BY RACHEL EZEKIEL-FISHBEIN
Children with co-morbid disabilities present challenges most schools today are unable to address, which leads to the same pattern Rowe identified in children with language-based disabilities in 1982 –bright kids who are painfully lonely, feel worthless and ultimately, become disengaged.
The student was clearly gifted. Yet George Rowe’s team at Buckingham Friends School could not teach him to read. As head of school, Rowe had seen this before: brilliant students with language-based disabilities who floundered in school, feeling misunderstood, and ultimately acting out or dropping out.
Rowe knew these students needed interventions his team couldn’t provide and rose to the challenge. Less than a year later, The Quaker School (TQS) at Horsham opened its doors, a small private school in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, dedicated to helping children with language-based disabilities learn and regain their self-esteem.
Thirty-five years later, TQS is thriving in a state-of-the art, sensory-friendly building filled with the laughter of close to 100 students in grades K through 8. The school underwent a transformation last year to enable it to continue to meet the needs of children whose gifts aren’t recognized in other learning environments.
Under the guidance of new head of school, Alex Brosowsky, TQS re-imagined its mission to focus on the children Brosowsky and his team see as this generation’s misunderstood, underserved students – children with complex challenges.
According to Brosowsky, children with co-morbid disabilities present challenges most schools today are unable to address, which leads to the same pattern Rowe identified in children with language-based disabilities in 1982 — bright kids who are painfully lonely, feel worthless and ultimately, become disengaged.
We discussed how students’ needs have evolved over the past 35 years with Rowe and Brosowky, and how TQS has adapted to meet those needs.
EP: How has the typical TQS student changed since the school’s founding in 1982?
Alex Brosowky: When George founded TQS, few schools existed that knew how to teach children with language-based disabilities. At the time, the push in educational practice was Whole Language, which we now know was misguided. This resulted in an entire generation of kids who couldn’t read and a spike in dyslexia rates. Did we suddenly have more children with dyslexia? Probably not, but our teaching methods left these children vulnerable, because Whole Language didn’t address their needs.
Reading education has evolved, as has our understanding of what these students need in order to learn. Concurrently, what is acceptable in terms of neurodiversity has widened to include these children, and many public and private schools have built out programming to meet their needs.
While educational options have expanded for the students we were initially created to help, a new misunderstood student has emerged – the child with complex challenges. These children are diagnosed with comorbid disabilities, including autism, ADHD/DD, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, receptive and expressive language disorders, Tourette Syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Disabilities are contextual. We see upticks in a disability when our current educational practices fail to meet the needs of the children afflicted with it.
Today, we are experiencing a surge in rates of neurodevelopmental disorders. It’s no coincidence most schools are ill-equipped to manage these disabilities educationally, behaviorally or socially.
Schools’ increased emphasis on non-age-appropriate academics at an early age, rather than social skills and socialization, behavior, movement and play, disproportionately impacts these children. I’m not saying this change in focus causes the disability, but it creates a situation where the children’s differences manifest because they start out ill-equipped to succeed in this learning environment.
EP: What inspired your change in mission?
Alex Brosowsky: For years, parents have come to us who couldn’t find a school to meet their children’s needs. We were seeing kids with complex challenges who needed a place where their gifts were appreciated, where they could excel and where they could feel safe. We were accepting these children, even though they didn’t fit our mission, because we knew we could provide a more nurturing, individualized environment than where they were.
When I came in two years ago, we looked at our student pool and decided to shift our mission and focus. We wanted to do the absolute best we could for the kids who were here. Our mission change merely acknowledged that we were now going to tailor our program to those children, and fill a need that wasn’t being filled elsewhere.
EP: How have you transformed the school to fulfill its new mission?
Alex Brosowsky: First we listened to our parents and our community. They told us their priorities were social, behavioral and academic, in that order. Think about how unusual that is for a school. Usually academics come first. Our students need to master the social aspects of reciprocity; then they need to be able to regulate themselves. Only after that do the academics start to matter. Think about it: you can be great at academics, but if you can’t relate to other human beings, what good will that do you?
We’ve created an environment where social skills learning is authentic and consistent.
We employ a school-wide social skills instructional program called Social Development, which provides direct social skills instruction and integrated social skills learning. Our team underwent significant training to ensure that every staff member uses the same language with students and holds them to consistent expectations. We even send home a newsletter so parents can support our efforts at home.
