Saturday, May 21, from 9:00 am to noon. You can tour our space, meet the director, learn about summer camps, and get information about our next academic year. Please join us.

—We will offer three summer camps this year:

Ancient Egypt, June 20 – 24

Ancient Greece, July 25 – 29

Puppetry, August 15 – 19

Camps are for rising first grade through middle school and will offer the same structure, consistency, and positive environment that our students enjoy throughout the year. You can use the camps to see if the school might be a good match for your child, or come just because your child loves the subject for the week. For more information, use the contact form on this website or call the school number.

—JRA will offer our first year of high school as some of our students move up to the 9th grade. We will add a grade each academic year. Ninth grade courses will include world history, English 9, math, physical science, foreign language (either Spanish or Japanese) and art.

—We welcome Jen Minnelli, SLP, to our staff for the 2011-2012 academic year. Mrs. Minnelli will work with the younger students as well as those most impacted by language difficulties for math and language arts, giving those students almost two hours of work with a speech and language pathologist each day. In the afternoons, she will work with individuals and small groups on pragmatic speech and social thinking. This is offered at no extra cost to parents.

There are even more exciting things going on at JRA. Stop by and see us and we’ll tell you all about them!

Helping each child find her wings

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.

Open House, December 4, 2010

Have you been wanting to learn more about Just Right Academy?  A great opportunity is coming up; our winter Open House will be Saturday, December 4, 2010, from 11:00 am to 2:00 pm. Come talk to teachers, parents, and students, enjoy refreshments, and learn what makes our program different from other schools.

We are enrolling students grades 3rd through 8th, and we will go up a grade each year. We offer structure, consistency, positivity, and both remediation and challenge. We also pride ourselves on what we don’t offer: stress, homework, and end-of-grade tests. We are housed in a beautiful building in the country.

Is your child a square peg trying to fit in a round hole? We have holes of all shapes and students of all kinds at Just Right Academy. Come check us out.

Wazi-wazi, part 2

This time of the year is prime wazi-wazi time (if you have no idea what I’m talking about, look to earlier posts for an explanation). August is speeding past and we try to cram in the last little bit of summer fun. Shopping for school clothes and supplies, lining up childcare, signing up for dance and music, all in stifling heat and humidity . . . I’ve seen more than one child burst into tears as parents drag them place to place, trying to get it all done. And we may feel like bursting into tears right along with our child.

For kids who find school scary or traumatic, think how much harder this time of year is. For many of our students, school has not been a happy place, and they are thrown into a major episode of wazi-wazi. How do we deal with that at JRA?

First, we have invited all the students one at a time to see the school and to meet us. What does the school look like? Where are the bathrooms? Where will my lunch go? What’s this thing? We have found that feeling comfortable in the space and knowing one’s way around lowers anxiety.

Next, we invite them back in groups of two and sometimes three, beginning to work on social interactions and how we get along as a small group. We invite them again to give them reading and math pretests so we will not waste instructional time figuring out where they are. Some students spend more time with us than others; if they are highly anxious, they need time to get angry and see they’re still accepted, vent about their past school experiences, and figure out why we do things the way we do.

Third, we have mapped out a set of procedures for every transition of the day. We will go over the first one with them at one of their visits, and we’ll also mail them a laminated card so they can have a “cheat sheet” on the first day of school. This will tell them how to enter the classroom in the morning:
•Enter and greet the teacher.
•Put your items in your cubby and your lunch in the lunch box.
•Take the clothespin from your cubby and put it on the roll poster.
•Choose which morning activity you will do; if you are having trouble, an adult will help you decide.
•The timer will ring five minutes before circle time. Finish your activity, put your materials away, and start coming to the big rug

During their visits, they will have a chance to scope out the morning activities and have one in mind for the first day. One funny guy has already decided he will set up a soccer game with the little medieval soldiers, using the tiny plastic cannonball as the soccer ball. Another loves our Cross-section books. The day will start this way every day. There needs to be no anxiety about what is going to happen during that first half-hour. During the first week, we will work on transitional procedures for going to class, ending class, lunch, end of the day. When procedures are in place, learning can happen instead of wondering what one is supposed to be doing.

Last, the building itself makes us slow down and relax. The kids ask to come back after their initial visits. One child lay on the big rug, looking at the pressed tin ceiling and said, “I LOVE this rug.” Another likes to hear the old wood in the hall creak as he walks. And then there is the ever popular merry-go-round. Murphey School, the location of JRA, has some of the best energy of any building I’ve ever been in. I feel calmer the minute I walk into the light-filled, airy space. No flickering fluorescents are needed, even on cloudy days.

When kids are having trouble in school, it’s very easy to tell them they need to make different choices. But sometimes it’s the adults that need to adapt. Changing the environment and making the time there safe and predictable are two ways of doing that.

Come visit before school starts on September 7. But come slowly and peacefully and stay for awhile.

A good question

I was asked this week if Just Right Academy was just for special needs students. One answer is no. A child does not have to have a diagnosis or difficulty in school to apply and attend. Some parents may choose this option because they are tired of the pressure and demands of homework or hate the direction that end-of-grade tests are taking our schools. They may feel that their child needs more movement or a hands-on way of learning. Other parents may appreciate the teaching-to-mastery philosophy for reading and math. Others are drawn by the small class size and student-to-teacher ratio. Many of our students have been bullied and are looking for a safer environment.

But then, a different answer would be, yes, JRA IS for special needs kids. Because aren’t ALL kids special needs? All children have their unique learning style; sometimes that fits in a mass production model, often it doesn’t. They have their interests and needs. At JRA, a child doesn’t need an IEP to make sure  she gets the individualized instruction needed. This week we started math pretesting to make sure each student is ready to start at his level; some will need a great deal of remediation; others will require more challenging material. Reading pretests will follow in August.

Our philosophy is that sometimes the school needs to be willing to accommodate the student instead of always expecting the student to be the one to change or try to fit in. If you have a student who would like a a different environment, let’s talk!