February 2019 Newsletter

Supporting All Students to Find Their Strengths and Success

Kati Cahill, M.Ed.
Humanex Academy Principal

Educational equity has been defined by Linton and Davis (2013) as occurring “when educators provide all students with the individual support they need to reach and exceed a common standard” (p. 19). This definition rings true to what Humanex’s goal is for every student. We believe that schools should be focused on building a safe learning environment where all students can take risks and grow, and Humanex is working hard to promote that on a daily basis through an individualized approach. The majority of students who attend Humanex have typically not been successful in one area or another in a traditional school model and come to us looking for something different, a place where they will be seen as an individual with potential for success.

Humanex is focusing on college and career readiness for all students with a focus on strengths-based learning as well as helping students to see the supports they have in their lives to help them stay focused on success in their academics as well as mental health. We work to build a positive school culture for all staff and students who walk through our doors and we are in our second year of partnering with Sources of Strength, a suicide prevention organization, in order to further support this goal. As we welcome new students and families, we work extra hard to help them feel safe and begin to build the relationships and trust necessary to work toward academic success.

Our vision around equity in our school is that every student is receiving the individualized learning supports needed to be successful and meet their academic expectations. Our staff works collaboratively to make sure we are all holding our students to these high standards, no matter their differences or diagnoses and that we are taking into consideration the supports needed to do this. So often our students have experienced being told that they are not motivated, not trying hard enough, or that they need to sit still and focus, etc. when really we need to ask ourselves why those things are happening, where those behaviors are coming from, and what we can do or provide to make a difference and help each and every student to find success in their strengths.

References
Linton, C. & Davis, B.M. (2013). Equity 101: Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Sources of Strength. (2018). Sources of strength. Retrieved from https://sourcesofstrength.org/

The Importance of Social Learning

Thomas W. Welch, Psy.D.  (Dr. Tom)
Child and Adolescent Psychologist, Humanex Academy

Whenever I am asked what makes Humanex Academy such a special environment I consistently respond with examples of social learning that I observe each and every day. For it is the dynamic social environment within the Humanex community, that facilitates and provides motivation for learning in all areas. Principle among these, are the development of age appropriate relationships.

It has been my observation, that on average, those enrolling at Humanex Academy have social skill deficits that are four to six years behind same-age peers. It has also been my observation that these developmental gaps narrow as these adolescents and aspiring young adults learn to navigate this social community. While the learning involved never occurs without some level of setback or the need to resolve conflict and disagreements, it must be understood as a natural and essential part of growth in this area. In fact, these are experiences that must occur if one is to develop the self knowledge required to maintain healthy relationships throughout life.

Adolescence and young adulthood is a time to refine and develop skills needed for healthy adult relationships, and a time for refining one’s sense of identity in a social world. That sense of who one is, what one believes, and where one belongs. Social and identity development work hand-in-hand, and neither occur overnight. Instead, a process of trial and error, based in real-life experience is required – A process of social learning. This is where one can refine skills by receiving social feedback, and through
practice. It is through this experiential learning that identity development occurs and where everyone finds an identity that fits both one’s internal sense of who one is (or wants to be), with an outward social identity that can be embraced/accepted by others. This is essential to the formation of healthy relationships, and is something that we all must navigate as we grow and develop.

It is important to note that this process of trial-and-error cannot occur in a vacuum. Instead, it requires peers. More specifically, it requires peers who are going through this same process of experimentation. Where there is a need and desire to interact, an understanding that everyone is working to build skills, and opportunity for mutual affirmation or feedback – even in the form of rejection when behaviors are unacceptable or inappropriate. This is what happens at Humanex Academy, and in my estimation is the magic behind much of the growth and development that occurs.

As many need outside instruction to learn from these real-world experiences, Humanex does more than just set the stage for learning. Coaching must also occur and is provided through structured groups, mentoring, and ongoing supportive coaching as students interact with staff and navigate relationships with peers. This combination of opportunity with real-time support and feedback is in fact critical. While it may seem like there are an infinite number of skills that must be in place before healthy relationships can be maintained, we focus on eight key skills that I
believe are the foundation for all types of relationships. These are:

1. Treat friends the way you would like to be treated.
2. Find common interests.
3. Keep a friend’s confidence. They will quickly learn that you are talking about
them, or sharing personal information that was not yours to share.
4. Pay attention when your friends are talking.
5. Be willing to share.
6. Take turns – both in conversations and activities.
7. Be truthful.
8. Stick up for your friends.

