Archive for the ‘Education and Schools’ Category


February 17, 2013

Stress from Google

Everyone is stressed! The fewer the stressors, the more opportunities for learning and development for children of all ages. Our goal is to identify and eliminate as many stressors as possible.

Environmental – Our homes and schools are full of stressors.
o Toxic Chemicals – Lead, mercury, antimony, aluminum, and other “heavy metals” reduce immunity, and interfere with the body’s ability to perform its many functions. Lead is “old news” and we know that any amount is unsafe for cognitive development. Every child should have lead levels tested.
Mercury, antimony, and aluminum are the “new” toxins that are also showing up in the bodies and brains of children with all types of delays. Their sources are power plants, ground water, petroleum plants, dental amalgams from the mother, vaccines, flame retardants, cookware, and other unlikely places. Read more about these metals here  and here.
Green your building with non-toxic materials for flooring, paint, cleaning supplies, building products, art and office supplies.
Chemicals from disinfectants, cleaners, building materials and other supplies “off gas” and when a person breathes them, they are toxic to the body. They are especially harmful to people with compromised immune systems, and those who have asthma.
The standard benchmark for design, construction, and operation of high-performance green buildings is LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and was developed by the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC). Find a green building in your city, learn who greened it and consult with them.  Here is a handbook on how to green an existing building.
o Air Pollution – Open the windows when possible. When too hot, make sure air conditioning equipment is clean and not moldy. Use HEPA (an acronym for “high efficiency particulate air”) indoor air filters throughout building. HEPA filters can trap a large amount of very small particles that vacuum cleaners recirculate back into the air.
o Fluorescent lighting – Replace with bulbs that do not make noise or flicker. Use bulbs that offer the right color of lighting. Read this article on lighting.
o Noise – Play soft, gentle music, such as Mozart, which is the same rate as the human heart beat. Read more information  on “The Mozart Effect.”
Biological – Our bodies are toxic waste dumps too. Reduce our exposures.
o Water – Good hydration is essential for learning. Ensuring that our drinking water is pure is one of the most important steps we can take for children with developmental delays. Water should be available and offered frequently. Use water filters throughout the building.
o Diet and Nutrition – What kids are eating can be the determining factor between health and sickness. This is especially true for children with developmental delays. Sugar is one of the most damaging of all products ingested. Read more about it here.
Encourage families to cook and not eat “fast food.” Help them understand the importance of a varied diet of natural foods, such as fruits, vegetables, good quality protein and good fats.
Research is showing that eliminating some foods from kids’ diets helps their development and learning tremendously. Many foods are shown to cause ear infections. Two types of foods that are particularly problematic for kids with delays are those containing gluten, the protein from wheat, and casein, the protein from dairy products. Read about gluten and dairy in many websites containing “gfcf.”
Children with Down syndrome have especially high nutritional needs. A company that specializes in the care and feeding of those with this genetic syndrome is Nutri-Chem, in Ottawa, Canada. The founder, Kent MacLeod, a pharmacist has written a book on the importance of diet and nutritional supplementation: Down Syndrome and Vitamin Therapy.
o Allergies – Many kids with developmental issues have allergies, not only to airborne particles, insects, and other environmental pests, but also to foods. Some allergies are life-threatening and immediate, such as shellfish and peanuts. Others are troublesome, causing fatigue, rashes, respiratory and digestive problems, and are delayed, taking hours or even days to show up. Read about the different kinds of allergic reactions here.

Physical – The physical body needs a good sensory diet and sleep to reduce stress.
o Movement – Use every opportunity to move to learn. Little children’s bodies learn by moving and using their senses of touch and having their muscles and joints take in sensations. Two good books about the importance of movement in learning are, Smart Moves: Why Learning is not all in Your Head, by Carla Hannaford, and Physical Activities for Improving Learning and Behavior by Cheatum. Obtain the workbook “Begin Where They Are,” with therapy activities, from
o Reflexes – Over 100 different reflexes are programmed into the body to get the body moving appropriately. If demands on the body are premature, before the reflexes are fully integrated, then delayed development can be the result. Learn about reflexes through an intensive training session. Learn more about reflexes at
o Vision – While some children have eyesight problems that can be corrected by glasses, others have vision issues, such as the two eyes not working together, in conditions called exotropia, esotropia and strabismus. Motor activities that are the foundation for vision development and the body must be strong to support binocular vision. The relationship between vision and learning can also be a training session for those at the center. To learn more about vision, read this.
A book explaining the role of vision in learning is How to Develop Your Child’s Intelligence by Getman.
o Hearing – Listening is to hearing as vision is to eyesight. Although a child can hear, his brain may not process what it hears. Several “listening programs” are available to help children give meaning to what they hear. Look here for understanding of this area.
o Sleep – Everyone needs uninterrupted sound sleep for their bodies to heal and repair. Pre-school aged children require 11-12 hours of sleep per night. Young children with disabilities might need more if they are contending with health issues. Help parents and teachers understand their kids’ need for rest periods. Read this.
Educational – Schools are often unknowingly a source of stress too.
o Inappropriate curriculum – All children learn in a predictable developmental sequence, just as they learn to walk before they run. We discourage teaching rote concepts such as the alphabet, counting and naming to young children. These skills will emerge when a child is developmentally ready. Here is an article on this subject.

