Giant Steps School in Montréal, Québec
This Week’s Topic
Today I’m speaking with Marla Cable, the Resource and Training Centre Coordinator at Giant Steps School. Giant Steps is a developmental approach, individualized private school in the public interest in Montréal, Québec with 93 students aged 4 to 21 with an autism diagnosis. They have both English and French instruction and students are grouped by age clusters. Their school was visited by DIR/Floortime creator, Dr. Stanley Greenspan, in their early days and recently had Dr. Gil Tippy speak at their professional development day. They are now in the process of building their new facility that will open in the summer of 2023.
What is Giant Steps?
I asked Marla to tell us about Giant Steps. She said it all started with a music therapist working with a few kids with developmental disabilities and a demand from the parents wanting more. The therapist created a pilot project, called it Giant Steps, and got funding, and so it started from there, Marla explains. From the beginning it’s always been very innovative using a lot of the arts and social-emotional learning, and really looking at the interests and strengths of the kids and using them to support their challenges.
Although Giant Steps is not a DIR/Floortime school, it is influenced by the Developmental, Individual differences, Relationship-based (DIR) model, Relationship Development Intervention (RDI), and other developmental approaches. They borrow from a lot of approaches to meet the needs of their students. Each student’s program is very individualized. They’re mandated by the Québec Minister of Education to follow a certain curriculum and guidelines.
A Day at Giant Steps
Each day is very different for the students, but their week is similar. The kids in the school belong to a classroom, separated by age clusters. There are 93 kids from age 4 to 21. They move up as they age. Within the school they have 3 speech therapists, 3 Occupational Therapists, 2 Music Therapists, and they have developed other classrooms based on the needs of their students. There’s a life skills class, a class based on transitions out of school, a social skills classroom based on social-emotional learning, and a computer class. Students will attend their classes in blocks.
A Private School in the Public Interest
In Québec, the Minister of Education gives funding for the schools for the children who are coded with a diagnosis, so Giant Steps gets that full funding for their students. A typical private school may only get 60% funding from the government so they will charge the other 40% to the parents. Since Giant Steps gets 100% funding, they cannot charge a tuition fee. They have regular school fees that cover supervision fees during lunchtime or other fees like typical schools.
Due to their high ratio of adults to students and therapists, their funding does not come close to covering their costs so they have an active Foundation that is constantly fundraising to find the balance of the money they need. The students at Giant Steps learn in their mother language. They have an English sector and a French sector. In Québec, the children are required to learn the other language as well so Giant Steps also has these language classes.
The Classrooms and Staffing
In the classrooms, there’s anywhere between 8 and 12 students, depending on the age and the needs of those students, Marla explains. Giant Steps used to have a 1:1 ratio of student to educator, but it was not financially sustainable. Marla adds that each classroom has a certified teacher in charge, 1-2 educators, and 1-2 attendants as well. There’s generally about 4 adults in each classroom.
The educators generally come from the college program in Québec called Special Care Counselling, which is a program that teaches people how to be educators with a variety of different clientele in their learning process, to provide autonomy, and to deal with problem behaviour, etc. The attendants at Giant Steps, who on paper only need to have a high school education, tend to be highly trained and knowledgeable when it comes to autism–with experience and/or the educator qualifications–as they wait for a job opening at the educator level.
There is a huge amount of staff who have been at the school for 15 years or more and a large amount who have been there less than 5 years. Marla thinks it’s good to have senior and junior staff because the senior staff bring their expertise and knowledge that they can share with the newer staff, while the newer staff come in with their ideas, new experiences, and different ways of thinking that can be very beneficial as well.
The Inclusion Program
Giant Steps believes that any individual who can be in an inclusive environment should be, Marla affirms, so they have an Inclusion Program. They bring a child to a regular classroom in their own neighbourhood school with a support staff person with the hope that they will learn strategies and supports to be able to transition back to the school board without the support of Giant Steps. So, some students stay with Giant Steps temporarily and others stay longer, including until they’re 21.
Giant Steps has 93 students. Each year they can have anywhere from 1 to 10 new spots available. They survey their families each year to see who’s coming back, who’s aging out, or transitioning out to determine availability for the upcoming school year. They then look at the files on the wait list to see who fits the age bracket in the language of instruction. They then invite in about 3 children for every spot available and have a multi-disciplinary team evaluate them to determine who would best fit the program and to whom they can offer a spot, which is a difficult job to do, knowing they cannot help everyone.
There are about 350 individuals on the waiting list. The large wait list was one of the main reasons why Giant Steps created their Resource and Training Centre. They wanted to at least offer something to support families while they are on various wait lists since there are so many families who won’t be able to benefit from their child attending Giant Steps school on a daily basis.
Resource and Training Centre
The Resource and Training Centre at Giant Steps works to support professionals, teachers, families as well as the autism community across Québec. It has three mandates. First, it’s to help the Giant Steps community by supporting staff, students, and families. They have a room where they warehouse all of the supplies and supports used by the school which is a type of ‘lending library’ so people don’t have to recreate things that already exist, Marla explains. The Centre supports all of the staff in their professional development. On professional development days they bring in guest speakers, or offer readings or show videos. The field of autism is always changing and maturing so they have to keep up to date, Marla says. This is the internal resource centre.
