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Immersion builds friendships

“When I was out of control, I was angry, and, like, when I was angry, I was out of control…. One thing that made me angry was not having friends…. Learning to be in control helped me learn to have friends.” -10th grade student in immersion school

Autism Spectrum Disorder can be socially isolating, as many children with ASD have a hard time interpreting social cues. Others struggle with disruptive behaviors that make them look different or seem less approachable to other children. Unfortunately, many students with ASD struggle to establish friendships because they just aren’t immersed in a setting that readies them for friendship or supports them as they learn to make and keep friends. Finding people who not only understand you, but accept you, like you, and seek you out can be a powerful experience in a student’s school development. Also, making friends adds an authentic, natural purpose to behavioral expectations.

Here are a few ways that immersion helps students develop the skills that lead to socially acceptable behavior and, therefore, friendships.

  1. Immersion classrooms support and teach skills that lead to friendships.  In an immersion class, social skills are explicitly addressed. In some rooms, this may be a lesson about friendship.In others, it could be a book, activity, or discussion. Immersion teachers understand the importance of making the hidden lessons of friendship more visible for students.
  2. Students have clear expectations for socially appropriate behavior and receive support in deficit areas. In immersion, the expectations for behavior and how we treat others are not a mystery to be solved. They are instead laid out in plain language for everyone to understand and learn to apply. Students who continue to have trouble receive targeted remediation, just as they would if they struggled in math or spelling.
  3. Students who disrupt class or classmates have consistent  consequences for their behavior. It is not excused or ignored. Regardless of disability status, students who are bullies or who violate rules must have intentional consequences that clearly link to the behavior. Consequences are a natural part of life, so they are embedded into school life as well.
  4. In immersion, students learn that anyone can have a bad day, but it doesn’t make them a bad person. In a classroom that has a wide range of abilities, one student doesn’t always stand out as the problem kid in class. Also, because teachers expect that some students will struggle, they are ready to teach them the correct behavior and ready to offer a fresh start the next day. This attitude of acceptance is set by teachers and is adopted by students. This helps prevent kids from becoming targets or from being excluded.
  5. Immersion opens a student up to a larger group of students. Instead of the 8-10 students that are typical in many self-contained classrooms, immersion students are in a class of 20 or more. Additionally, they are at lunch and recess with an even larger group of students. By casting a wide net, students have more opportunities to find others who share their interests.
  6. Peer models in an immersion setting understand that people with special needs are people first. Because classroom are set up equitably and everyone has a voice and a responsibility to the class, no group of students is prioritized over another. This helps teach students to look at each other as classmates first. No one is a guest or a visitor in the classroom. Everyone belongs.

A student who has never experienced friendship and acceptance may not be as motivated to act in a socially appropriate way. In this aspect, building friendships and learning to manage behavior go hand in hand. They feed each other for a positive outcome for students!

“When I am with my friends, I don’t worry about my autism. It just doesn’t matter.”- 8th grade student in immersion school

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Managing behavior in Immersion classrooms

Behavior management within the Academic and Social Immersion Model begins with setting the tone of “the community”, where teachers and staff demonstrate acceptance for all students, and define the expectations (or rules) for appropriate behavior within the classroom and throughout the school (which all students are expected to follow, both neurotypical and ASD).  Behavior is deeply embedded within our character education program. Students are taught connections between appropriate and inappropriate behaviors and the six pillars of character defined by the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Frequent review of expectations or rules with the student along with visual expectations provides supports to increase the likelihood of improving target behaviors.  Visuals may include visual schedules, rule reminders, and social stories. These are used alongside a self-monitoring system to help the student connect the rules to his/her behavior, and is a way to make the behavior concrete for the student.  These systems are paired with positive reinforcements, which may include teacher praise, tangibles, and natural access to social opportunities. The systems are also adapted to students’ cognitive abilities and classroom placement. 

Teachers and staff use “clues” in the natural environment to aid in connecting behavior with the natural environment and to encourage appropriate social behavior.  Pointing out the actions of others compared to the action of the student with ASD (“Look at your friends. They are standing in line without touching their neighbors.”) would  be an example of “clues in the natural environment”.

