A Parents Perspective

On April 28th, parent co-chairs Russell Carey & Rebekah Ham received a standing ovation after their moving speech at The Wolf School’s annual fundraising gala, Discover the Difference.  As parents of a child with complex learning needs, navigating their daughters educational journey hasn’t always been easy but it’s always been worth it. Read on as Rebekah describes the impact The Wolf School has had on her daughter and family’s life. ____________________________________________________________________________________________

Our daughter Grace entered Wolf three years ago as a 6th grader and will graduate 8th grade this June. Grace has a complicated medical history and complicated academic profile, but what isn’t complicated is how much she loves Wolf. She has enjoyed her middle school experience, and, when you’re 15 years old, that’s saying a lot.

If I asked you to raise your hand if you loved your own middle school experience, I don’t imagine there would be many hands in the air. I can definitely say that my own hand would not go up, and I didn’t have half the hurdles Grace has had.

Grace was born 14 weeks early and spent the first 2 ½ months of her life in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Her lowest weight was 1 pound 9 ounces. We knew her early arrival would likely have implications for her health and abilities as she grew up, but we were thrilled that she would, in fact, grow up. We would bring her home from the hospital with us, and she would have a wonderful life.

Then, at age 5, Grace was diagnosed with brain cancer. Instead of kindergarten, she would endure brain surgery, high dose proton beam radiation, and 9 months of chemotherapy. As parents, we had to give permission for treatment. We had to sign forms giving the doctors permission to radiate her and pump her full of toxins. The treatment could cure her, but there was a long, long list of side effects. If she survived… hearing, fertility, vision, cognitive development, physical development, and, as a result, social development, would all be affected. She might need to learn to walk and talk again. Her balance would be affected. Her hair might never regrow. Secondary cancer and strokes were possibilities. She would have a 95% chance of chronic health problems by the time she turned 45.

There was really no choice for Russell and me but to sign. If all went well, we would bring her home with us, and she would have a wonderful, though redirected, life. As long as she was here with us, we would manage the hurdles to come.

Grace has been lucky in that her elementary experience was a kind one. Despite this kindness, by the time she reached 4th grade, the stomachaches and exhaustion had begun. The stress of being pulled from class for support services, the difficulty of hearing and participating during recess and lunch and transition times, the lack of invitations to birthday parties….  they were taking a toll. The middle school she was supposed to attend would only make matters worse, and we knew we needed to make a change so that Grace could continue to grow and thrive.

We didn’t know much about Wolf. But we heard through friends of friends that it was a must-see. When Grace visited, after looking at 3 other schools, she knew immediately that Wolf was the school for her and she wanted to just keep going. We followed her lead, trusting that the small class size, Immersion Model© learning, and individualized student attention would provide the substance behind Grace’s gut instinct. Grace’s 6th grade class would be completely new to the school. That seemed like a risk to us, but we’d taken greater risks, and we trusted Grace.

So… 6th grade began and Grace’s stomachaches went away. She would get in the car at the end of the day energized and full of stories about ancient Egypt, about social thinking rewards, about plate tectonics, about drops in the bucket. She would ask if she could stay longer to attend a basketball game, a science program, or weekly afterschool art. She made impressive progress in her academics. And most importantly, she felt herself to be a valued and included member of the community. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of one of Grace’s hugs, you know just how much she appreciates the love she has received from friends and teachers. One teacher even suggested she should hire Grace as a chiropractor.

One of Grace’s greatest achievements while at Wolf happened outside the classroom. After years of trying to learn to ride a bike, she became enthusiastic about trying again, this time at Wolf, because she felt so very secure and confident there. With two summers of lessons from the physical education teacher, she was riding around the gym and feeling more capable than she ever had before. It was a big deal. That fear of what cancer could take away was being replaced by the sight of her balancing on a two-wheeler. What another parent might take for granted as a “normal” milestone, felt monumental, and if you’ve been there, you know it’s almost impossible to hold back the tears.  

Last winter, Grace spent a week visiting a high school in Providence to see if it was a fit for the next leg of her journey. She participated in classes. She asked questions when she needed to. She attempted conversations with potential friends. When this was reported to me, I wanted to say, “My Grace?” But yes, my Grace. That is who Wolf has helped her to be. While Grace is reluctant to leave Wolf (we all are), she is also ready. When she graduates in June she will be far more confident and willing to be heard than when she arrived. That wonderful life we hoped for for Grace is happening. It’s happening right now. Despite life’s redirections and hurdles, Grace is making it happen because of all that Wolf has offered her.

