How do you reach more children who have learning disabilities? Rethink the way you teach, says Dr. Heather Macdonald ’13, a PhD in Psychology graduate and 2013 Scholar of Change who works as a registered marriage and family therapist and a provisional psychologist at Glencorse Family Therapy in Calgary, Alberta, Canada.

Through her dissertation research at Walden, Dr. Macdonald developed an entirely new way to approach teaching and learning called the Tri-Optimal Learning Model. She is currently working in partnership with Dr. Karine Clay ’07—a Walden faculty member, PhD in Education graduate, and K–12 educator—as a consultant with school systems in Canada and the Philippines to adapt and implement her innovative model.

How does it work and why is it so innovative? The Tri-Optimal Learning Model is the first to include three theories in a single system: It combines attachment theory, ecological theory, and neuroplasticity to promote healing of the brain and address the students holistically.

Historically, schools have operated without strong or ongoing partnerships with healthcare providers, families, social services, or other community members. This meant that what children learned outside of school—at home or in the community—wasn’t automatically or thoughtfully integrated into the curriculum. Since what they learned in each environment didn’t necessarily overlap, the children may have had an inconsistent learning experience.

“In the last 10 to 20 years, schools have done a better job of incorporating input from parents,” Dr. Macdonald says. But that’s not the whole picture. What happens when a child doesn’t have a parent to help with homework? Or when children work to hide or compensate for what they perceive they lack, which may be undiagnosed learning disabilities? The picture is much more complex than simply asking all parties for feedback and incorporating it into the curriculum, which is why Dr. Macdonald worked diligently to develop a new learning environment that addresses the child's security in the classroom and provides an environment for brain regeneration.

Working Toward an Optimal Learning Environment
“The Tri-Optimal Learning Model is based on the interaction between attachments students have in the classroom to teachers and fellow students, their specific learning needs, and the level of support they receive at home and in the community,” Dr. Macdonald explains. It is also based on the four Cs of intervention: choice, consistency, contact comfort, and conversation.

Students need choices—but choices that are laid out within consistent, firm boundaries. The benefit, Dr. Macdonald says, is that as students go from one teacher or caregiver to the next, they are given a very consistent set of choices, which they also find allows them to be creative.

Next, consider a child who has been traumatized and also has a learning disability. “The more comfort they have, the more likely they are to stabilize in their environments,” she continues. “Contact comfort is very purposeful. For example, when you hand a student a pen, your hands touch. We shy away from incidental touch like this, but that contact tells kids they are secure.”

Finally, think of how you speak to children. Conversation led by children allows them to present their own solutions when they encounter a problem. Ask and allow for consistent two-way communication. You may be surprised at what problems you both uncover and resolve by taking this open approach.

Adapting the Model Internationally
Dr. Macdonald applied the Tri-Optimal Learning Model in partnership with more than 200 teachers in the Philippines in 2013, which she documented in her Scholars of Change video. Currently, she and Dr. Clay are collaborating with several schools in Canada to implement a similar system so administrators and staff can enhance their support of children with learning disabilities.

Their next projects include a consultation with a school system in Jakarta, Indonesia, in 2015 and collaborating in the design of Rethink Charter Academy, a school in Calgary. The academy will operate on the Tri-Optimal Learning Model’s principles, with a curriculum specifically tailored for children with learning disabilities and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in grades 3–9. It has conditional approval to open its doors in 2016.

“Why would we build a separate school—an exclusive environment for kids—when we’re moving to an inclusive model?” Dr. Macdonald asks. “The thinking is that kids need a separate time to understand themselves and how they learn.”

“Rethink Charter Academy is not based on pulling kids out of a classroom,” she continues. “It’s about helping students develop resilience and strength. They learn differently and need additional access to technology, training, and techniques. In effect, they will improve how they learn about themselves in this environment so that when they rejoin the public high school system in grade 10, they can advocate effectively for what their learning needs are.”

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