Curious how to run a high school or consulting practice to support students with learning issues, illness, or any other need that keeps them out of a traditional school? Ask me anything!

Ruth Wilson
May 15, 2018

I'm Ruth Wilson, MA, board certified educational therapist, and certified principal.  As the founder of Huma Education Services, LLC, providing services to college students, and the founder of Brightmont Academy, a private school with 12 campuses located in 4 states, I've spent 20+ years customizing educational programs for many student needs.

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When you talk about "positive student outcomes", how can you ensure that every child in your class has or develops positive outlook? Isn't it very difficult considering an individual's life is dependent on many situations and circumstances on the personal and academic level?
May 21, 6:16AM EDT1
Do you have any tried-and-true methods for promoting your teachings?
May 21, 4:38AM EDT0

The best I've found is word of mouth. When working with students in a one-to-one situation, there are many variables at play, so I'm not promoting a specific methodology as much as a format that allows teachers to implement the best practices.  Students and their parents who have experienced this kind of school program become effective evangelists and they have built my reputation.

May 21, 10:44PM EDT0
What steps do an educational therapist takes to prevent students from falling to depressions?
May 18, 6:09AM EDT1

An educational therapist can help a student with depression by taking over the management of assignments and parceling out one small step at a time. This reduces the amount of energy the student has to spend on executive function tasks like deciding where to start, organizing, estimating time and materials needed to complete the task, and so on.  Students often need more processing time while depressed, and the educational therapist can provide cues and redirects to help the student stay engaged and persevere until they do understand the questions ask and can retrieve the answer.

In some cases, it is necessary to negotiate with school administration and teachers to reduce the volume of work expected, or even to drop some subjects altogether until the student is healthier.   The workload can be adusted incrementally so that the student doesn't become overwhelmed. The educational therapist not only guides the student through this process but also observes progress, mood, and attentiveness and provide feedback to the school team and doctors about how medications are impacting the student.  

May 20, 1:05AM EDT0
What are the common challenges that hamper quality education in the special education sector?
May 17, 6:36AM EDT0

A quality program can lose some effectiveness when the environment isn't the right fit, and many schools have less control over this factor.  They can't make a school building smaller or less noisy, so some students get overwhelmed just getting to the classroom. It is hard to find an appropriate peer group when all programs are indivivdualized, so other students can become a distraction.  Even when a school assigns an adult aide to assist the student, there are cases where the student is very shy or uncomfortable having an adult always close by and this triggers other negative behaviors.  Each component of the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) has to be considered carefully to determine if it's appropriate for the student, and then the right person and place to deliver this service. 

Another common challenge is building a meaningful transition plan. This is a required part of the IEP for older students, and while students do give input to the plan, it isn't always pushed beyond a conversation and turned into concrete actionable steps to help the student become familiar with the requirements to work in that career after graduation.

May 20, 1:33AM EDT0
From your perspective, what can be done to improve special education services?
May 17, 1:44AM EDT0

I would like the student to have professional representation when his or her program is set up. The IEP meeting (to develop an Individualized Education Plan) can be very intimidating. Teachers, school psychologists, and school administrators all work for the district, and although they are working for the best outcome for the child, their recommendations may be influenced by what is available within the school building or district. Parents offer valuable information and often share insights that would be invisible to school staff, such as sleep patterns and other symptoms that manifest only in the home. But the parent is clearly advocating for the strongest program for their child and may not know how to communicate their information so that it can be processed appropriately. Sometimes parent information is discounted or not weighted as highly as it should be, and important clues about how the student is currently functioning can be missed. The most important voice, the student's perspective, is often absent from the room. Given all of these competing interests, I would love to see a third party advisor or mediator present to help guide the process, someone  who is not employed by any of the vested parties but is assigned specifically to represent the child with a goal of voicing their needs and helping others participating in the meeting to sort out what is or is not a reasonable request.   WIth our current system, a child advocate may participate but typically the parents are funding the cost so their presence is often viewed as a sign of distrust of the district rather than someone to help resolve an already tense situation. Mediation is a part of the process and a clear right of every special education student, but by the time families get to this step, relationships have often broken down to unhealthy levels. The child can't get appropriate services when the teacher is afraid, and parents have a hard time supporting a placement they don't believe properly addresses their child's needs.

