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Haven and Hope

Students raising hands in a classroom facing a teacher at the back of the photo

Before a student comes to the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School (O-School), it is common that he (she/they) has experienced multiple school settings and numerous psychiatric hospitalizations – often over a relatively short period of time. Understandably, these constant changes in learning and treatment can be disruptive to the development of that child’s identity as a student.

Even students with strong potential – and a clear vision for a post-secondary future – can get derailed. Unfortunately, this combination of events often leads to an additional layer of hopelessness for these children – and a feeling that the child cannot attain his goals, is not smart or good enough, and is not a capable learner. On top of already existing mental health issues, this experience can be truly disruptive to a young person’s identity – specifically, a child’s identity as a learner.

Thus, so much of the O-School’s work is rooted in finding a way to rebuild the identities of our young learners – in concert with addressing any underlying mental health needs. The goal is for students to graduate from the O-School ready and able to take the academic risks necessary in life. To this end, the faculty and staff at the O-School are constantly helping them grow as learners and gain an understanding of – and appreciation for – their skills and abilities.

This process is not easy – and can be especially complicated for young people who are struggling with mental health issues that contribute to them feeling a need to be perfect, which is evident in many O-School students. This focus on perfection early on can, in turn, lead to students setting unattainable goals. Essentially these students can feel defeated before they actually begin. So many students struggle to fully process any feelings of failure, as they have – in their minds – experienced so much of it already. But, as we all know, failure is a part of any learning process and, moreover, a natural part of life. One of the goals, at the O-School, is to help students feel and overcome failure – and to work with them so that they no longer fall apart or break down when facing life’s challenges.

Clearly, this can get complicated. So often in life, the way forward (toward true growth and goal accomplishment) means that people have to bring themselves through painful emotions – and through processes that often feel self-defeating. Not only is there no way to avoid these challenges – it is not in one’s best interest to avoid them. Overcoming these trials and tribulations is an essential part of anyone’s journey as a learner – and as a human being!

The Orthogenic School has always prioritized providing a successful school and learning experience as part of the therapeutic milieu. As such, learning expectations related to content and curriculum are not dialed back. O-School students tend to be incredibly bright and capable, and many of them have extensive goals and desires well beyond High School. The faculty is often challenged to “think outside the box” when it comes to providing students with all they need to succeed educationally and grow and stretch as learners because a foundational belief at the school is that education should not be compromised as a result of a mental health need.

To address these challenges, the Orthogenic School has assembled a highly talented group of educators and clinicians who work together every day in order to understand each child’s experience.  Through this collaborative process, it is possible not only to assist students as they recover missed skills and learning gaps– but, moreover, to help these young people reignite their flames as learners before they are extinguished completely.

So, how do we do this?

1. School Climate and Culture

The Orthogenic School prides itself on being a learning community – not just for students, but for staff members as well. That is to say that everyone across the therapeutic milieu is engaged in a process of learning and growing. This, in turn, fosters a culture of questioning, contribution, and robust discussion. Staff members are encouraged to stretch their wings and try something new and face challenges. Both parts of the milieu – the students and the adults – must mirror each other in this regard. And, because O-School students are unique and one static approach to education delivered repeatedly will not meet all needs, the faculty at the school is always encouraged to adapt, re-create, and initiate new ideas and programs. O-School students benefit from ideas that are lively and directly tailored to meet the needs of each group.

Creating a school climate of learning does not – and cannot – rely on forms of coercion and intimidation. Many students have experienced these types of interventions previously and these experiences have often contributed to students feeling overly vulnerable, or threatened when they are attempting to learn something new.

Thus, all aspects of the O-School (including the physical space) are designed thoughtfully to ensure that students feel safe to take the risks that are presented. Situations that tend to strip students of their personal agency and/or make them feel intimidated or excessively pressured are avoided. For example, while high school students engage in a fully departmentalized class schedule – like mainstream schools –  the use of bells (which can be stressful or over-stimulating) and staff members in the hallway assigned to police kids into getting to class (which can be overwhelming and intimidating) are all avoided. The O-School also steers clear of other potential school-day “tripwires” – such as extended passing periods, communal bathrooms, or dining rooms with excessive social pressure (O-School students eat family-style in assigned seats with two teachers per table to model and facilitate respectful and healthy interactions). Many students who come to the school have had negative experiences with these aspects of school – so the O-School works avoid them and replace them with equally authentic but less fraught options. This enables the focus to remain on that which is critical: educational, therapeutic, and social growth that, while challenging, still feels safe and secure.

