How we built a whole-child, wraparound approach to special education

It begins with core values, includes engaging a panoply of stakeholders, and continues with cycles of inquiry

At the Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning at Ulster Board of Cooperative Education Services (BOCES), we have developed the architecture to accomplish and codify a leadership approach to help schools consider how to reach our most marginalized and vulnerable students.

Four years ago, my team and I designed, planned, and implemented a research-based, whole-child wraparound approach to special education. To get our initial pilot off the ground, we brought in stakeholders from across our organization: teachers, teaching assistants (TAs), aides, counselors, occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech language pathologists, positive intervention team members, administrators, and the wider community, along with content area experts through our instructional services.

The pilot grew from five classrooms into a full-school implementation in the second year due to the county’s demand and the success of the program. We recently had the honor of presenting our model to stakeholders from across the country at AESA’s most recent conference.

When you enter a special ed classroom at Ulster BOCES, you can see a reflection of our values through careful consideration of the needs of each student. With neurodiverse and SEL practices at the forefront, advanced use of adaptive technology, and nature-based programming, we develop the love of the arts, literacy, numeracy, and inquiry skills in authentic ways to prepare our learners for lifelong success.

Each space, piece of furniture, curricular material, and multi-sensory practice was intentionally designed around a foundation of research-based practices. In addition, we incorporated the multisensory Orton-Gillingham approach for reading instruction, which has shown great success with many of our students. We also implemented the Zones of Regulation curriculum, Ross Green’s Collaborative Proactive Solutions, and Eric Jensen’s Teaching with the Brain in Mind practices, all of which serve as key foundational resources for our staff and students.  

This whole-child wraparound model is even more critical now that students and educators are facing what may be the most difficult year yet. Our K-12 pathway for special education focuses on understanding and supporting our students’ stories, dreams, and abilities, in order to help them maximize their infinite potential. Building upon a community of inclusivity, educational excellence, and clinical expertise, we provide innovative and safe academic and social-emotional learning opportunities that cultivate the best selves of all our community members.

Throughout the process of implementing our whole-child approach, we looked to our four core values to guide us:

  1. Unique Self: We strive to see our learners, both adults and students, and their stories. We aim to understand how our individuals learn best, to personalize their learning journey, and empower them to know themselves, to find joy, and to maximize their infinite human potential.
  2. Capacity: We are committed to investing in our staff to create highly trained learning specialists, to achieve instructional excellence, to support meaningful learning experiences, and to continue exploring and growing as we engage with our students and as their capacity grows.
  3. Community: We cultivate a warm, therapeutic, family environment that fosters a sense of belonging. We nourish community members by emphasizing wellness, safety, and empathy. We believe strong relationships support self-actualization.
  4. Cycles of Inquiry: We believe all learning should be joyful, rigorous, and passion-based. We believe inquiry encourages students to identify their dreams, advocate for their needs, and contribute to their communities. Through play and service learning, we create experiential and therapeutic learning opportunities that encourage learners to know their own value and appreciate their potential to affect our world for the better. We are literacy- and numeracy-centered.

As our program has continued to expand to meet the county’s demand, we have led with the whole-child wraparound model, which has three defined domains with the learner at the center:

  • Each individual learner’s story;
  • Their learning journey; and
  • A healthy environment.

The Individual Story

At the center of our model is the unique self of each learner. We base everything we do on the individual needs and backgrounds of our students. We must know their story, history, and how they are showing up to us. Their unique story is used to cultivate an individualized plan to help the student grow and be a part of their community. For example, it’s critical that we understand the child beyond their individualized education program (IEP). This includes their history, culture, dreams, and any experiences that have shaped who they are today, such as trauma, poverty, or medical needs.

Opening the Learning Journey

We believe in an intentional focus on literacy, numeracy, and assistive technology. This model engages classroom teachers as well as reading teachers, math teachers, behavior intervention specialists, and assistive technology specialists, to name a few. Equally important for student success is our investment in building and supporting our staff and leaders’ capacity for professional growth.

We have established “whole-child team meetings” in which our instructional staff, teachers, TAs, aides, and related service providers meet regularly to discuss student progress and reflect on our instructional practices with all experts at the table.

Creating a Healthy Environment

Relationships are at the foundation of our work, and the environment in which we cultivate those relationships creates our community. Maintaining a healthy community requires therapeutic spaces where all adults and students feel safe. We design our classrooms and all spaces with intention, from color to comfort to accessibility to efficiency. To design with all students in mind, we get to know who they really are, read their IEPs, observe, listen, learn, and make decisions based on individual needs.

Each and every learning space we use for our students was designed with a particular focus and philosophy. For example, we have zen dens where students can relax, take a break, or do some art. We have calming rooms within our elementary classrooms where students can listen to music, use sensory materials, or simply be in a quiet place to practice their breathing.

We will continue to actively seek best practices for our most marginalized students. I believe the time is now to extend care for our building administrators and our educators so they, too, can care for our students.

What matters most for our special education teachers?
Creating support ecosystems for neurodivergent learners

eSchool Media Contributors