Top of the tree It delivers impressive results and can be cheaper than conventional provision. So why does the world-renowned Treetops School remain the UK’s only state-funded provider of Verbal Behaviour teaching, asks Gillian Loughran
Why don’t local educational authorities copy Treetops School? That’s a question many parents apparently ask when they visit this pioneering provision. What makes Treetops groundbreaking is that it contains a unit offering the UK’s first state-run Verbal Behaviour (VB) provision for children on the autistic spectrum. VB is a form of Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA), an intervention based on the premise that appropriate behaviour – including speech, academics and life skills – can be taught because children are more likely to repeat behaviours or responses that are rewarded, and are less likely to continue behaviours that are not rewarded. Situated in Grays, Essex, and in the borough of Thurrock, Treetops is a day special school for children and young people between the ages of three and 19 who experience moderate learning difficulties. The great benefit for parents of children in the Treetops VB unit is that it is free. In contrast, parents who educate their child at home 18 Au t i s m | e y e I s s u e 2 2 0 1 1
using the VB approach can end up spending more than £30,000 a year. The provision can guzzle money because it usually involves paying for a consultant, a programme supervisor and tutors who need to be trained in VB techniques. The uniqueness of Treetops is further enhanced by the fact that many of the children who attend it come from backgrounds where families would never be able to afford the costs of VB, never mind the legal fees involved if they had to battle through tribunals to force their local authority to pay for it.
Unfairly denied It’s unfair that other families around the country are denied such a provision, believes head teacher Paul Smith. “More autistic children should have access to the kind of VB provision being delivered at Treetops,” he says. “More children with autism, including the less well off, would be given a better chance to improve while they’re still young.” Lesley Love, Smith’s deputy, couldn’t agree more. “Only people with money can afford to put their child on an ABA or VB programme,
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Teacher nose best: fun is an intrinsic part of the strategy at Treetops
or go to tribunals to fight for it,” she says. Love, a Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), is in charge of the VB provision at Treetops – as she has been for the past 10 years, since starting it with just one child. At Treetops, Thurrock Borough Council picks up the bill for a VB programme that is based on the influential American psychologist B F Skinner’s 1957 analysis of verbal behaviour. Parents the world over have reported that VB has improved their child’s ability to communicate, even if he or she started with minimal or no speech. It has to be said, however, that not every child experiences this degree of success. www.autismeye.com
VB’s attraction for parents is the way it encourages a child with autism to realize how rewarding the use of language and communication can be, that it can earn the child something that he or she wants. One of the first verbal skills taught children is to be able to request what they would like by using a single word. This is how my own son, Finn began to regain the language he lost after regressing at the age of three: the pivotal moment in getting him to speak again was when his VB consultant managed to get him to say “Flake” in order to be rewarded with a cornflake, one of the few foods he liked to eat. After five years of VB, Finn www.autismeye.com
More children, including the less well off, would be given a bettter chance to improve while they’re still young” developed good functional language and was even heard using sentences of up to 13 words. But the intervention was expensive and my husband and I had to battle all the way to the High Court to force our local authority eventually to provide it. None of
this, including the time and expense the local authority spent fighting us, would have been necessary had Treetops been in our borough. In a colourful, cheerful school setting, children with autism receive VB on a daily basis at Treetops. The bulk of the VB provision takes place in the school’s nursery department, where the youngest child receiving it is just two years old. But it doesn’t end there. The eldest participants include teenagers, who are helped to deal with behavioural issues, to develop independent living skills and to gain access to group learning with one-to-one assistance. Some 60
Active: whether it involves modelling an action or teaching independent skills, VB is not confined to desk work
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Mastered training The organisation behind Lesley Love’s Board Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA) qualification is the Behavior Analyst Certification Board in Florida, USA. The organisation demands that applicants have at least a Masters Degree. Aspiring Verbal Behaviour tutors who have not reached that level, but who still have at least a Bachelors Degree, may be eligible to apply for a lesser Board Certified Assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) qualification.
to encourage their children to generalize skills in an everyday environment outside of school. The question that begs asking is: if Treetops’ VB teaching is so good, and can in some cases cost less than conventional provision, why don’t any of the visitors from local authorities replicate it for the children with autism in their care? Love believes the reason lies in the character of the visitors, not the provision. “I think they find it difficult to change their set ideas and to look outside what they currently do,” she says.
We look for people with the ability to know how to have fun with a child and motivate them”
children at the school are now in receipt of VB. Treetops also acts as an outreach centre, disseminating the VB approach to 40 schools around the borough. The school believes its VB provision has been a success, since around one in three children who have received it have moved successfully from Treetops into mainstream schools. Currently, there is a waiting list of around 19 children for VB at Treetops. Many parents whose children could benefit from the provision are probably dissuaded from applying because they think their application will fail. Paul Smith 20 Au t i s m | e y e I s s u e 2 2 0 1 1
At the root of Treetops: (from left) head teacher Paul Smith, deputy head Lesley Love, and consultant Dr Vincent Carbone
Not enough vision
wishes more local authorities would take on such children by replicating his school’s VB provision. Sadly, many local authorities visit the school but never do anything about it. The inertia doesn’t seem to relate to the costs involved. Paul Smith points out that the annual expense of educating an autistic child at the school using VB is £20,000 a year, including the costs of speech and language therapy (SALT) and occupational therapy. In some cases this can even be less expensive, he says, than providing 1:1 support in a mainstream school, once SALT and OT costs are added. “Treetops
are proving that a good VB provision can be done on a shoestring,” says Lesley Love.
Mix of backgrounds It’s not as if the school needs to recruit specially trained staff. They come from a mix of backgrounds: some have university degrees with psychology backgrounds, others have qualifications in childcare with no experience of ABA or VB. “We look for people with a special quality, the ability to know how to have fun with a child and motivate them towards making progress,” Love says. Ofstead, the UK schools inspectorate, reported
Out and about: skills are learned outside the school premises, such as when visiting a farm or cycling
last year that children accessing VB at Treetops receive ‘skilled individual tuition and support from highly trained teachers and other staff’. The reputation of Treetops’ autism provision has spread beyond the UK, with parents having relocated from as far afield as the US to gain a place for their child. This wide recognition may well be down to a global awareness of the school’s eminent VB consultant, Dr Vincent Carbone, who has more than 30 years’ experience designing learning experiences for people with autism and development disabilities. Speaking to Autism Eye from his www.autismeye.com
VB clinic in New York, Dr Carbone said of Treetops: “It’s one of the best public provisions in the UK for children with autism, and one that should act as an effective model for other authorities looking for an example of how to provide services.” In his view, the children at Treetops do “remarkably well”. Dr Carbone visits Treetops twice a year to run workshops for staff. To ensure year-round consistency he draws on the expertise of UKbased Carole Roxborough BCABA to keep in contact with the school and oversee the VB programmes. Parents are given training, too. Weekly sessions teach them how
Love’s view is shared by Dr Carbone. He laments the way that children with autism in the UK are denied a Treetops style of provision because there are too few local authority decision-makers with “vision and strength of character”. As it turns out, lacking the vision to go down the same route as Treetops incurs extra costs for educational authorities as well as parents. Special Educational Needs Tribunals have for many years been kept busy dealing with parents like me, fighting to get ABA/VB funded for their child. Both sides have to pay for witnesses such as educational psychologists to attend a tribunal, as well as expensive solicitor and barrister fees. It’s not only highly stressful for parents, but wasteful all round. Au t i s m | e y e I s s u e 2 2 0 1 1 21