When the Regular Classroom Isn’t Working

Guest column by Lauree Stroud Purcell

Editor’s note: Lauree Purcell is a freelance writer and mother of two teenage daughters in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

Anna Green was nervous as she played a board game with her young student with autism. For several days, she had been showing him positive ways to react when he was unable to win a game. Now she was going to win this game and see if he could use his new skills to lose without blowing up in anger.

Teachers know that every child is unique, and guard against making assumptions about students.

Anna was learning how to be a teacher like those at Minnick School, and she was extremely pleased when her student lost with grace using the strategies she had taught him. Anna worked under the supeP1080768rvision of her instructor, Brenda Showalter, a professor of education at James Madison University.

I recently talked with Brenda, now the educational coordinator of one of six Minnick Schools managed by Lutheran Family Services of Virginia. Brenda helps children with special needs find success in school. Prior to attending a Minnick school, some of the students were acting out, shutting down, or withdrawing in their public school settings. But Brenda’s highly trained staff helps students learn about behavior choices, how to make better decisions, and how to respond to stressful and challenging situations.

Brenda and her staff feel a fantastic sense of accomplishment when their students achieve their goals and can return to their home public school. “It happens a lot and it’s wonderful to see,” said Brenda. Minnick schools also work with children with more significant disabilities ages 5­–22 so that they can live and work with dignity and independence at home and in the community. Brenda has exciting plans for Minnick’s newly remodeled and expanded school opening in Harrisonburg, Virginia, this fall.

Schools such as this often give opportunities for older students to learn to work at area businesses and organizations with whatever assistance and supervision they need to complete their tasks. A kitchen in the new school will be used to show students how to cook their own meals, and living quarters will allow students to learn how to take care of a living room and bedroom. The Harrisonburg Minnick School has formed supportive relationships with Wal-Mart, Costco, the local Meals-on-Wheels program, and other local businesses. Brenda hopes to involve additional businesses for more real-life experiences for the students.

When a student attends Minnick, teachers work with the child and the child’s family to determine the child’s current skills and needs. Minnick’s goals are aligned with what each student can reasonably be expected to accomplish.

Brenda’s teachers remain flexible, switching gears as necessary when a child has a problem. “We help that child get through behavioral challenge so he/she can return their focus to the academic content,” said Brenda. She requires her staff to know the names of every student so they can say hello to students by name and step in to provide support whenever and wherever needed. The staff share ideas as a community at meetings to overcome challenges faced along the path to success.

During one teacher’s first conversation with a young middle schooler, the student remarked, “Sometimes when I’m sad, I cut myself.” The teacher started to get a worried frown, but then the student quickly added, “. . . a piece of cake.” This child was hilarious, quite intelligent, and had a quirky sense of humor. The teacher’s point in sharing this story was that one should hear a person out, not jump to conclusions. Other children at Minnick are completely nonverbal. Teachers know that every child is unique, and guard against making assumptions about students.

In Minnick’s autism program, teachers make notes on students every 15 minutes to measure aggressive behavior, inappropriate vocals, property destruction, invasions on the personal space of others, self-injurious behaviors, and noncompliance.  Based on graphs showing how the student is acting over time, teachers can see when certain behaviors are mounting and can then create successful behavior management plans. All students can also see from the graphs what they need to do to be welcomed back at their regular school.

Five Lutheran churches donate to a before-school breakfast program as well as to a food bank within the school. Church members clean and do maintenance on the school. Another group organized a staff appreciation day, and several churches provided a huge quantity of school supplies and clothing.

“We are so blessed this year to have the support of these churches,” said Brenda. “There has been an exponential growth in meeting the needs of our students and their families because churches are willing to support our efforts.” Food is also coming in from the area food bank. “Doors are opening, and we are amazed at how responsive people have been,” Brenda said.

How is your community helping children with behavioral challenges and learning disabilities?


For a free booklet, “Dealing with Autism as a Family,” write to me at MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.