NADD Bulletin Volume XI Number 6 Article 2

Complete listing

Embracing change, moving in new directions: Redefining and implementing a more effective transitional program for students with Intellectual Disabilities and Mental Illness in a traditional special educational school.

Elizabeth Yeager MS, MA; Pene Weber BA; Isaiah Urbino

Educating students with disabilities under the auspices of Individual Education Program (IEP’s), federal regulations, and state code is an overwhelming and intimidating process. The support and guidance of the program administration is imperative to navigate an educational system that is focused on scores and testing (Cawelti, 2006).  Implementing the right of every child to be educated has now become an all encompassing process that is intermingled with IDEA- No Child Left Behind.  The role of the special education teacher is to juggle what is mandated by the state with the reality of what skills and abilities students with Intellectual Disabilities and Mental Illness need to enable them to live successfully in the community.  Particularly with students presenting complex challenges, it is essential that educators, administration, and parents form a cooperative team to develop a program which addresses the needs of the student (Corn, 2006).   In doing so it is crucial to avoid falling victim to the redundancy of stagnant teaching methods and traditional philosophies.  With that in mind, we as educators must posses a limitless vision of possible educational approaches by utilizing innovative instructional techniques. 

Educators live in their own world, the classroom. They do not throw anything away, find comfort in dittos, and are constantly making up for a small budget with their own small paychecks. As creatures of habit, teachers tend to keep doing what works and try to fit into a day’s lessons all our dreams and hopes for our students. The fragility and complexity of our student’s condition often supersedes the schedules, tests, and lesson plan outlines. Mandated paperwork and tests keep certified staff busy and teachers may get lost in the world of deadlines and reports.  This tunnel vision teaching perspective creates an environment which is not conducive to the learning styles of non traditional students. Students with the dual diagnoses of an Intellectual or Developmental Disability and a Mental Illness present among the most complicated of students. Those students need the support typically seen for students with Emotional Disturbances with the educational intervention typical for students with Intellectual Disabilities. These students need the most non-traditional of educational settings (Mahoney, 2002).  Customized programs must be created to ensure that these students are not overlooked. The development and innovation of programs take time, and time is already so limited when dealing with the intellectual and emotional growth of special needs students. 

Traditional prevocational programs like the one developed at Bergen Center for Child Development (BCCD) focused on menial work which was completed in a room for 30 minutes per day.  There was a disconnect resulting in the viewing of the child only in terms of academics; little emphasis was placed on the broader areas of community life.  This strategy clearly did not meet the education needs of students requiring significant supports. In the early development of prevocational programs, special needs students were limited and seen through the limits of their disability (Wehman, 1996).  As more people with disabilities and their parents advocated for their advancement, changes were slowly becoming apparent.  It was becoming evident that classic academics were not giving students the skills they needed to prepare them for life after graduation.  Curricula and philosophies began to change and view students with disabilities as potentially functioning members of society (Beakley, Yoder, & West, Wehman, 1996).  In order to achieve this, programs had to be revised to incorporate mandated academics with necessary life skills to create a foundation needed to create productive members of the community.

BCCD‘s “vocational program” has seen many changes, challenges and modifications since the school opened in 1968. A small group of dedicated parents established the school with the goal that their children would receive an intimate specialized educational program, one which put their children’s needs before educational testing.  BCCD’s student population varies from students who are classified as Autism Spectrum, Traumatic Brain Injury, Multiply Disabled and Behaviorally/Emotionally Disturbed. The functioning and ability level of the student population is varied. The common goal for all students is to flourish and grow to be successful individuals upon graduation at the age of 18 or 21.  The students come from urban inner city neighborhoods, single parent families, and are socially and economically disadvantaged.  The students have endured the local public school educational systems, failed and felt isolated.  It was apparent upon graduation that a trend of non success and lack of involvement in the community was discovered.  This was attributed to the students’ limited ability to apply traditional academics in the reality of life after graduation.  This pattern was once again seen most clearly in students who present complex support needs. Students with the dual diagnoses of an Intellectual or Developmental Disability and a Mental Illness are particularly vulnerable to this. As educators we are charged not only with increasing academic skills, but most importantly to create a safe and supportive educational program that will maintain the emotional, social, behavioral and academic needs of all our students. 

By putting the curriculum under the microscope we took notice that the 30 minute vocational training done in isolation, which was minimally preparing students for sheltered workshop experience, was not adequately fulfilling the broad needs of the whole student. We saw our students as being capable of much more, and poorly fitting into facility-based programs such as sheltered workshops.  Children can not be seen as a department or curriculum heading but as individuals with deficits that can not be addressed  successfully in isolation. How do you teach speech and language without involving social behavior and community life? How can mental health supports be provided in community settings? How can behavior support be woven into the fabric of education? We experience math skills every moment of the day when we watch TV looking for our favorite program starting at 6:00 pm on channel 5, after making microwave popcorn. The challenge we found over the last few years is trying to build a strong academic and functional program that challenges our students and treats the whole student. yet complies with the guidelines set forth in No Child Left Behind Act. As State Department of Education and Federal guidelines do not fully grasp the need for a broader type of education, including behavioral and mental health supports, one that emphasizes the “individual” in IEPs, school districts must think outside of the box to ensure that children have the same opportunities that will allow them to succeed in the world after graduation.

