As a result of new funding in 2018, the Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario Special Education Department was able to hire an Occupational Therapist, a Board Certified Behaviour Analyst, and an additional Speech Language Pathologist that would be dedicated to the Special Education Multidisciplinary Team, which also includes other members of the Special Education Department. The vision of the Team is to assess and support students with complex multiple exceptionalities who struggle. These are students who, despite their best efforts, continue to struggle or be in crisis. When this happens, consultants speak to the team and make a recommendation to the Principal of Special Education to have the Multidisciplinary Team involved.
Principal of Special Education Heather Gerber, Speech Language Pathologist Tiffany Ashford, and Board Certified Behaviour Analyst Sandra O’Doherty presented information to the Board of Trustees about the Multidisciplinary Team, and how it works to support students with complex developmental and behavioural challenges through a transdisciplinary approach to assessment and school consultation.
“It is my honour to be part of this very well educated team,” began Principal Heather Gerber. “They come together with such enthusiasm to assist students through a transdisciplinary approach, which means that they look at the student as a whole. The multidisciplinary approach ensures that the student is at the centre, the focus.”
The advantages of a multidisciplinary approach includes the ability for the team to consider complex, multidimensional student needs, as well as interdisciplinary collaboration. Team members gather information through observing, assessing and discussing the exceptionalities of the learner through the lens of their various disciplines. The support is dynamic and includes trialing strategies, modelling, and adapting and adjusting goals and strategies as the needs of the student and the school change.
“As a team, we look at the specific goal for the student, the specific behaviour to be addressed, and try things out to see what strategies are working,” noted Tiffany Ashford. “We then adjust as needed, and try different strategies. It is important to have that cyclical piece – there is a process, we must observe the student, look at outside reports, assess the data, and come up with a plan. Once there is a plan, we go back and meet with parents and with school teams to review and deliver the plan.”
The group shared case study details of one student. The student is a secondary student with moderate cognitive impairments, a complex medical history that is evolving, limited exposure to a school environment, and a physically aggressive response to staff.
“He is highly motivated by social engagement, but was inconsistently able to participate in social interactions functionally or in a positive manner,” explained Tiffany Ashford. “The physically aggressive response was used to escape or avoid a task. The recommendation was to increase the opportunity for the student to have positive interactions with staff, and increase participation in activities that the student finds meaningful. This was achieved by introducing games that naturally require a back and forth social interaction and turn taking. As he is a secondary student, we wanted to choose games that are appropriate for his level but also socially appropriate for the environment.”
To overcome the challenge of limited verbal communication skills, the staff at the school shared photos with the student’s parents to provide an opportunity for the family to have a conversation about what he did during his school day. By increasing social interaction, the staff were able to reduce the unwanted responses, by teaching gentle touch to replace a non-gentle touch. By responding appropriately to the student’s verbal attempts at communication, and diverting attention with high social engagement during times that typically result in a high level of unwanted behaviour, and increasing opportunities for multisensory touch opportunities, great gains have been achieved.
The strategies were extremely successful in reducing the student’s aggressive behaviour toward staff, and also contributed to enriching opportunities for more meaningful social interaction and learning experiences.
“Teaching him how to touch gently and how to get attention through a gentle touch was key, and we taught this through modelling – teaching high-fives, teaching fancy handshakes,” explained Sandra O’Doherty. “When we teach, we see that it is possible to open the door for success in school.”
“As you can see, we truly give a voice to students who don’t have a voice,” concluded Principal Gerber. “Our team goes above and beyond to connect with each of these students in a unique way that meets their individual learning needs.”