As we continue our series on Montessori and Autism, we would like to welcome Rhea Brashear, Director of Morning Star Montessori.
Question: Thank you for taking the time to participate with an interview with Positively Autism. Can you start by telling us a little about Morning Star Montessori and your background at the school?
The school was started in 2008 to try and address the growing need for truly individualized education in the special needs community. The school was originally developed as a ministry of a small church. Over the course of a couple of years Morning Star became an independent organization.
I had personal experience with my own child that had special needs and I am a certified Montessori teacher. My desire was to offer a hands on opportunity for harnessing two complementary approaches for the benefit of special needs children.
Q: How do you feel that your school’s approach, and Montessori methods in particular, benefit students with autism?
A: I have always believed that Montessori education had the best potential for meeting the differentiated educational needs of special needs / autistic children. Dr. Montessori implores us as teachers to create the environment suited to the child’s needs. By understanding more about the sensory, developmental, and neurological foundations of any of the disorders / delays that are so prevalent today, we can better understand how to look at our classrooms and make the lessons and the environments more attainable for these children.
Ultimately, though, this will require a deeper preparation of the teacher. Dr. Montessori makes this point very clear in her writings. As Montessori teachers, we must stay focused on her words as we take the lead in education for the next generation.
Q: Your school uses The HANDLE® approach. Can you tell us more about this method and how it is integrated with Montessori?
A: This has been the school’s primary focus for the past 5 years. HANDLE has been the foundational approach for the program because it, by it’s very nature, is a holistic approach that looks at all people from the perspective of neurodevelopment. HANDLE training is first about understanding the hierarchy of development from internal systems such as vestibular (inner ear), proprioception, muscle tone, kinesthesia, lateralization, vision, audition, and so on. Each system is viewed in relationship to the others. Then, through careful observation, we are trained to note differences and compensations such that the client’s indirect and direct aims can be understood. This very important as many autistic children are non-verbal and can not tell parents or teachers what they need or why they are doing things.
Montessori philosophy is very similar because the emphasis is on the observation of the child in a prepared environment as well as understanding the purpose of the child’s work in a holistic way. First, understanding how this may be serving a need in the child, then how does this activity fit in the classroom community.
HANDLE trained me to go much deeper in the observational assessment with a profound level of understanding about the neurological implications of the natural desires / needs of the individual. These all stem from developmental “thrusts” and can be facilitated differently in each child through careful observation.
Q: What advice do you have for Montessori schools and teachers in working with students with autism?
A: This is a tough question to answer because there are so many different aspects to autism that need to be addressed individually in each child. In my area, the term Autism Spectrum Disorder is becoming more frequently used by professionals. This term gives credence to the realization that each child with an autism diagnosis will have their own unique combination of symptoms. No two autistic children are really just alike.
It is very true that every autistic child may not be integrated successfully into a every Montessori classroom. Some children do require specialized one on one care and this is often not possible in many school communities.
But, keeping the tenants of Montessori in focus, it is possible to create a prepared classroom environment that would meet the needs of children with ASD, speech delays, Pervasive Developmental Delays, etc.
The best direct answer to this question would have to be directed towards the teacher – parent relationship. If a parent has come to your school seeking placement for their autistic child consider it an honor:
- They see you as a professional expert /resource in the community.
- They have heard the deepest message of Dr. Montessori for love/respect for the child and believe your school can offer this. (Believe me, these parents talk to other parents voraciously! If your school was an option to be considered, you are doing something right!)
- No one plans to be the parent of a special needs child. By the time the mom walks through the door of your school she is most likely feeling rejected, battered, and often discouraged. They are mostly looking for acceptance for the child they love…just like every one else.
- Have the local resources ready in a file.
- Try to give them an extra few minutes in the interview. The mom may just need listening ear for few minutes.
- Consider if your school could possibly offer some way for limited interaction? Half-day inclusion one day a week? Join for special events?
- Keep thinking!
Q: How can teachers in non-Montessori public and private schools and intervention programs use Montessori methods in their classrooms?
A: The Method is really central to the preparation and attitude of the teacher. I could be placed in a traditional classroom and use the materials on hand and lessons plans in such a way as to foster individual exploration, self directed use, and encourage collaborative learning. It comes down to having respect for the child and their purposes for learning.
Montessori education does not only exist in the Golden Beads, botany cabinet, or moveable alphabet! It is an approach that is built from the inside out and must be facilitated that way from the teachers.
Q: How can our readers learn more about Morning Star Montessori and your programs there?
A: Sadly, the building where our program was located had a pervasive mold contamination that was discovered just before the 2013 -2014 school year was set to start. We contacted 13 other churches or schools looking for a place to relocate but none were available in time to start the new school year. We have had to temporarily postpone the school until new arrangements can be made.
I also want to explain that my classrooms were small with very low ratios which would be difficult for many schools to replicate. We had at the most 9 children in class with 3 teachers. The 3:1 ratio is not budget friendly!
But the combination of Montessori and HANDLE did work in amazing ways for the children that came to the school. We were able to accept children with autism, Cerbal Palsy, PDD-NOS, Turner Syndrome, apraxia, and developmental delays.
I had to really challenge myself to reset the expectations and structure of the classroom to adjust to the new challenges presented in the children. After 5 years, I am convinced that these children are just like other children. They too have a desire to learn, find community and develop a sense of self.
The children learned to talk, read, write, and make friends. I used the practical life and sensorial materials in ways that were a few steps way from the “traditional Montessori way”, but they met the needs of the child and that keep me focused on what Dr. Montessori really intended.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
A: I would welcome the opportunity to speak with any school with regard to how any individual child could be helped in the classroom.
To the adage of pictures being worth 1000 words:
This student with autism needed more proprioceptive input in order to focus on the lesson. He was able to complete the triangles but I had adapt to giving the lesson in an unconventional way.
The internal order of the child will be developed, but the teacher may need to understand that the child is beginning from a different point than the typically developing child.