The second mandate is that the resource centre is open to the general public and if they want to make or create teaching materials, Giant Steps can do that for them. They also offer courses, workshops, and conferences and either Giant Steps organizes them and they can attend, or sometimes other places (e.g., schools, daycare, organizations, sports facilities) request Giant Steps staff to come and present for them, both locally or over Zoom in places that aren’t nearby. They also offer consultation. For example, if a school has tried what they can and it’s not working with an autistic student, Giant Steps can send someone in and observe and give them strategies on how to support that individual.
The third mandate is a social mission, supporting schools and cities about what autism is and how they can be more welcoming to those with autism. This involves making sure the environment is autism friendly, Marla explains, or that their interviewing and job setting is welcoming to autism employees, for instance. The list has been growing whom Marla has been helping and supporting. They’ve done a lot of work with police officers, firefighters, museums, theatres, orchestras, community groups, and swim and skating instructors.
They also do a huge project every year with the Montréal airport where the families go through the whole process of flying and travelling. Families are at the airport for about 5 hours. They board a plane and go through the entire experience so they can be better prepared for the actual travel day. All of these services are offered in both French and English. All of these service reminded me of what KultureCity is doing where they train staff at large sports events and police officers, etc. It’s great to see it happening in Canada with a Canadian organization, too.
Insights from Training
I asked Marla if she can share any eye-opening experiences about what those trained learned, or about the lightbulbs that go off during these trainings. She gave the example of their huge programming with first responders that any police agency in Canada can access. In putting it together, what stood out to Marla was how Giant Steps was trying to get the officers to change all of their behaviour to support autistic individuals, but they realized that the police officers have their own mandate of rules and guidelines that sometimes as the general public, we’re not aware of.
Upon this realization, they made a section for officers, but also for teachers so they know what to be teaching their students. They made another section for parents and another for autistics so as a community, everyone can understand what types of behaviours they should and shouldn’t be doing if police officers are around to keep yourself safe. Similarly, the officers section covered what police officers should be doing to be supportive so situations don’t escalate. The police had a lot of ‘a-ha’ moments and it was eye-opening for them as well, Marla shares.
Marla found that insights also came up when she was training the orchestra in understanding how vast autism is and the strengths that come with it. I referred to the podcasts I did with self-advocate Kieran Rose about the myths of autism and the autism narrative and how everybody branches everything under autism, as Marla was explaining.
The Giant Steps Foundation is incredible and Marla gives hats off to them for how they’ve been able to raise about a million dollars each year, even through the pandemic, to provide Giant Steps school with the funding they need to function. It’s not cookie sales. It’s massive campaigns, she explains. They have a large auction every year. That’s one major event. They have companies and patrons who have been with them for years who are very generous and for whom they are extremely grateful.
Giant Steps Autism Centre
The new Giant Steps Autism Centre is in the process of being constructed. It’s a $52M project, which the Foundation has had to raise about half of. It’s a huge undertaking. The new Centre will be a new building in the centre of Montréal. It will have four pillars. The first will be their school. Their student body will increase from 90 to 120 students. The Resource and Training Center will also expand to include a community-like centre to support families during the evenings, weekends, and also during the day. It could include renting out the gym, parent or sibling classes, or social events, for instance.
They’ve also partnered with local universities to have researchers do research to impact how to support their students. It will be a way to get more cutting edge and new applied research studies to inform instruction and to make the lives better for autistic individuals, Marla says. It would be great if the autistic students can be a part of the research and learn to become researchers themselves, I added. Marla says that is indeed their goal and that when they did the first responders program they did include autistic adults in their program decision-making.
The fourth pillar will be adult services. Once students reach the age of 21, there is often no more services available to them, so if they are not employed, it can be tough for them. The new adult services will aim to fill that gap.
Giant Steps has a Polaris Enterprise employment experience where they’ve partnered with the grocery store, Loblaws. They have a practice supermarket so students learn all aspects of working at a grocery store from being a cashier, to stocking the shelves, etc. so they can eventually be hired as full-time employees with the same salary and benefits as any other employee, Marla explains. They’ve also worked with hotels in Québec and St-Hubert chicken restaurant who have started hiring autistic individuals as well.
Feedback from these employers is positive. They are blown away and don’t realize how successful it could be with a few modifications for employees. The employees are so proud and it changes their quality of life, Marla shares. Everyone ends up benefitting from the program. Marla adds that they aren’t limited to Montréal or Québec. If anyone in another location wants their help, services and support or tips, they are open to that. They really believe in sharing what they do, she says. They take in many interns from many colleges and universities because they do want to teach others to make life more inclusive for autistic individuals.
Marla adds that Giant Steps has also partnered with The Royal health organization to offer a free, 9-week caregiver program for parents of young children whether diagnosed or not to support them. They provide phone check-ins, Zoom home check-ins for coaching, etc. The coaching is provided by Giant Steps staff but the goal is to have a master trainer and facilitators who will provide these services on an ongoing basis to Canadian families. Marla says it’s filling that gap because families are always on waiting lists and want to know how they can help and support their children and help them communicate and develop skills.
Thank you to Marla Cable for telling us all about Giant Steps Montréal and the fabulous programs they offer to families. I hope that you learned something valuable and will share it on Facebook or Twitter and feel free to share relevant experiences, questions, or comments in the Comments section below.
Until next time, here’s to choosing play and experiencing joy everyday!