In general, many of our kids don’t feel like they “fit” in school. For some, that is because of learning disabilities, either diagnosed or undiagnosed. For others, anxiety prevents them from attending class or paying attention once they get there. Others will only engage in schoolwork for teachers that they like– and they don’t like many of them.

Homework is a struggle to remember, to complete, or to submit to teachers. Easily frustrated, our students don’t trust that they can complete work successfully, so they don’t. The bottom line is that most of our students don’t trust that teachers have their best interests at heart, nor do they trust themselves to be able to succeed in school.

To help our struggling learners, we provide differentiated instruction in a classroom setting led by Missouri-certified teachers. Our small class sizes of 6-10 students allow our teachers, coaches, and tutors to get to know students well. Our staff of seven teachers includes four who are dual-certified in special education and their subject matter content. One of our special education teachers is certified in reading instruction, and is available to work with students individually or in very small groups.

While Calo offers a range of core subjects and electives, our primary goal is helping students learn to regulate their emotions and their behavior in a classroom. Although a few of our students will graduate from Calo, most of our students will return home to conventional schools with normal expectations. Using our relationship-based approach, we strive to help students become a more self-aware learner who is comfortable in a classroom.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Calo’s school accredited?

Yes.  Calo has met the requirements established by the AdvancED Accreditation Commission and is accredited by the North Central Association Commission on Accreditation and School Improvement. AdvancED not only accredits private schools, but many of the public schools in Missouri and other Midwestern states.

Do credits earned at Calo transfer to other schools?

Yes.  Because Calo is accredited by a recognized regional association, credits earned here transfer to a student’s home school district or to other private schools. When a student transitions from Calo to a public or private school at home, an updated transcript is produced for the student to inform the home district or school of the student’s earned credits.

How does Calo ensure that students have the particular credits that a home district requires?

Calo currently has students from more than 30 states, so we are practiced at working with state and local curricular requirements. When students are admitted to Calo, our Registrar analyzes their transcripts and interviews a local school administrator to clarify local requirements. For example, some years ago, we were able to provide an Alaska History course for two students from Alaska.

What is the school’s mission?

Our mission is to create lifelong academically and socially competent interdependent learners. For Calo, the social aspects of learning underline its interdependent nature. Learning is an inherently social activity in which students learn to trust that teachers have their best interests at heart. As such our baseline goals for our students are that they (1) turn in and complete their work on time, (2) come to class and maintain appropriate behaviors and boundaries, (3) achieve knowledge of, and practice in, executive functioning skills, and (4) understand the importance of self-advocacy. Most of our students will be returning home to traditional public and private schools, and we believe that if we can instill the above skills and habits in our students, they will be served well at home.

What is the range of academic skills in Calo’s students?

The skill range is wide among our students. At any given time, 40%-50% of our students arrive with IEPs and 10%-15% of our students are funded by their local school districts. Most of our students come to us with full-scale IQ scores in the normal range, but variation among one or more subscores compromises that full-scale score. As a result, most of our students have struggled with school, whether that is due to executive function difficulties, school refusal, or emotional dysfunction. At the same time, about 20% of our students are capable of honors-level courses and have the capacity to attend college. It is for this reason that we ask parents to add their own goals to Calo’s goals, when appropriate.

How is school organized?

Just as Calo really has two programs—a boys’ program and a girls’ program—so the school educates genders separately. Students are in class Monday through Friday for a minimum of 5 hours each day consisting of both core instruction and electives.

What is the school curriculum?

Our curriculum is based upon the Common Core, to which the state of Missouri subscribes as well. Students take the four core subjects of English, Math, Science and Social Studies, each taught by a certified teacher. Classes meet twice a week on Mondays/Wednesdays and Tuesdays/Thursdays, for six classes per week per term. In addition to the core subjects, students take electives such as Psychology, Economics, and Study Skills.

What instructional methods do teachers use?

