Thursday, January 20, 2022

On June 15, The Springboard School held a beautiful graduation. As each graduating student put on their cap and accepted their diploma, and as each returning student clapped for their friends, the staff and parents were filled with enormous pride. Each of these students has come a long way during a difficult time. They have spent the year not just having fun and being stimulated by exciting lessons and projects, but also mastering the rigorous Springboard School social skills curriculum. This curriculum provided them with the tools for making friends, regulating their behaviors and becoming real members of a social group. They worked hard to learn this curriculum.

Their parents, who are collaborators in the program, also worked hard. They participated weekly in parent-counseling sessions and discussions with every teacher (thanks to Zoom!). They applied the curriculum at home, actually turning The Springboard School into a 24-hour-a-day program. Parents and staff working together helped all of the children make truly spectacular gains.

Springboard students are bright children, but due to developmental challenges they often cannot reach their full potential in a mainstream setting. Some have high-functioning autism, others have ADHD, selective mutism, or communication delays. Regardless of diagnosis, all children at Springboard make progress. Over the course of their time in the program, our students learn to make friends, listen to the teacher and regulate their behavior—they are positioned to achieve both academic and social success.

Every graduation from our program for the past 43 years has been deeply moving. I have participated in each one of them, and I have felt pride for every child and every parent.

But this graduation was unique. On March 11, 2020 we were told that The Springboard School would have to close until further notice. As was the case for so many, the world as we knew it was shattered. The pandemic would define our lives moving forward. As a staff, we wondered how we would help the children with the sudden disappearance of their school. We are a therapeutic program—we always prepare our students for changes well before they happen, using calendars, visuals and social stories. And now we were gone without so much as a goodbye! How would we help them make sense of what was happening?

And how would we help the parents? They now had so much to deal with. They were worried about their children, who were suddenly regressing. They were overwhelmed by having to help all of their children with daily Zoom lessons. Some had lost their jobs. Others were unable to do the jobs they had.

In April 2020, we made the difficult decision to put The Springboard School on furlough because we felt that our social skills curriculum could not be adequately taught virtually, particularly to such young children. Nonetheless, our dedicated staff kept in constant contact with our families and found creative ways to address therapeutic issues via Zoom. Weekly parent counseling continued without charge through the end of the school year, and the teachers had several Zoom meetings with the children.

In June we drew everyone together for a Zoom graduation. We sent home the graduation hats and diplomas along with the graduation presents. Parents provided the graduation snacks. We clapped for each other, and we cheered each other on remotely. No hugs or kisses. We did the best we could to make it festive, but it was truly a bittersweet day.

What a contrast to the graduation of 2021! Although parents were not allowed to join our classes all year because of COVID, they were now welcomed into our classroom for the graduation. Hugs and kisses were back! There were balloons, streamers and banners, as well as pizza and cupcakes. The staff, the parents, and the students had weathered this difficult year together and now we could celebrate together in person.

Most importantly, another group of children is moving forward, most into mainstream settings, with every chance for a successful future. Another group of parents is moving on with new ways of understanding their child and new strategies for helping them master difficulties for years to come. Once again, we have changed lives for the better. And once again, the amazing staff of The Springboard School and I happily cheered them on.

Lois Mendelson, Ph.D., is the director of The Springboard School at Lubavitch on the Palisades, a unique multidisciplinary program that helps bright young children (ages 3-6) with developmental challenges and emotional fragilities reach their full potential. The program is now enrolling for the 2021-2022 school year. Learn more at lpsnj.org/springboard.

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