A NEW APPROACH TO SPECIAL NEEDS

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Citation for Special Needs Programming

To call the Rebecca School a “special needs” school doesn’t quite tell the story of this innovative facility on East 30th Street. Staff and administrators work daily to reinvent the way special needs children are educated, and the way their families are supported during the process.
Relying on the Developmental Individual Difference Relationship-based (DIR) model, the three-year-old school works with a host of counselors, social workers and an advisory board to involve families in the education process for its students, who range in age from 4 to 18.
The Rebecca School serves children with neuro-developmental delays in relating and communicating, which includes children diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. While most special needs schools use behavioral approaches, the DIR model relies on relationships to figure out where the difficulties in a child’s development lie, meet the child at this developmental level then work to move ahead.
“The thing that sets us apart mainly is the overwhelming philosophical methodology that we use, the DIR model,” said Tina McCourt, program director at the Rebecca School. “It’s very different from the way most people work with children, particularly on the autistic spectrum.”
Interventions like speech therapy, occupational therapy, physical therapy, counseling, and floor time are included in the curriculum to enhance the learning process, as are art, music and drama therapy.
“I started learning about this model 14 years ago,” McCourt said. “I felt like this was really the way of the future for working with these kids. In a lot of programs, studies are showing that children learn skills in a very concrete way and they don’t generalize them. They don’t necessarily become warm, related human beings; they become robotic. This model addresses those issues by bringing out the warmth and nurturing that these kids have, but have trouble accessing.”
McCourt came on board as program director before the school opened its doors in July 2005 and set out to find the best consultant for the program: the doctor who developed the DIR model.
“I approached Dr. Stanley Greenspan and he is now an ongoing consultant,” McCourt said. “We have a case conference with him every week that includes a family, a child and my whole staff. I also speak with him once a week to talk about how the program is going and things we want to focus on.”
In order to provide a bridge for families between home life and school life, every Rebecca School family is assigned a social worker who has a variety of services at their fingertips.
“We provide comprehensive family services like family support, family education, counseling for family members and sibling groups,” McCourt said, “but the social workers are also there to help with concrete services like medical referrals. By the time these kids get to school age, the families really have no one to go to, so that was a really important piece for us, to support the family as well as the child.”
Every Friday, the school closes early for ongoing staff and parent training, and parents are regularly invited to get involved in classroom activities.
“They’re very interested in parent involvement,” said Ryan Young, whose 8-year-old daughter, coincidentally named Rebecca, is in her third year at the school. “They do a lot of training to help the parents understand the method. They want the parents to come to the school and experience floor time in the school environment, so that there is a transfer of what’s happening between school life and home life.”
“I invite parents into my classroom all the time,” said Emily Levis, who teaches 5- and 6-year-olds and has been with the school from the start. “Once the parents have attended one of our trainings, they’re welcome to come in and participate in all of the activities. It adds something for them and for the child.”
Forty-eight students enrolled in the Rebecca School in its inaugural year; this year, the school has 108 students, with capacity for 200.
“A lot of credit [goes] to the families who joined us the first year,” McCourt said. “When they came on tour, basic construction wasn’t even done. It took a lot of belief in the model and what we were doing.”
Plenty of credit goes to the staff, as well, which numbers more than 120 and includes occupational, physical and speech therapists, as well as classroom teachers. The average class has eight students, one head teacher and three teacher assistants.
“We’ve come a long way,” Levis said, “since we’ve opened our front doors.”

The Rebecca School
40 E. 30th St.
New York, NY 10016
212-810-4120, www.rebeccaschool.org
Tina McCourt, Program Director

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