Teachers employ a range of methods. We use technology extensively in classrooms from laptop computers to smart boards to DVDs. Because of the range of our students, teachers are mindful to differentiate curriculum and instruction as much as possible. We do this by focusing on the process of learning more than the content of learning. That is, we stress literacy and study skills across the curriculum, meeting the student where she is. For example, in an English class students might not be reading the same text at the same time; more capable students may be reading more sophisticated texts and writing essays, while other students might be reading simpler texts and focusing explicitly on various interpretive strategies.

Do students have homework?

Calo has not traditionally assigned much homework to students. We have begun to focus on homework in regards to test preparation. Students are given study guides the nights before an exam and coaches are alerted to work with students in their team homes to study. For more capable students, homework may be more regular. For example, a girls’ honors English class featured regular homework reading assignments of Pride and Prejudice, and writing assignments drawn from AP English essay prompts.

How is the school integrated into the larger boys’ and girls’ programs?

The school administrators and teachers work closely with the boys’ and girls’ therapists and coaches. Because of past school experiences, many of our students don’t initially trust teachers. Indeed, students with trauma and attachment issues have trouble trusting in general, which often leads to emotional dysregulation. For that reason, coaches attend school with students, as canines attend school with students. Moreover, teachers attend treatment team meetings and may attend therapy sessions with students to work on some school-related issues.

What qualifications do Calo teachers have?

All teachers at Calo are certified by the state of Missouri; four instructors have additional certification in Special Education.  Additionally, Calo employs tutors that hold Missouri substitute certificates. The school director has a PhD, and is retired from a Midwestern research university, where he taught teachers for 15 years as a tenured professor.

How Calo’s school incorporates trauma-sensitive approaches

In the fall of 2014, Calo’s former Academic Director, Dr. Bob Burroughs, participated in a national online conference, the “Educating Traumatized Children Summit.” Sponsored by the Attachment & Trauma Network, this summit featured 45-minute interviews with 24 experts on trauma and education. Below is the transcript of Dr. Burroughs’s interview, recorded on September 25, 2014, and aired online on October 9, 2014.

Click here to listen

Can you tell us a bit about Calo’s overall relationship-based treatment model and how academics/your school fits into this?

At Calo, we summarize our treatment model as CASA, which stands for Commitment, Acceptance, Secure, Attune. Because this the foundation of all that we do, I’d like to go through with you step-by-step. We begin with Commitment on the care-giver’s part. For us, that is the parent, guardian, or primary attachment figure that commits to sending their child to us and commits to working with us in the goal of reuniting at treatment’s end. It begins also with our commitment as caregivers to treat the child, to “go the distance,” as we say here. That Commitment needs to be coupled with Acceptance. Acceptance by the parent and by us can be a complicated process, but at its fundamental level, it is a recognition that developmental trauma and attachment is driving the child’s behavior, not attitudes, laziness, or narcissism.

We have to accept that it is not a matter of “trying harder” for our kids, but of learning how to trust others and ultimately themselves. Once our kids feel accepted, they can begin to feel secure, or safe, both physically and emotionally. With that feeling of safety, they can begin to Attune with us and begin a relationship. That’s important because we learn just about everything about ourselves and the world around us through relationships: we learn how to speak a language, how to regulate our emotions, how to get along others, how to tie our shoes. I’ve made this seem more linear in theory than it is in practice. In action, this tends to be a recursive process of progress and regression, rather than a straight line of progress.

This is important in school as well. In general, our students don’t trust teachers, so we have to Commit and Accept them before they can feel intellectually or emotionally safe in a classroom. As they feel secure, they can begin to develop relationships with us and begin to learn. This process is not fundamentally different from some of the current theories in contemporary educational thought. The Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky stressed the interdependent nature of education and the social basis of learning, unlike Piaget who seemed to stress the unfolding of “stages” within individuals’ as they learn. (By the way, I don’t think Piaget really stresses that, but American educators with our focus on individuals has tended to stress that.) With our students, it is easier to see this interdependent nature of learning.

