Autism

PaTTAN Autism Initiative, West Chester Elementary School and the Czech Republic

by Ms. Jennifer Neill, Digital Communications Coordinator with West Chester Area School District

Parents will go to great lengths to do what is best for their children. A recent visitor to the West Chester Area School District is proof positive of that sentiment.

This past March, Exton Elementary Autistic Support teacher Nicole Verbos and her staff hosted an Applied Behavioral Analyst from the Czech Republic. Dita Chapman was in the United States visiting autistic support classrooms in Pennsylvania that operate under the guidance of the PaTTAN Autism Initiative. The initiative is overseen by the State Department of Education and is designed to support the efforts and initiatives of the Bureau of Special Education.

The PaTTAN Autism Initiative is committed to helping educators and parents better meet the educational needs of children and young adults with autism spectrum disorders. Through this program, teachers, paraprofessionals, and parents are taught the principals of Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) and learn how to implement those principals in the classroom and at home. According to the State Department of Education, ABA is a scientific approach to behavior. Its principles are used to change and improve behaviors. ABA principles and procedures can be used with all students to provide positive reinforcement, to teach and maintain appropriate behaviors, and to provide immediate feedback during instruction.

Frustrated by the lack of resources in Prague to properly educate her 8-year-old son, who has autism, Dr. Jana Gandalovicova, a cardiologist, heard about the PaTTAN Autism Initiative and decided to do something to help autistic children in the Czech Republic. Dr. Gandalovicova hired Chapman to come to the United States and observe classrooms in Pennsylvania that operate under the PaTTAN Autism Initiative with the ultimate goal of replicating the model in the Czech Republic.

“Children in the Czech Republic who have been diagnosed with autism basically have two options,” said Chapman. “They can either go into mainstream classrooms, which is not ideal because the teachers have no idea what to do with these children. They can’t teach them, so the kids end up learning nothing. The other option is to go to a special education school where the children are very low functioning. There is really nothing in between.”

“My trip here is because of one mother’s struggle to find suitable education for her child – one very dedicated mother who wants to make a change in our country,” continued Chapman. “Dr. Gandalovicova researched the PaTTAN Autism Initiative and presented it to the Ministry of Education in Prague. They told her ‘This is a great idea. Let’s give it a try.’ “

The PaTTAN Autism Initiative uses visual supports and research-based, data-driven, proven interventions. Mrs. Verbos’ classroom is described as a model classroom by Amiris Dipuglia and Mike Miklos, lead consultants with the PaTTAN Autism Initiative.
In addition to Mrs. Verbos’ classroom, there are autistic learning support classrooms at East Goshen Elementary School, Fern Hill Elementary School, Fugett Middle School, Stetson Middle School, and Westtown-Thornbury Elementary School. The teachers at those schools also operate under the PaTTAN Autism Initiative. They have seen significant progress in their students and are dedicated to making a difference in their lives.

One of the first tools one notices when they walk into Mrs. Verbos’ classroom is a busy, yet extremely organized bulletin board filled with the names of her students and staff along with daily activities. All of the information lives on laminated pieces of paper that are attached to velcro to allow for easy scheduling of each day. Mrs. Verbos begins her day in front of the board arranging the pieces as if she were putting together a puzzle.

“The schedule makes everybody accountable for what they are doing,” said Verbos. “Everyone knows where they need to be and when. Everything is color coordinated.”

The upcoming school year will mark Verbos’ fifth year in the PaTTAN Initiative. Dipuglia and Miklos, who have been with Verbos from the beginning, have nothing but high praise for her and all of her efforts.

“A teacher like Nicole Verbos has developed an independence in selecting programs and in training her staff to teach effectively. She strongly monitors student progress so that our efforts here in the classroom are not as necessary as they would be in some other classes because Nicole has developed independence in the analysis,” said Dipuglia.

“She is a model classroom,” continued Dipuglia. “It’s a feather in the hat of the West Chester Area School District to have nurtured a teacher like Nicole. Exton Principal Dr. Terri-Lynne Alston, Special Education Supervisor Lisa Phifer, Special Education Liaison Kate Feryo, and district administration have been so supportive of Nicole’s efforts, and they worked to understand how to best support her.”

Mrs. Verbos bounces around her classroom with a level of energy that would make the Energizer Bunny envious. She constantly thinks about her students and how she can improve their learning experience. Her ability to apply what she has learned through the PaTTAN Autism Initiative to help her students is remarkable.

“Nicole is unique,” said Chapman. “She gets it. She gets the whole science. She gets how everything works. She is super fun and motivating. She is a great leader. I think the most amazing thing about her is even when she is concentrating on one student, her eyes and ears are everywhere. She knows exactly what’s going on in every corner of her classroom while she is still working with one student intensively.”