o Non-ergonomic furniture – Sitting in small chairs when the trunk and head are not stable only results in compensatory techniques like tilting the head and rotating the hips. Replace hard, wooden chairs with soft gym mats, beanbags, cushions and pillows to help children develop core strength.

Emotional – Families have so many situations that add stress.
o Unreasonable expectations – This stressor is tied to the one above related to an inappropriate curriculum. Children want to please adults, and when they cannot comply with expectations, they become discouraged. Make sure that requirements are consistent with a child’s developmental age.
o Worries and fears – Some kids like being around many people; others find crowds difficult. It appeared that many of the children we saw were somewhat fearful of having so many adults watching and prodding them. Observations should be limited to one or two adults at a time until a child is comfortable emotionally.
o Family Issues – Today’s families, especially those with multiple children with disabilities, are under a great deal of stress. They need support systems to help them cope. Offer parent and sibling support groups where adults and children can share their experiences and learn from each other.

Behavioral – Treating symptoms is never the right answer.
o Medications – Pharmaceutical and over-the-counter drugs all have side effects which can cause behavioral symptoms as benign as restlessness and irritability, and as serious as rashes, seizures and fevers. They can also interfere with sensory processing, such as cause double vision and tactile defensiveness. Instead of treating symptoms, look for natural alternatives to prescription drugs, and search for underlying causes of illness, such as food allergies and toxicity,.
o Screen Time – While young children are attracted to the bright colors, sounds and movement of objects on computers, iPads, and iPhones, these two-dimensional objects are not good for development. To learn, children need to touch and see objects in three dimensions, not on flat screens. Please consider replacing electronic toys with playthings made out of natural materials. For non-verbal children, speaking with real people is superior to speaking to a machine. Psychologist Jane Healy is the expert on brain development and screen time. Please refer to her books, Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children’s Minds — and What We Can Do About It, and Your Child’s Growing Mind: Brain Development and Learning From Birth to Adolescence.

Even with loving, supportive parents and teachers, the our lifestyle and environment add stress to the lives of our children with developmental delays. Start with the physical environment, and reduce exposures to noise, light, toxins and sensory overload. Every time you replace a product, purchase one of higher quality with fewer toxins. Gradually, stressors will reduce, and the home and school will be more conducive places for learning and growing.


Camphill Communities: Special Places for Special People

June 1, 2011

What if there were places for adults with disabilities to live, grow and eat delicious food?  Places where they are treated with respect, participate fully in meaningful work, and live in nurturing and supportive multi-generational family-type atmospheres?  Well there are more than 100 such “life-sharing” communities in over 20 countries in Europe, North America, Africa and India. They are called Camphill Communities.

Last month I attended the Camphill Symposium “Being Human in the Twenty-First Century: Toward New Thinking,” celebrating 50 years of Camphill in North America.  My goal was to explore Camphill communities as alternatives for the multitude of young adults with special needs graduating this year from our high schools, and for others in their twenties and thirties whose parents are aging and who languish at home without a social network or life skills.

The symposium brought together almost 100 folks from a variety of disciplines.  I met social thinkers, environmentalists, scientists and members of a dozen life-sharing communities who spoke passionately about their desires for collaboration and cross polination.

The Camphill community model is based on the teachings of the philosopher Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925).  Steiner’s philosophy melds body, mind and spirit to apply “spiritual science” to all aspects of life. The legacy of this true Renaissance man is an amazing array of accomplishments, including a worldwide network of Waldorf Schools, a farming system now known as Biodynamic agriculture, holistic medicine encompassing a broad range of complementary treatments, as well as art, architecture, and even ethical banking!  His writing, including about 30 books, was so prolific that no one even knows how many lectures he authored, but it is estimated to be well over 6000!  Today, his teachings are known as “Anthroposophy” and practiced around the world.

The Camphill movement was founded in the 1940s by an Austrian pediatrician and follower of Steiner, named Karl Konig.  Anthroposophists believe that every human being possesses a healthy inner personality that is independent of physical, developmental, cognitive or emotional disability.

