April 17, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A partnership that promotes inclusion: The recipe for a successful inclusion class.

October is ADHD Awareness Month, Learning Disabilities Awareness Month and Selective Mutism Month, three areas we know well at The Springboard School at Lubavitch on the Palisades (LPS). We have served bright children with developmental differences for over 40 years. We have just begun our fifth year at LPS, where we are so proud to have collaborated on a successful inclusion classroom.

Our program had its inception in 1978, at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. In 1995 we moved to the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades, and finally, in 2019 to LPS. Although the program has continually evolved and progressed, its core elements have remained the same. We are still a parent-child program providing comprehensive treatment for bright children with a variety of developmental challenges. We are very successful at helping the children communicate, socialize, play and self-regulate, using our social skills curriculum, which teaches these skills directly.

At LPS, however, for the first time, we were part of a school. We were surrounded by teachers, school administrators, students and parents, and everyone was focused on education. We were quickly welcomed and included. We soon learned that many of the LPS classes had students with developmental challenges. We were asked to observe these students and make recommendations, which we were happy to do. Our collaboration had begun. The more time we spent in the mainstream classrooms, the more we saw the challenges that students with special needs faced in a large, fast-paced setting. We became interested in what would make for an excellent inclusion class, which would be an effective addition both to our half-day group for children with special needs, and for their typically developing counterparts. In a successful inclusion classroom, everyone benefits.

In the fall of 2021, we received a grant from the FAR Fund of NYC, to address this issue. We created a teacher training program for mainstream teachers at LPS, to provide them with tools for handling difficult behaviors, as well as social and communication deficits. The first year we worked with the kindergarten classes training the teachers to use our social skills curriculum, modified to be helpful to teachers in a mainstream setting. Our staff presented workshops, giving LPS teachers an overview of our social skills curriculum, Social Skills in the School (SOS), which includes attention to each child’s emotional life. Then our teachers ran SOS lessons in the LPS kindergarten class on a weekly basis. For their students, this was an exciting special. For the LPS teachers, it was a live demonstration of new strategies to help children learn to play, communicate, and regulate themselves, through role play, visuals, stories and mantras.

This approach is vital when helping children with special needs succeed in the mainstream, but it also helps typically developing children thrive. The LPS teachers, who are experienced and very talented, welcomed these new tools and integrated them into their teaching style. It was gratifying to see that parts of our curriculum could be taken out of the context of a special needs classroom, and modified to help teachers succeed with their challenging students.

In the fall of 2022, we ran the same training program for the pre-k teachers. Again, we saw that these tools, if used consistently, could dramatically improve behaviors in mainstream classrooms, even with younger children. Now we were not just being called in to “put out fires.” Instead, we were proactively empowering these wonderful teachers to impact their students in new ways.

The Springboard School runs half-day classes. For the other half day, most of our students attend public or private mainstream programs. Although we are a non-sectarian program, at the present time, many of our students join mainstream classes at LPS. This has given us a unique opportunity to focus on creating optimal inclusion programs. We know that it is not enough to simply place a child with special needs in a room with typical children; the road to success is complex and must continually evolve.

What makes for a successful inclusion class? On a most basic level, it must be set up to allow students with special needs to be truly integrated into the mainstream setting. It is not a successful inclusion setting if a child with special needs is circling around the room in a world of his own or interacting only with his aide. It is not a successful mainstream setting if a child is constantly needing to be removed from the room because of severe dysregulated behaviors.

How is it possible to achieve this? First, the students with special needs must be carefully selected. They should have some degree of self-regulation, some verbal communication skills, a fair amount of comprehension, and some ability to sit and attend. Most importantly, there should be a special educator on staff, or a teacher trained to work with children who have special needs. The teachers should understand, for example, that many of these children, particularly those on the autism spectrum, cannot learn to play simply by modeling social children. Watching typical children play may seem like an indecipherable foreign language to them. The inclusion teachers must find ways to teach play directly to these children and then to facilitate the play they engage in. They should know how to use simple language and to accompany verbal language with visuals, to help children with auditory processing problems. They should also know how to train an aide to integrate children with special needs into the social group rather than to isolate them. These are just a few of the teaching skills that are needed in an inclusive class.

Perhaps the most important single factor for the success of an inclusion class is small class size. This is understandably almost impossible to achieve because of financial and logistic constraints. We have been most fortunate to have The Springboard School students join an LPS kindergarten inclusion class with only 10 students for a good part of the day, for the past few years. Due to its small size, this kindergarten class has become our inclusion pilot program and has taught us much about what can be achieved.

The LPS head teacher, Chevee Szokovski, participated in our training program and also joined our Springboard staff part-time to expand her training. She is inherently a master teacher and now she has acquired new specialized skills. She is committed to creating a truly inclusive setting. She makes good use of her small class size to teach, structure and facilitate play in small groups. She consistently has Springboard students engaging with LPS students; a gain for all of them. Her groups for academic learning are small and she utilizes her training as a reading specialist to provide a strong foundation for students with learning differences. Visuals are infused everywhere in her lessons. She communicates often with the Springboard staff, so the educational experience for the students is virtually seamless. All of the students benefit from this inclusive classroom.

We are grateful to Orite Rubenstein, LPS preschool director, and Sonya Solomon, LPS preschool assistant director, for partnering with us to make this possible! We look forward to future successful inclusion classes together.

Lois Mendleson, PhD is the director of The Springboard School at Lubavitch on the Palisades.

To learn more about The Springboard School at Lubavitch on the Palisades, visit thespringboardschool.org or contact Springboard’s director, Lois Mendelson, PhD, at [email protected] or 917-692-8298.

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