So most of the students you see have also had trouble in traditional school, right?  Do most qualify for IEPs?  Do most have just emotional disorders or are there other learning challenges and disorders?

Yes, just about every student here has struggled in school. About 1/6 of our students have IEPs when they enroll with us, but most of them certainly could qualify for an IEP. Just about every student at some time here has trouble regulating their emotions enough to attend class or to stay in class. So most of our students could qualify for IEPs with an emotional disturbance. But we also see the full range of learning issues and learning disabilities: ADHD, auditory processing, Autism spectrum, language-based disabilities. We know that adopted kids have LD diagnoses at a great frequency than the population as a whole, so we aren’t surprised by this. My own observation through the years as an academic director, education consultant, and father of adopted boys is that adoptive kids’ heightened sensitivities and heightened anxieties, in general, are magnified in a classroom. Such hypervigilance can look a lot like ADHD or other learning issues. So, to the extent that we can soothe those fears and anxieties through trusting relationships, we can help with some of those learning issues.

What does school success look like for children with Attachment Disorder?

This is really the crucial question, isn’t it? So many of the parents I talk to as they are enrolling their child at Calo are exhausted with school—the marathon homework sessions, the endless calls from school administrators, the gyrating grades, the tears and school refusal. So many parents have run the gamut of emotions from hope to despair concerning school that by the time they reach us, they speak of school success in very modest terms: learning how to behave in a classroom, getting a high school diploma, learning how to count money and live independently are all markers of success that parents have given me.

So the answer to the question is “It Varies.” But again, we can look to our model to help parents and to help us answer this question. Acceptance is a huge part of the answer. If we accept that students really are trying their hardest, then we can take our clues about success from them. As they begin to feel safe and to build relationships, they will begin to tell us what they want and we will begin to see what their strengths are. So many of our students have interests and aptitudes for hands-on experiences that college may not fit their talents, but vocational programs might.

As parents, it is often difficult for us to really see the child we have in front of us. We are tempted to see our hopes, our fears, our expectations, our projections—anything but the child herself. My own feeling is that many adoptive parents have been traumatized themselves through the adoption process and put more emphasis on school because it is something they understand, and more times than not, were fairly good at themselves. It is easier to focus on what you know and think you can control than on the messy reality of developmental trauma.

For most kids with Attachment Disorder, school success looks something like this: Can I be in a classroom without jumping out of my skin. When kids can reach that goal, then they have lots of further school-based or training-based options. Until they more or less have that, school will always be a place of further traumatization.

At Calo, the focus is obviously on treatment first – where does school fall into that priority?  Where should school fall into the priority when children are struggling with attachment and building primary relationships?  Sometimes parents (or the professionals advising them) struggle with the concept of “keeping the child out of school” or “not focusing on academics” in favor of pursuing other therapies or focusing on family time.

Yes, treatment is the priority at Calo. Still, students spend about 5 hours per day in school-related activities. 4 of those hours, 4 days a week are spent in actual classrooms with peers in small numbers. Some of their other activities during the day such as working with our canines, or group therapy, or adventure therapy also provide some academic credit. So, that represents a number of hours, but not the majority of hours.

Yet, because the focus of our treatment is trusting relatiotnship, school provides another venue in which students can experience relationships. When our teachers work with students, this is the basis of their work. Our first priority is establishing that relationship. As I tell my teachers: it is not about the content of the curriculum, but the content of our relationships.

So school becomes another venue that we seek to provide experiences that are repetitive, relational, rhythmic, relevant, and rewarding (as Bruce Perry says). But because our students often have had such deep difficulty with school, providing those 5 Rs is effective but not efficient. And it’s messy, as students struggle to connect with each other and with teachers. Unfortunately, public education seeks efficiency.