In my setting in a private school, the parent can walk away if they don't believe in the program we prescribe. Since that's not an option in public schools, I'd like to see a neutral party facilitate the negotiations.

May 17, 3:37PM EDT0
What exactly is the difference between “Child Psychologist” and “School Psychologist”?
May 17, 12:54AM EDT0

A school psychologist works within a school setting to help students adjust to the school environment and progress at school. They often conduct education-psychological evaluations and become an integral part of the Individualized Education Process (IEP) team for special education, but may or may not be licensed to do evaluations or therapy outside of a school setting.

A child psychologist is a broader term for a psychologist who works with children to adolescents on issues such as mood, behavior, milestones, coping strategies, and mental and emotional well-being. A child psychology practice can include both testing and therapy services.

I hold a third type of credential as a board certified educational therapist. Educational therapy focuses on the whole child and long-term development by teaching compensating strategies to mitigate symptoms of a learning disability, mental health condition, or any other factors that impact learning at the same time we work to build the student's academic skills. Educational therapy extends beyond tutoring, where the goal may be to complete an assignment, by integrating executive function instruction and coping strategies into our sessions. An educational therapist may also conduct assessments or at least interpret testing conducted elsewhere to guide their prescribed programs, and may work independently in private practice or as part of a school team.

All three of these professions are important parts of supporting a student, and we often work together on IEP teams or as collaborative partners.

May 17, 10:48AM EDT0
What are some of the misconceptions concerning children receiving special education services?
May 16, 1:13PM EDT0

There are a wide range of needs serviced through special ed, and I get frustrated that many people outside of the education field believe that students receiving special ed services are more impaired than they are. The point is that it's "special" to help that child advance to their highest potential, and not that it's "low" because the student cannot manage a college-prep curriculum or  learn skills that enable them to be a successful, independent adult. Many special ed categories do not involve any kind of cognitive disability, and frequently include students in the gifted range.  Giftedness itself puts students out of our defined typical range and often merits special ed services. The typical learning disabled student by definition has an average or higher IQ, and I observe that they often are working much harder and spending significnatly more time completing homework than other peers. The majority of my students have continued on to some type of higher education. So It's a misconception that future options are limited just because a student is receiving special edcuation services,. Even for those who do have significant cognifive impairments, they are working very hard to learn basic skills that will improve their quality of life, so that is still a meaningful accomplishment worth celebrating. 

May 17, 10:30AM EDT0

Hello Ruth, as a nontraditional student, I have gotten all of my degrees online. What is your take on online education? Specifically, do you feel it is or can be as effective (for students who have no other option)?

May 16, 10:23AM EDT0

I have worked with many students who couldn't access a traditional education because they were unable to attend during regular school hours. For them, online education has been a godsend and opened up many opportunities.

A digital curriculum usually offers a very rich experience for the student because videos can be embedded, and any resources referenced can be linked so that the student has immediate access.  Students get feedback on quizzes and pretests instantly, and know that they are able to focus their time on concepts where they don't yet have mastery. We used a digital curriculum along with a one-to-one teacher at my school and found it incredibly effective. The key is for each individual student to find out how they learn and then to look for a match in a school program as well as other supports to offset any potential barriers.

Sometimes supplements are needed - Some students miss having a a teacher to explain the concepts directly and give immediate feedback, or someone to prompt them to log in and provide encouragement. While many online programs have these services built in, and I have often recommended tutoring for students who need the instructional support as well as a direct relationship with another local person. Lonliness can be a negative factor! 

LJ, You are a fantastic example of someone who has achieved great accomplishments even though you describe yourself as a nontraditional student. Online programs are just one example of the many different school choice options available today so that no student needs to feel limited by the offerings at any one particular school.

