By Megan Seckman
Director Kristina Davis Christensen, who has worked as a special needs coordinator and parent volunteer over her 15 years at Friends School, sat down to tell me about her students’ skills. At the core of the school’s mission are these values, which are cultivated in every child they serve and carry over into the home and community.
Treat them as capable. “At Friends, we instill personal responsibility even in our youngest students in preschool. The little guys are expected to unpack their own bags and open their own containers at lunch. If you do too much for children, then they either begin to think they are incapable or that they rule the home,” Kristina said. “It instills work ethic.”
Every person can contribute to the community. Because of the deliberate inclusion and emphasis on social justice, students at Friends School are taught to listen to all points of views on issues. “When students leave to attend other schools, the new teachers always comment on how empathetic our students are.”
Teach conflict resolution. Despite the inclusion of students with behavioral issues, the staff at Friends never put their hands on students. Students and staff are trained in empathy and compassion techniques so that all students are able to “use their words” and “listen to their bodies.” Students participate in a lot of role play to help express their complex emotions and resolve potential conflicts. They use emotional intelligence to recognize emotion in themselves and others.
Train them to ask for a break. Friends School teaches students to advocate for themselves and know when they need a few minutes to regain focus or calm their emotions. In the “sensory room” a student can take a break among the soft pillows, a tunnel, and a rebounder.
Teach social justice. Each grade level chooses a month to show their support for a specific issue. Students in the lower school may collect stuffed animals for “Bears on Patrol” (given to the police to hand out to kids experiencing trauma), while students in middle school might learn to lead a peaceful park protest about race relations or LGBTQ rights. “We believe that every person has the power and responsibility to positively impact the community.”
“It is a magical place,” Director Kristina Davis Christensen says, “where neurologically typical children learn to care for others with special needs, express themselves effectively using conflict resolution, respect each life, and engage in social activism and community service. The academic curriculum serves students above and below grade level, and each class tends to have more than one educator on hand to meet the diverse needs of each student.”
How the Friends School Started
The founders were teachers together, experienced pregnancy together, but above all, they were friends. When they put their teaching careers on hold to raise their children together, as a tight little community, they expected their children to grow up together. But when preschool loomed on the horizon, these mothers were shocked to find that their little community was going to have to break up. A few of the children in this group were identified with special needs and were not accepted into the same public schools because of their learning differences. Putting their heads and hearts together, this group of friends began the process of creating a school built on their ideals about equality and inclusion, and that is how the Friends School was born.
Approximately 35% of the school’s 196 students have special needs ranging from ADHD and autism to Spina Bifida and Down Syndrome. Services such as a sensory room, speech therapy, and behavioral coaching are offered on a tiered system. All students learn side-by-side with an average of a 1:4 educator to student ratio. Parental involvement is expected in this cooperative model, and students call the adults by their first names, a nod to the Quaker principle of mutual respect.