The symposium took place at Camphill Village Kimberton Hills, PA, near Valley Forge, a vibrant farming and handcrafting community of about 100, including both neurotypical  individuals of all ages and 40 adults with developmental disabilities. At Kimberton Hills, Copake Camphill Village in New York, Heartbeet in Vermont, and Camphill Village Minnesota, as well as in Camphill communities worldwide, villagers live in small homes, learn vocations, eat what they grow, move, paint and live anthroposophy 24/7. Neurotypical adults and their families, including young children, support and care for each other, the land and the environment around them, following organic and biodynamic principles whenever possible.

Each day of the symposium had a theme.  Invited speakers presented to the group as a whole, and then intimate focus groups of mixed ages, abilities and disciplines fleshed out the subjects further. The conversational sessions were enhanced by an artistic activity of our choosing.  Offerings included pastel painting, poetry, clowning, eurhythmy (a form of therapeutic movement) or singing.  We dined together for lunch and supper in the newly renovated café on delicious locally prepared cuisine. I listened to and shared insights with some astounding people during these opportunities.

Shelley Burtt, the Executive Director of the Camphill Foundation, spoke of “robust inclusion.”  She believes that society needs to be more open and expand its thinking about what is “normal.”  This process includes finding a new vocabulary that does not pathologize, but rather is accepting of people with differences in abilities and knowledge.

Judith Snow, who despite being paralyzed from the neck down, concurred with Shelley, urging us to support inclusive, not exclusive communities. Judith, who has a master’s degree, fully participated in all symposium activities in her wheelchair, which she propels by blowing into a tube.  With the help of a personal assistant, she spoke passionately about the assets individuals like herself bring to communities.  As a life-long advocacy for the disabled, she calls herself a “social inventor,” in addition to being a sought after motivational speaker and visual artist.

Coleman Lyles, President of the Camphill Communities of California expertly and equitably facilitated the morning focus group in which I participated.  His lifetime experiences with and love of the Camphill model is palpable.  He understands the history of the movement and its roots, yet has a vision for its future, as well.  The session he monitored on “nature, nurture and technology” was memorable in that he helped the group see how these forces can live compatibly in today’s society.

Eugene Schwartz, a veteran consultant and expert on both Waldorf education and Camphill communities, was a member of my focus group.  He has labored for over 30 years to make Steiner’s work available to the public through his extensive website and teachings.  He believes in the power of Camphill to spin off new communities to meet the needs of today’s populations of adults with special needs.

Tom Stearns, President and founder of High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont, turned a seed-collecting hobby into one of the leading organic seed companies in the United States.  Tom agreed with Eugene, and spoke to Steiner’s sense of urgency, which frequently fueled his inspirations into action.  He described the Camphill communities as the seeds for future organic-based farms for the disabled.

Barton Kirk, a fellow Pittsburgher, with whom I traveled to Kimberton Hills, and shared my artistic experience painting with pastels, is an ecological engineer who plants other types of seeds.  His seeds are ideas that germinate into innovative solutions for water and waste problems.  Barton grew up with community supported agriculture (CSA) and interned at Camphill Kimberton Hills. Today he is focusing on interdependence instead of independence in his work.

Hannah Schwartz, (no relation to Eugene), the vibrant co-founder of the newest American Camphill community, Hearbeet, is a true breath of fresh air. She grew up at Kimberton Hills. The late Judith Bluestone, founder  of HANDLE, a sensory-motor program she developed, would be ecstatic to learn that Hannah has introduced the HANDLE method to several Camphill communities.  Accompanying Hannah to the symposium were several of her villagers, including an extremely appealing couple, both with Down syndrome.  Hannah recounted that each had lost over 100 pounds since moving to Heartbeet.  Both participated fully in the symposium, making relevant comments, reading poetry and socializing with others.  Their warmth, ingenuous curiosity and passion brought tears to my eyes. Hannah plans to expand Heartbeet to include young adults with autism in the near future. I hope to visit her this summer in my travels to New England.

Peter Bruckner, my extraordinary pastel instructor, is a multi-faceted artist who heightened my enjoyment of the symposium. While I signed up for “painting,” I did so with fear and trepidation. Peter made it so much fun that I went out and bought some pastels to share my new-found skills with my daughter and grand-daughter. Over Mother’s Day weekend, we spent a full afternoon painting.  In addition to teaching art at Camphill communities, Peter makes one-of-a-kind jewelry, writes poetry, paints, and is the founder of a touring marionette theatre. Peter’s huge heart extended to everyone at the symposium as he sprinkled his talents and humor among us.

