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  • Writer's pictureDavid Stanley

Strumming like Eric Clapton at the Manhattan Star Academy

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

The significance of my New York research in the UK struck a chord this week with an enlightening message from a parent of one of my students back home.

Operating under the same YAI umbrella as the International Academy of Hope (see blog: A Place of Hope), Manhattan Star Academy supports children with global developmental delays, autism spectrum disorders, speech and neuro-developmental disabilities, and offers a wide range of intensive therapies and teaching strategies to small classes, supported by extensive use of assistive technology.

Calming pastel colours, dimmable recessed lighting and textured walls carried me round their excellent facility, creating positive energy and a sense of space. The staff were proud to show how everything had been designed specifically for children with special needs.

My tour continued to a music lesson where I observed a charismatic teacher singing and playing guitar to a small group of young children in a circle. Although they played the hand-percussion instruments as instructed, they were far more excited by their teacher’s guitar. She encouraged each child to strum the strings as she changed the chords. It was simple, effective and a lovely example of a professional adapting her strategy in the moment.

Then I looked closer.

Next to every child was an assistive technology device for communication. Behind every child was a communication therapist or teaching assistant to help them use their device. The school receives regular visits from consultants who provide training and technical support for staff (I observed one such device being repaired after it randomly started blurting out rubbish in Greek!).

One boy was struggling to strum. He was hesitant and then eventually stopped and gave up, no doubt frustrated that he couldn’t master the action. I silently advised the teacher in my head, recalling years of appraising lessons in countless observations in my past career. I thought to myself, “time to move on to the next child”.

The boy slowly turned to his device and carefully pressed a button.

“MORE” said the device. The boy said MORE! Armed with this new information, the teacher continued and after a few more minutes the child was strumming like Eric Clapton with a cheeky grin. I had learnt another lesson in New York.

I highlighted the use of assistive technology to help children communicate during the music class in a routine social media post. I received the following comment from the UK:

After a long fight with the education department to get a communication aid for my Carl when he was at school, we won the battle eventually, but then they had no one to teach him how to use it. They were going to get the dinner lady 'to have a go'. This country needs funding for the technology and funding to train people to teach others!

Well said.

Read the final Churchill Fellowship report here.

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