April 2015 - As children file into the preschool classroom each day, with their parents helping them hang up their book bags and shrug off their coats, the classroom is alive with greetings, hugs, loud squeals of joy and sometimes a few tears. Many children love coming to a classroom that is filled with new songs, messy activities, toy-filled learning centers, outdoor fun and engaging teachers. But some children shrink back, startled by so many people and sounds. These few may resist some new activities, never having developed the skills required to simply “play.” Or, they may have trouble understanding the “routine” of the classroom. Or not be able to communicate their wants and needs.
Many challenges preschoolers face are normal and smooth out once the children become comfortable in their new routine and grow to know and trust the teachers.
But some of the challenges preschoolers experience are more significant and connected to disabilities such as autism, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Cerebral Palsy, or intellectual deficits –and will not simply go away by the usual methods.
For years the classroom staff were striving to provide intensive instruction to these children within the regular classroom setting to help these children develop missing skills.
But this intense instruction is hard to carry out within a classroom full of activity, noise, sights and sounds. A quiet, structured environment free of distractions was needed so a child could develop “ready-to-learn skills” like sitting, attending, beginning and ending a task, giving eye contact and following directions—just to name a few. Only then could the rest of the building blocks of their education be stacked.
What most of us consider a “least restrictive environment” (i.e. a typical classroom full of lights, sounds and open space) can actually be a more restrictive environment to some children’s learning needs. It is too much for them and they struggle to filter all the sensory information flooding their bodies.
After studying other successful programs, a pilot program was started at Futures and quickly revealed markedly positive outcomes in preschoolers with a variety of special needs. The Intensive Direct Instruction (IDI) program was adopted for the 2014-2015 school year.
“It’s a separate space from preschool classrooms where children can develop skills by transitioning through stations in the areas of gross motor, cognition, books, language, structured play, fine motor and sensory,” says Amy Bucher, disabilities support coordinator. “Therapy coaches work with the children one-on-one or two-on-one in individual “stations” with minimal distractions with the goal of gaining those much-needed early developing skills and gradually transitioning them out of IDI and back into the preschool learning environment as soon as possible.”
During the pilot study, as an extreme example, a staff member discovered a (then) non-verbal child with autism had the ability to read. “This was only discovered by taking the child out of the preschool setting and tailoring learning to her unique needs which allowed her to demonstrate her ability to read,” says Heather Walcher, speech pathologist who was instrumental in bringing the IDI program to Futures. “She’s reading at third grade level now and we would have never known that without IDI,” says Paula Diver, 3-5 itinerant early childhood disability teacher.
Today, roughly nine children participate in IDI programming on a daily basis. However, a variety of students benefit from this structured learning environment for a few minutes at a time for individual needs such as a planned motor break or extra instruction on academic tasks using the cognition station.
John, who was part of the pilot program and continues to be served through IDI, initially did not communicate or acknowledge anyone. He couldn’t follow a routine (for example he didn’t understand the concept of “all done”), lacked necessary “play” skills and wasn’t aware of age-appropriate boundaries with others.
“When John started with us he had just turned 3,” says Mandy Weber, an education support staff who has worked closely with John since he began preschool. “We worked daily with him through the seven stations and all I can say is—it works.” Just a year and a half later John is using sentences to communicate his wants and needs, playing with friends, answering questions, and navigating through his schedule with confidence.
“At first I thought 75 minutes away from the classroom where he could be learning alongside his peers was too much,” says Weber. “But now I can see how the skills we teach in IDI transfer into the classroom and help in all aspects of their education.” For example, in structured play, first toys are introduced from the classroom one at a time and the therapy coach shows the child how to appropriately play with them. After that, the child chooses peers from the classroom to come into IDI to play with those toys with them. Finally the toys are transitioned back into the classroom during the child’s center time so they can play with other peers and the toys in the preschool classroom. This is just one of the many strategies used to teach skills in IDI and generalize the skills into other daily settings for the child.
Madison, who has Cerebral Palsy, has also thrived in the program. “When Madison started with us last year she was developmentally a nine-month old and not responsive to interaction,” says classroom teacher, Alice Hollman. “And now that we’ve taken her through these sections, she’s really come out of her shell and has made significant gains in all areas.” Madison is now eager to communicate and uses sign language to say her name, sign colors and greet her peers. Signing has also strengthened her less-dominant hand. And she now walks without the use of her walker.
Logan, who has Autism, has made such strides he is the first child being transitioned out of the program. “Pulling him from a more restrictive environment back into the classroom with his peers is ideal,” says Hollman. Logan is poised for future learning having worked hard to build his educational foundation in the IDI program. “With Logan’s scheduling, they have him do gross motor skills first because it really helps him concentrate afterward,” says Natalie Moon, Logan’s mother. Research shows gross motor exercises like scooting on a scooter or walking around on can stilts activates the parts of the brain that prepare children to learn. “That’s been huge for us and something we hope to be able to bring into kindergarten next year. It’s how he learns best.”
“We know that IDI works,” says Diver. “Those children who need their learning to be highly structured and individualized are thriving.”
Every step of development is considered—both big and small. Those “ready to learn skills” are critical, and for some students the accomplishment of siting in a chair is celebrated. Over time, the celebrations get bigger as children start to follow a visual schedule, use words to tell us what they want or need, and demonstrate academic skills like naming their colors or letters.
“In all of my 27 years of working with children,” Diver concludes, “never before have we had such an effective tool for meeting children where they are developmentally and building them up from there.”