Several non-profits are now focusing their attention on developing programs for adults with autism and related disorders.  The Autism Research Institute (ARI) has publishes a bulletin on the subject, and  The Autism Trust from the UK, has launched a United States initiative to establish franchised “Centers for Excellence”  in all 50 states and many other countries, a creating worldwide virtual campus adult community. DDR too is looking at alternatives. I strongly believe that restrictive, non-inclusive communities are counter to what I experienced  at Camphill.  I urge all of those involved in planning for adults to take a look at the Camphill model.  I think that once you see the love, respect and interdependent support in each unique community, you too will choke up with emotion.  For over 50 years Camphill’s success has spoken for itself all over the world. Why reinvent the wheel?


Green and Healthy Schools

November 6, 2010

Do “green” schools positively impact students’ achievement and teacher performance? Common sense says “yes.” Recent studies now pinpoint the factors that make the difference, according to Vivian Loftness, Professor at Carnegie Mellon University School of Architecture.

I learned so much yesterday at the “Green and Healthy Schools Conference,” held at Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens, one of Pittsburgh’s hidden gems, showcased last year by Barack Obama’s G-20. This was my second year attending this amazing conference, co-sponsored by the Green Building Alliance. In case you didn’t know, Pittsburgh is a national leader in “greening” old buildings. That’s one of the reasons I love living here.
What is a “green School” anyway? Many people think it is one that is energy efficient. Well, that is only one of its attributes. Green schools also save water and waste, are toxin-free, and connect interiors with the outdoors.
How do we measure whether greening a school environment is worth it? The following  are considered meaningful outcomes:
• Increases in students’ test scores, as well as teachers’ productivity and retention.
• Decreases in teacher and pupil absenteeism and the number of asthma emergencies
Green Schools are:
Dry and stay dry – Excess moisture, including condensation on machinery, grows mold, which causes sickness. One of the first cases of pervasive developmental disorder (PDD) I ever saw was in a girl attending kindergarten in a moldy church basement.  As soon as she changed schools, she no longer fit that label.  See my article on that subject. Ultra-violet light and sunshine reduce mold growth.
Comfortable temperatures – Doesn’t letting light and sun in create glare and over-heating? “Dress” your school as you would yourself, according to season, suggests Loftness. Shutter and shade them in hot months and filter them in winter. Choosing proper materials for the roof and walls also helps control the thermostat.
Well-ventilated – Which has better quality, indoor air or outdoor air? You may be surprised that “fresh” air from the outdoors wins hands down. Study after study says, “Open the windows!” Naturally ventilated classrooms outperform mechanically ventilated ones because heating and air-conditioning systems are chronically under-maintained. As carbon dioxide levels raise, performance drops.
Quiet – Ambient noise is a problem, especially for our youngest students who are just learning speech and language. Noise from the street (cars, trucks, sirens, trains), air (planes), machinery (heaters, projectors), and adjacent spaces, interferes with learning. One study showed a 21% increase in productivity by decreasing noise.
Clean – Good, “green” cleaning matters. No-touch faucets, doorways and spraying keyboards, desktops, toys and other shared spaces reduces sickness. So do non-toxic products made with vinegar, tea tree oil and baking soda.
Well-maintained – On-going maintenance of the building structure is critical. The poorer the maintenance, the higher the drop-out rate for students and teachers. Obviously, no one at the top cares, why should they!
Surprisingly, lighting is not one of the crucial factors. Why? Because most schools are well-lit, according to Loftness. Performance does change, however, using different types of lights. Robin Mumford’s lamps have been shown to increase reading performance in young children.
What can YOU do to “green” your school and make it healthier for your students?
• Start a “green” committee
• Get students involved by making your school a “living laboratory” with projects such as a “rain garden” built into the curriculum
• Switch to integrated pest management and non-toxic cleaning materials
• Maintain your building with “green” products
• Read Greening Our Built World by Greg Kats
Have fun being “green,” and let me know what you are doing!

Giving and Getting

January 4, 2009

Owner wrote:

Giving, Getting and Gratitude 

During the holidays, our thoughts turned to the three “G”s: giving, getting and gratitude. When we sat down to our Thanksgiving dinner, many of us declared our gratitude for the abundance in our lives. In December, we showed our thanks by giving gifts to those we love.

Here are some ways that families of children with developmental delays and those working with them can make the three G’s special in 2009.  Give:

The Gift of Laughter

My life is full of females. I am working with a several young women on finding their passion, hosting a female exchange student, and just returned from a wonderful visit with my daughter and two-year-old granddaughter. Why would I fit noisy girls into an already full life? Because they are gifts. “My girls” give me the intangibles of laughter and fun. Children of all ages and abilities make us laugh.  Although some days it seems we only give to them, they too give us so much to laugh about. The healing power of laughter cannot be under-estimated. Laughter jogs your insides, releases endorphins and is definitely the best medicine. 

