When you have a child with special needs, finding a school willing and able to focus on your child’s ability as much or more than his disability isn’t just a challenge. It can be the difference between a child succeeding in school and in the world beyond, or – a parent’s worse nightmare – a child needing care and oversight for the remainder of his life.
The right school can make that much of a difference.
But for families who rely on Washington’s public schools to meet the needs of children whose emotional and behavioral challenges make it impossible to keep them in mainstream classrooms, the options are limited.
Too often these children have to “blow out” of those classrooms – exhibiting unsafe behaviors – before the district is willing to find – and fund – a school that is equipped to help them. For families in 19 school districts in western Washington, Overlake Specialty School is that school.
Kimberly Runge has learned this not once, but twice.
Her twin boys, Jonathon and Nathan, now 15, were diagnosed with high functioning autism more than a decade ago. They habitually ran away from the public schools they once attended and displayed other dangerous behaviors as well. According to mental health experts, their behavior was an uncontrollable “fight or flight” response to a learning environment that caused high stress in both boys.
“When my kids were in public school, my phone never left my side. Almost daily I’d get a call from school saying, ‘Come get your son, he’s not safe,'” she says.
Since her school district enrolled her sons in Overlake Specialty School, Runge has gotten very few phone calls from staff.
“When they do call, it’s usually to tell me something good, or to fill me in on a stress that’s happened in school so I can be prepared at home,” she says.
In fact, Jonathon is now in the process of reintegrating into his community high school. The transition is happening not because Jonathon is an A-student – which he is – but because he is has learned some critical skills he needs to survive, and hopefully thrive, in a mainstream setting. He’s learned to regulate and monitor his own behavior so it is consistent with what a public school (and society at large) expects of him. And, he’s beginning to predict the stressors most likely to get him in trouble and how to cope with frustrations and anxiety in ways that are not destructive to himself or others.
Says Runge: “I celebrate my sons coming here. It was a new beginning for them and for us.”
A School Equipped to Meet the Needs
Students enrolled in grades three to 12 at Overlake Specialty School come with a variety of mental or developmental health diagnoses. But they have at least one thing in common: all are considered highly behaviorally or emotionally challenged.
The public school districts from which these students come have run out of resources to keep them stable and safe in the regular classroom or to help them meet the goals of their Independent Education Plan (IEP), the legal document that outlines what a district must do to help a child with special needs move forward in school.
“The bottom line is that most districts are just not equipped or trained to deal with these kinds of behaviors,” says Runge.
Overlake Specialty School, an affiliate of the psychiatric services program at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, is.
This year, Overlake Specialty employs 30 staff to manage its 50 students. The school’s comprehensive teaching team includes certified special education teachers, para-educators, instructional assistants, behavior intervention specialists, certified therapeutic recreation specialists and master’s level health counselors. All Overlake teachers are certified in special education and each is trained in rewriting a student’s IEP to ensure that the child is eligible for federal special education dollars.
That means that when a district sends a child to Overlake, there’s a way recoup the hefty cost.
Building on the 80 Percent
Along with their credentials, advocacy acumen and federal funding savvy, what these experts most bring to a struggling child’s educational experience is a significant paradigm shift.
“For most, 80 percent of the time they are doing what they need to be doing. But 20 percent of the time they are not,” says Greg Frentzen, Overlake behavioral health intervention specialist. “We immediately start to notice that 80 percent and communicate directly with them about things we see them doing well.” This simple switch in focus allows kids to start to feel good about, and believe in, themselves – a key motivation for wanting to succeed in school and life.
Overlake also deals frankly with the fact that many of the students have learned to play the system of the caring adults around them. They come in expecting that their negative behaviors will cause their parents, teachers or other involved adults to either give in to their wishes or pull them out of stressful situations.
“What they learn here is that your diagnosis is not a blank check for you to act any way you want to,” says Rachel Barrett, Overlake counselor.
“That’s why we build a relationship that’s based on their competency,” adds Angie Emmett, who teaches grades eight and nine.
Another key strategy is helping parents gain five skills that Overlake teachers have learned over time are critical to a child’s long-term success. Chief among them is developing the adults’ ability to honestly critique themselves and identify ways they may be inadvertently reinforcing kids’ dysfunctional behaviors.
For example, the Runge boys’ behaviors caused public school officials to send them home or engage police or other emergency personnel. In doing so, the boys became conditioned to using unhealthy behaviors as a way to get out of doing something they didn’t want to do, like staying in school. It is this type of inadvertent reinforcement that Overlake seeks to quash.
Parents also learn to predict situations that set off their kids, to have a plan in place for when it happens, and to use statements of fact – rather than emotions – to communicate with a child when bad behaviors arise.
The Overlake staff brings these same lessons to district staff when a child is ready to return to the mainstream classroom.
A Circle of Courage, a Community Based on Re-Education
There’s a large, highly visible diagram of the Circle of Courage in each classroom at Overlake Specialty School.
Each of the four quadrants on circle stands for a central value that teachers intend Overlake students to claim or reclaim during their time at the school, including a sense belonging, self-mastery, independence, and generosity. The diagram is a visual reminder of how students should treat others, why people behave as they do, and how students can become more emotionally whole in order to contribute back to the community.
“It’s really core to our program,” says school director Mark Forrest.
Every lesson in the classroom also incorporates the twelve principles of the “re-education” child development and intervention model, including the core belief that troubled children do have a tremendous desire to learn and to do well and that it is critical that they face their destructive and self-defeating behavior. Adults establishing trust with troubled kids is a key component of re-education, and thus Overlake’s therapeutic approach.
Getting Comfortable with Success
“A lot of our students, when they come here, are very used to failure. That’s all they know, so they are very comfortable with it,” says Christopher Hibbeln, Overlake counselor. By the same token, feeling successful is foreign to them.
“So a big part of our job is to get them used to success, to get used to trying and succeeding and not being scared of that,” says Hibbeln. “And that’s when we know they are ready to go back.”
In fact, the school’s track record for successfully returning kids to less-restrictive school settings comes in large part from taking the lead from the children, rather than a hard and fast return timeline or quota. How long it takes to fully wean a child from the highly structured setting at Overlake to the more frenetic and less supported setting of most public schools depends on the child.
“It’s very individual,” teacher Angie Emmett says. “For some it happens over a semester, for others a year.” In the last year, nearly 10 students have made this transition.
As Jonathan Runge makes this move, his mother, Kimberly, is cautiously optimistic.
She recalls a moment early in Jonathan’s experience at Overlake when he became aggressive in the classroom and assumed the teacher would call the police, since that was his experience in public school. The teacher surprised Jonathon by instead pointing out his strengths.
“‘No, Jonathon, we are not going to call the police; we can handle this without them,” she told him.
And that, says Kimberly Runge, is the heart and soul of Overlake Specialty School. It’s giving kids confidence – that they are safe as they learn to moderate strong emotions, and that they can change behaviors that hurt.