Jonix Educational Services — A specialised pre-school service

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It is commonly accepted that an early diagnosis of an Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD), coupled with the right intervention, improves a child’s chances of overcoming the obstacles accompanying autism. With this in mind many parents whose children have an ASD are often faced with decisions regarding early intervention strategies. Jonix Educational services offers early intervention in the form of a specialised pre-school service. The service is a private venture and caters for children of a pre-school age with an ASD, language or developmental delay.

Where did Jonix come from?

The Jonix service began as an agency providing home tutors to children within their home. These tutors were sourced to provide a programme for a specific child. Soon the number of children needing the specialised service grew disproportionate to the amount of tutors available, and Jonix faced a dilemma. Parents were being forced to wait and their children received no intervention, even though they may have received grant approval. It was decided that it would be mutually beneficial to the children and the tutors if a small group of children could be taught together in a class setting environment.

The first small class was set up in the beginning of 2005 in Lucan, where Jonix rented a room from an existing crèche. This was a start, but Jonix soon sought their own premises. A waiting list was developing and later that year, Jonix rented an additional small purpose-built crèche in Enfield, Co. Meath, where they now had two classrooms and an office. The school filled quickly with referrals from other services in the area. The original school in Lucan eventually moved to a purpose-built crèche in Castleknock. Leasing two purpose-built crèches (each catering for 12 children), Jonix then opened a third class in Malahide in February 2007. The fourth class in Kill, Co Kildare, was opened in September 2007. The classes opened in 2007 each cater for 6 children.

What is Jonix?

Jonix operates a pre-school service for children unable to learn and flourish in typical pre-school settings which may have large groups and activities that are unstructured. Staff may also not have the relevant experience or qualifications to facilitate the development of children who have communication difficulties. Within the Jonix schools, data is taken on a daily basis. Tutor and teacher record each child’s daily progress. This information is then used to formulate educational and behavioural plans. High staff to child ratios ensure the child receives 1:1 interaction during the day. Classes generally run in the morning, though some parents have booked their children in for additional afternoon classes.

Currently Jonix operates 5 schools (the fifth opening in early November 2007). Jonix has a team of dedicated and enthusiastic staff. Teachers generally have a psychology or teaching qualification. Teachers within the schools set up the programs and then monitor each child’s program. Jonix receives referrals from other early intervention or diagnostic services that do not have, or have only limited, pre-school facilities. Children attached to other services may receive occupational, speech and language and psychological support from their primary service.

Where is Jonix now?

With all 5 schools up and running at capacity, Jonix is providing a service to 42 pre-school children and employing 30 staff. The children range in age from 2–6 years. The class structures were loosely based on the outreach classes set up by the Department of Education and Science (DES), however, Jonix added an additional staff member with a ratio of 4 adults to 6 children.

At Jonix the goal is to provide a learning environment that is fun and stimulating. Many of the children within the service have had no previous access to a pre-school setting. As much as possible typical pre-school activities are carried out within the day, such as music, art, PE etc. Elements from the Junior Infant Curriculum are also incorporated into programmes, as appropriate.

Challenges

In order to fund the pre-school fees, parents avail of a home tuition grant issued by the Department of Education and Science. The grant is approved on a yearly basis; this therefore poses a big challenges for Jonix. The fact that parents must reapply for the grant each year, negatively impacts on the running of the schools (e.g. staff are on yearly contracts). In order to ease the financial burden on parents, Jonix will be seeking recognition on a more permanent basis and direct payment from the Department of Education and Science. Another challenge for the service is family support outside school hours. Many of the families within Jonix request and display the need for some form of respite support. Most families would see this as a form of short-term respite within and outside the home. Jonix plans to investigate establishing respite homes; currently the service is only able to conduct short home visits.

Strengths

High calibre staff and staff training are important issues within the Jonix service. Two members of staff have completed the BCABA (Board Certified Associate Behaviour Analyst) certification through Trinity College Dublin, and one teacher is currently on the course. Various staff members have also completed a TEACCH course and training in the Picture Exchange Communication System (PECS). Last summer all the staff attended a 4-day training course delivered by a leading behavioural expert. Handleman and Harris (2001) state that with the continuing developments and changes in educational methodologies for children with autism, in-service training is crucial in maintaining an effective programme. Jonix adheres to this rationale and views staff training as essential to the continued success of the service.

According to the Department of Education and Science Autism Task Force (Department of Education and Science 2001, 137), ‘In all cases, a proven, well-defined and well-delivered method of instruction should underpin all educational interactions with children with an ASD’. Within the Jonix schools each child has a personalised programme. The child is assessed and various goals are then devised. Applied Behaviour Analysis principles are used within the schools. Visual schedules also form and integral part of the child’s day. Sign language and the use of PECS support the children’s communication abilities. Each child’s programme is reviewed and new goals are devised when necessary. It is vital to ensure that the child’s progress is measurable. This ensures that the school programme is transparent and therefore accountable.

Goals which are evidenced based ensure that the child has a programme that is flexible and up-to-date.
The Task Force Report (Department of Education and Science 2001) also lists what it considers to be the components of a pre-school programme that is effective. Jonix recognises these components and has successfully implemented them within each school, as appropriate. A large part of each child’s programme is communication and play. These areas are vital for the child in his interaction with his family and peers.
Within the schools, family involvement is encouraged in relation to each child’s programme. Each day a communication diary is sent home. Meetings are held within the school year to discuss each child’s progress.

New parents also attend an introduction meeting. After observational assessments, as well as probing various skill levels, the teacher proposes a programme for the child. Parents decide what the priorities are for them as a family. This meeting also provides an opportunity for parents to understand exactly what happens throughout the day, and how the day is structured.

Jonix is a private venture and therefore can determine its own admission policy. A parent may enrol a child within the school without a formal diagnosis. If, after visiting the school and meeting teachers, the parent feels their child will benefit, the child is enrolled at the school. The parents and teachers then review the situation in a month or two to assess if the placement is appropriate. This flexibility has on many occasions allowed children to access a service, while in the middle or beginning a diagnostic assessment. The child’s early intervention begins without the delay of waiting for reports. A number of the children have benefited from this.

Future

Jonix intends to expand the services that it provides to other areas of Ireland, by building on its brand of providing a quality educational pre-school service for children with an ASD. After a service review recommendations included that Jonix should conduct suitable risk analysis assessments and expose the children to more community events. This has begun to be implemented and outings to the zoo, local playgrounds and farms have begun and will continue in the future. Another area that Jonix would like to explore is integration with other pre-schools, forging links with pre-schools in surrounding areas. Children could attend these pre-schools for periods of time with support from experienced Jonix staff.

Conclusion

Jonix is a unique service provider of educational services in Ireland. It has grown since its inception in 2003. In order to ensure that the children receive the best educational services possible, Jonix must remain updated and skilled in the best and most effective teaching methodologies. Jonix must also ensure that the families within its service feel supported and development. ‘part of’ their child’s educational Nicola Hansen email: nicola@jonix.ie

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