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Haven and Hope

Classroom of students with hands raised

Special education teachers often are told that their most important role is to address a child’s special needs so that, in the future, that child may benefit from learning in a “real” classroom, with content experts (or ‘real’ teachers) teaching the curriculum. For students who have spent much of their lives with deep anxiety around learning – this approach carries the risk of delaying students’ intellectual growth and their ability to participate fully in a classroom setting.

So, for students who are academically nervous but also desperately need to learn – how do you ensure that meaningful content and intellectual challenges are built into a special education environment from the start? How do you ensure that students in these programs are developing proud identities as learners – while they’re still in special education classrooms?

Orthogenic School special education teachers are experts in understanding student behavior and learning processes as well as experts in content areas. Having an educational team with these strengths allows the O-School to provide students with an ambitious yet supportive educational experience, which addresses their special needs, but never loses focus on their immense strengths, abilities, and potential as learners.

Special education teachers must always teach to the class of students sitting in front of them. This may seem obvious – but it’s not. We’ve all experienced the teacher who created a lesson plan in 1992 and hasn’t changed it in 30 years.  If the curriculum becomes too static – it dies. Just because something worked for last year’s class doesn’t mean it will work for this year’s group. Not only does the curriculum need to evolve over time, but special education teachers need to know how to pull apart a curriculum in order to find an approach that works for each student. There needs to be an avenue of connection for the kinesthetic learner, for the child who is reliant upon visuals and graphics, the child who needs a more relational approach, and every other learner in the room. For O-School students, and for all students requiring special education services, there is no “one size fits all” curriculum – it must be just the opposite.

When students receive material in a manner that allows them to both understand and relate to it – they feel empowered and confident – like they have amazing brains that can master complex information. This is not a message given to students in special education nearly enough! On the other hand, students who are not provided with a curriculum based on respect of individual needs and strengths, tend to see less growth and delayed development as learners. Moreover, trying to understand a “one size fits all” curriculum and then failing, because it wasn’t delivered in a way or with materials that a student could understand, only reinforces and solidifies the idea that he/she/they are not smart and cannot learn, which we know isn’t true.

The goal of every special education program must be to build a curriculum that can be individualized for students (based on specific needs) – while never compromising content. It is a waste of time to focus solely on behavioral and academic needs – and ignore the development of strengths. It cannot be a sequential process. Students in special education need to learn, and it’s the educators’ job to figure out how to unlock that potential – not wait for them to return to a “real” classroom before they fully engage in the learning process.

To accomplish these goals, the administration of a special education program must support teachers as they become content area experts – so that students may benefit from truly challenging and engaging learning, regardless of their needs.   Visitors at the O-School will often say things like: “Wow, a special education student wrote that essay – it’s incredible!”  We remind our guests, in those moments, that, with the right teachers and supports, students in special education are equally capable of reaching the highest levels of academic excellence. We’ve learned never to underestimate an Orthogenic School student, that’s for sure!

It is also important that administrators support teachers as they develop curriculum with a strong foundation, and that they have the capacity to adjust the curriculum if/when it becomes inaccessible to a given student.  Teachers are also reminded to think about aspects of the curriculum that go beyond the classroom setting – and might be community-based or community-relevant (maybe a math assignment can be linked to a new cashier job for which a student is applying!). Part of ensuring our students are ready to put their skills to use in the “real world” requires that we allow opportunities for various types of collaborative group work (in addition to 1:1 instructional opportunities) – including partner work, small group work, and large group work. These approaches, which are woven into the annual curriculum and daily lesson plans, allow students to master both the content (and feel like good learners!) and the relational element (which can be a challenge for many special education students, including those at the Orthogenic School). Again – the goal is to keep content alive and vibrant – for every learner! If a student doesn’t understand a concept – it’s up to us, as educators, to adapt, evolve, and make it work. It’s not the content goal that needs to change – we know it’s good for students to feel challenged – it’s the implementation strategy that needs to adapt. Don’t drop the academic expectation – just take another road to the same destination.

As these strategies are implemented – and special education teachers do their magic – the O-School often sees students respond in three phases.

The first phase occurs when the student stops experiencing the reinforcement of the “I can’t learn” or “I am not smart” narrative, which many children with special needs have deeply internalized. Bit by bit, students see that they can master concepts and participate in classroom discussions. They realize that, while it is a slow process, they are growing and are developing the abilities and skills they need to succeed. It’s a true awakening – no longer identified as the one who always fails – each child can relate to being a ‘real’ student.

Next, we start to see students carrying strengths from one area of the program to another area – one in which they might be struggling. For example, if we have a student who really connects to the fine arts program – and feels successful in that space – how can we work to help that student capitalize on those experiences in another class, like math or science? As educators, we must teach and remind the student that these skills are transferable, which isn’t necessarily obvious to the child.  Once the student understands this concept – we start to see real traction.  All of a sudden, anything is possible!

Finally, we see students feeling confident enough to take some healthy risks. How about a run for Student Council or getting a job in the Student Work Program? How about writing for the school newspaper or reading my poetry at the Talent Show? Once students answer “why not?” to these questions – we know we’ve seen some incredible growth.  The fear of failure is still there (we all have it!), but it’s not the go-to narrative anymore. The academic accomplishments – feeling like a “real student” in the classroom – create a ripple effect for that student throughout the school, and into the broader community. The student now feels able to take authentic risks, which, in the past, would have felt far too intimidating. But now, the internal narrative has changed from fear of inevitable failure to anticipation of likely success – and this change in self-confidence is based on actual evidence of prior success, all borne in a special education classroom.

Author Dr. Diana Kon serves as Executive Director of the O-School. To learn more about the O-School’s programs, please visit our website. If you have a child or loved one who you believe may benefit from the O-School’s services, please visit our contact page or call our Director of Admissions, Kristin Friesen, at 773-420-2891.

  • anxiety
  • autism
  • depression
  • emotional disability
  • mental health treatment


Haven and Hope is a destination for professionals, educators, and parents to learn from O-School experts about the issues facing children and adolescents with a variety of social-emotional challenges and/or autism, and how various aspects of the School’s 21st century therapeutic milieu provides a safe haven and a path to hope for those in need.

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