May 16, 12:02PM EDT0
How would you describe your vision of an effective (elementary/middle/high) school?
May 16, 12:45AM EDT0

I look for positive student outcomes, and the ability to accommodate for different types of learners. When a student is having difficulty, we as educators need to be able evaluate what is going on and to work out a plan to support the student. Too often, students conclude that they can't learn or that they aren't smart and that's when  the school staff should unite to include this student and find an appropriate baseline where the student can succeed and build from there. Many schools focus on exit test scores, which is a good data point, but my personal drive has always been to improve the rate of change between an initial baseline and an end-of-term score. It the student also has a smile on their face, is active in a variety of extra-curricular activities, and can communicate effectively with peers and adults, that's an outcome I enjoy to see.

May 16, 11:37AM EDT0

Hello Ruth! What do you see as some of the most pressing needs among collegiate students? How are you working in your new endeavor to address some of these needs?

May 15, 2:32PM EDT0

College completion rates are low, even for students who lack few credits to complete a degree.  My goal with Huma Education is to help ensure that students aren't making these life-changing decisions alone or without considering other options. Many of the resources that students need (tutoring, psychological interventions, medical care) are available and frequently offered right on campus. But knowing what you need when and being able to ask for it can be an overwhelming task. My current work is to help students develop self-advocacy and executive function skills as well as support them through academic, social, and emotional issues that arise.

May 15, 3:05PM EDT0

How do you handle health issues that prevent a student from attending traditional school or who may need special sterile environment     How does ongoing or multiple hospital stays effect the ability to complete curriculum? 

May 15, 2:23PM EDT0

You raise some very valid points about how seriously illness can impact a student academically. There's no question that absences have a negative effect on learning, but in cases as you've described, the student can be harmed physically if they are exposed to germs that are negligible to other students. The policies around attendance have flexibility when a student's health is involved and can always be adjusted.

By working in a small private school, we have been able to control the setting to keep a student safe in a controlled classroom setting. Fortunately we have many options available to deliver instruction, so the first priority is to ensure that the medical needs of student are met, and then work closely with your school or other educators to develop a program of study customized for the student. 

Last edited @ May 15, 8:26PM EDT.
May 15, 2:38PM EDT1
What do you view as your most important contribution to the daily operations of your school?
May 15, 10:14AM EDT0

Every teacher takes satisfaction from seeing a student master a skill, and I take pride in seeing this one-to-one school model be successfully replicated in so many geographic areas. I love to connect with other educators who share my philosophy, and together we have served thousands of students successfully.  Whether it's communicating with teachers and administrators or students and families, I believe my most important contribution has been recognizing the vast range of needs that can become either a strength or a barrier for the student, and being able to translate this into an actionable education plan. 

I'm fortunate that at this stage, now that Brightmont Academy has 12 campuses and additional ones coming soon, that I have connected with other educators who share my vision. It enables me to step out of a day-to-day operational role and to return to working more closely with students and families as an educational consultant.

Last edited @ May 15, 8:27PM EDT.
May 15, 1:48PM EDT0
Do you feel that present leadership training for educational professionals is sufficient and what would you change about the training currently provided?
May 15, 8:22AM EDT0

My emphasis has always been on customizing instruction for the individual learner, so I'm an advocate of increasing awareness and tactical strategies for serving students with any kind of disability.  This can benefit all students as I've often observed that the schools with solid  special ed programs also tend to have great general ed offerings with positive outcomes such as higher graduation rates, stronger school culture as reflected in stakeholder surverys, and increased rates of students continuing to higher education and other post-secondary placements.

May 15, 1:29PM EDT1
How often do principals visit classrooms to observe instruction when it’s not part of a scheduled evaluation and what feedback do you receive because of these visits?
May 15, 4:59AM EDT0

Frequency can vary significantly by school, and my position is that a highly-visible principal benefits not only the quality of instruction, but also the school culture.  Teachers can more readily integrate feedback when they know it is based on a robust understanding of what they are offering students rather than an isolated snapshot of a single lesson, and students benefit from knowing they have a team of adults invested in delivering a high-quality learning experience to them. We are all working together as a team, and I always appreciate being called in to see a student's accomplishment and to be an included part of the support system for that student. 

