In a traditional classroom, students learn to listen, follow rules and do their work to achieve academic success. But what about children who are wired differently, like those who have neurobehavioral conditions such as ADHD, anxiety disorders, Asperger’s syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Tourette syndrome, dyslexia or a combination of those diagnoses?
“Often, the child with neurobehavioral conditions lacks executive functioning skills. He can’t organize himself, even to taking out a pencil to begin work,” said Laura Markson, founding director of The Orion School in Atlanta. “Typically, these children are average to very bright, but they are impulsive. If they think it, they feel compelled to do it. They may also be hyperactive and can’t sit still, or lack the ability to pay attention.”
Children with neurobehavioral conditions hear “no” four times as often as normally developing kids, Markson said. They’re more likely to be bullied or ridiculed and to have poor self-esteem or anger issues. Placed in a school environment where they can’t succeed, such children often become discouraged and check out mentally and emotionally.
Markson, whose son, Noah, has a complex ADHD profile and other socio-emotional behavioral challenges, said she couldn’t find a school that met his needs. So in 2006, she and her husband, John, founded The Orion School, a small, nonprofit private school for children with neurobehavioral conditions.
Serving children ages 5 to 13, the school’s mission is to stabilize learning and prepare children academically and socially for high school and for life, in general. With no more than four students per class, students get plenty of individual attention.
Some of that attention comes from occupational, speech and recreational therapists who work to help teachers at The Orion School understand the complex diagnoses and learning needs of each child. They provide tools and strategies that allow children to reach their full potential.
“Some schools say that children with special needs should get occupational, speech or recreational therapy after school,” Markson said. “People ask if we really need to have the consultative services of therapists at school? My answer is 'Yes, yes, and yes!’ They are trained to evaluate and can advise teachers on how each child can learn best.”
A matter of trust
Earning the trust of her young clients is the biggest challenge for pediatric occupational therapist Megan Bartlett, MHS, OTR/L.
“I love working with children and being an influence in their lives. They want to learn, if you gain their trust, but because of former bad experiences, they don’t trust easily,” Bartlett said. “My purpose here is to provide strategies that will help teachers in the classroom, to show them how to use tools that will benefit the kids.”
Bartlett has discovered that small changes can make a big difference. She may suggest that one student sit on an exercise ball to help her focus, while another needs a “fidget” (a handheld object) to help him concentrate. A third child may be tired and needs a movement break to help pay attention.
“The occupational therapy approach is to think that there is always an answer,” Bartlett said. “I’m constantly asking myself, 'In what way can I better get through to the children? What will build trust? What do they need that I’m not giving them?’ ”
Once Bartlett figures that out, then learning can begin.
“It’s a learning process for everyone, and you don’t see changes overnight,” said Crystal Downs, a speech language pathologist who consults at The Orion School. “It’s challenging. What works one year, one week, one day may not work the next. You just take it day-by-day, aiming for small strides.”
Downs, MA, CCC-SLP, also works at The Language Group, a private speech and language pathology practice. Her experience with a cousin inspired Downs to help students who didn’t fit the normal academic pattern.
“He was diagnosed with special learning needs, and I don’t feel like he was being challenged. He could help me with my homework because he was smart, yet he was given easy, nonstimulating work. It bothered me,” she said.
At Orion, Downs identifies speech and language deficiencies in students and advises teachers and parents about how to meet the communication challenges they face.
“Traditional therapy doesn’t work. You can plan activities, but the child may not want to participate. You have to think outside of the box and wing it,” she said.
Downs has learned to incorporate language skills into almost any activity. She uses pictures, charts and real-life experiences to help students learn to speak and write about abstract concepts. For example, the word “tart” might be taught using a photo of that child after eating something sour.
When encouraging students to reach outside their comfort zones, Downs must become a trusted learning partner.
“Recently, a longtime student greeted me with, 'Hi, Miss Crystal, I’m so glad you’re here. I need help with my engine, and I’m having trouble with my words,’ ” Downs said.
The school uses the engine analogy to help students understand what they are feeling and to express what they need. Engines may run high or low, depending on whether students are tired, hungry, frustrated or sad.
“The first time I met this child, she was throwing chairs, but here she was showing self-awareness and expressing herself appropriately. They can’t learn that in a week,” Downs said. “It takes time for them to transition to new ways of learning, but Orion shows them that they can be successful. We see so many positive outcomes.”
One of those success stories is close to Markson’s heart.
“Six years ago, people meeting my son would have said, 'What is going to happen to that child?’ Today, he’s scored past the high school level on his Stanford Achievement Test,” she said. “He can do schoolwork and goes to parties. He wants to go to college and he’s happy.”
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