The Gift of Yourself

  • Mentor – Helping someone learn something new, find herself and become self-reliant is of the most rewarding experiences you can have.  The gift of mentoring is almost selfish. I believe that the mentor gets much more than he or she gives.
  • Volunteer – Volunteerism offers so many opportunities. Go to  to see the range. Even our youngest, most disabled kids can participate. Make volunteering a family tradition. One family I know works in a soup kitchen every Thanksgiving. If your schools require community service hours for graduation, make sure the activity is personally meaningful.

 The Gift of Time 

One of the best gifts we can give is unconditional time. Time is a precious, non-renewable resource, and wasting it can be regrettable. 

  • Spend time, not money – Remember the smells of Christmas cookies, paper mache, and candles burning. These are unforgettable memories that are stored in our senses forever. Give someone a coupon for an hour spent listening or playing a game of checkers. Give a teacher a break by chaperoning a field trip. Give kids a shared activity of their choice without cell phone interruptions. 
  • Wait on Academics – At this time of year educators may ask parents to give a child with delays “the gift of time.”  This aphorism means “wait another year before kindergarten or first grade.” Those who have done it will tell you it is the best decision they ever made!

The Gift of Philanthropy

The Council of Foundations  offers a book entitled The Giving Family, by Susan Price, which recounts ways families of all means can instill the value of helping others. With an estimated $12 trillion transferring into baby boomers pockets from their parents’ estates in the next 20 years, family foundations are possible. Price recommends engaging children in giving at an early age by

  • Holding a Family Meeting – Discuss allocation of designated funds and let each family member suggest a favorite charity. Consider the arts, religion, science, drug abuse, hunger, environment, animal welfare or women’s rights.
  • Engaging Grandparents – Ask your parents to collaborate with your children about how they are contributing to their futures.  Offer matching funds for kids’ contributions with money earned from chores and allowances.
  • Using Celebrations – Many young men and women are celebrating their b’nai mitzvahs by collecting money for charity instead of receiving unnecessary trinkets. Creative ideas I had heard about include a sponsored walk around the world, donations to a group providing educational scholarships to needy, bright minority students and an investment club. With the estimated $2,500 spent on gifts, one father leveraged that amount into $500,000. The kids then decided where the money should go.
  • Giving Globally – Although, in general, giving to local agencies make it easier for kids to see results, here is one special international non-profit I love. Heifer International allows giving families to purchase a gift animal or seedling that helps those less fortunate become self-reliant. For as little as $10, you can choose among ducks, goats, geese, chicks, pigs, honeybees and other animals from Noah’s ark. Last year my daughter gave everyone a share of a Knitting Basket: two llamas and two sheep famous for their income-producing wool.  Over time this gift multiplies to help entire communities break free from the grip of poverty and hopelessness.

 The Gift of Letting Others Give to Us

When we let others give to us and accept their generosity graciously, we give them a gift in return. Thank you all for giving so much to DDR. I am so grateful for all I have learned from you. Your year-end gifts are most appreciated.  Rest assured that we will use them to help families find the best help for their children. Happy New Year!



Treat Needs not Behavior: Maslow for the Milennium

September 3, 2000
Mental health professionals and schools often depend on a behavioral model to address  emotional and learning issues. Programs such as 1-2-3 Magic, discrete trial training, time out and even tutoring reward positive behaviors and attempt to extinguish less desirable ones. An alternative way to approach problematic behaviors is to look for the underlying needs that drive them. Let’s visit a third grade class, where I recently observed Emily, a mainstreamed nine year old with PDD.Emily wiggled and squirmed, walked to the water fountain, took a long drink, sharpened her pencil and sat down.  She tucked her foot under her leg, which dangled above the floor, chewed on her pencil, tapped it on the desk, and twirled it in her hair.  She stared hard at the visitor. “Teacher, teacher!” she called.  No answer.  Emily glared again, and then tried to make an arithmetic sentence using 8, 3 and 5. “Ooo…ww,” she wailed suddenly.  Her classmates rolled their eyes.  The teacher stared.  “Ooo…ww,” Emily cried louder. Finally, she jumped from her seat. “OOO…WWW,” she screamed. I couldn’t help thinking of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs. Obviously, Emily’s basic needs for water and recognition were competing with her teacher’s need for her to learn mathematics. Are there any solutions, I wondered, that meet both Emily’s and her teacher’s needs?

Coincidentally, the same day I discovered the new book, The Irreducible Needs of Children, by Drs. T. Berry Brazelton and Stanley I. Greenspan. Each of the needs they describe applies to Emily and others whom DDR supports. Four needs are analogous to Maslow’s.
Maslow Brazelton & Greenspan
Biological           Experiences tailored to individual differences
Safety                 Physical protection, safety and regulation
Security              Ongoing  nurturing relationships
Knowledge         Developmentally appropriate experiences

Maslow believed that only after children’s most primitive biological needs are met should adults address the higher level needs for safety, security and knowledge. Unfortunately, in today’s schools many teachers put acquisition of knowledge first.  Emily and others have basic biological, safety and security needs that must take precedence.  Her behavior shows us what these needs are.

