Our back-to-school series continues with a podcast featuring Jackie Bartell, a retired Special Educator in the public school system in Rochester, New York, and DIR Expert Training Leader with the Interdisciplinary Council on Development and Learning (ICDL). We discuss applying the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model in a public school setting.

Jackie Bartell takes the perspective of DIR as a philosophy. In whatever way you work with children, you can apply the DIR model. But DIR is a way not only to interact with children; it is also a way to with the staff by thinking about regulation, interaction, and relationships. Doing DIR in a public school means supporting the students and the staff.

Please tune in to the podcast with Jackie Bartell below, to hear how she navigates the public school setting, develops relationships, and educates the staff about the philosophy and the strategies DIR employs in order to support the staff and students, and then how the DIR model is applied in the school setting.

Applying the DIR Model in a Public School with Jackie Bartell

by Affect Autism

It’s a Process

Applying the DIR model in a public school setting takes a flexible approach and an understanding of process. That is, it is a process that is continually being molded as you go. It’s like starting a DIR program with a child: you first see where the school and staff are at, what unique circumstances exist, and you work to build good relationships.

Jackie tells us that you have to have conversations about where we were, where we are, and where we are going. It is a collaborative effort with special educators, leadership and staff involved. You have to ask, “What do we need in this environment to make this work” for each child. You are really asking teachers and schools to change their whole paradigm of what teaching and learning is about.

To change the paradigm, you have to build trust and relationships with the staff you’re working with. There are some children who need the tools to learn before they can learn. So you have to take care of the regulation piece by looking at individual differences and sensory processing first, and then attention, interaction, and learning. Schools are usually set out to just focus on learning, so this is a switch for some staff.

Applying the Model

We always need to think about how to make the child’s experience positive and successful. This starts with knowing the child’s sensory processing profile. Are they regulated in this environment in this moment? Schools vary in their knowledge of sensory needs with some having a sensory gym and occupational therapy services, while others need to be educated about it.

Next, how does this child’s regulation change throughout the day? How do we keep the child regulated so we can get to engagement and interaction? School is about back-and-forth interaction so if we can’t get the child to that developmental capacity, school will be very hard for the child.

A typical day might involve proprioceptive input such as heavy work and moving the body to prepare the child to be regulated for a classroom setting, having a support worker with the child all day to provide systematic sensory input, and moving from a self-contained classroom to a general classroom and having lunch and recess.

Adjusting Expectations

If they could, they would. But they can’t, so they don’t.

As the school year progresses, it may become apparent that the teacher’s expectations for the students increases and the child with developmental challenges is unable to keep up. This is where Jackie says they need to have a conversation about adjusting the expectations to meet the child’s needs.

When a child is not meeting expectations, behavioural issues will often ensue, and this is when schools will decide that behavioural strategies need to be put in place. Jackie stresses here that this is not a behavioural issue, but the child communicating with us.

The work to do is to help people understand that the behaviour does not mean the child is being “naughty” but rather saying that something is not ok in the only way they are capable.

How Regulation Affects Behaviour

When we are stressed and become dysregulated, our ability to communicate decreases. One of the biggest problems is that people have an expectation that when you can demonstrate communication skills, you will be able to maintain those communication skills even when your body is stressed. (See Stuart Shanker’s Self-Reg work for more information.)

Therefore the conclusion is drawn, when we’re seeing behaviour, that the child is naughty because this child has the ability to communicate in some way. It is a commonplace belief that compliance means that good teaching and good learning is happening even though all the research says that this is not the case.

Age of the Child

When considering younger children versus older children, the regulation piece is the same. You still need to figure out a way to support the child’s regulation. There still needs to be opportunities to find the “just right” arousal for the child. The difference is that the method by which the child gets this is going to be more controlled by the child him/herself, if (s)he is capable of doing that.

Sometimes children have the most difficulty with transitions between classes when they are older and there might be another student who supports the child during the transition instead of an adult. Whatever the individual case, a team approach is necessary. It is always a team process to determine how best to support the child.

The Difference DIR Makes

Jackie says that sometimes the DIR principles are written right in to the Individualized Education Plan (IEP) and other times they might not be. Some parents are very invested in the DIR approach and want it in there. Documenting the strategies and principles used is helpful in continuity of the approach from year-to-year as well.

When different approaches are used, Jackie does her best to make it all work together, but to do her best to include the relationship-based principles in the other approaches as well. She says that as the staff see the students succeeding, they are more receptive to the child-focused strategies and philosophy of DIR.

Jackie says that in her experience the children who have a DIR program over other interventions are happy to go to school and are not being forced to go to school. The child is calmer and thus more available for instruction so the staff sees success therefore feels successful as well. Calm is not a compliant, seated child, but rather a child who has an inner state of regulated arousal.

The Effect of the Child’s Home Life

It can be easy for staff to judge parents when they see behavioural issues in children at school. Jackie warns against this. She says we have to be sensitive to where the parents are and supportive in helping them facilitate the DIR principles at home. They are the ones who know their children best and are there for the long haul.

Although things may be happening at home, the only thing the staff should do is take into account the current school environment, and how to make that environment an emotionally safe, positive, and supportive place for the child, rather than blaming circumstances for the child’s behaviour. By building a trusting relationship with the child and with the parents, the child will feel supported and have the best chance for success.

Please consider sharing this podcast and blog post on Facebook or Twitter if you found it helpful and enjoyable. Also if you have any comments about applying the DIR model in your own public school setting, please leave a Comment below.

Until next week… here’s to affecting autism!

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