Let me illustrate how messy this process can be by telling you a story about one of our students. Let’s call him Fred. Fred came to Calo in a wheelchair, following an accident he had. Fred had been through a number of schools, some of them boarding schools, where he had not done well. Adopted from Russia at 7, he had some language and processing issues, but mostly a deep distrust of teachers. So, even though he spent his first 10 weeks with us in a wheelchair, we could not physically roll him into a classroom. He used all of his considerable upper body strength to push himself back from the classroom door. He would not go to school.

While he was refusing to go to school, however, he was developing a relationship with one of the coaches who worked with his team of boys. So, I invited Fred and this coach into my office and proposed that the coach help Fred 1:1 with his assignments for just one class. Fred chose science because he liked the subject matter, and worked with the coach for just that one class. The teacher worked with Fred to produce PowerPoints as Fred’s assessment piece because Fred liked Powerpoints. After a few weeks of Fred working 1:1 with the coach, we asked if Fred could go to the science class with the coach and sit in the class. Fred agreed, and we slowly moved him into other classes, and finally into all of his classes. So, after just about a year Fred is attending all his classes and getting passing grades.

You can see how inefficient this is, yet about 5 months ago, when Fred had just started to go to all his classes, his mother came to visit Calo. When we laid out samples of Fred’s work for her, she cried. She hadn’t seen him do this much work in years. So, for her this looked like success and it looked effective.

Why was it effective? I think it was effective because we:

  • Committed to helping Fred become more comfortable with school, even when he didn’t want to have anything to do with it.
  • Accepted his fear and anxiety about school
  • Made it safe for him by shrinking down the task and giving him a safe relationship to work within
  • Attuned with him and guided him into other experiences when he was ready for them.

Understanding how disordered attachment (and a child’s self-image/world-view) can impact their core beliefs about school

I’m glad you used the words “core beliefs” because those are important words for us. Because of developmental trauma, our kids have not developed secure attachments and that has affected their core beliefs about the world and themselves. For example, many of our students don’t believe that the world is a safe place, so they approach the world like the Lone Ranger. They rely only on themselves and shun relationships. They also believe they are flawed human beings, and that’s why they’ve been abused or neglected. Within the context of school, they explain their school failure as “stupidity. I’m stupid.” That’s why they don’t ask for help. They don’t think it will do any good. That’s why they are reluctant to try in school. It won’t do any good: they’ll just spend a lot of time spinning their wheels and they still won’t “get it.” School can conflate two powerful negative core beliefs that make them feel hopeless: School makes me feel stupid and unsafe.

Recognizing school’s importance and priority in the grand scheme of the child’s emotional health.

The developmental trauma and the disordered attachment are created in a lack of relationship—abuse, neglect, inconsistency—and can be treated only in relationship. So, it’s that creation of a trusting relationship with teachers or parents that will treat the trauma and rebuild attachment. But that is a messy and inefficient process. If schools can’t or won’t engage in that messiness, then parents and teachers need to find ways of doing that. Perhaps that is pruning the task so that it is more emotionally manageable, as we did with Fred. Perhaps it is by spending more time on building relationships than on content. Perhaps it is listening more sensitively to students’ fears and anxieties before plunging into schoolwork. Whatever we choose, we have to realize that without challenging or treating those core beliefs, we will only make the problem worse. So, in a sense, we have to approach these students as Hippocrates advises us: first do no harm.

Understanding the role relationship has in learning

Relationship is the heart of learning. I mentioned Vygotsky earlier, and the central role that he gave to the social nature of learning. For Vygotsky, learning only occurs within the relationship of teacher and student. My guess is that we’ve all had that experience of a great teacher that changed the way we looked at something. We wanted to see it, because we trusted that the teacher believed in us. In that shared experience, a great teacher spurs something new in you by coaxing you to think or feel differently. That can only happen if you are open to the experience or the ideas: unafraid, not anxious, not self-conscious, and not self-loathing. Our students can’t engage in that relationship because they are afraid, anxious, self-conscious and self-loathing. Only by first helping them with that can we help them with learning.

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