2. Curriculum Development and Teaching

Often times – and not without good reason – there is a perception of Special Education that envisions the role of a Special Education Teacher as someone who helps his (her/their) students return to a traditional academic setting by getting children to “behave.” The idea is that – once the student returns to this “normal school setting” – he will then re-enter a period of true academic and intellectual growth and experience life as a “real student.”

This linear understanding of progress does not, however, fit those students who require therapeutic treatment interventions – as they do not necessarily grow and develop within a linear model.  Often times, the cart must come before the horse, to ensure progress is maintained, and students do not lose their love of learning.

Offering these students an experience in which they are challenged – and are able to learn and understand their own strengths and needs as a student – is critical and allows them, when they are ready, to move away from a Special Education setting with a greater deal of confidence and potential.

This approach requires a curriculum that can be taught to every learner and through every sensory modality. In other words, a teacher must have the ability to construct and deconstruct curriculum based on both content and method of delivery. When learning groups remain small – as they are at the Orthogenic School – the teacher is able to remain at the center of every learning group, and instruction can be tailored to the needs of the students in that particular group. At the O-School, in order for instruction to be included as part of the therapeutic milieu, instructors must also display deep clinical knowledge and insight. Everyone across the milieu is a member of the treatment team, and teachers are no exception.

By employing methods of universal design within the curriculum, teachers are able to provide students with a variety of methodologies to access any given curriculum. For example, some young learners are better able to access information via interactive (less static) methods of delivery – while others benefit from more two-dimensional, linear approaches. At the Orthogenic School, the educational approach provides a variety of learning opportunities held together at the core by deep teacher-student relationships that are built on trust and insight. Students are able to access curriculum based upon learning strengths while still having the opportunity to receive support for learning or skill gaps or areas of identified deficit. This balance enables students to master concepts in ways that match their unique learning styles, while also challenging and encouraging them to work through areas of need.

Likewise, by designing a curriculum that can be accessed in a variety of ways, teachers are challenged to deconstruct all concepts to ensure that any student is able to access and master material – regardless of the mode of delivery. At the Orthogenic School, there are a variety of options available. Students can access material via computers, pen/paper, and through a more auditory approach. Additionally, to help students grow as learners and increase their abilities to work collaboratively – one-on-one instruction (when necessary and appropriate), partner work, small group work, and large group work may all be included within an academic week.

Moreover, because the O-School is relatively small (70 students) instruction must be diverse. O-School students are challenged not just to meet graduation requirements, but to become confident life-long learners. This requires content area expertise, the ability to stratify and implement various methodologies, and extensive clinical wisdom. Without each of these dynamics at play each and every day, learning can become static or passive, and students run the risk of further internalizing hopelessness and defeat. Because of this varied and flexible approach, students are able to engage in a mix of experiences and, in turn, grow as leaders, develop peer connections, increase executive functioning skills, and become more thoughtful and responsive collaborators. All of these skills, of course, are necessary for personal and professional success in adulthood.

3. Preparing for Transition and Taking Risks

As much as we think and talk about “the future” or “the outside world” at the Orthogenic School – it’s not real until the students actually experience it. The prevailing belief at the O-School is that the most valuable learning occurs through doing – actively engaging in new and challenging processes – and overcoming obstacles (and even failures!) in order to achieve success.

Thus, these opportunities are available for students before they leave the Orthogenic School – so supports can be in place for them and their families once they graduate and move forward in life.

These transitional activities always start inside the building.  For example, students can take a new class (including art, PE, and music), try a new skill, attend a field trip, join a Leadership Group (Student Work Program, Student Council, Food Council, Mentor Group, Gender and Sexuality Alliance, Multi-Cultural Student Union…), and/or join a co-curricular group/activity (Shakespeare Slam, Louder than a Bomb, choir…).

The Orthogenic School recognizes the value in preparing students for their transition. The Director of Transitional Services helps students access one-on-one transition planning, job readiness training, and off-campus internships (for those who are ready). These experiences naturally allow students to be a part of the larger world while still having skilled guides at their side to negotiate challenges and failures. As students progress and begin to understand that the lessons they learn inside the program apply to the world outside, these supports are pulled back, allowing the students to internalize the confidence and skills they will need to succeed after leaving the O-School.

In this way, the Orthogenic School’s focus on a well-rounded instructional approach is echoed in every aspect of the educational and transitional experience.

Too often in Special Education, students are unable to access these joyful pursuits, because skill-building can be overly linear (basics first, then co-curriculars). At the Orthogenic School, we find that to be counter-intuitive. Doing what you love and pursuing intellectual and social passions so often leads one down the road of growth and learning. Why should it be different for students who are struggling with their mental health?

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

  • Residential treatment
  • anxiety
  • autism
  • depression
  • emotional disability
  • family therapy


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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