May 15, 1:16PM EDT0
Why is the turnover rate so high for principals, particularly those working in schools with large populations of minority students and students from low-income families? What might it take to decrease those rates in your district, and are any such efforts underway?
May 14, 10:35PM EDT0

It is a very stressful job, compounded by some of the factors you've named in your question that impact students both at school and at home.  At the principal level, you are forced to balance policies and priorities that will benefit the majority of students while still being aware that individual students may have additional needs.

I founded Brightmont Academy to respond to these situations, because we implement a one-to-one model exclusively and can build a program appropriate for each individual student.  This model brings with it a different kind of stress, because now we become responsible for every student that we admit. 

My long-term hope is that we can prove out the efficacy of a one-to-one model so that it can be adopted as a choice in the continuum of services offered by large school districts, and eventually begin to tackle some of these tough issues you've identified that do directly impact student outcomes.

May 15, 1:09PM EDT0
What type of interventions would you design for a student with behavioural problems?
May 13, 6:33PM EDT0

So many students aren't aware that their behavior is out of line with peers until the situation becomes significant, which means often they are punished without recognizing what they did wrong or how they could perform better in the future.  I advocate for a progressive system with multiple warnings and redirects so that the student has a chance to correct the behavior, especially before any public consequence, such as callng out their name or sending them out of a class where peers hear the punishment as well. 

Students are most often at-risk when asked to transition from one activity to another, or during unstructured times such as lunch and passing periods.  Teachers and staff can try to provide structure during that time, such as giving the student a specific place to eat lunch or walking with them so that the student understands very concretely what is expected and can focus on meeting those expectations (as well as know where to turn for help if needed). 

For managing transitions, having a signal so that the student is aware that the teacher is asking for a change in behavior or attention, and spelling out what "paying attention" looks like so that the student has a concrete list of activities to demonstrate their compliance. Students with behavioral problems may not be able to break down a direction into specific actions, like putting your pencil down and making eye contact with the teacher. In fact, they may need to practice hearing the transition signal and performing the tasks that come naturally to other students.  But investing this much time and working with students at such a granular level, not only can their skills improve, but also they can recognize that adults are there to help them learn and improve behavior, not just waiting to pounce in a punitive way when their behavior is inappropriate.

May 14, 12:15PM EDT0
What do you dislike about educational psychology?
May 13, 3:20PM EDT0

I would have to say the shortage of available therapists. So many more students would benefit from testing, consulting, and therapy than have access to these services.

May 14, 11:54AM EDT0
Do you plan to open more schools in the near future?
May 13, 5:13AM EDT0

Brightmont Academy is definitely on a growth track and you will see more campuses opening soon.  I am so happy to see my concept expanding to so many regions, and know that the one-to-one instruction model is a solution for a wide variety of student needs. I've stepped down from a day-to-day operational role so that I can work more closely with students and their families as an education consultant

May 13, 11:15AM EDT0
What type of experience do you have working with diverse or multicultural populations?
May 13, 2:45AM EDT0

When working with students in a one-to-one setting, every situation becomes unique and the format allows us to focus on an educational program specifically for that individual student. Some of our students enrolled because they were bullied or misunderstood in another school. Others are here from other countries and seek a short-term placement until they are able to integrate into a more traditional school at the beginning of the term. Some parents come with interpreters to get information about programs. The one thing that all cultures share is a deep commitment to helping their children have access to the highest quality of education possible.  Once we agree on a course of study, the one-to-one format enables us to put in place accommodations that not only support learning goals, but also ensure that any special requirements for dress, food, schedule, etc. are met.

Last edited @ May 14, 11:53AM EDT.
May 13, 11:31AM EDT0
What aspects of educational research are you most interested in and why?
May 13, 2:21AM EDT0

How stress impacts the brain. I've worked with many students who have no cognitive deficits and no diagnosed mental illnesses, but they still struggle with managing the day-to-day demands of school.  I believe we need more understanding of some of the non-academic factors that contribute to student success or failure, and recommend that we consider supports to increase coping strategies, resilience, and executive functioning in addition to academic skills.

Last edited @ May 15, 1:02PM EDT.
May 14, 11:52AM EDT0
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