One example of this at work may look something like this. A student who becomes angry, screams, and kicks his desk because he doesn’t get his way:

  1. Is referred to his self-monitoring system to review the expectation and take accountability for his actions, and to remind him of the “reward” or positive reinforcement for appropriate behavior
  2. Is instructed to “Look at your classmates.  They are not screaming and kicking” to redirect the student to an appropriate behavior model,
  3. Is reminded that screaming and kicking is disrespectful to others in his class in order to connect the behavior to the character pillars.  Teacher then talks with student about RESPECTFUL ways to voice his frustration the next time.

These strategies used in combination can increase the likelihood of success, both social and academic, in the typical classroom environment.  Consistent and appropriate behavior management is crucial to a student with ASD being truly immersed in a classroom. A student left to his or her own devices may alienate peers, making inclusion in classroom activities more challenging. With this in mind, consistent and firm behavior expectations are the most appropriate, effective, and loving strategy to help children with ASD become fully participating members of the classroom and community.

The overall approach in Academic and Social Immersion emphasizes the teaching and learning nature of behavior management. Make a plan for success!

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Character, Leadership, and Immersion

-How do we eliminate bullying with so many students from different backgrounds and abilities?

-How do we teach students to embrace students of all abilities as members of the class?

-How do we make sure teachers and students alike respect and appreciate everyone for their unique gifts and talents?

One key difference that makes the Academic and Social Immersion Model successful is the complete integration of character education and leadership development for all of our students. “Character Education” and “Leadership” are buzz words in today’s society. They catch our attention as attributes we desire to be present in our daily lives. However at Oakstone, these words are much more than just buzz words. Character and leadership are foundational.  

Oakstone aims to educate the whole child through quality individualized education- understanding that children are unique and education is not one size fits all. So teaching character education in an environment that is already going beyond academics to cultivate social skills and hold students to high accountability standards comes very naturally to us.

At Oakstone we desire to ask and answer the question, “What DO our students need to learn to succeed in the 21st century?” And we want to consider not only academic success, but personal and social success as well. We know that traits like honesty, respect and responsibility will make all the difference in future relationships and opportunities for our students.

For the character education at Oakstone we have adopted the character traits of: Trustworthiness, Respect, Responsibility, Fairness, Caring and Citizenship, following the Josephson Institute’s Pillars of Character model. Students learn these words starting in preschool and elementary through monthly themed activities, assemblies and service projects. In middle school and high school students began a series of 3 character education classes- each class serving as a building block with goals and objectives unique to the developmental age of the students.

For the leadership component at Oakstone we developed our student leadership teams which are comprised of students in grades 3-12 who are passionate about their school and serving their fellow students. These students serve as ambassadors for the student body by bringing ideas and concerns from the student body to faculty and administration.

A few of the projects student leadership has implemented the past few years include: peer tutoring, annual school dances, new student ice cream social, purchasing the school mascot costume and flag as well as the gaga pit and 4 square in the air activities for the socialization courtyard, rewriting the middle school/high school’s dress code and technology policies and spearheading the adoption of 1:1 Chromebooks for grades 5th-12th.

Finally, and in many ways most importantly, character is a part of every employee’s annual evaluation. The adults are expected to model and lead by example for the students in areas including respect, citizenship, and trustworthiness. Not many adults can embrace feedback in these areas, but our teachers do because they set that tone and establish the culture. As an Academic and Social Immersion Model we require leadership from the top down in these vital areas.

Without character education and leadership development, we would not see the results we see, especially in the middle and high school classes. These pieces are at the core of not only the definition of Academic and Social Immersion, but the success of it as well!

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Benefits of Immersion 3: Teachers Talk

“I love the end-of-the-year-all-staff-meeting when everyone and everything comes together and we get to visually see all the accomplishments that took place that year. It has always made me feel like I am a part of something bigger and gives me a huge sense of community and school pride. I also wanted to just say again that if an opportunity, project etc. comes up that you feel I may be able to contribute towards, please never hesitate to ask. I feel so blessed that I came to be a part of the Oakstone community 7 years ago, and honestly I do not have the words to express the gratitude and respect I have in  my heart for you.”             -A middle school/high school teacher

One of the things that students and families alike enjoy about our Academic and Social Immersion Model is the teachers. We hear time and time again about the impact that our teachers have in a child’s day, week, even a family’s daily life. We are proud of our outstanding teachers, but several things set them up for success in an immersion model.

