As Chelsea Shaul ’24 stood in front of a classroom at The Faison Center, prepared to give a special lecture to the class she had gotten to know over the past month, a student spoke out.
“We’ll miss you!”
Shaul, a psychology and theatre double major at Randolph-Macon College, was completing her January term internship with The Faison Center, which provides a lifelong span of services to individuals with autism and related challenges. The class that Shaul worked with is a part of the Emerging Independent Learner Community (EILC) and is made up of five students, ranging from 15 to 18 years old.
While some students may still be pursuing a standard high school diploma, what separates the EILC from a traditional classroom is the concentrated student-teacher ratio—generally 2:1 or 1:1—and the emphasis on behavioral self-management. The Faison Center places a priority on positive reinforcement, especially when it comes to working on behaviors that would be problematic in a traditional classroom.
“If you go into traditional school settings, one of the main differences with us is the amount of approvals and interaction,” said Elizabeth Bishton, the EILC Program Supervisor. “We want this to be a positive learning environment.”
“It’s not just educational growth, but it’s social skills growth and developing skills that they can use in the community,” Shaul said. “A lot of their practices are targeted towards getting the student to be able to identify, ‘this is what I need, this is what I want, what is the proper way to go about it.’”
What attracted Shaul to the internship, and what drove her duties in the classroom, was The Faison Center’s use of Individualized Education Programs (IEP) and the guiding principle of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA).
“They’re using a lot of research-based, evidence-based practices and applying that in the classroom, which I don’t think you see very often in other educational settings,” Shaul said.
The emphasis on an individualized plan for each student, for both their educational and behavioral goals, means Shaul is responsible for a daily tracking of data points on how the students are engaging in the class. This data is then used to plot progress and tailor lessons to best serve the students’ individual needs.
“That’s what helps them grow and develop,” Shaul said. “I’ve seen growth in these kids after only being there for three weeks.”
Shaul, also a member of the LUXE Show Choir at RMC, got the chance to flex her knowledge as a theatre major in her final presentation to the class, in which she taught them about the history of masks in theatre productions. The students were engaged and answering questions as she explained the historical symbolism of the colors used on masks, and the different expressions to signal comedy or tragedy. When given the opportunity to make their own masks, the class was eager to share the backstory they had created for their characters.
The unique structure of RMC’s J-Term allowed Shaul, whose career interest is developmental psychology and working with kids’ emotion regulation, to dive into her internship at The Faison Center, spending five days a week in the classroom for four weeks. The experience was a rewarding one, both for her as she lays the foundation for a career, and for the students who learned from her.
“It’s not just a job to them, they have a mission,” Shaul said of working at The Faison Center. “The teachers are all part of that mission, and I think that’s the impact it makes on the students and their families.”