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New NYU training program helps Madison schools support autistic, ADHD students

Wisconsin State Journal - 9/29/2023

Sep. 29—Despite decades of experience, Pam Waite can easily think back to moments of uncertainty as an educator.

Whether it's working with a parent, implementing a new policy or addressing concerns about safety, the Spring Harbor Middle School principal is no stranger to navigating uncertainty and coming out the other side.

But this spring, Waite remembers feeling especially unsure about how to increase support for a struggling student. Waite and other educators understood some of the student's needs but couldn't figure out what they were missing.

The teachers knew the student was neurodiverse, an umbrella term often used to reference autism spectrum disorder and other neurological or developmental conditions, such as ADHD. While neurodivergent students may possess specific strengths, such as memorization skills or hyper-focus abilities, they often require additional support to excel academically and socially, according to the Child Mind Institute.

Even with this understanding, Waite still wasn't seeing the student be as successful as she hoped. The training Waite and other teachers received in this area only went so far, and it was difficult for the already busy educators to find time to seek out additional resources.

But a professional development program founded at New York University is aiming to change this experience for educators by better equipping them to teach neurodiverse students. The Program for Inclusion and Neurodiversity Education (PINE) is now available in 35 of the Madison School District's schools, including all 32 elementary schools.

The program gives educators access to a catalog of online materials, ranging from six-hour training modules to short videos they can turn to as needed. The program also holds an annual in-person conference and virtual consulting appointments with PINE experts.

Solving 'puzzle'

Working with PINE helped Waite begin to find solutions for the student at Spring Harbor. A consultant from the program was the first to point out the student might be dealing with anxiety, in addition to sensory processing issues.

"It helped me look at a piece of the puzzle that we hadn't even identified yet for the student," Waite said. "And as a result, we were able to really think differently about how we were providing support, not only in the moment, but also looking at the totality of the student's day and the shifts we could make that help that student be more present for learning."

PINE launched in the Madison School District with a small pilot program two years ago, giving educators at a handful of schools access to the training and consultations. Spring Harbor started experimenting with the resources at the end of last school year.

Even after a short time, there were visible differences in the struggling student, the school's social worker Leslie Gilmore said.

"I feel like he was more responsive in a way that was helpful," Gilmore said. "I felt like he was more receptive to the support than pushing back against it."

Closing the gap

As much as 10% to 15% of the world's population is thought to display some form of neurodivergence, according to the National Cancer Institute. Traditional learning models often exclude neurodiverse students, from the way a classroom is set up visually to physically separating neurodiverse students from their peers.

The concept of neurodiversity emerged in the 1990s, aiming to increase acceptance and inclusion of all people while embracing neurological differences.

Although awareness of neurodiversity has grown, training for educators has not kept pace. Most schools employ special education specialists, but this work also falls on grade-level teachers, according to Samara Sweig, PINE's vice president for business strategy and operations.

"I'd say one of the goals of the program is to really close the gap that exists between the capacity of the educators and the needs of the students, so that the educators feel more confident, competent and more successful when supporting the neurodivergent students, and so that the students then ultimately feel more successful, safe and happier in school," Sweig said.

Buying in

PINE was founded in 2019 and works with about 90 schools in 12 districts around the country. The Madison School Board approved the expansion of the program to all elementary schools, Spring Harbor and Hamilton middle schools and West High School.

In addition to offering insight into specific student needs, PINE looks at inclusion at a systemic level across entire school districts, Sweig said.

Some strategies include visual supports, such as having the day's schedule posted where all students can see it, or having a relaxation area in each classroom where students can go when they get overwhelmed.

Nancy Molfenter, associate superintendent for student services, said it was important to make PINE available in as many Madison schools as possible so all neurodiverse students can benefit.

By bringing PINE to elementary schools first, the hope is the experiences of inclusion will travel with students as they move into middle and high school. By then, PINE training may have expanded to more grade levels, Molfenter said.

"As our scholars enter our schools, we want their first experiences to be as inclusive as possible," she said. "We want that culture to be built from the time students enter."

Molfenter acknowledged that a nationwide teacher shortage and other priorities mean it will be a few years before an entire school of educators gets involved in the program. At this point, she said the district is not planning on making PINE training mandatory.

Molfenter said the lead special education teacher at each elementary school likely will be asked to spend the most time on PINE training. This work will slowly extend to other special education teachers, with the goal of eventually having most educators using the resources regularly.

About 100 teachers already have participated in some form of PINE training during the two-year pilot program, she said.

"Staff who have engaged with PINE so far have done it differently — it hasn't looked the same for everyone," she said. "Some have really explored those library resources and utilize them as tools in their schools and classrooms, while some have loved the office hours."

PINE's arrival in the Madison School District began with a parent looking for ways to increase support for his autistic son.

Ray Mendez and his family moved to Madison in 2019 from New York City, where his son attended a school with great support for neurodiverse students. While his son's school and home were an "oasis," Mendez said the family wanted a change from the fast pace of the city.

Mendez said his family was, in part, drawn to Madison by the school programs available for neurodiverse students. But after spending some time in Madison, Mendez realized there was still a large gap between his son's needs and the resources available to teachers.

While some schools had strategies and resources aimed at supporting neurodiverse students, others did not, Mendez said.

"We were disappointed to find that there was no systemic approach," he said.

Mendez looked into bringing new programs to Madison schools like those available in New York.

After looking into PINE, he began talking with teachers and principals and eventually administrators about bringing the program to Madison School District.

Mendez said it will take time to see whether the PINE training is implemented effectively across schools and whether educators put what they learn into practice. He even suggested a future research collaboration between NYU and Madison School District that would collect data to measure PINE's success.

"The real crux of PINE is that the performance has to be measured of the teaching staff," he said. "How are the teachers doing? Do they like it? Are they spending the time? And, most importantly, how are the students doing?"

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