Independent Specialized Schools

Why they exist and why people work for them

01/07/2018
SOCIAL AND EMOTIONAL LEARNING
Mary Jane Weiss- Ph.D., BCBA-D, Senior Director of Research, Karen Parenti- M.S., Psy.D., Executive Director, Melmark Pennsylvania and Frank Bird - M.Ed., LABA, BCBA, Vice President and Chief Clinical Officer, Melmark, Inc.
 

Meeting the needs of students with special needs requires a wide array of specialized services and the expertise of many professionals. The vast majority of children with special needs are served in public schools. The public school setting has many advantages: access to the general education curriculum, exposure to typically developing peers, and the presence of many in-house experts across disciplines.  In addition, public schools allow for natural community inclusion opportunities, as fellow students are local and part of other social contexts the student with special needs is likely to encounter.

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One way to think about educational services is as a continuum, ranging from entirely separated and segregated educational contexts to fully included experiences.

Theoretically, immersion in a public school environment allows for the development of local supports that can extend into adulthood, helping everyone to know and learn how to support members of the community with special needs.

While these advantages are substantial, some students with special needs require more customized instruction and must be served in more comprehensive settings. It is important that we not be ideological about school placement, but instead focuses on individualization. There are students whose needs may exceed the services and expertise that is available in their local public schools. For these students, private and specialized programs are essential. The characteristics of children who require such intervention may have severe challenging behaviors, multiple chronic medical conditions, extreme challenges in learning and safety concerns.

In each of these cases, each child has a specific set of needs. Students with severe challenging behaviors may require environmental adaptations including additional space for assessments of the behavior, and for de-escalation once they are agitated. Children with extreme challenges in acquiring skills may benefit from a setting in which the teacher to student ratio is very high, and may require individualized or small group instruction to learn new material. Such a student might not benefit from an included situation in which instructions are presented in a group format and without additional practice opportunities.

Historically and currently, there is great debate about the settings in which instruction should be provided for learners with special needs. Barriers to inclusion have been substantial, and there continues to be opposition for inclusion from both educational professionals and from community members. At times, the special needs student may be construed as taking instructional energy and resources from other students. In addition, safety concerns may result in fear and avoidance of special need students.

However, the laws and regulations have supported every individual’s right to an effective education in the least restrictive context. These elements, however, can be hard to operationally define. What is effective education? How can we determine whether a particular setting will yield meaningful outcomes for this child? Perhaps an even more difficult question to answer surrounds least restrictive setting. How should this be viewed? Should it be viewed as an absolute variable, determined solely by degree of inclusion and exposure to typically developing peers? Should issues such as effective educational procedures, access to specialized expertise, and the availability of individualized instructional procedures also be considered to be part of this decision about what is least restrictive for this student?

One way to think about educational services is as a continuum, ranging from entirely separated and segregated educational contexts to fully included experiences. The full range of options increases the number of students who can be effectively served, minimizes safety risks, and ensures appropriate intervention is available to all. A student with autism may need a team of behavior analysts who can systematically assess and develop nuanced treatment protocols to address behaviors that interfere with learning. Similarly, such a setting might afford more individualized instruction. Perhaps this student responds well to 1:1 discrete trial instruction, needs mandatory training sessions to develop spontaneous requesting, needs fluency-based instruction to achieve mastery on skills, can learn only with errorless procedures, or requires systematic generalization assessments and interventions to ensure that skills transfer across environments. It is likely that these behavioral and instructional approaches are going to be more available in a specialized program. Hence, this child’s outcomes are likely to be more impressive when served in such a setting. It is relatively easy to describe the potential advantages to this continuum of learning settings from the perspective of the student. It can be more challenging to identify potential advantages for the employee.

A student with autism may need a team of behavior analysts who can systematically assess and develop nuanced treatment protocols to address behaviors that interfere with learning.

Often, the private sector opportunities fall short in a comparison to public school job opportunities. Certainly, some of the commonly cited inequities are a larger number of expected work days and fewer days off, less generous benefits, and lower salaries. Often, private schools operate on an enriched schedule, with extended school years, briefer school vacations, and longer school days. Some private schools may also have residential components, extending the instructional obligations across weekends, holidays and evenings. How can private schools compete for staff members, given these differences between the settings and the expectations? 

People who select the private school sector are often motivated by intangibles. They may be drawn to the specialized training they will receive. 

Serving a Unique Population

In such private school settings, it is often the case that individuals served are more severely impacted by their disabilities. Students with autism may, for example, engage in life-threatening self-injury or aggression. Alternately, they may engage in restrictive eating patterns that require the use of feeding tubes to ensure adequate nutrition. Such severe behaviors are not easily treated in public school settings, and may not be tolerated by administrators charged with ensuring the safety of all students. Many aspiring behavior analysts and teachers of those with severe handicaps are drawn to these learners and seek training on how to best serve them. For these young professionals, working in a specialized program may be the best way to gain experience with these unique students.

Specialized Training

The types of behavioral and instructional challenges posed by children in specialized settings mandates the use of specialized approaches. Training in state-of-the-art functional analysis procedures, cutting edge behavioral interventions, and novel instructional approaches is more available in settings that specialize in treating learners with complex needs.

Professional Development Opportunities in Education and in Research

Specialized schools often have rich opportunities available in professional development. For example, they may host experts in the field for informational training sessions and/or for ongoing consultation to assist with difficult cases. Staff members may be routinely supported to attend professional conferences. Ongoing education may be supported to develop a more credentialed work force. While this is also true in many public education settings, it is often more available in the private sector, particularly in specialized areas such as behavior analysis. Finally, there is often a great deal of research being conducted in the specialized settings. Staff members may have unique opportunities to participate in research projects, to develop skills in all aspects of scientific endeavor and to build their résumés for additional study at the graduate level.

In closing, it is imperative that all individuals with special needs be served in settings that support their needs and maximize their potential. While the public school is often the best setting with maximal benefits, there are children who require a more specialized approach to behavioral intervention and to skill acquisition. For such students, it is important that the full continuum of educational contexts is considered. These settings serve these students best by permitting access to state-of-the-art assessment and intervention. In addition, these settings serve a professional development function in the field, helping to prepare future leaders who will similarly specialize in caring for individuals with complex needs.

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Issue 20.2 | Fall 2018

          Arkansas State University