Not letting kids fall through the cracks

If this were an ideal world, every young child would have an education perfectly tailored to his or her own unique educational style, interests, background, and needs.

But this is not an ideal world, and such an education would be so expensive as to bankrupt anyone who tried it, any government that came anywhere near it.

Most preschoolers are fine anyway, as long as their teachers are good, their schools adequately funded, and their families careful and loving.

But some kids just need more. They have special needs — a range of special needs, from physical disabilities to behavioral issues to emotional or cognitive problems — that demand special, individualized education.

That’s where schools like Springboard come in.

The Springboard School — until the end of the last academic year it was the Therapeutic Nursery at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, but now, with its new name, it’s found a new home at the headquarters of Lubavitch on the Palisades, also in Tenafly — is for young children who have been diagnosed with a range of developmental issues. And it’s also for their parents.

Springboard’s program is half-day. Its students — all but one kindergarteners, and he’s a first grader — are encouraged to spend the other half of the day in a more conventional school. As it happens — and to everyone’s benefit, the school’s longtime director, Lois Mendelson, said — all but one of them are enrolled at the Lubavitch on the Palisade’s own preschool. That school’s directors and teachers work seamlessly with Springboard’s staff to ensure that each child is seen, taught, directed, and loved in the best way possible for that child.

So what exactly is Springboard? Who is it for?

“The children we work with are the ones who fall between the cracks in the system,” Dr. Mendelson said. “They are really smart. They have to be of at least average intelligence to get in, but the children here now are very smart.” But they generally don’t have the social skills most children their age have, and they don’t have either the intuition or the self-control that would allow them to fit in — not in the sense of only coloring inside the lines, but in the way that would permit them to have friends and satisfying social lives. Without some help, they might not grow up to be fully functional, happy adults; with help, their chances for such a future are bright.

But it takes a lot of work. Individualized work.

Springboard has classes for children beginning when they’re 2 years old. “They all have problems with communication,” Dr. Mendelson said; they also have a hard time with “socialization and emotional and behavioral regulation, which prevents them from succeeding in mainstream environments,” according to the school’s website. Many people automatically assume that they’re all on the autism spectrum; that’s not true, she said. Many are, but some are not.

Still, the school “always starts with ‘how do you stop being out of control?’”

Teaching self-control — how not to melt down, how to stop a meltdown, how to recognize emotions, tame rage, find another way to deal with strong feelings — is at the heart of the program. It is that ability to control behavior that is at the heart of what the Springboard School does.

The social skills program it teaches is modeled on the educator Michelle Dunn’s “S.O.S: Social Skills in our Schools.” It’s a “developmental, language-based parent-child program” — it teaches the children to put words to what they feel, and to be able to talk about it with their parents. Those words, though, come through visual media. “We use visuals for everything,” Dr. Mendelson said; simple stick-figure images of people feeling anger, for example, help a child identify it. “Pictures are right brain,” she said, whereas words are left brain.

The parents come for counseling once a week, and they’re always involved with their children’s work at school.

“If you have a lesson on greetings, the parents will say that their children know how to say hi — but they don’t do it. So we teach it with mirrors.

It’s not that they don’t know the words, they just don’t know when they’re meant to be said. “These kids are very verbal,” Dr. Mendelson said. “They have pragmatic issues. You have to teach them how to engage socially and appropriately.”

This is information that the children want. “It isn’t true that if you are on the spectrum, you don’t want friends,” she said. “They just don’t know how to make them.” They teach the children, for example, not to hug everyone. “Kids when they are 5 don’t want everyone to hug them.” That’s not the way to make friends.

“We teach them both emotional regulation and social rules,” she continued; that is, how to control what they’re feeling so they’re not overwhelmed by those feelings, and how to act on them. “We teach them when to raise your hand. We teach them how to compromise. And we have a mantra for everything. ‘If you compromise, fun is the prize.’ And ‘You can win or you can lose, but you will always have fun.’

“And the kids gobble them up. They love the rules, and they want to enforce them.”

Often teaching is done through play. “How do you play going to the doctor? Going shopping? Going to a restaurant. We show them how to do it.

“Often, parents say that they are never able to take their kids to a restaurant. We show them how.” That is, Springboard teaches children what to expect in a restaurant, and how to act there — and it teaches parents pretty much the same thing.

Last month, the school’s children went on a trip to a pumpkin farm. It took a lot of preparation. “We pretended to go first. These kids are not good at pretending. They tend to be weak at that. But we pretended, and then they went. We did visuals for everyone, and we took pictures, before we went. That’s because these kids tend to be anxious about anything new. So we sang and held hands. We went through the whole thing.

“And the rules say that if you cannot remember what to do, your mommy will take you home.” That would be easy, because the children’s parents accompanied the trip.

The school can help prepare the children for longer trips too. “They don’t like surprises, so they have to know what to expect. If they’re going to visit a grandfather in California, we draw a plane, and a stick figure of a grandfather.” Parents are asked to do that too, and “no, they don’t have to be good artists,” Dr. Mendelson said.

