During the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers at the You and Me School at Hackensack Meridian JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute are finding innovative ways to reach and engage students with autism and behavior disorders.
The teachers are using packets of prepared educational materials, individually prepared videos, and one-on-one online sessions to provide structure and routine for their students. Remote learning can be difficult for all students, but can be especially challenging for children with special needs.
“Our students thrive on routine, and right now their routines have been completely disrupted,” said Nicole McDowell, LSW, BCBA, supervisor of the You and Me School in the Pediatric Rehabilitation Department of JFK Johnson. “Our teachers and therapists are working very hard — and working very creatively — so our students can continue working toward their goals.”
The school, located on Oak Tree Road in Edison, first needed to overcome logistical problems to support families when the school was required to close in March because of the pandemic. Some families, for instance, did not have internet service. School leaders arranged for these families to receive free internet through Comcast and Spectrum. Early on, learning took place through phone calls, FaceTime, or WhatsApp as school leaders worked to set up Google Classroom for students.
Students at the You and Me School can now receive speech and occupational therapy and educational classes remotely. Students who are non-verbal are continuing to work on American Sign Language that is modified, if necessary, for those with poor fine motor skills.
Donna Morandi, a teacher, and Gloria Oviedo, a teaching assistant, recalled a non-verbal student who showed his mother, for the first time, how he could communicate through signs. The teachers saw the student use signs at school, but this was the first time the mother, sitting with her child during an online session, watched her son communicate through sign.
Oviedo translated to the mother in Spanish as a therapist modeled the sign for “cookie” that the mother could see on her smartphone. The son was able to use the sign to communicate with his mother.
“It was very emotional,” Oviedo said. “Everybody wants to be heard.”
Parents are participating in the at-home learning. Many parents have more than one child, or work, and so juggling everything often has been difficult.
For Tammy Ratliff of Plainfield, whose son Timmion Banton is on the autism spectrum, the support from the teachers and therapists has been invaluable. The school is providing her son with remote music lessons, speech therapy, occupational therapy and classroom sessions. Timmion plays guitar and piano. Ratliff has been collecting packets of work from the school and trying to keep her son on his 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. school schedule. When she has to work, the teachers have been available at off-hours.
At first, Ratliff feared her son might regress during the pandemic.
“Early on it was overwhelming. I wondered, ‘Can I do this?’” she said. “Everyone has been supportive not just to my son, but also to me. … I never took his teachers for granted, but now you really see, it’s a lot. But we’ve had so much support from the school. Timmion has not skipped a beat.”
The You and Me School opened its doors in 1992 and is a private special education school. The school evolved from JFK Johnson’s early intervention program for children with autism. The school utilizes the principals of Applied Behavior Analysis within a natural environment emphasizing language-based and sensory strategies. All team members are trained in PECS (Picture Exchange Communication System) and CPI (Crisis Prevention Intervention).
Morandi said every aspect of the learning environment has always been individualized for each child. During the pandemic, the teachers prepare at-home educational packets for each child that include worksheets, stories, questions, puzzles and other materials.
“From how the materials are presented, to what we believe will most motivate each child … everything is created with each child in mind,” Morandi said.
Parents have needed to work closely with their children to keep them focused during the online sessions. Many parents have been stunned by the advances their children were making. Students sometimes perform skills in school that the parents do not always see the child perform at home.
“We had two parents who literally started crying in the middle of the session. They could not believe what their children were learning,” said Claudia Sommerer, director of the You and Me School. “The virtual learning takes a toll on parents, especially those who are working or who have other children. But some positive things have come out of all this.”
For more information about the You and Me School for children with autism and behavior disorders, call Nicole McDowell at 732-548-7610 or visit www.theyouandmeschool.org