This week begins a feature of schools using the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model in their education. We begin with the Soaring Eagle Academy, a non public therapeutic day school, in Lombard, Illinois which I had the pleasure of visiting in June. Thanks to Co-Founder and Executive Director, Deanna Tyrpak, for taking the time to meet and provide information for this blog post.

Soaring Eagle Academy opened its doors in 2010 after years of preparation. Co-founders Linda Cervenka, Michele Ricamato and Deanna Tyrpak are all licensed speech language pathologists and Linda and Michele are also certified DIR® Expert clinicians and trainers/tutors by Profectum. Besides using the DIR model, what makes this school unique is its use of Developmental Language Models.

As the only school to integrate Developmental Language Models and DIR/Floortime principles, for students ages 3 through 21 years old, within a nurturing social and academic environment that embraces the ‘whole child’ supporting their individual differences and learning styles, while wooing each child into engaging interaction and meaningful learning, we believe that when students comprehend and their intentions and actions are truly understood, amazing development unfolds and students soar to higher levels of learning! 

- From the Soaring Eagle Academy website

Developmental Language Models

Like the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model, Developmental Language Models were developed based on observing typical development–in this case, acquisition of language. They take into account that language develops because we are motivated to interact socially with others.

We acquire language within the context of Relationships in which the caregiver adjusts their language to the child’s developmental level.

Intentionality is another important aspect of language development because how children interact with their environment, interpret language and communicate creates what stays in their mind, which then influences their participation in a social world.

This means that at Soaring Eagle Academy, all communication is considered intentional–whether verbal, gestural, or behavioural.

Photo Copyright Soaring Eagle Academy

No student does anything for no reason. If there is a behaviour that is not desirable, such as throwing dirt at someone, the staff will figure out why the student did that. It might be that the student wanted the other student to come play. The staff would then be that child’s ‘voice’ saying, “Come and play with me!

The staff supporting the child on the receiving end of the dirt would help him/her understand his/her friend’s intentions of wanting to play and acknowledging his/her feelings, modelling affect to match how that child might be feeling and then be their voice saying, “I don’t like that”. The focus would be on supporting both students to comprehend intentions through affect with limited verbal support to stay calm and regulated, sharing attention and staying engaged.

See examples of how the Developmental Language Models are applied at Soaring Eagle Academy HERE


A Focus on Individual Differences

At Soaring Eagle Academy, all curriculum is created with individual differences of each child in mind. Individual differences, or the ‘I’ in the DIR model, impact a child’s learning because the sensory system of a child with developmental challenges impacts how a child interacts with the world and takes in sensory information.

SEA believes that sensory issues and language comprehension deficits can provoke anxiety, which can impact shared attention, regulation, engagement, communication, and motor planning and that most episodes of dysregulation are a result of lack of comprehension of what is being said, comprehension of the environment, or comprehension of the affect and emotions being conveyed.

Individual differences information is also used to inform staff about how the students may or may not be able to be intentional with their communication and language.

See how Individual Differences are taken into account at Soaring Eagle Academy by scrolling down the page HERE


SEA believes that when students are able to comprehend their environment, and their intentions and actions are interpreted appropriately (that critical support of their language system), their whole system and individual differences profile find integration.

When the system is integrated, the child is better able to be calm and regulated, share attention and be engaged. Thus, the staff aims to match language and the contents of the student’s mind which serves to support and integrate the student’s auditory, visual, motor and emotional systems.

What the School Day Looks Like

Everything is individualized at SEA. The lesson plan is different for each student, based on what the child is interested in and what is meaningful to them. Each student has a full curriculum team consisting of the special education teacher, the student’s one to one teacher assistant (who acts as the Floortime player throughout the school day), a speech language pathologist, occupational therapist, social worker/counselor and DIR Specialist.

The teacher assistant is the Floortime player throughout the school day: attuning to the child, reading the child’s cues and interpreting their intentions by making all actions and attempts at interaction/communication meaningful. The TA supports the student all day/year and will change every 12 to 18 months as child moves developmentally and is then ready for a new partner who will move them to the next developmental level.

Each corner of the school building occupies a Pod based on 4-year age range (based on IL law) where age 3 to 5 is the Early Learning pod, age 6 to 9 is the Primary pod, age 10 to 13 the Intermediate pod, 14 to 18 the High school pod, and 18 to 21 the Transition pod.

Within each pod is one to two classrooms of up to 10 students, a hang-out quiet room, sensory motor gym, therapy rooms and the team, which supports up to 20 students in the pod on a daily basis via pull out and push in therapeutic support.

Everything is hands-on and multi-sensory. The staff finds out what each student loves to do and what his/her skills are, so they can bridge him/her to learn new skills and knowledge. Students are supported to initiate ideas and feel comfortable to follow through on their ideas within the framework of the schedule.

Students are encouraged to explore and interact with their environment, peers, and learning materials as a way to make meaning through the learning process. The staff is always concerned with how to follow the child’s lead and the contents of the child’s mind and his/her ideas because building the child’s intentions and ideas lays the groundwork for everything.

The students also participate in a club of their choice such as dollhouse club, dance party, karate, karaoke, computer club, sesame street, etc., to support expanding their repertoire of interests while being supported to share attention and engage with peers.

The school does adhere to the Common Core requirements, but since curriculum must match the students’ language, their emotional levels and motor, the school also develops its own curricula to support the foundation for academics. The schedule consists of literacy, math, lunch/recess then school clubs, science and social emotional learning groups.

Staff Training and Supervision

Staff that come to the school are all trained on-sight in DIR/Floortime by the resident DIR experts and are always monitored.

As they work in teams, they learn from each other and collaborate on curriculum and approaches for each child.

The school follows in the interdisciplinary tradition of the DIR model.

Photo Copyright Soaring Eagle Academy

If you enjoyed this post about Soaring Eagle Academy and how they use the principles of the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model and Developmental Language Models to shape their curriculum and school environment, please share this post on Facebook or Twitter. If you have any comments or feedback, please post them in the Comments section below.

Until next time… here’s to affecting autism through playful interactions!

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