By Anita Worrall, Sheila Schuurmans, Chris Worrall and Sue Gibbings
Originally published in Independent Education, Jun 20, 2016
They say that ours is a unique school.
Set in Rondebosch, Cape Town, known as the “golden acre of education”– opposite Bishops Diocesan College Preparatory School and close to St Joseph’s Marist College, Forres Preparatory School, Rustenburg Girls’ High School and Rustenburg Junior School, Rondebosch Boys’ High School, Oakhurst Primary School, Micklefield School and St George’s Grammar School – Pro Ed House School is an independent primary school for bright boys and girls who, for one reason or another, fail to learn in a mainstream school. It was founded in 1998 by Dr Anita Worrall.
The Pro Ed Centre for Assessment and Therapy preceded Pro Ed House School. It was set up in 1978 by Worrall as a multidisciplinary centre for children who experienced difficulties with learning. Made up of a multidisciplinary team of psychologists, occupational therapists and speech therapists, it was the first such independent centre in the Western Cape. It was frowned upon at the time by academics, who thought that such groups should not operate away from universities or departments of education. “Don’t even tell me about it, I don’t want to hear it,” one academic school psychologist told Worrall. Well, the centre grew and grew and evolved into Pro Ed House School 20 years later!
In 1998, Worrall sat down with some parents and wrote up the following school mission statement:
At Pro Ed House we believe in helping boys and girls, who learn differently and who are uncomfortable in a mainstream school, to progress in a safe, encouraging and structured environment. We do this by recognising their unique learning styles and by providing alternative and focused learning methods, in an encouraging atmosphere and in a multidisciplinary setting, in close liaison with their parents.
The group defined its goals: to develop emotional and social competencies in children and to enable cognitive growth through self-regulation, organisation, planned behavior, problem-solving, the joy of learning and lifelong habits of mind.
Is inclusive schooling the answer?
Many people believe that schools should be “inclusive” to support all children, but with all the best will in the world, inclusivity is difficult to implement. Classes are generally large,
teachers are not prepared for specialised teaching, and children dislike being taken out of the classroom for remedial or other therapy.
Children who learn differently need to feel that they can succeed. Their parents, who have put their children through a multitude of assessments and therapies over the years, are concerned that they will not be able to obtain a satisfactory level of education in this highly competitive and globalised world.
We know that parents and children experience huge disappointments when children fail to perform adequately at school. The children compare themselves with their classmates. At home, they are teased by their more academically successful siblings.
So much is at stake. We know that children who experience too much failure too early in life are vulnerable to a wide range of complications. They are poorly understood and when their specific problems go unrecognised and untreated, they are prone to behavioural and emotional difficulties that frequently are more severe than the learning problems which generated them. These children lose hope and motivation, are anxious, develop a low self-esteem and may show non-compliance or fall in with the wrong crowds.
Pro Ed: a place to belong
The children at Pro Ed House School are a diverse group. They have been diagnosed as having dyslexia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), being on the autism disorder spectrum, or having dyspraxia. They have been told they have central auditory processing difficulties, dyscalculia and sensory integration dysfunction. What they share is that they are beautiful, intelligent children with a deep sense of bewilderment.
The role of the educational psychologist is to identify a child’s strengths and weaknesses and to explain the reason for the child’s learning difficulty. A follow-up for a more in-depth assessment by the Pro Ed multidisciplinary team – speech and language therapists, occupational therapists and/or physiotherapists – is generally recommended. The specialist teachers then put together an Individualised Education Plan (IEP), together with the psychologist and the multidisciplinary team. These IEPs are discussed with the child’s parents. The multidisciplinary team members work with the teacher, offer advice and generate their own goals for the child. Occupational therapy is on hand for children with more serious sensory issues or fine motor control difficulties. Movement groups organised by the sports coach take place twice a week.
The multifaceted, metacognitive Pro Ed curriculum
Metacognition involves knowing about your thinking and understanding your learning. At Pro Ed House School, the focus is on developing metacognitive skills and thinking strategies, including those executive function processes that regulate goal-setting behaviour such as planning, prioritising, shifting flexibly, organising and monitoring your actions.
The entire curriculum emphasises a strategic and problem solving approach, based on response to intervention research.
Our intense reading programme includes the essential components for attaining literacy recommended by the US National Reading Panel,3 namely phonological development, phonics, morphology, orthography, fluency and vocabulary.
Children leave their classrooms to attend the literacy programme best suited to their learning. Speech therapists trained to use strategies such as the RAVE-O4 and the Wilson programmes attend to children with severe dyslexia.
Fluency is enhanced by the Repeated Readings and the Read Naturally Programmes.
Spoken language is emphasised at Pro Ed, since vocabulary is an essential component of good comprehension.
We have a maths specialist who oversees the teaching of maths from grades 1–7. We believe that maths is developed rather than taught; that it is no longer the memorisation of number facts, rules and formulas but instead a meaningful problem-solving activity. Our aim is that all children learn to think mathematically, and they must think mathematically to learn.