Biological needs:  Water nourishes the brain; the mouth organizes it. Emily’s brain, like everyone’s, needs water to function. According to Carla Hannaford, author of Smart Moves: Why Learning is not all in Your Head (see booklist), optimal hydration enhances the brain’s ability to process information efficiently. The mouth is also key to a well-organized brain. Both sipping water and chewing on a pencil are calming. Emily unconsciously did both to get focused. Ideas: Provide everyone with a water bottle. String plastic tubing on a cord for chewing. Hydration and oral-motor work will increase focus for all students.

Safety needs: Children struggle to look/listen when underlying senses are inefficient. Feeling “safe” means more than being out of range of gunfire. Emily has sensory processing and regulatory problems that cause her much anxiety. When children fear unexpected movement, touch and sounds, they become hyper-vigilant, as Emily’s staring suggests. Emily simply cannot pay attention to staying seated and do her math problem simultaneously. Ideas: Provide Emily with occupational therapy to normalize her regulatory and sensory processing dysfunction. Put a fidget toy in her pocket to provide appropriate touch and pressure as needed. Do Brain Gym activities before  lessons. Allow movement breaks at least every 20 minutes.

Security needs: Ignored needs don’t go away; they become stronger and undermine nurturing relationships. Being posturally/gravitationally secure helps a child to feel emotionally secure. Emily’s desk and chair are ill-fitting, and her dangling feet, disconcerting. Emily tucks her leg to feel more secure, but the total sensory experience of two ungrounded legs puts her “over the edge.” Her Teacher ignores her, hoping to extinguish her outbursts, but Emily’s need to be heard overtakes her need to learn. Ideas:  Provide Emily with a footstool, a cushion or seat wedge and a chair with arms. Pair her with another student, so that they can work together and Emily has someone who might listen.

Knowledge needs: Children learn and remember lessons when they are developmentally ready.  Emily’s math lesson makes no sense to her. She cannot make number families because she still doesn’t know that eight is more than five. Ideas: Use manipulative materials and story problems to give the mathematics lesson some meaning. Have Emily use the manipulatives while her partner makes the number sentences.

A combination of behavioral therapies and sensory-based, developmentally appropriate activities are best for young children.

[New Developments: Executive Director’s Column, Fall 2000]


June 3, 1999

”I wike you, too!”

I bet you are smiling. “A smile is the shortest distance between two people,” says Victor Borge. It takes 17 muscles to smile and 45 to frown. Why waste all that energy? Jogging your insides enhances respiration and circulation, oxygenates the blood, suppresses the stress-related hormones in the brain, and activates the immune system.

I learned these important facts at the 14th annual International Conference on The Positive Power of Humor and Creativity. This hilarious event, sponsored by The HUMOR Project in Saratoga Springs, NY, the brainchild of Joel Goodman, has attracted over 13,000 people from all over the world. Attendees were nurses, doctors, teachers, clergy, mental health professionals, and parents working in hospitals, hospices, rehab centers, schools, prisons, and in home health care. Many have bosses who never say a kind word. Most were stressed out and burned out. All received continuing education credits for laughing until they hurt.

In Humor 101, we learned how to take serious things humorously and ourselves lightly. Emulating Patch Adams, M.D., we wore silly hats, blew bubbles and pasted sticker kisses on one another. We learned to use magic tricks to get attention, and light, sound and colors to sustain attention. We practiced Tongue Fu,TM martial arts for the mind and mouth. A nun comically brought the spiritual into “play” with side-splitting stories of her travels abroad.

Although I depend daily on humor, I had forgotten how to be silly. Elizabeth Gerlach reflects in her new book, Just This Side of Normal: Glimpses Into Life with Autism, that play is just as important as everything else in life. Throwing ourselves into work, are we in danger of getting ensnared by a sense of self-importance and power?

The three-day fun fest ended with a mime demonstrating five acts from the circus that are models for keeping humor alive in your life:

1. The Clown – Working and living with children with special needs is serious, and we must take advantage of each day and every therapy session. Visit Mothers From Hell, a group of passionate advocates for their children, who have developed 10 outrageous tips for surviving your IEP meeting. The clown teaches us lightheartedness. Whatever our loss, we need to “get over it.” The funny stuff is there, waiting for those with a sense of humor to seek it. Don’t be afraid to laugh, to lighten up, to enjoy the amusing things people say and do.

