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How Education Helps Healing at Intermountain

By Marvin Williams, Director of Education at IntermountainMarvin Williams

Imagine being away from home in a setting where you don’t want to be in the first place and you are only 7 or 10 or 4 or 13 years old.  That’s how the children who come to Intermountain’s Residential Program feel.  Parents and educators believe that if we can just get the emotions and behaviors under control the child can learn.  At Intermountain we offer educational services to children admitted to our program to help with emotional growth and believe that education is a vital part of the overall healing process for children.  The education staff use academics as an intervention during the school day and when this approach is matched with the therapeutic methods employed while the children are in our care, we see great gains in their ability to be more emotionally regulated.

Teachers at Intermountain have experience with specific training in special education.  The entire staff– teachers and support staff–are trained in the “developmental relational” model along with other foundational trainings.  The developmental relational model simply means that each staff member is experienced at meeting the children where ever they are emotionally.  Staff understand that a child who is chronologically 13 may actual act like a 5 year old emotionally when they are overwhelmed or dysregulated, so the staff address their interventions and supports to that level of functioning.

Teachers and staff use various strategies in the classrooms that help the children regulate their emotions.  The first fundamental approach is to develop a trusting relationship.  This takes time, consistency, structure and routine as the children are very good at pushing adults and peers away.  Staff use “closeness” in the beginning of a child’s treatment to assist with the development of the relationship.  Closeness is supporting the child in the understanding that the adult is safe and capable of being in control.  A technique the staff use is called “in-hand,” which means the child holds the hand of an adult until they begin to develop this trust.  This technique also helps the child develop a sense of security.

While in the classroom the adults teach the children to compartmentalize their emotions.  Staff believe that school should be a safe place for the children to escape from the emotional trauma they have experienced prior to being admitted.  The term, “in the moment” is used by the staff to help them learn to focus on the here and now.  This is not an easy task and requires reminders throughout the day such as predictable visible schedules and verbal affirmation. When children struggle they are given the opportunity to journal about their emotion or difficulties.  These journal messages are shared with the cottage staff at the end of the day by the child and the education staff so that the therapist and direct care staff in the cottage can help the child work it out.

Bal-A-Vis-X (BAVX), which stands for Balance, Auditory, Visual and Exercise (Bill Hubert), is another approach used with the children.  This intervention, which is led by our Occupational Therapist, is a crossing-the-midline activity that incorporates the use of bean bags and racquet balls.  The activity requires individuals to cross hands and eyes back and forth between the two halves of the body and brain.  Crossing the midline is what we do when we read or write, so this activity supports those skills.  BAVX exercises improve coordination, concentration and focus.  If done consistently and with fidelity BAVX helps the student improve their ability to process information more efficiently, store it swiftly, and move on.

Each classroom works on team building in order to develop a sense of “community” (belonging) in the classroom.  “WhyTry” is a program that supports this development as it teaches social and emotional principles to our children in a way they can understand and remember. WhyTry is based on sound practical principles, including solution, social and emotional intelligence, and multi-sensory learning. The WhyTry curriculum utilizes a series of ten visual analogies that teach important life skills (e.g., decisions have consequences; dealing with peer pressure; obeying laws and rules; plugging in to support systems).

With the support of the Occupational Therapist the classroom is able to offer sensory tools that help the children address their sensory needs.  The OT staff observe the children in the classroom and make recommendations specific to a child and/or the classroom on appropriate sensory tools that may make a difference. Examples of sensory tools available to the children are weighted blankets, compression vests, hand fidgets, sound reduction headphones and seat cushions.

Children in our setting are given the chance to take a break from an activity if the staff or child feels it is needed.  Breaks are supervised by an adult and can be “activation” such as walking or running laps in the gym or outside, sitting and talking, or just having a moment of closeness from an adult.  We believe this helps the children slow down and process what is going on in the moment.

The overall belief is that children in our Residential Program setting benefit from a “whole child” approach to education.  Implementing different strategies is critical for the education staff to help reshape the children, so they will one day be successful in their home and community environment.
Marvin Williams, MA, has been the Director of Education at Intermountain for 5 years.  He holds a Master of Art in Education from Montana State–Billings and a BA from Eastern Montana College.  Marvin has extended experience as an educator for children with special needs and served as the Special Education Director in the Helena School District previous to coming to Intermountain School.

Marvin Williams, MA, has been the Director of Education at Intermountain for 5 years.  He holds a Master of Art in Education from Montana State–Billings and a BA from Eastern Montana College.  Marvin has extended experience as an educator for children with special needs and served as the Special Education Director in the Helena School District previous to coming to Intermountain School.

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