In every class, children are given frequent opportunities to learn interdependently. This enables them to communicate with clarity and think about their thinking.
Our dyslexic children are generally good at maths, and at Pro Ed House we encourage and extend their development. This results in many children participating in the Living Maths Olympiad with both confidence and enjoyment.
Thinking Skills and Habits of Mind
We have found that Thinking Maps, developed by David Hyerle, lend themselves beautifully to our metacognitive and strategy learning curriculum.
The eight Thinking Maps correspond to eight fundamental cognitive processes such as describing in context; describing qualities; comparing and contrasting; classifying; whole part relationships; sequencing; cause and effect; and analogical thinking. All maps are set in a metacognitive frame that facilitates reflection. These eight fundamental Thinking Maps form a transformative language for learning and are eminently suited for our learners. They provide structure and organisation and they are used throughout the school, as are De Bono’s Thinking Hats10 and Art Costa’s Habits of Mind.
Our children love the Habits and are able to label them and see value in them – for example, “finding humour” or “working interdependently” (not easy tasks for children on the autism disorder spectrum). “Thinking and communicating with clarity and precision” is another great habit to focus on for children with expressive language difficulties.
Visible Thinking and Cogmed
Recently, we introduced Ron Ritchhart’s Visible Thinking Routines.12 Routines such as chalk/talk or think-puzzle-explore uncover students’ thinking and establish a culture of thinking together aloud. In our classrooms, our children’s thinking is noticed, respected and encouraged by the teacher and by each other, thus fostering a culture of listening and learning together.
To those children who experience serious working memory problems, we offer Cogmed,13 a working memory program frequently used in schools in the US, Sweden and the UK. Working memory is the ability to retain and manipulate information for a few seconds or more. This temporary storage and manipulation of information is necessary for complex cognitive tasks such as comprehension, learning and reasoning.
Our emotional climate
Weekly staff development allows for the discussion of cutting edge research in education. It is essential for teachers to understand the influence of emotions – positive and negative – on attention, memory and higher-order thinking.
Students at Pro Ed House thrive in small classes (not more than 12 children per class), in a structured and nurturing environment. In The Brain-targeted Teaching Model for 21stcentury Schools, Marian Hardiman14 writes that setting the emotional climate for learning may be the most important task a teacher undertakes each day. Research has shown that when children form warm relationships with teachers, they are protected against risk for a range of problems, including antisocial predispositions. Fostering a warm and supportive relationship with the autistic child is essential to their learning. We have seen this again and again. Furthermore, fostering a growth mindset in children is an essential component, as Carol Dweck15 has shown. Behaviour-specific praise is more effective in reinforcing behaviour than generalised praise. Praising for effort, perseverance and hard work is more effective than simply saying “Good job today, class” or “You are a smart boy”.
We want growth mindsets to be fostered at home, too. We invite parents to monthly coffee mornings at school to discuss various issues, including how to encourage resilience, flexibility
and a growth mindset.
We have seen the effects of the emotional climate on our students. Children are happy at Pro Ed House. Seeing that they are not alone in experiencing difficulties, they immediately relax with the teachers’ nurturing support. Our staff like to describe our children’s expressions of satisfaction as “magic moments”. One little girl is reported to have said: “It is lovely here. Every day is a new surprise.” We were delighted to learn how one of our boys, who experiences serious barriers to learning, was discovered by his mother on the first day of school this year, dressed and ready to go to school at 05:00!
What aspect of the Pro Ed House School turns our children into happy, confident children, eager to rejoin the mainstream? Difficult to say – probably all of the above.
1. See, for example: http://www.capemessenger.co.za/2015/10/15/anita-worrallreceives-
2. See, for example: http://www.nysrti.org/docs/D_Mellard_ppt_ OCT_14_09.pdf
3. See, for example: https://www.nichd.nih.gov/research/supported/ Pages/nrp.aspx
4. See, for example: http://www.voyagersopris.com/curriculum/subject/ literacy/raveo/ overview
5. See, for example: http://www.wilsonlanguage.com/programs/wilson-reading-system
6. See, for example: https://www.teachervision.com/reading/teachingmethods/ 3789.html
7. See, for example: http://www.readnaturally.com/product/read-naturally-encore
8. See, for example: http://www.livingmaths.com/living-maths-olympiad
9. See, for example: http://dft.designsforthinking.com/?page_id=17
10. See, for example: http://www.debonogroup.com/six_thinking_hats.php
11. See, for example: http://www.artcostacentre.com/html/habits.htm
12. See, for example: http://www.ronritchhart.com/COT_Resources.html
13. See, for example: http://www.cogmed.com
14. Hardiman, M.M. (2012) The Brain-targeted Teaching Model for 21st-century Schools. California: Corwin.
15. See, for example: https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=32124