At Thompson Intermediate School in Houston, Texas, students’ social and emotional health is at the heart of the classroom.
A survey of its middle schoolers at the start of the 2021-22 school year revealed that many students were experiencing stress and difficulty relating to teachers, peers, and family. So the leadership team at Thompson decided to introduce Along—a digital reflection tool offered by Gradient Learning—as a way to prioritize student health.
For Heather Nielson, a special education teacher at Thompson, connecting with her students comes with added challenges. That’s because many of her students have severe autism and are unable to communicate verbally. This school year, however, Nielson has found that using Along opened up new ways to build relationships with her students and provide them with a safe space to express themselves.
“This tool gives them a way to communicate how they are feeling in a really comfortable way,” Nielson said. “You don’t always get to see that side of them. Sometimes they’re feeling more vulnerable and they want to share and they want to be heard.”
As part of a school-wide endeavor, Nielson has been asking her students a reflection question using Along once a week. These weekly check-ins have helped to create a sea of change in the school’s culture—and in Nielson’s classroom.
Since using Along, Nielson said the social skills of a particular student have “really improved.”
“Some days he comes in frustrated and in a bad mood, and he’s able to voice that in a more constructive way,” she said.
Watch this video to learn how Along is making a difference with special education students at Thompson:
When an educator asks a question in Along, their students have the option of responding in any way they feel comfortable, whether that’s in a text or through an audio or video answer. And, because their answer is only shared directly with their teacher, there is no concern about peer pressure.
“Our autism unit is using Along, and they love it,” said Tanis Griffin, Thompson’s principal. “We have some non-verbal students, and the tool has flexibility to allow them to still interact. This is really valuable for those students. For students who don’t talk to their teachers, this is bringing them out of their shell.
“It’s those little wins that add up to the big success that we’re seeing now.”
In addition to providing an outlet for communication for students with special needs, Along is giving special education educators important new perspectives about their students’ lives.
Kimberly Frazee, a Thompson special education teacher, said that Along is providing her students an opportunity to share feelings that they may not have had an opportunity to otherwise.
“Maybe they feel comfortable with you as a person, but not in front of their peers,” Frazee said. “That’s what’s different for us as teachers—to have that background knowledge. (Along) gives us more empathy. It gives us a better connection. It helps us work better with (students) all the way around.”
Amid these uncertain times, Thompson students and teachers are finding new connection points every week with Along. They’re building their school community up and strengthening bonds to create an environment that is welcoming and safe—even for students who struggle to communicate.
“Special education is already difficult,” Nielson said. “Why not give kids more ways to express themselves? It’s really important to have that connection with kids. If you don’t have that connection, then how can you teach them?”