2. The Juggler – Juggling schedules, home and work, and the needs of all family members is an enormous job. The juggler teaches us to focus. Only by focusing and keeping our eyes on our mission can we reach our goals. We must screen out daily worries of time and money, the media blitz (blow up the TV!), and other distractions.

3. The Unicyclist – Moving from thought to deed is a huge step. The unicyclist is successful because he knows where his center is. (It’s in the middle… duh!) The unicyclist teaches us to take action and to stay centered. With action comes freedom. Action involves movement, which enhances every part of our being. Keep your actions simple, without complications, and you will stay on track and centered like our circus friend.

4. The Fire Eater – Once we take action, there is no turning back. Putting lit torches in your mouth is analogous to a child taking those first steps without a walker or that first week without milk in the diet. (Why should people drink what comes out of cows’ udders, anyway?) The Fire Eater teaches us to take action in small steps. After that first step, a natural flow begins a series of successes. Feelings of accomplishment add further encouragement. He can now get to the bathroom himself! She actually likes soy milk!

5. The Wire Walker – No tool is as free, available and effective as our imagination. Children learn early to escape reality when it is meaningless and painful, and they go somewhere else. Dr. Stanley Greenspan advises us how to join kids in their worlds during FloorTime. Interacting is how we make emotional connections. The Wire Walker teaches us visualization: the power of the dream. If you can imagine it, you can make it real. This technique is frequently used today in healing, by athletes, and as an amazing tool for children with special needs.

Do you want to become a laughing teacher? I highly recommend The Laughing Classroom by Diane Loomans and Karen Kohlberg.

Looking for props to catch your kids’ attention? Everything from smiles on sticks to happy-face bean bags are in the Sourcebook catalog, free from The Humor Project (800-225-0330) .

[New Developments:  Executive Director’s Column, Summer 1999]

Educational Alternatives

September 3, 1998
Imagine — a ten year old boy attending his fifth school in six years! His mother consulted me last spring, hopeful that I knew about a special place where her son with Asperger’s syndrome would thrive, not just be tolerated.Unfortunately, there is no such place, I told her. She described a wish to start a new school for her son and others like him. She wanted a challenging cognitive curriculum, an art room, computers, hands-on science, and other experiential activities that respected her son’s sensory needs to touch and move, and his interest in technology. Today, he and a peer work together in a close-to-ideal classroom. Although many other families expressed interest in such a project and came to preliminary meetings, they all made other arrangements for fall. Some returned to public schools, determined to fight harder for their children’s rights. A few found places in forgiving independent schools. The most frustrated turned to home- schooling, or “unschooling” in a controlled environment.

What forces drive parents to stay at home, convinced that they can do a better job than their local jurisdictions at educating their kids? Read Cindy Rinaldi’s story on page 5 for some insights. Cindy is not alone. According to the October 5, 1998 issue of Newsweek, about 1.5 million students in the U.S. are now homeschooled, five times the estimated number a decade ago. Many of these are children with special needs who are not being serviced appropriately in the public schools. Their parents are tired of slaving over IEPs that no one reads, and of having the sensory issues that are driving unmanageable behaviors ignored. Instead of putting their energies and money into lawyers and filing for due process, these families have “walked.” They have found compatriots on the Internet, formed local websites with calendars of events and chat rooms, and exchanged information through monthly newsletters.

For homeschoolers, the fear of inadequate socialization is no longer necessary. Bowling leagues, choruses and soccer leagues made up of home-schooled families from observant Jewish and devout Christian communities are flourishing. Children with PDD and autism join typical kids to visit farms, zoos and museums. Occupational and speech-language therapies, when appropriate, can still be delivered at the local public school during the day. Inclusion, mainstreaming, modifications and accommodations are non-issues.

NATHHAN, the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network (253-857-4257), contends that their members’ children make far better gains than they did in public school. Their premise is supported by a preliminary study done by psychologist Steven Duvall in which the progress of four students with learning disabilities was tracked. Their gains are impressive. With only a few hours of “school” each day, parents report that their kids are happy, no longer need medications, get many more movement experiences, and eat and sleep better.

Not only parents ave revolted. In West York, Pennsylvania, ten years ago, primary teachers demanded a new curriculum. They felt that many of their kindergartners and first graders were unready for the academic demands being made on them. The administration listened. The teachers found Dr. Harry Wachs, who wrote Thinking Goes to School. In the West York program, medication is rarely needed, and the number of children requiring services for the learning disabled in third grade has dropped dramatically.

I recently asked a seasoned educational consultant, “What can we do about schools that push academics prematurely and have a ‘one size fits all’ philosophy?” This gentle woman responded, “The only solution is to blow them up!”

