03/21/2011 | THE STAFF OF KING’s DAUGHTERS’ SCHOOL
When operating a large residential facility, such as a boarding school, it’s always a challenge to make the environment feel like home, as opposed to an institution or facility of some sort. At KDS, approximately 100 students and a limited number of adults with developmental disabilities are housed in a residential setting, so KDS is no stranger to this struggle. Creating a home-like environment is not something that just happens; it takes effort, practice and reinforcement over time. There are many factors that play a role such as staff attitudes, residential living design and décor as well as student gatherings and activities. All of these factors play a vital role and must work together in order to create the nurturing, loving atmosphere that every residential living facility should strive to obtain.
“From my perspective, how we make our program ‘like home’ is most dependent on the concern of the direct care staff,” says David Neff, Director of Residential Services. “They set the tone in the houses and classrooms that communicate care and concern to our students, many of which have never had anyone care for them or about them.”
Most of the residential staff members take on a parental role with the students. This not only gives the residents comfort, but reinforces stability and routine in their lives, which is something that children with disabilities desperately, and any child away from home for that matter, need . It’s extremely important to seek out staff members who truly care about people and want to enrich lives. “Those that come here just looking for a job do not last long.It’s those with a big heart that last and make all the difference,” adds Neff.
The look and feel of the residential living space is definitely something to consider. Students are allowed to personalize their rooms, up to a certain point, by bringing their own bedding, hanging posters and decorating bulletins boards with pictures of family and friends. Once the students reach a certain behavioral level, they are even allowed to have electronics in their room. The bedrooms and community rooms are of the utmost importance, as they need to be the warmest and most welcoming. The community rooms are designed very similar to what you might see in a typical home by providing a comfy sofa with throws and pillow, a community TV and shelves filled with board games and books.
“When you think of creating a residential program like a home, think of how you feel when you come home,” said Leiah Nickell, Assistant Director of Autism Services. “You take off your shoes and enjoy the rugs and familiar things around you. Our children are the same way, they enjoy pictures on the wall and their toys strewed around their room on occasions.”
It is important to encourage individually whenever possible, which is why students are allowed to put their own personal touch on the dress code, which is a school t-shirt, pullover (during cold weather) and khaki pants. They have the option to wear whatever hair accessories, jewelry, belts, jackets and shoes they want. The uniform is simply a time saver for us that cuts down on discussion about what is and isn’t appropriate to wear to school. At the same time, we in no way want to mute the individuality of the child, so we try to remain flexible while still providing the staple pieces of the dress code.
Community involvement is also a key element to the equation. Students volunteer at the Hope House, the YMCA, The Family Center and are extremely active in Special Olympics. There is unified P.E., which means that students from nearby schools come to our campus every day to participate in the P.E. program. Several church and community groups visit our campus for monthly pizza parties, ice cream socials and things of that nature. This provides students numerous opportunities to interact with people outside their peer group who may come from backgrounds different than their own. These experiences are similar to what might take place in a typical home environment.
Birthday and holiday celebrations are another key element to the formula. Lots of students spend their birthdays at KDS, where each child is made to feel special on his or her big day! There are multiple activities for Halloween, Valentine’s Day and even Christmas. Some students are in state custody, and we have to be sensitive to that. These children rarely get care packages from home or family visits on these special days, so in many ways it’s not our choice to be “like a home,” but our mission is to be a home!