The Switch to Virtual Learning
Celebrate the Children is taking a dream concept and turning it into reality
Celebrate the Children (CTC) has done everything in their power to switch from in-person education to virtual learning. They support entire families, not just students, as the students in their school range in age from 3 to 21. All of these adjustments have come at a high financial price. Distribution of computers and other communication devices, supplementing internet access costs, shipping, printing, and staffing needed to create and send individualized packets… all financial commitments.
But the biggest blow for CTC was the cancellation of their annual gala. While CTC does engage in fundraising efforts throughout the year, its annual gala has typically served as the funding source for its largest and most innovative projects. In years past, proceeds from the gala have been used to improve facilities, purchase school busses, build playgrounds, and enhance outdoor learning environments for the ever-growing school. In 2020, Celebrate the Children had earmarked the funds from the gala to, in part, support two exciting initiatives: The Community Outreach Program and the construction of a state of the art (practically futuristic) sensory room. B2B staff writer, Jovita Scrogin sat down with Jenna Hammond, Laura Baldwin, and Kristin Polster to learn about this financial impact and how CTC is working to impact the lives of their students.
Community Outreach Program
Celebrate the Children enrolls children from over 70 different school districts across New Jersey and the surrounding states. CTC students interact with the community on a daily basis through various Community-Based Instruction Programs, Internships, Job Sampling Programs, and more. While out and about and engaging with their community, and community helpers, the school found that individuals, including first responders, were interested to learn more about their students and how to better support individuals with autism and disABILITIES.
The staff at CTC has reached beyond the school walls and created a free outreach program – a program designed to support, train, and equip First Responders interfacing with individuals with disabilities, particularly autism, in crisis or trauma situations. “Our 1-2 hour presentation includes tips from an interdisciplinary team of Educators, Autism Experts, Occupational Therapists, Physical Therapists, and a panel with special needs children and young adults who can answer questions, and relate to their experiences.” In addition to training the first responders, this outreach program includes a physical tool kit for attendees. “Sirens and flashing lights can cause sensory overload for some individuals with disabilities. Our hope is to give first responders tools to help them communicate better while minimizing anxiety levels. Each kit, which is often sponsored, contains specific tools that can be used to support an individual with special needs in high anxiety or stressful situations.” To date, Celebrate the Children has trained almost 400 first responders, given out almost 430 kits, and wants to do more.
Sensory Room Construction Project
CTC uses a play-based, developmental, individualized approach to education and intervention. Instruction is based on individual differences, recognizing that their students take in and process the same information unevenly. Integrating all five senses at the same time is a personalized journey for all of the CTC students. Some students crave a certain smell, while others have an adverse reaction to the same scent. Many calm down when they can feel a breeze or wind on their skin. Some crave movements like spinning or crashing into soft objects, while others can become practically paralyzed by visual stimulation. Empowering students to recognize their sensory needs and manipulate their environment is a goal of CTC education. But how? How can educators provide an environment which students can control?
The administration and staff at Celebrate the Children are in the midst of taking a dream concept and turning it into reality. Traditional sensory rooms are vital for education, but many are static, most cannot change and adapt to the individual. Floortime Specialist Laura Baldwin says we are “taking what we know works for our population, and filling in gaps so it’s not standard — we want to bring the equipment to life so that our students can learn to filter various forms of sensory information in and out on their own, which will ultimately help them to integrate their own sensory systems.” Many students utilize a sensory swing to engage in movement. In the CTC sensory room, that same swing could be surrounded by panels that allow students to choose different visual scenes, integrating visual stimulation with movement. The student would choose the level of visual stimulation and control the level of movement, based on their individual needs. Different scents could even be piped into the room upon student demand. Imagine swinging while experiencing a virtual zip line ride through a rainforest, with the smell of fresh rain piped in. The student is able to adjust the level of stimulation (visual, audio, etc.) to meet their integration needs.
Class sizes at Celebrate the Children are between 7-12 students. This sensory room is designed to not only provide individualized sessions, it is designed to become a fully interactive classroom. Laura says “our students greatly benefit from having an emotional connection to the subject, they need to experience it as this helps them to develop stronger meaningful connections to the material.” As students at CTC learn about space and the galaxy, they could transition the sensory room into a virtual planetarium. Interactive panels could project the cosmos all around the students, allowing them to experience the subject matter in a safe environment.
The possibilities of this sensory room are endless. Students can practice life-skills such a grocery shopping or interviewing for a job in a simulated environment. New students at CTC could transition into their new environment by having a place where images, sounds, and smells of home could be available. Imagine flipping a switch and one corner of the sensory room could, by utilizing pictures from the family, transition into a student’s bedroom or other safe space. Celebrate the Children is actively working with contractors and designers to make all of this a reality.
Like most things in life, the Community Outreach Program and the Sensory Room, come with a price tag—specifically a large price tag for the Sensory Room. But for the staff of CTC, these projects are two ways to increase the quality of life for their students. The financial strain caused by COVID-19 is just one more challenge the autism and disABILITIES community must face. Continue to follow Celebrate the Children’s journey on their website and learn how you can help by registering for the September 26 Bike to the Beach event! Together we can make an impact!