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  1. Our teachers know what they signed up for. Our teachers are hired understanding that the school they work in is a model program for Academic and Social Immersion. They aren’t surprised by ratios of peers to students with ASD. They expect challenging behaviors or quirky communication issues. They want to be teaching all of the students in their classrooms, not just a portion of them. They have a passion not only for young people or for their subject matter, but for seeing the model succeed. Communicating expectations about immersion to staff helps keep everyone on the same page.

“ “Well, you did your best.” These five words from a graduating student at the end of an Exit IEP meeting make up one of the greatest compliments I’ve received during my career as a teacher.  As one of the last teachers students work with before leaving our academic and social immersion environment, I get the pleasure of seeing the rewards of our unique setting. Students graduate from Oakstone Academy prepared to take on whatever is next. Whether it is college, trade school, or competitive employment, our students are prepared.  They will succeed because they have been challenged by an educational model that pushes everyone to do their best. Teachers do their best to ensure students meet rigorous academic and social expectations and students push one another through positive peer pressure to participate in extracurricular activities, to reach out to a struggling friend, or to try a college-level course. We are all doing our best, and in turn, our students are thriving.  The academic and social immersion model at Oakstone Academy has taught me when “your best” is the expectation, everyone benefits (and sometimes along the way you get a nice compliment for your efforts).” – A high school intervention specialist

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2. Our teachers are members of a teaching and learning community.  The teachers in our Academic and Social Immersion Model not only have other teachers, intervention specialists, and paraprofessionals to rely on, but they also have ABAs, SLPs, and OTs who expect to be working in classrooms with the teaching team to improve student achievement. Additionally, all of our administrators were once teachers in the model, so the advice they give is based on experience in similar situations. Anything that we ask our teachers to do is based in researched best practice and has been tried by the person giving feedback.

“I want to preface this letter by reiterating that ALL of the teachers and staff at this preschool amaze me with their talent, compassion, love, and dedication (I could go on and on).  It is an AMAZING place to work. With that said, I wanted to just take a minute to really single Miss Bridget out. She had some kiddos with some tough challenges in her class this year and she and her team were the perfect teachers for this group!  Bridget’s calm demeanor was exactly what was needed for a couple of our easily over-aroused kiddos. She was able to maintain complete control with a steady, calm, and quiet voice/manner. Her patience was exactly what was needed for a couple of the kids with processing issues that did just really need someone to simply wait it out rather than repeating the request again and again. She reacted quickly and calmly to address behavior issues and seems to know just how to handle each of the kids’ very different needs when it comes to behaviors.  I saw her using tools that had been recommended for different kids and appreciated that she was open to suggestions. You would not know to look in her class that she actually started the year out with some of the school’s most challenging behavior issues. It was amazing to me to see where the kids in this class started out (from both a behavior stand point and a skill development standpoint) and where they ended up by year’s end. I learned a great deal from her and am looking forward to working in her class again sometime.” -An preschool occupational therapist  

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3. Our teachers feel supported by staff, parents, and each other.  Our teachers know that they can ask for help at any time to facilitate the best lesson, class, or interaction possible. They know that our parents have chosen this model and are on board with it (though sometimes still need education in it). They know that a free exchange of ideas is important to the success of the program and that asking for help is expected because no one has all of the answers.

 

“I have seen the benefits of an immersive environment through my cousin who attends (the school). When he was first diagnosed we were told that he would never be able to communicate, and that he was deaf because he would not respond to others. He also would not show any affection to his family members. He started attending Oakstone when he was 4 years old, he is now 16 years old. While he still considered non-verbal, he has made so many gains! He is able to communicate his needs, listen to others, and he will even hug his dad and other family members. I started working at Oakstone last year because I loved how much this school helped my cousin. I am now able to see first hand how this school and an immersive environment helps so many kids, and it’s so exciting to see how much they are able to grow. Today, our students had an assignment for morning work, their assignment was to write what they were thankful for. This leaf was written by one of our students who demonstrates how beneficial the immersive environment is for students.” -An elementary teacher

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4. Our teachers genuinely like doing what they do and feel personally connected to it.  Staff in our Academic and Social Immersion Model see growth happening before their eyes each and every day. They get excited by not only the big leaps, but the baby steps in learning, whether that learning is academic, social, emotional, or communication-based. Our staff continuously amaze us in their support of “our kids” as they sign up to travel with them, begin new extracurricular activities, or just go that extra mile to help a student understand a tough concept.