And, ready for the very best news? This September, Grace will be 10 years beyond her brain cancer diagnosis. Thanks to The Wolf School, she will enter high school knowing that school can be a happy and accepting place, where everyone is valued. Her curiosity and love of learning has only grown. Grace is healthy, and she is happy. She has even been invited to a few birthday parties. What more could a parent ask for?

Rebekah Ham


Sponsored Post Learn from the experts: Create a successful blog with our brand new courseThe WordPress.com Blog

WordPress.com is excited to announce our newest offering: a course just for beginning bloggers where you’ll learn everything you need to know about blogging from the most trusted experts in the industry. We have helped millions of blogs get up and running, we know what works, and we want you to to know everything we know. This course provides all the fundamental skills and inspiration you need to get your blog started, an interactive community forum, and content updated annually.


Early intervention research unequivocally points to first grade as the time when education has its greatest impact. Unfortunately, students with complex learning needs are often overlooked. Here, Leah Valentine, The Wolf School’s Kindergarten teacher extraordinaire, explains what a difference it can make getting Complex Learners ready to learn when there are intensive classroom supports early on.

I love it when my students are successful in math, read a sentence full of new words, or write their name with newly learned lower case letters. My favorite student achievements though, are small social moments that may not look like much, but are actually very complex victories. Last week three students were playing with cars and dolls. One student became frustrated trying to get a doll in the driver’s seat of a car so he stopped and took a deep breath, and then let it out with an audible sigh. His sigh caught the attention of his classmate who stopped playing and looked at him, read his body language and facial expression, and said, “Here, this one is smaller.”  The third student heard this interchange and looked up to see his two classmates working together to switch the dolls. He drove the motorcycle he was playing with over to the car and said, “She can ride on this.”  Victory!

My students have worked very hard this year in all areas. The Wolf School provides each of them with their own recipe for success and for the younger students, their age is a significant beneficial ingredient. They have developmental time on their side. They are learning to see things from another person’s perspective, learning to be aware of themselves and how they can relate to peers, and learning language they can use to be successful in those relationships. As these skills are emerging, we are guiding them with modeling, role-playing, strategies and even Social Thinking® superheroes that excel in these areas. We are preparing them for the social engagement and learning readiness that school requires.

Most of us take these kinds of abilities for granted, but for Complex Learners, their neurological, sensory and cognitive challenges can be overwhelming. To see my students defeat frustration, read social cues, offer help and engage in cooperative play makes them superheroes too.

*An earlier version of this blog post was published in 2014


Leah Valentine holds a BS in Speech Language Pathology and Audiology from Ithaca College and a MS Intensive Special Needs degree from Northeastern. She has worked at B.O.C.E.S. in upstate New York and in the Boston Public Schools. Leah loves spending time with her husband and two boys boating and hiking. Her super power is teaching.




Winning the Battle with Complex Learners

 When I first started as a teacher at The Wolf School I was certain my students would enjoy each lesson, gain confidence, and learn. But from the very first forty-minute math class I found the majority of time was spent redirecting and correcting behaviors.

Turn around in your seat, pick your pencil up off the floor, it’s not time for talking, you just went to the bathroom, keep your hands to yourself, look at the board, get back to your seat, put your lunchbox away, it’s not time for talking…

I spent so much time trying to get my students to focus that I couldn’t get through all the math concepts my forty-minute lesson required. But it turns out there was an important lesson that I needed to learn, one that my teacher training didn’t cover. For students who are dysregulated, taking the time to give them movement and sensory strategies is just as important as teaching the math lesson itself. Instead of 40 minutes of torture, I could spend twenty minutes on stretching, chair pushups, jumping jacks, and other directed movement that then allowed for twenty minutes of focused, successful learning.

It took me awhile to believe this, but after repeatedly seeing the Occupational Therapist (OT) in my classroom use movement strategies to get our fidgety students ready to learn, I was converted.

The OT also showed me how important it was to have lessons that gave Complex Learners more than one way to learn something. I might teach how to write numbers by singing a fun song but the OT might bring in shaving cream or cotton balls so students could write numbers in a tactile way. We were working on the same skill but through a different lens, giving students more access to the concepts being taught.

Not everyone has an OT in the classroom alongside her, but having a bag of tricks from strategies your school OT suggests can be invaluable when working with Complex Learners (e.g., have students do a quick burst of movement like chair push-ups before introducing a new concept, warm up hands before writing by pinching clothespins open and closed). If your students are pulled out of the classroom for OT, they don’t always bring the strategies back to you. Check in with their OT and use their ideas and supports as much as you can. Integrating the knowledge of the classroom teacher and OT is a powerful approach to educating Complex Learners, and any child with attention and distractibility issues.