By always using these key points as a framework for understanding peers to peer relationships, there is a structure for understanding successes and setbacks when they occur. This approach also provides a clear direction for what to do next. The experience of dynamic social learning then becomes less threatening and in my experience, there is a greater willingness to step out of one’s comfort zone – to face the possibility of limited success.

Whether your son or daughter is currently attending another school, is in the process of enrolling at Humanex Academy, or is already one of our students, I suggest that you find a way of supporting their social and identity development by reinforcing these essential skills to the formation of healthy relationships.

Cultivating a Culture for Student Success

Kati Cahill, M.Ed.
Humanex Academy Principal

I was recently talking with one of our Juniors who has attended Humanex for the past three years about his transformation and growth since beginning at our school. His insight around his own personal growth and progress over the past few years was spot-on and directly related to the mission and vision we have set as a staff.

The student’s first comments were about the support he receives from every teacher in the building and the positive relationships that he has cultivated with staff and peers. He also focused on the flexibility of the curriculum, non-time bound calendar system, the individualized approach that teachers take when working with each student, as well as the availability of counseling support by our full time Psychologist, Dr. Tom and the counseling interns from the University of Denver.

It is a part of our vision to provide a structured and individualized approach to learning for students who learn in a variety of ways in order to meet each student where they are at and in a way that they can best access the curriculum. Promoting this through school-wide programs and involving students in discussion about school culture and vision, goes a long way to keep these ideas as the main focus for both staff and students. Linton and Davis (2013) discuss the four elements that are key to accomplishing equity, which include expectations, rigor, relevancy, and relationships. Setting high expectations through schoolwide programs, involving students in relevant discussion, and building relationships through this process is key to our cultural equity building process.

While schoolwide programs are a great place to start and continue, it is essential for us to work with students on these ideas at an individual level as well. Many of our students are working with deficits in memory and processing, which means repetition and trust building are key. We also have many students who have experienced trauma in various forms and we are constantly working to reestablish school as a safe place where there are people who believe in them and believe that they can meet and exceed the expectations set forth.

Helping students to find a trusted adult in the building is essential. We start this process through having an advisory period that is broken into two parts. Students meet with their advisor first thing in the morning to do check-ins related to their emotional and physical well being, which are then shared with other staff members to ensure clear communication among staff. The advisement class then meets again after lunch to discuss how the day is going, work on goal setting, and practice social skill building. I believe that this is laying the groundwork for what the earlier mentioned student stated as the keys to his success since beginning at Humanex. It also works toward providing an equitable educational environment, which is defined as occurring “when educators provide all students with the individual support they need to reach and exceed a common standard” (Linton & Davis, 2013, p. 19).


Reference:

Linton, C. & Davis, B.M. (2013). Equity 101: Culture. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

Awakening Those Dreams of Possibility

Thomas W. Welch, Psy.D.  (Dr. Tom)

Child and Adolescent Psychologist, Humanex Academy

The greatest challenge most adolescents with learning differences face, is to look beyond their history of setbacks, struggle and rejection, to the limitless possibilities that tap into one’s strengths. For it is this shift from a deficit based perspective to one that is more strength based,  that must occur for growth and development to continue. This is key to maturation, and ultimately the transition into young adulthood. For that reason, our role in the lives of these students is to understand this struggle, to encourage imagination, and to support the dreaming of big dreams. This begins with a recognition of the significance this dreaming process had in our own lives.

When I was a boy I had dreams of being a major league baseball player, superhero, veterinarian, “train driver”, astronaut, and firefighter. The great thing about each of these dreams was that they were possible. All things were possible. One minute I would be hitting a game winning home run, and the next I would be flying around the world or saving someone from a burning building. The future seemed limitless. Each day provided new opportunities for my friends and me to play, to try on new roles, to imagine who we would become. Most importantly, it was fun!

As my friends and I grew older things changed. There was school and the challenges it presented, homework, and an endless number of other responsibilities that seem to accumulate with age. It became more difficult to dream limitless dreams. More importantly, the possibilities no longer seemed limitless. Others were more athletic, I did not possess super powers, I was allergic, and a tendency toward motion sickness seemed to rule me out as an astronaut.