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For some of our students with ASD, our teachers are the first adults outside of their families who really “get” them and like them as they are. Our teachers don’t simply teach the Academic and Social Immersion Model; they live it everyday. They hold the keys to the program’s success.

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Benefits of Immersion Part 2: Don’t take our word for it!

In Academic and Social Immersion, students with disabilities are full members of the community. Imagine the difference that makes in their lives. We don’t have to imagine at Oakstone Academy because we see it everyday. We see lives being changed through immersion. Listen to a few of our students with autism spectrum disorder share the things that stand out to them about their school.

“The teachers are great. They are kind and respectful. They’re good at helping you with work. They just make school fun in general.” -10th grade student 

Teachers in Academic and Social Immersion are trained to work with all types of students. Differentiation is the norm–the expectation. Students with IEPs participate in the general education curriculum with supports added where needed and removed when the student is ready. Teachers are more positive and accepting of all types of students because this is literally what the teachers signed up for. The experience and knowledge these teachers have raises the bar of expectations for students with and without disabilities. The focus of instruction really becomes student understanding and engagement for all learners. Teachers celebrate success and progress, but never stop pursuing improved outcomes.

 

“I like learning now. I just want more leaning. That’s something that happened when I came to Oakstone.”  -6th grade student

Because teachers are trained and create a learning environment that works for many different types of learners, many students become passionate about learning. They feel smart–some for the first time. They feel capable and ready to take on challenges. They read more than they thought they could, write more than they ever have, and master content that surprises even their parents and teachers because they discover the inner motivation and passion for learning that comes from the feeling of success in school.

 

“I like that everybody’s kind here. They actually enforce the No Bullying policy. It (bullying) just doesn’t happen non-stop with no consequence.” -6th grade student

Immersion works when everyone is a member of the community. Students know when posters are hung and lip service is given to inclusion and anti-bullying, but the message is not ingrained in the culture. True inclusion can be messy and uncomfortable when students are held accountable for their words and their behaviors. Sometimes difficult conversations are needed, but they pay off in the positive and welcoming culture built in the school.

 

“We don’t have stereotypes or bullies or gossip or rumors. I don’t understand when my friends from other schools talk about those things. They just aren’t part of my life.” -7th grade student

Gossip and backstabbing, rumors and cliques….media and culture would tell us that those are all just part of middle school and high school.  But they don’t have to be. For many students these aspects of school take over their life and distract from learning and from building relationships. In an Academic and Social Immersion school, everyone has value because everyone is a fully-participating member of the group. Social and emotional learning, character education, and social skills training are incorporated in classes as well as extracurriculars. Everyone represents the school, and their individual and team success is celebrated, whether success for them is a basketball team victory or a great ACT score or a successful service project. All of these activities build the school’s identity and culture, so all are valued.

 

“I make a lot of friends here. The kids are cool.” -6th grade student

The power of a friend cannot be overstated. In the Academic and Social Immersion Model, we see students have friends. Students are invited to parties, hang out outside of school, or socialize online for the students who live further apart. We watch students help each other and look out for one another. We see true lasting friendships between students of all abilities and backgrounds.

 

“The atmosphere of the school? Thumbs up! I’m me here, and people like me for me. That’s a new one.” -8th grade student

Middle school and high school are challenging times for everyone as adolescents figure out who they are. Some kids like gaming; other prefer sports. Some want to dress like a Abercrombie model, while others prefer worn jeans and concert tees. In Academic and Social Immersion, everyone has a place and is respected, regardless of interests. While we actively teach students with social impairments how to behave appropriately in social settings, we also support individual interests. It feels good to be accepted.  

 

“I love Oakstone with all my heart and the school literally changed my life, socially, mentally, and physically. You don’t see our level of inclusion in any other schools. They are a second family to me. Without Oakstone, I wouldn’t have the social skills I have today.” -12th grade student

Academic and Social Immersion does not stop at the classroom door. Students feel safe and accepted in extracurriculars and social events as well. Students step outside the box of their own interests and join clubs or teams that may be a stretch for them because they know the group will catch them if they fall. The success they feel during the school day extends to many different events.

 

While we adults who facilitate Academic and Social Immersion believe strongly in what we do, it’s the students who see the results and carry the model forward. Academic and Social Immersion is not a fad or an add-in. It is a powerful tool for building a school climate of acceptance, success, and confidence.