April is National OT Month




Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.


Seven Strategies for Picky Eaters

Not many kids get excited about broccoli. Or ask to have spinach quiche at their birthday party. Or choose the crudité over potato chips.

But some kids are pickier than others when it comes to food. They only eat chicken nuggets, or mac and cheese, and maybe only a particular brand of these. They never try new foods, or avoid entire food groups. Maybe they even panic when presented with something new, or tantrum when they can’t get the food they are used to.

Complex Learners have a number of issues that can manifest in struggles with eating, falling on a continuum from picky eaters to problem eaters. As a parent, you may be concerned about your child’s health (how much nutritional value is there in Gold Fish®?), or social behaviors (how can they go to a friend’s birthday party if they melt down over the pizza and wrong kind of lemonade?).

Rachel Best, MS, CC-SLP, owner of Small Steps Therapy: Speech, Language and Feeding Services, in Providence, Rhode Island, recently spoke to parents at The Wolf School and offered insight and advice for feeding your picky eater. Here’s some of the information and ideas she shared:

  • Complex Learners are more likely to have trouble eating than other kids because they experience many of the traits that trigger difficulties, including oral motor, fine motor, sensory and behavioral challenges. Understanding the variables that effect your child’s difficulties with food is a first step in approaching the problem and helps you recognize what strategies you can work on with your child and when you might need outside help.
  • Anxiety decreases appetite. If a child feels pressure or senses you are upset, his/her anxiety will create even less of a desire to eat. Breathe, stay calm and encourage your child to engage in relaxation techniques too.
  • Getting kids involved in meal preparation can help. Make food fun and let children create some of the meal in their own way. Make a face on a mini pizza. Design a fruit kabob. Give foods a cool name. If your child is imaginative, let them have at it!
  • Use positive language and feedback. Saying, “You can take another bite,” in a neutral manner, instead of asking, “Can you please just take one more bite?” keeps the power struggle and frustration out of your language. Reinforce positive behavior, like trying a new food.
  • Eat with your child so you can be a good role model. Try to have meals at the same time each day. Complex Learners do best with structure so create a mealtime routine that works for you and your family.
  • Let your child play with their food! This doesn’t mean poking at grilled chicken with a fork and saying “I hate it!” But can they touch it with their fingers, balance it on their nose, lick it, or smell it? Encourage positive behavior that moves your child closer to feeling comfortable with a food.
  • Try food chaining to expand your child’s diet by introducing new foods based on his/her preferences while changing just one small component at a time. This technique offers small changes in textures, flavors, temperature and appearance over time to a food your child likes. If it’s chicken nuggets, you can start with different shapes of the same brand, then move to different brands, then to a cutlet, and maybe to chicken you prepare. This method requires patience as your child may need to try each change up to 30 times. There are many books and articles on food chaining out there to help you get started. And you can always talk to a professional to get specific input on your child.

The chicken nuggets may be around for a while, but as time goes by you may have success introducing other foods and enjoy mealtimes as a family. Have you tried any strategies that have helped with your picky eater? Let us know!

Learn more about Rachel Best, MS, CC-SLP at her website: http://www.smallstepstherapyri.com


Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.



3 Suggestions for Complex Learners

If your child is a Complex Learner, you have seen anxiety in action. It could look like a jittery body, a “deer in headlights” expression, crying, a full-blown tantrum, refusing to go to school, physical aches and pains, fear of crowds, procrastination, making excuses, asking the same question over and over, avoiding a task, or a complete shutdown.

Does this mean, that in addition to the other neurologically-based problems your child is struggling with, they also have an anxiety disorder?

Not necessarily. It only makes sense that children who face daily frustrations, failures, and embarrassments at school would be more likely to worry and react negatively to social and educational demands. The stress of managing complex learning differences can trigger feelings of anxiety and that often builds over time. Not all kids who are anxious develop a full-blown anxiety disorder, but research has shown that children with learning disabilities and attention issues like ADHD are at higher risk.

Understanding your child’s anxiety is not an easy matter. First, there are many kinds of anxiety disorders. The DSM-V, a manual used by psychiatrists, psychologists and other providers to categorize mental health and learning diagnoses, allocates over 50 pages just to anxiety disorders. Secondly, it is hard to know if the behaviors you’re observing are a result of an anxiety disorder, or stem from another diagnosis your child has (ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorder, a learning disability, executive function difficulties, Sensory Integration Disorder, etc.).

