Parents of children with ADHD often dream of sending their kids to a school that understands their needs. Enter the Hutson School in Indianapolis, Indiana. Founded in 2002 by three mothers of dyslexic children, the school caters to students with ADHD and learning disabilities.
Students in grades K through eight learn in a supportive environment, and teaching methods are designed to help kids overcome obstacles to learning.
"We focus on the positive," says Head of School Janet George. "These kids have had enough negativity."
Live and learn
George founded the school with Director of Admissions Mary Ragsdale and Director of Clinical Services Martha Robinson. Together they share education backgrounds and a deep frustration with mainstream schools. Not long ago, a public school administrator labeled George's son "willfully defiant," and suggested she partake in parent training.
Instead of enrolling, George, along with Ragsdale and Robinson, created a school offering proven instruction methods, coping strategies, support systems, and individual attention. (The school has a maximum six-to-one student-teacher ratio.) It also advocates learning accommodations and group exercise.
Hutson has attracted students from all over the state. Aaron Duell, an eighth-grader with severe ADHD and learning disabilities, travels 75 miles a day to reach Hutson from his small hometown in western Indiana.
At an early age, Aaron proved himself an overactive, clever child. By age 2, he had earned the nickname "Houdini" - he could climb unharmed out of his second-story window. Despite a normal IQ, Aaron hit a wall in school. In the fourth grade he was writing at kindergarten level. His school couldn't cope with his learning difficulties, and teachers tried various punishments to handle his impulsive and inattentive behavior.
Hutson applies the SELF (Strategies for Effective Lifelong Fulfillment) technique developed by the Frostig Center, a learning disabilities research and training organization in Pasadena, California. SELF teaches self-awareness, coping strategies, and how to set goals. (For more on SELF, visit ldsuccess.org.) By being proactive-instead of reactive-the Hutson School managed to turn around Aaron's learning experience, claims his mother, Amy Duell.
"At Hutson, teachers don't turn small problems into big ones," says Duell. "They understand that ADHD kids have trouble monitoring their behavior, and they work with Aaron to help him." When Aaron blurts out inappropriate comments in class, his teachers give him two verbal warnings to stop. After that, he must fill out a "reflection sheet" that asks: What did I do? How did it affect others? What can I do differently next time?
Aaron is now learning to control his actions - and how they affect others. A weekly prize drawing, rewarding students for good behavior, also motivates him to focus. He completes his homework with the help of a homework planner that his parents initial each night.
Learning accommodations and focusing on the positive give Aaron the confidence and comfort he needs. "He doesn't feel defensive, which enables him to open up, ask more questions, and ask for help without fearing rejection," says Duell. "He doesn't fear failure anymore."
Recognizing the need for physical activity, school administrators believe that students should start each day with exercise, and they're invited to bring in their own equipment. Sensory and movement experiences are built into both the lessons and the environment. When distractions or noise are overwhelming, Aaron can use headphones or move to a quiet area.
"Everyone is treated like family, and is made to feel special," says Amy Duell. "Kids are encouraged to identify and foster their strengths - and to identify and improve their weaknesses."
"We don't want to 'fix' these children," says George. "We want them to know they each have areas of giftedness."
Positive, individual attention touches every part of the school day. But individual attention demands small enrollment. While Hutson welcomes new applicants to join its 23 students, administrators worry about its growing too fast.
Named for Phyllis Hutson, Indiana's first educator certified to use the Orton-Gillingham approach to teaching children with dyslexia, Hutson designs lessons to meet the individual needs of its students. Developed by a neurologist-educator team, Orton-Gillingham "is really the crème-de-la-crème of phonics instruction," says George, though it teaches reading, spelling, and written language together. The Hutson School requires that teachers are Orton-Gillingham certified.
Aaron demonstrates how his writing has improved via e-mail: "Hutson is a good place to learn. I am doing better in writing. You can concentrate because there is less noise in the room and fewer interruptions." Just a year ago, Aaron's writing skills were in the 0.3 percentile.
The Hutson School is already getting results for Aaron and his fellow students: In its first year, students averaged a gain of 2.6 grade levels. Aaron "is still on a journey," says his mother, "but now he's on the right path to success."