Walden Educators Implement New Curriculum for Students with Autism

January 28, 2019

For students with autism, school can be a frustrating place. A new approach implemented in the Walden School this year, however, is reducing that frustration and helping students learn more.

Armed with instructional strategies that are part of two sequential programs – known as STAR and LINKS – Walden educators are using a unified approach to help students build knowledge and learn appropriate classroom and social behaviors. The approach has already begun paying dividends in individual classrooms and is expected to make transitions easier on students as they move from grade to grade.
Walden Principal Michael Sowul said Walden piloted the STAR curriculum, short for Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research, in one classroom during the 2017-18 school year. He and other BOCES educators were so impressed by the results that this year they expanded the program to six classrooms at Walden and three classrooms at local school building programs after three days of training in June. STAR is geared to younger children and LINKS, short for Linking Assessment and Instruction for Independence, is designed for upper elementary and secondary aged students.

Sowul said STAR and LINKS are based on Applied Behavior Analysis and provide a framework for classroom instruction and teaching functional routines. In both programs, he said, educators use evidence-based strategies, including using a variety of “reinforcers” to encourage students to grow.
“The staff has become very excited about it,” he said. Sowul credited two of Walden’s classroom aides, Marissa Gurka and Liane Delgado, for taking a lead role in expanding STAR and LINKS at Walden, noting that in the fall they organized and helped run training sessions for additional staff. Gurka became a strong advocate for STAR after assisting in last year’s class that piloted it.

“I saw how much my students improved,” she said. “It’s a program that really grabbed me.” Delgado has already seen improvements in her class since helping implement it in September: “The program really promotes independence.”

Educators break down the teaching of both functional routines and academic instruction into smaller components that are then taught step by step. A routine such as how to change class might be broken into learning how walk in the hallways, how to wait outside the new class and how to enter it.

An integral part of the program is the use of a range of reinforcers to encourage positive behavior. Students each have their own “penny board” to help them understand how their classroom behavior will lead to rewards. The rewards vary according to what motivates individual students; rewards can be different types of food, a game or a special activity. Teachers and aides can also link reinforcers to what is being taught so that a child who has learned how to ask to go outside by pointing or using a communications device then is taken outside.

Both programs include lesson plans, support and assessment materials and data systems. LINKS builds on STAR by incorporating additional academic, small group and independent work activities. 

During last year’s pilot, Gurka said she watched negative behaviors in the class diminish as students grew to understand that they were working daily toward their own goals. Delgado said her students have grasped that as well. “They start to think ‘If I really do a good job, I get a reward.’” With routines and instruction broken down more, they also are less frustrated because they are successful more quickly.

As the programs’ curriculum is implemented throughout the building, students will also transition to different grades more easily because teachers will be using consistent language and sharing the same set of expectations.  

In the classrooms, STAR and Link are helping students master following instructions, behaving appropriately in the community and learning how to communicate their needs and wants.

“We see them master little things every day, and those little things are the big things for us,” Delgado said. Looking forward, Gurka believes the skills and routines being taught now will be critical for her students after they leave school one day.

“Learning how to be in the community, or just go into a store and ask for something they need – that all leads to greater independence for them,” she said.