And yet, on some level, anxiety is anxiety is anxiety. Unless strategies and supports are put in place, the behaviors it causes and the barriers it creates will continue. Here are 3 suggestions to address anxiety for Complex Learners:

  • Getting help for your child’s learning and attention issues is the first step. The right match of school and social environments go a long way. Putting movement in place, sensory supports, curriculum that addresses your child’s particular learning issues and style – all this will help alleviate stressors that can cause anxiety.
  • There are many resources available that offer strategies for managing anxiety. From mindfulness and breathing to workbooks and self-talk. Here are a few links to get started, but there’s many more. Search the web, peruse the bookstore, and try things out. Children will respond differently to different strategies and it may take time to find what works for your child.
  • Anxiety is part of the package when you have a Complex Learner, so getting a therapist involved if your child continues to struggle is important – not only for their current functioning but for life down the road. When left untreated, childhood anxiety has a significant chance of leading to anxiety in adulthood.


Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.




Three Things to Keep in Mind

It’s January, and yes, all the holiday decorations and New Year’s glitter is gone, but in its place, there’s a marketing ploy at hand.

Get organized.

Storage bins of every size, color coded files and boxes, cleaners and vacuums and new sheets are all on sale. Magazines promise an organized life in 5 simple steps. Getting organized is probably one of the top resolutions for the new year, and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is a New York Times bestseller for advice and how-to books.

Clearly organization is a goal most people strive for. Some of us are good at it, others not so much. But children with complex learning issues have organizational challenges that are neurologically based and go beyond quick fixes. They struggle with the executive function skills that help people plan, focus, remember instructions and handle multiple tasks successfully. They are truly at an organizational disadvantage.

This can look and feel like a fiasco. Messy (often disastrous) bedrooms, misplaced clothes, homework half-done or not done at all, lost sneakers, late to school or appointments, forgotten permission slips, and more. And if you are also struggling to get into the organizational zone, finding the structure, systems and time to pull it together for yourself and your child can be difficult and frustrating. So, while trying to organize the unorganized, here’s a few things to keep in mind:

  • There’s a lot of information and advice out there about helping kids with executive function challenges. Sarah Ward S., CCC/SLP is nationally known expert who speaks at conferences across the country – check out her website at http://efpractice.com/. The ADDitude website has an entire section on Organization Help for ADHD Kids that could be applicable for any Complex Learner with executive function difficulties. Our previous blog post, Helping Complex Learners Manage Routine, may also be helpful. But whatever you read, remember – you know your child best. What works for one person may not work for another, depending on temperament, age and co-existing diagnoses. Finding what resonates with you and your child may take a bit of time and research.
  • Sometimes you will think, my kid is just lazy, or my child is just manipulating me. These are ordinary feelings and reactions we all have as parents. Try to remember your child has neurological underpinnings that effect his/her behavior. This isn’t an excuse – there are strategies your child can learn and systems you can put in place to help. But it will take time. Patience and understanding will go a long way when working on solutions to organizational problems. And remember this is an ongoing issue – as new skills and behaviors are expected of your child, he/she will need to learn new strategies.
  • There’s no place like home – and it’s your home. If you are super organized and your child is not, declare your spaces (the kitchen, the living room, an office) that you insist on keeping organized, but give more leeway with your child’s bedroom or a playroom. If you yourself have trouble organizing, give yourself a break! If the dishes aren’t done when a neighbor stops by, it’s ok. If you buy recyclable bags for grocery shopping but always forget to bring them, don’t worry. Prioritize the things you really need to get organized for yourself and work on them over time in the same way you are working with your child on his/her organizational goals.

Perfection is impossible, so in 2017, I suggest we strive for progress. And if a few storage bins or shelves will help, go ahead and get them now. I think they’re still on sale!

Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

Time for YOU!

It’s time for our Wolf Wednesday blog post and the final Holiday Tip! This is the one that everybody tells you about, and you read about in all the magazine and blogs, and you know you should do it, but somehow it always falls to the bottom of your list.

But you have to do this!!

That’s right. Find time to do something for yourself. Something that makes you feel renewed, calm, energized, or even excited. It could be anything – but it has to be just for you. A mud bath, grooving with a Tibetan Singing Bowl, binge watching The Sopranos, cucumbers on your eyelids, a kickboxing class, the New York Time’s crossword puzzle, making pickles, mystery novels, decoupage, knitting, ice fishing, meditation, bowling with friends…who cares?!

It doesn’t matter what you do as long as 1) there’s no kids, and 2) you feel better afterwards.

As a parent of a Complex Learner your job is rewarding and amazing but also pretty taxing. You know the drill, put the oxygen mask on yourself first! If you are less stressed your kids are less stressed.

It really is true. So, give a little time to yourself during this busy season – and see the benefits pass on to your Complex Learners as well!

