School forges path for kids with special needs
Smaller class sizes and an individualized approach can help students thrive
As any parent with a special-needs child can attest, when providing kids with the academic, emotional, social and self-regulation support they need to do their best, not all schools are created equal. According to Kathie Shaw, co-founder of Oak Bridge Academy, a Waterloo-based specialized alternative private school that will focus on educating kids with ADHD and autism, it was this realization that prompted her to explore creating an independent, individualized school setting in the Kitchener-Waterloo region.
“I’ve been working in the fields of autism and applied behaviour analysis for almost 25 years, and what’s become exceedingly clear is that, often because of lack of resources and training in the public system, kids with special needs aren’t being supported in a way that allows them to reach their full potential,” she says.
After working with many families who left the region to send their children to specialized schools in the GTA, Shaw says she began to create Oak Bridge Academy. “The repeated outcry prompted me to research what it would mean to put together a viable school environment that would show families in this community how successful all kids can be with the right supports in place.”
Set to open in September 2018, Oak Bridge Academy aims to accept 16 kids from Grades 1 to 8 in its first year of operation, with a ratio of one teacher/one registered behaviour therapist (RBT) for every eight students.
“Our goal is to enrol 60 students by year five with the continued priority of maintaining a low student-toteacher ratio to best ensure the needs of students are met.” In doing so, Shaw says the academy aims to recruit highly-trained educators with substantial training in applied behaviour analysis (ABA), who have ideally graduated from the autism and behaviour sciences program, and who have knowledge of acceptance and commitment therapy for children with autism.
“We’ve also made the decision that, rather than use education assistants (EAs), we will choose RBTs to fulfil this role, as they have substantial training in ABA and are trained on ‘how’ to teach and understand functions of behaviours,” she says.
What’s more, Shaw adds that each child will receive individual learning plans to address their learning and emotional needs. “They’ll also have opportunities for enrichment and remedial support, depending on their requirements, as it’s this type of programming that will ensure their emotional success with high academic standards.”
Kelley Caston, principal at Wildwood Academy in Oakville, a private school supporting children in Grades 2 to 8 with various learning disabilities — ADHD, dyslexia and autism among them — agrees it’s a focus on small classes and fine-tuned learning experiences that makes the most impactful difference in aca- demic successes.
“In specialized, smaller classroom settings, children experience increased self-esteem and confidence, because those requiring additional support receive it, making learning a positive experience,” she says.
With a varied staff-to-student ratio depending on the needs of each child, students at Wildwood Academy are typically placed in a 14:1 ratio. “Those needing additional support have an EA to accompany them, and students requiring intensive support will work almost exclusively in a oneon-one setting in academic subjects like math, reading, writing and spelling.”
Caston says Wildwood’s approach also factors in where kids fit socially and academically, keeping in mind that one size does not fit all. “For example, a student could be in a Grade 5 homeroom class and be placed in a Grade 5 math group, but in a Grade 3 reading, writing and spelling group. We vary from the traditional educational method in that we do not expect students to do ageappropriate curriculum if that is not what they need.”
It’s these steps and more that do much to bolster a child’s ability to interact socially in and outside of school, Shaw and Caston agree.
“The long-term effects on students given the chance to learn and be supported individually is that they are happy, encouraged children, because they realize they can learn,” Caston says. “Many of our students hated attending school (prior to coming here) because they knew they were different and many were bullied. Being in this specialized environment, they learn to advocate for themselves because they’ve been encouraged in a nurturing learning environment where they feel safe enough to take risks and ask questions.”
Shaw echoes that sentiment. “Having kids learn in an educational setting that values them and allows their needs to be met and embraced encourages them to be psychologically flexible and better prepares them for higher levels of education and life in general,” she says.
“In specialized, smaller classroom settings, children experience increased self-esteem and confidence.” KELLEY CASTON WILDWOOD ACADEMY PRINCIPAL