On bad days I think this drastic measure may be the only fix. However, yesterday was a good day. I was encouraged after attending a hearing in Annapolis on the need for charter schools in Maryland. According to the Center for Educational Reform, 29 states and the District of Columbia now have laws allowing for charter schools. Almost 800 are in operation with another 500 approved to open this fall.

We desperately need charter schools for children who are developmentally at risk, schools that follow sound developmental principles without unnecessary labeling, schools for children recovering from PDD and autism, schools where diet, movement, vision, music and sensory experiences lay the foundation for learning.

Dare we dream that one day there will be a choice of programs for every child? Yes! Please let us know of any charter schools or homeschooling groups which you know. We would love to visit and clone them. In a future edition, we hope to publish a list of home schooling and charter school resources culled from your suggestions.

[New Developments: Executive Director’s Column, Fall 1998]

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

September 2, 1997
Today I observed Steven, 61/2, in a class of 12 students. identified as “unready” for first and second grade. A lovely teacher directs the children, while an aide admonishes, “Sit still,” “Take your fingers out of your mouth,” “We’re not on that box,” and “If you can’t keep up, you’ll miss recess.”One child lies with his head on the desk. Another taps her pencil. The room is quiet. The teacher says, “We’re going to play “Find the Intruder.” On each desk is a xeroxed sheet with four Items, one of which does not belong to the set. On the blackboard, the teacher demonstrates the classification task by sketchIng an apple, watermelon, banana, and carrot.

One student identifies the teacher’s clumsily-drawn carrot as an “ice cream cone” and says it doesn’t belong. He can’t explain why. Another child mistakes the teacher’s ambiguous “cookie” for a “rock.” “Nope!” says the teacher. Children are then instructed to take out a pencil; some have stubs, others, whole pencils. It takes 45 minutes for everyone to complete the lesson. Steven “gets it,” and he beams. Nobody else does, but the teacher stamps a star on each paper, anyway.

What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Superficially, this looks like a well-run class with a developmentally appropriate, pre-academic lesson. Unfortunately, it is not. How could the teacher and aide enhance learning? Instead of the negative term, “intruder,” they could use “families and visitors.” They could help the children use the basic senses, such as touch and movement, to facilitate listening and looking. Comprehension of the lesson will improve markedly. They could also. . . Use Manipulatives

Classification is most understandable on a concrete level. Have children invent ways to identify the object that doesn’t belong, by color, shape, or size. Provide actual fruits and vegetables. These children still need the real thing. Those who really “get it” will progress to non-tangible, abstract categories. Try another classification exercise, using attribute blocks of different colors, shapes, sizes, and thicknesses. Each child should have a set.

Encourage Oral Stimulation. Oral-motor stimulation is the most basic, primitive road to focus one’s attention. Let children bring their fingers to their mouths; this organizes their ability to listen and look. Preferably, offer non-candy items, such as rubber rings or tubIng, crunchy foods, or gum, for kids to chew, bite, or suck while working.

Encourage Large Movements to Make Small Ones Easier. The body needs to organize large motor skills before concentrating on complex small motor skills. Incorporating active movement into lesson plans is key. Have kids push or carry chairs before sitting down.

Let kids move. Have them roam around the classroom to find eacher objects that make a set with a “visitor,” to trick the teacher. Assign extra recess, with organized and supervised activities.

Encourage Fine-Motor Skills. Therapeutic fine-motor activities help the hands and eyes develop as a team.

Let kids fidget. They fidget because they must. Provide fidget toys, such as Koosh balls or Theraputty.

Play tracking games that use the eyes. Have pairs of children use flashlights to play “tag” with the beams. On worksheets, provide visual cues, such as “green light” dots to show where to begin, or arrows to indicate what comes next.

Encourage Touch. Connecting touch with vision is essential. Feeling and seeing actual objects make it possible, later, to recognize representations such as pictures. After identifying which object is “different” by sight, ask children to do the same activity with eyes closed or by feeling objects hidden in a bag. Use objects of different weights and textures as well as size and shape.

Encourage Whole Body Control. Engaging the whole body keeps children focused and alert. Use a slant-board to angle papers up to the eyes. Children who slump in their chairs need to work sitting on a therapy ball or “Move’n Sit” cushion, or standing at an easel or blackboard. Provide big writing implements – chunky crayons, markers, or big pencils that little hands can control. Children ready for pencils can use grippers to adjust their grasp.

Encourage Positive Feelings. Following directions, understanding concepts, and completing tasks are intrinsically rewarding. Stars are an artificial reward. Say, “Good guess!” when children err, or “You got it!” to help children feel good about themselves. Assign homework: “Teach this game to your family.”

Movement and basic sensory processing should be the core of the curriculum for “unready” children. Weave in language, cognitive, and fine motor components. Keep learning fun

[New Developments: Executive Director’s Column, Fall 1997]