Happy holidays!


Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.


Move It!

If the temperatures continue to make outdoor play difficult, you need to keep things moving inside! As you know, movement is important for all kids, but it’s even more critical for Complex Learners, helping with sensory regulation, mood, focus and organization. During the break from school and the regular routine, you’ll need to schedule more movement in during the day to meet your child’s needs.

Here’s a list of activities you can use to keep things moving:

  • Dance party! Crank up the tunes and get off the couch.
  • Find a yoga CD or program for stretching, strengthening and serenity.
  • Use tape to create hopscotch on a hard floor.
  • Play games using your body: leapfrog, wheelbarrow races, crab walks and donkey walks.
  • Consider getting a mini trampoline for indoor use.
  • Tickle fights, wrestling matches and tug of war will get things moving
  • Clean out the basement and have your child carry things up and down the stairs (put the music on and keep it fun!).
  • Have a pillow fight.
  • Play Twister.
  • Put on an old aerobic CD and feel the burn.
  • Create an indoor obstacle course or scavenger hunt.
  • Use an exercise ball to move all around, especially hanging over it upside down.

You must have others! Let us know how you get things moving when it’s cold outside!


Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

On the Road, Again

It wouldn’t be the holidays without visiting family. And for some of us, the visits can be lengthy. From a half-hour ride and an all-day visit, to a six-hour car ride staying several days, to plane travel with a week in-between, travel is inevitable.

Most children love the idea of travel, but in reality, the patience and flexibility required can be extremely challenging, particularly at the holidays when emotions are heightened, and resources like sleep and healthy eating can be low. And if your child is a Complex Learner who already struggles with changes in plans, long waits, and managing new environments, taking a trip to visit family can present a multitude of problems.

But don’t despair! Here’s a few ideas for making holiday travel less about the stress and more about the enjoyable memories you hope to create:

  • Break down the trip into increments that will make sense to your child to provide him/her with structure. These steps can be written out or drawn. You can also use a Social Story™ that provides expectations, social skills and behavioral standards about any part of the trip. Here’s a link to a Social Story™ about taking a road trip.
  • Power up before you leave. Go to a park or engage in physical play inside before you get in the car. If it’s been a long trip, Google playgrounds in the area as you get close and schedule in some exercise before you descend on Grandma’s.
  • Put a special travel bag or box together before you go. Do this with your child so they’ll get excited and be sure to include favorite comfort items (a blanket or stuffed animal), fidgets and other sensory supports, toys and games that can be played in the car, and healthy snacks for the trip.
  • Dress comfortably in soft clothes and bring ear plugs, headphones, sunglasses and anything else that will prevent problems related to sensory issues.

Any seasoned travelers out there? What are your tips for traveling with Complex Learners during the holidays?


Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.

Screen Time

During the holidays, we can pretty much count on the fact that our kids will want to spend more time in front of the screen. Whether it’s TV or an iPad, Xbox or a computer, kids are drawn to the screen for entertainment, information and to just “veg out.”

But trying to understand how much screen time is okay for our children is like trying to understand what foods are beneficial or harmful. Coffee, olive oil, avocados, wine, corn, sugar, red meat, soy – will it kill you or cure you? It seems to change all the time.

There are innumerable articles blaming the overuse of screen time for everything from anxiety to childhood obesity. But there are just as many that indicate things aren’t really that bad, and screen time actually has benefits for learning and building skills.  As usual, the opinions (and evidence) get murkier when it comes to Complex Learners. Trying to discern the right amount of time or the approach to take is difficult and right now there aren’t definitive answers.

My advice – don’t look to the scientists right now – put on your parent hat and go with what you know about your child. What happens after a movie marathon? Do video games get your child revved up or relaxed? Are there behavioral differences after an hour on the iPad? You are the primary observer and have the knowledge. Set boundaries accordingly and explain to your child why they make sense.

And here are a few things folks seem to be in agreement about that might help:

  • No screen time in bed, and cut off screen time about half an hour before bedtime, depending on your child’s needs.
  • Kids will learn more about social skills face-to-face than on videos or movies so make sure you make time for playdates, outings and family time.
  • Exercise is a must for Complex Learners so don’t add screen time at the sacrifice of movement.
  • Get involved! Watch a movie together. Ask about their video game or play it if you dare! Use this time as a way to be together when you can, but also as a way to see what your child is doing and interested in.

What do you think about screen time during the holidays?


Anna Johnson, Head of School at The Wolf School, is a devoted, passionate educator with more than 17 years of classroom and leadership experience. She holds a BA and MAT from Brown University, and speaks locally and nationally on topics related to Complex Learners.