We discovered that while vocational and academic training was needed, the lack of social skills education was apparent.    In an effort to integrate academics, vocational and social skills the curriculum was transformed from a typical academic focus to a functional academic based program.  Our first step, phase 1, was the development of our Community Based Instruction program, which has become the focal point of the school.  The CBI program is made up of four major areas, including clerical, custodial, culinary, and independent living skills. It was apparent that many graduates failed in the workforce due to a lack of appropriate socialization and lack of skills, so a strong emphasis was placed throughout these core areas to reinforce social skills training.  A simulation of professional settings in these career areas was established in the school to create an experience nearest to reality as possible.  It is impossible to expect a student to transition into an independent environment without having hands-on experience.  This hands-on experience allows the student to generalize the knowledge they have attained and find applications for such knowledge in the community.

Functional academics in the classroom are used as a support to the Community-based Instruction program.  The experiences that students encounter during the culinary portion would require support in the classroom incorporating the different academic areas such as cooking words for vocabulary, measuring skills for math, or safety skills for science.  For a student to independently prepare a meal for themselves they require proficiency in all of the aforementioned functional academic areas.  Classroom instruction primarily focuses on the use of academics in a way in which the students will succeed in life outside of school.  Taking a look at what the real needs of our students are in the community guides us in the direction in which academics are taught. Simply teaching the skills that the students are lacking to be successful in their world provides them with the foundation for independence.

When creating lessons and experiences for the students, educators must ask themselves four major questions as a starting point.  Why are we teaching this to the students?  What will be gained by the student in learning this?  How will the information be used by and benefit the students?  Where will the student use this information in their life?  Answering these questions gives a focus and purpose to the functional lessons and  eliminates the habit of teaching just for the sake of teaching. This is seen as greatly improving the interest that students have in their lessons, most specifically for students who also have mental health disorders. For example when teaching fractions, which is an academic endeavor, the teacher must examine the functional applications of fractions: “Why, What, How, Where?” which is most often applied in reality during cooking.  While in transition from traditional to functional academics, teachers should start with that they have and what they can do with it.  Once educators have a more secure grasp of how academics are a metaphor for everyday life experiences they can expand and modify their lessons and programs to their full potential.

The parents of our students often have difficulty coming to terms with the reality of their child’s disability, especially as the student nears graduation.  This is where the importance of a strong Community-based Instruction program comes in as the students have been exposed to these experiences, not only during their final years but through their entire school experience.  It is imperative that parents recognize the importance of functionality within academics.  It is important to support  parents that work at home and in the community on appropriate deficit skill areas.  As a tool for the parents the same questions we use in education (Why, What, How, Where) should also be encouraged as a guide for the parents to use when discussing and implementing options for their children in everyday life.   Parents need to have developed a realistic understanding of what skills their child is lacking and what is needed when it comes to life in their community.  It is essential to incorporated everything and everyone in the child’s life while viewing them as a whole being, in school and in their home life.  As a parent it is important to look at a school that offers an alternative to traditional academics, that provide and nurtures students with a vast array of experiences that they would otherwise not be exposed to in school or in the community.

The term community encompasses every facet of life.  The local community for a school can be recognized through their financial support, and the offering of career opportunities for our students.  The community also offers recreation and health care to students. But the greater definition of community is that it offers a shared common goal where we come together as interacting body of society.  Students offer to the community not only their skills but an opportunity to support and represent and unseen, unrecognized, and misunderstood demographic. 

For our students to reach their ultimate potential independence and personal success, the school’s program needs to clearly address skills  that are beyond the traditional educational programming. Even though it seems that graduation at 21 is so far away the reality is that learning does not occur in the final years before graduation, it is a process that involves time, clear and realistic functional and academic goals.  Our students have amazing potential that needs not only the full support of schools, families, and social agencies but the community as a whole. 


Beakley, B., Yoder, S., West, L.2003. Community-based Instruction. Arlington, VA: Council for Exceptional Children. 

Cawelti, G. (2006). The side effects of NCLB. Educational Leadership, 64, 64-68.

Corn, J. (2006). The side effects of NCLB. Educational Leadership,64, 74-78.


Mahoney, M. (2002). Dual Diagnosis in Children. In  D. M. Griffiths, C. Stavrakaki & J. Summers (Eds.) Dual Diagnosis: An Introduction to the Mental Health Needs of Persons with Developmental Disabilities, NADD: Kingston, NY.

Wehman, P. (1996). Life beyond the classroom. Baltimore, MD: Paul Brookes.