At this same time, both my parents and teachers were more focused on my ability to spell and read, and…to sit in my seat. More energy was now being focused on the development of academic, social and life skills. I was learning that I had both strengths and weaknesses, and that in life there are limitations. I was also learning that the ability to dream was not only necessary to imagine new possibilities, but was also necessary in imagining how to get there. My dreams were still large, but were being transformed to include my personal strengths, and strategies to assist me in overcoming my weaknesses. It was the beginning of my journey in discovering who I am and what I could be…and it too was fun.

This experience of learning and self discovery is universal. It is also the most challenging task we face as we grow and develop. It begins in early childhood, hits full-speed in adolescence, and continues throughout our lifetime. Easily influenced by critical words of others, by setbacks and
by successes, its momentum is not consistent and it can often be derailed. This is especially true for students with learning differences. For them, the experience of transforming the limitless dreams of early childhood into dreams of personal success can be much more difficult.

Unlike their peers who typically experience a balance of success and failure as they grow and develop, students with learning differences often experience much more adversity than success. Sadly this occurs despite the presence of multiple strengths, as weaknesses are highlighted and deficits limit the ability to shine. With mounting setbacks and limited success to provide balance, it becomes increasingly difficult to dream. As a result, limitations often become the focus of attention rather than dreams of personal possibility. Self discovery is avoided, and the “future” is discussed in terms of fear, dread and anxiety, rather than hope and promise. It’s definitely not fun!

Our goal with every student at Humanex Academy is to reawaken these dreams of possibility. To encourage a sense of fun in learning, and to encourage a sense of discovery as each student learns how to work with and around their differences.

In my current role as the child and adolescent psychologist at Humanex Academy, I have had the privilege to work with many students struggling to understand and work with their learning differences. Each comes to the program with a unique combination of strengths and weakness, a history of setbacks, and much apprehension for what the future might bring. Most importantly, each also brings a history of dreaming big dreams. For me, the opportunity to work with this aspect of each student is what most excites me!

The naturalist John Muir once said, the power of imagination makes us infinite. To be limitless in scope. Immeasurably more than what one is now. To step beyond one’s current circumstances to imagine something better – more fun. This is what our students need, and this is what we all love to bring to our student’s lives. Humanex Academy provides an environment that fosters the ability to dream. For many of our students, adversity related to learning differences will never go away. However, the ability to once again dream big dreams and imagine strategies to overcome areas of weakness, limits their impact. This then opens the door for many personal possibilities and a future that can be full of promise.

What is Humanex?

Thomas W. Welch, Psy.D.  (Dr Tom)

Child and Adolescent Psychologist, Humanex Academy

In my many interactions with parents, teachers and providers of all types, I am most often asked two questions: “What is it about your school that works so well?” and “How did your school come to be called Humanex?”  The truth is that, in a very significant way, the answer to both questions is really the same. The school’s name refers to our belief in the importance of recognizing the Human Experience in education (thus Human-Ex); and that philosophy also informs our entire curriculum, which is the reason I believe we are so effective.

The Human Experience is the foundation of our program and the most critical part of   facilitating growth and development in the students we serve. We begin with the understanding that one cannot discover who one is or what one can do in the world, if every challenge faced is approached from a defensive position.  Focusing on “not doing things wrong” rather than actual learning does not help our neuro diverse population of student presenting with learning differences. Unfortunately though, after years of feeling different, being teased, and continuously corrected and coached on how to do things better, many of them have adopted this defensive approach to the world.  And while it may feel better to simply avoid any chance of rejection that does not foster the kind of trial-and-error experimentation and exploration necessary if real growth is to occur.

For this reason, we believe our job as teachers and professionals is to step away from a focus on deficit remediation, and first recognize and celebrate the individual student and their uniqueness.  The Human Experience is what makes us special – both the students and the school – and in the case of a population burdened with so many labels, it transforms a set of “presenting characteristics” back into a person with their own dreams, desires, and experiences.

Humanex is about appreciating those differences and avoiding the trap of using others’ performance as benchmarks for success.  We challenge ourselves and the developing adolescents to look past their clinical diagnosis and take in the whole picture of who they are, as well as the vast possibilities of what they can be.  We want to engage them in a way that is relevant to their lives and encourages them to take pride in their personal identity.