Effective communication is essential. For students who struggle with interpersonal skills, daily interactions can be fraught with anxiety and lead to rough experiences. At Aim High School (AHS), a private school for students grades six to 12 with learning and social differences, students build trust and learn to communicate through an innovative, real-life approach.
“For our students, social and communication skills instruction is essential because they struggle to build meaningful connections especially with peers,” explains Head of School, Mike Earls.
When AHS opened in 2011, experts believed that students with ASD or other language-based learning differences were unable to improve their cognitive flexibility — key to effective communication — after a young age. Despite this, AHS designed a curriculum to weave communication and practical life skills into every student experience.
Beginning in 2012, Dr. Holly Craig, from University of Michigan’s Department of Education, led research to examine AHS teaching methods. Her results showed measurable gains for students in all skill levels targeted, including the ability to improve cognitive flexibility and develop effective communication skills. The study, which concluded in 2015, included a grant that allowed AHS to hire Mark Beemsterboer, who continues to lead the school’s communication program.
Essential life lessons
Because good interpersonal skills require understanding social cues and appropriate interactions, every middle schooler undergoes a three-week stand-up comedy unit.
“This is an innovative lesson in perspective taking, learning different types of humor and when it’s appropriate to be funny,” Earls explains. “Our kids can be very guarded, so it’s difficult. They write their own jokes, rehearse and present to the entire school — they absolutely crush it!”
Students learn self-advocacy through a unit on negotiation, which Earls makes practical by taking students to thrift stores or pawn shops where they select an item and, based on research, negotiate for a lower price. “The students are so proud when they get a good deal,” Earls says.
Cooperation requires communication
Starting in middle school, students learn functional skills blending academic content with real-life experiences including appropriate social media conduct, self-advocacy, even how to follow directions and cooperate to build furniture.
“We weave social skills, awareness and communication training into these classes through everyday practical tasks any young adult should know,” Earls says. Students learn basic auto mechanics and maintenance. They assemble bathroom fixtures and plumbing. At a restaurant they learn value for money, splitting a bill and adding a tip. Through these real-life tasks, they learn to share, encourage, problem solve and cooperate.
“Our kids often don’t get to do these independent living activities outside of school. We provide opportunities, set goals and figure things out together,” Earls says. “Ultimately, it’s about building confidence. Real-life challenges improve their ability to embrace social opportunities.”
English teacher Michael Schommer leads a cooking program in three home-like kitchens in the AHS culinary lab, teaching healthy eating, budgeting, shopping, planning and using leftovers. As they master these skills, upperclassmen are required to make a weekly dinner at home. “Parents love that,” says Earls. “When it’s a school assignment, parents don’t have to ‘be the heavy’ and their kids learn a valuable skill.”
At AHS, real-life relevance hooks students, giving them natural opportunities to grow into functioning young adults who can trust others and speak for themselves. “Long term, students know we are teaching what helps them be successful as adults,” Earls says. “These life skills classes help kids learn trust from people who care about their success.”
Learn more about Aim High School at aimhighschool.com.