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All Together Now – Transforming Special Education

Five years ago Denise Clarke found her calling when she started teaching her first functionally non-verbal student. Serving students with complex physical and communication needs has given Denise a sense of fulfillment, while inspiring her to begin a conversation around taking education of special needs students to a different level.

As a result of the training she received in Landmark Education’s Team Management and Leadership Program (TMLP), Denise took on the position of Academic Program Director at Standing Tall Inc., a private school for special needs students who are functionally nonverbal.

The particular education that has been delivered at her school is known as “Conductive Education,” often described as rehabilitation through learning. Developed by Dr. Andras Peto in Budapest, Hungary, in 1948, this unique and intensive group method of special education expects and demands active learning and participation by the child in attempting to overcome his/her motor disability, which could include cerebral palsy, traumatic brain injury, cerebral vascular accidents, and others.

Trained “conductors” work as generic therapists. The conductors are responsible for facilitating education, utilizing concepts of goal directed activity, verbal regulation, and group dynamics. The method is a kind of occupational therapy based on the idea that a damaged brain can be retrained for problem solving.

The child’s active learning, within this group, is supported by “rhythmic intention” — using counting, songs, and rhythmical games — to provide the child with a basis of normal movement. This engages the child’s inner language in order to independently voice motor directions to him or herself, and ultimately incorporate these motor patterns into everyday life. Conductive Education focuses on the whole person, recognizing physical, social, intellectual, and emotional aspects of learning. Focus is on functional skills such as dressing, feeding, and walking.

While this method has proven to be very successful in developing functional skills, Denise saw an opportunity to build on this model and take it to a different level. To do this, she created a game called, “All Together Now,” with the goal of creating an outcome where all students are excited, inspired, and eager to share what they’re learning; teachers have access to having all students fulfill on their possibilities; families are thriving inside of what is possible; and all people experience each other as unique, undeniable, and valuable contributions to society. Denise’s team members for her game included three of the “conductors”/teachers at her school, two other professional colleagues from other schools who are experienced teaching similar special needs students, and a parent of the one of the students at her school.

The idea is to adapt New York State Education Standards so that it can be incorporated for use by special education teachers. Training to become a “Conductor” has traditionally been focused on child development education. “All Together Now” intends to expand that model to include training on how to actually teach the subject matter mandated by the New York City Dept. of Education. Thus far the results of her game include the development of a modified curriculum based on the standardized NYC Dept. of Education elementary school curriculum. This is being implemented by the staff at her school in all academic areas. Different bodies of the staff are coordinating, collaborating, and creating new opportunities for action. Students are no longer distracted and tuned out. They are engaged and focused. Their level of comprehension has markedly improved.

Up until now students exposed to the traditional Conductive Education methodology could be expected to be alert and excited, but not have much to be excited about. They were missing a context to be intrigued about. They were ripe and ready to take on the world, but without the context of how the world actually works. With the introduction of the revised education and training regime of the “All Together Now” program, students are now participants in their own life. They are no longer spectators.

As an example, there is one little girl in Denise’s school that was extremely distracted prior to the introduction of the modified program. She would have a big beautiful smile for everyone; she appeared to be a happy, sweet, warm child. However, there was no way to discern what she actually knew or what she preferred. Now, after being exposed to the modified learning techniques of “All Together Now,” this child uses her eyes to point out icons that are used to express her answers to questions. She can communicate non-verbally by reaching out for items. She can change her facial expressions to give yes or no responses to questions. She uses her voice by making sounds to give more substance to her answers.

Other students are similarly more alert and responsive and eager to show what they know. As Denise said, “They now look directly into my eyes while they express themselves non-verbally, and they use their bodies to express their excitement—this was not something these students did before.”

The future that is being created is that “Standing Tall Inc.” and other similar private special needs schools will successfully cause the modification of the public school’s special needs students’ curriculum practices, policies, and staff development, thereby bringing an empowering context to how all students are educated.

Through Denise’s experience with her game, and with her training and development in the Team Management and Leadership Program, she was able to transform the conversations she had “inherited” about special education. She found that by creating multiple outcomes in single conversations, and causing conversations between others that created new and exciting opportunities, she could begin creating a different and more rewarding experience for not only her special education students in her school, but for educators and students in the New York City public school system.

“I was able to give up my resistance and fear of failure, and in so doing, get the opportunity to celebrate the success of my students. What’s more, the power I now feel is reflective in all areas of my life. If life is given by the quality of my relationships, then I now consider my life extraordinary.

Her experience of leading Feel the Connection has also shifted from having a project outside of herself, to being the clearing for the possibility that the organization fulfills. She now experiences herself as powerful and able to take on being accountable with ease. “It has shifted from being a game to being myself.”

by Larry Smith

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