The hardest thing for our students is transitions. We want to do everything we can to minimize the stress of transitions—between adults, classrooms and expectations. We want every adult to reinforce the same behaviors, which is how our students will learn and how we can decrease their stress.
EP: What was the typical school experience of your students before TQS?
George Rowe: They wanted to learn, but couldn’t, and were frustrated. We saw about four boys to every girl when we started out. Girls were underdiagnosed, because instead of acting out, they’d push around papers to try to please the teacher. Since they weren’t causing trouble, they were ignored. All the students suffered from poor self-esteem. Many became angry teenagers and dropped out of school. That anger stayed with them and became a life sentence.
EP: What is school like now for your students before they come to you?
Alex Brosowky: The story of all our kids is the same. The first day of kindergarten, the bus pulls up. The child excitedly gets on, only return home crying. Soon, he is anxious about going to school. That anxiety turns into daily crying fits. Next comes school refusal.
Our students are the outliers. Their needs can’t be met in the same ways as most of the children, so they’re not the priority. Ultimately, they don’t feel valued, and frankly, in many cases they are not.
They’re viewed as a problem in the classroom. Their parents receive constant phone calls from frustrated administrators and teachers, who ask them to pick up their child. Students as young as six are suspended repeatedly. Their report cards reflect the difficulties they’re experiencing, no matter how hard they’re trying.
They and their parents are blamed for the manifestations of their disability. By the time these children get to us, the entire family is feeling beat up, defeated and often hopeless. They’ve become victims of a system that does not understand them and will not bend to fulfill their needs.
Our first job is to help the child and family heal. What we do best is make kids love coming to school. Usually it takes less than a week before they are running with excitement to the school bus in the morning.
George Rowe: The parents have always been amazed at how quickly their children change from disliking school to liking it. And how their behavior at home change—how aggressiveness and negativity dissipate, now that they are in a place where they feel safe and are valued.
EP: Not every family has access to a school like yours. What can all parents do to help their child experience success at school?
Alex Brosowky: Many families feel powerless in the face of their child’s challenges and rigid educational systems. Parents must educate themselves as much as possible about their child’s abilities and disabilities. The more they and their child can take ownership of the disability they more they can plan and work together.
This means understanding the short-term and lifelong challenges, what makes the child exceptional and what positive changes have resulted from the disability. One of our graduates is a Tourette syndrome advocate who regularly lobbies Congress about funding for research and education, and speaks at schools in three states. This 18-year-old is a college honors student who is studying for a career in advocacy and politics. Had you met him when we did, you would have met an angry, defeated little boy and frantic, heartbroken parents. He credits his challenges from Tourette syndrome with his resilience and shaping his life goal. His parents believe their child’s challenges have made them kinder individuals who are less judgmental of other people.
Once a family understands the disability fully, they can engage allies, including other parents, non-profit organizations and therapists, to build a broad support system. Finding support within their own family can be tricky. Many parents feel judged by family members who don’t understand their child’s disability. Building this support system can fill the gap left by extended family, and can also provide insight into building bridges with family.
EP: What characteristics should parents seek when choosing a school for their child with a complex disability?
Alex Brosowsky: Try to find a school that will know your child, cherish them, nurture them and help them grow. That means making sure your child will be at the center of the educational experience – that the school will understand their needs and how to address them. Talk to other parents at the school to learn about their experience. Be up front with the school, even though it means exposing your child, blemishes and all. Remember: you don’t want your child at a school where they are not wanted or can’t be helped.
EP: What is the most difficult challenge of raising a child with complex disabilities?
Alex Brosowsky: Life for these children and their families can become a series of therapist and doctors’ visits, which leaves little time to just enjoy being together. We’ve built a robust clinical program with social workers, speech therapy, occupational therapy and equestrian therapy that brings the therapies to school, and allows our families more free time together.
I’d like to invite parents to visit our blog for ideas about enjoying family time.
EP: Is there one final thing you’d like to say to the families reading this article?
George Rowe: You know your child best. Listen to your gut and pay attention to what you think is going on. No child comes to school to fail; they want to succeed and be like others. One of the benefits of a school like TQS is that when they get there, your child will find other children just like them. That is a revelation for many, who thought they were the only student struggling in their school. And it is a huge relief.
Alex Brosowsky: Know that you and your children can thrive. You are not in this alone. We’re all part of a community, myself included, as I have a daughter with a disability. •
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein is a writer and public relations professional in suburban Philadelphia. The mother of an adult child with special needs, she frequently represents schools for children with special needs. Rachel is also an adjunct communications professor at Temple University.