Although the children are verbal, “in some kids their anxiety is so strong that it keeps them from functioning. They can panic at the thought of something they have to do. They can become selectively mute. Sometimes it’s for genetic reasons, sometimes processing is the problem.” Sometimes it’s an issue that their parents, too, faced when they were younger, and sometimes the parents struggle with those issues today. It just looks different in adults.

Among the most important lessons Springboard teaches is “that it’s okay to be mad, as long as you can use your words.” Talk, don’t act.

They also teach both the children and the parents that learning to control their behavior does not demand anger or retribution or fear. It’s not that “you did something bad, and so I must punish you.” Instead, it is “you did something that isn’t good, and I must help you.

“It’s about knowing and acknowledging your feelings.” For parents, it’s about “validating and empathizing, and also being firm.”

Another part of the program focuses on verbal communication. It’s language-based; that means that speech and language therapists work with the special education teachers all the time. Teachers use graphic organizers, carrying through the school’s understanding of the importance of visual cues — and of the left brain in general — for learning how to be in the world.

And, Dr. Mendelson stressed, “the parent component is major.”

The school was opened in 1978, “when people still believed that parents caused autism,” Dr. Mendelson said. “Instead of helping parents, people blamed them.” Therapists would have parents hold their children, and then they, the therapists, would hold both of them; this patronizing of parents and their children for problems caused by brain chemistry was better than blaming them, but it wasn’t particularly effective. “The S.O.S. program was a big jump,” she said.

The school originally was at Einstein, the teaching hospital in the Bronx. “I worked with Doris Allen, the founding director,” Dr. Mendelson said. “She was a psycholinguist who taught me everything. She was amazing.” Dr. Mendelson hadn’t been planning a career working with children on the spectrum, but she saw a short story in her alma mater’s alumni magazine inviting Barnard grads trying to find themselves to work with older alumni who were farther along that daunting, never-ending road. She went to Einstein, and “I didn’t know a thing about working with toddlers, and I didn’t know a thing about autism.” But that changed. “I never looked for another job,” she said. “The die was cast.”

Eventually, the school — which kept incorporating new research findings and methods as it constantly refined its theory and practice — outgrew Einstein. It found its new home at the JCC in 1995; Dr. Mendelson became its director in 2002.

And this year, it moved to Chabad.

The school is small. It now has seven students; it could go up to nine, Dr. Mendelson said, and she is hoping to open a morning program, which could double the number of spaces it could offer. It’s extremely labor-intensive; therapists work with students individually as well as in small groups. And it is aimed at a highly specific group of students. Their target demographic is students who are too cognitively advanced to benefit from the special education programs that public schools are mandated to provide, and that many of those schools do very well. But those students are too behaviorally challenged to be able to be mainstreamed, although the goal — which the school generally meets and often exceeds — is to prepare them for mainstreaming in elementary school.

Springboard School is open to all children who meet the criteria. They do not have to be Jewish; non-Jewish children were welcomed at the JCC’s Therapeutic Nursery, and Lubavitch on the Palisades’ director, Rabbi Mordechai Shain, has made it clear that they are welcome at Springboard as well, Dr. Mendelson said.

Parents are encouraged to send their children to another preschool program in the morning. Only the Jewish children can go to Chabad’s school, but this year all the children are Jewish, so all of them can and all but one do go there. (The other one continued at Moriah, where he already had been enrolled.)

“Chabad is so good for us in so many ways,” Dr. Mendelson said. Often, the children in her school need shadows — adults who accompany a child, one on one, and can help control meltdowns or other behavioral issues — but at Chabad it is not necessary.

“The teachers at the Chabad school are interested in our work,” she said. After all, her students are their students too. “We do workshops with them.” They share the written S.O.S. materials. “The school’s principals” — there are two, one for preschool and one for pre-K and kindergarten — “are so invested in it.” She remembers “sitting in the principal’s office, and I reported an observation to her, and she picked up the phone and talked to the teacher right away.”

Those outside classes “can give the kids an important jump start,” Dr. Mendelson said.

Orite Rubenstein is the director of Chabad’s preschool, and Sonya Solomon is its assistant director.

The two schools, Springboard and the Lubavitch preschool, share a very comfortable relationship, the two women said. Their schools get as well as give. “They offer support in how to improve the class dynamic so that the class as a whole works better,” Ms. Rubenstein said. “They have taught us how to incorporate a lot of the therapeutic models that we also can use.”

“All children thrive on structure,” Ms. Solomon said. “And also on clear expectations, preparation, warmth, and love. Our classes always have a lot of visuals. We teach through all the senses, establishing relationships and appropriate social interaction between children, and incorporating pragmatic language.” It works for everyone, the Springboard students and the more neurotypical kids.

“We are confident in the curriculum and methodology of the Springboard School,” Ms. Rubenstein said. “We welcome them with open arms. We are very happy to have them. The teachers feel extremely blessed to have them. They are educating us in the most progressive ways of treating the whole child.”

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