“Seeing what is happening here in Pennsylvania has been so encouraging,” added Chapman. “I come from the field of behavioral analysis, which is very complex. What the people at PaTTAN have done is manage to take something that is very difficult and complex and turn it into something simple that teachers and support staff can implement. I have not seen a single person in any of the classrooms that I’ve visited that wasn’t able to follow the protocol.”

According to Dipuglia and Miklos, there are about 550 classrooms statewide that operate under the PaTTAN Initiative.

“I think the amount of schools across the nation that are employing methods of teaching derived from Applied Behavioral Analysis is increasing dramatically,” said Miklos. “What is unique about Pennsylvania is that we have developed ways of using ABA that are geared towards making it easier for teachers to implement. We’ve produced training materials and other resources that allow teachers to acquire the basic concepts of ABA and employ them in a more efficient manner.”

The alternative to the PaTTAN Initiative and ABA is a more eclectic approach that many parents of autistic children wind up turning to out of desperation when they feel that nothing is working.

“The problem with an eclectic approach is that it tends to lead towards a lack of consistency,” added Miklos. “It leads to a lack of programs that build systematically from one step to another. If we can teach teachers ways of interacting that carefully build skills in a systematic way we believe we have a powerful tool to assist children in becoming more independent, more productive members of society and actually being more successful in their interactions with people within their school and their community.”

“In our society, I think there is a tendency to look at quick and easy fixes,” continued Miklos. “This has resulted in the propagation of many interventions that may be, at some level, questionable. Parents love their kids, they care about their kids, and they want to do what’s best. I think ultimately the answer is education and also making sure that when we are teaching, we’re really looking at providing verifiable outcomes. If that doesn’t happen, then we should be doing something else. There is no intervention that is always going to be successful.”

Carolyn Snyder’s son William is a student in Mrs. Verbos’ class. When William turned two, his pediatrician told Snyder to prepare for an autism diagnosis, which he eventually received. She constantly battles the nagging thought of “am I doing everything possible to help my child?” Before enrolling at Exton Elementary School, William attended an early intervention school in Delaware. Teachers told Snyder that she shouldn’t expect too much out of her son. After removing William from the school, the family began their journey to find a school where William could thrive, and they found it at Exton.

“One of the things that we were impressed with was how we immediately started noticing changes in his behavior at home,” said Snyder. “Previously when he wanted something, and we could not figure out what he wanted he would cry. Now, he was starting to ask us and show us what he wanted. We knew we had made the right decision about this school.”

“Even with the words he has, there is a painful quietness with my son. I longed to hear him tell me anything,” Snyder added. “Rides in the car were so quiet. I used to be very irritated when mothers complained about their child talking all the time. There was one thing I wanted to hear above all else – for him to say I love you. He could repeat the words, but he had never said them on his own without being told to. One day within a few months of starting kindergarten, my son and I were cuddling. I told him ‘I love you’ and he said ‘I love you too.’ I told everybody at work that my six-year-old told me ‘I love you.’ I must have seemed like a nut as none of those people understood the significance.”

“I feel very lucky that I am living in an area where the Autism Initiative exists and there are people like Nicole Verbos and her staff as well as Amiris Dipuglia who care so much and expect these children to succeed,” said Snyder.

Dita Chapman has returned to Prague and is in the process of implementing all of the techniques she observed while in Pennsylvania. Once everything is set up, and staff members are trained, she will remain in the classroom daily to ensure the program runs as smoothly as possible.

“We are going to set up the first classroom and start small,” said Chapman. “Our first year will be a trial run. We will see how it goes. I don’t know if people realize how lucky you are, but what you have in Pennsylvania, what PaTTAN is doing, is state of the art education for children on the (autism) spectrum. This is like nothing else on the whole planet.”

Mike Miklos and Amiris Dipuglia plan to visit Chapman in Prague in October to observe her progress. For more information on the PaTTAN Initiative visit www.pattan.net.

For more information, please contact Ms. Jennifer Neill, Digital Communications Coordinator, at 484-266-1171 or jneill@wcasd.net http://home.wcasd.net/pages/West_Chester_Area_SD/News/Exton_Elementary_Hosts_Special

Rate This Post:

  • There are no comments currently available

Leave Comment

  • You must be logged in to comment.

Please use the comments for discussion and to contribute your reviews, perspective and thoughts. Your colleagues and other visitors will appreciate it! If you need help, please contact us. Requests for help will not be answered in comments.

Consultants

View All Consultants »