A new virtual world: The Lab School

Finding the right school for children with learning differences is a challenge for internationally mobile families. The Lab School’s Global Division is bridging this important gap with great success.

Virtual schools predate the pandemic, when school closures saw over 1.2 billion children reach for their laptops. Over the past two years, leaders in international and public schools around the world navigated a steep learning curve to deliver online lessons in what is definitely one of the successes coming out of a global crisis.As on-campus education returns, forward-thinking bricks-and-mortar schools around the world are taking what they have learnt from these experiences. They recognise that virtual education is a valuable addition to their offer. Among them is The Lab School, based in Washington DC, USA. Established as a bricks-and-mortar school for 60 years, its Global Division is meeting the need for international families looking for virtual schooling for their child with learning differences, including dyslexia, dyscalculia, dysgraphia and other often-associated conditions, such as apraxia or ADHD. Relocate Global’s Fiona Murchie caught up with Amy Oswalt, Head of Global Division and Director of Innovation, The Lab School of Washington, as part of Great International Education and Schools’ Fair, to find out how a move to online learning can be particularly successful for children with additional learning needs making international transitions.

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Anxious times?

The return to school after national lockdowns was met with a sigh of relief for many students and their parents. But for others, it was another moment of anxiety, particularly for children with learning differences and their families about to face additional change with an international assignment.Research from the Children’s Commissioner’s Office, a government body that promotes and protects the rights of children in England, found that children’s anxieties actually decreased during national lockdowns. Children reported being at school and in big crowds among their main anxiety triggers. This research mirrors observations by learning difference practitioner Amy Oswalt and The Lab School’s post-pandemic reflections, which prompted the school to extend its offering to international students through its virtual learning programme. Speaking about this return to classroom learning, Amy Oswalt says it’s been a very interesting time. “I think for families who have mobility as part of their make-up, having a school option that can remain a consistent in a child’s life is really important for our kids. They are able to access education from anywhere in the world, and our families don’t have to worry about moving to a particular location because they need a very specialised service.“Covid really demonstrated that virtual school really can work. I’m working currently in both a bricks-and-mortar position and a virtual position at The Lab School. I’ve been able to see students in both areas and make some comparisons.“The students in our virtual programme are much less anxious than the students in our bricks-and-mortar programme,” says Amy Oswalt. “There’s many, many reasons why that may be. Being at home I think helps with anyone’s anxieties. For students who have some natural anxiety about going to school, being in a group and feeling performance pressure, that is completely taken away in a virtual setting. This format allows for humans with anxiety to really function much better.” Amy Oswalt has also noticed that parents feel more settled when their child undertakes a virtual programme of individually tailored learning with their peers in small groups of four or five students at The Lab School. “Parents feel a lot less anxious in the virtual programme right now because they’re able to see what we’re doing,” she observes.“They have a lot of confidence in our teaching methods because they can see our methods and support our teaching. It makes a partnership with home really solid because they can be part of the lesson.”

Real communities for learning and socialising

For international families with children with learning differences, choosing the right school is twice as difficult. Yet a virtual approach, such as the specialist education offered by The Lab School, could be the answer. It combines academic support on a choice of two pathways with a ready-made global community and the potential for dual enrolment with other schools. “The Lab School comes with a lot of specialists when parents enrol their child into our programme,” explains Amy Oswalt. “We have specialists in speech and language therapy, occupational therapy and psych services, in addition to the teachers who have a great deal of specialty in teaching children with language-based learning differences. “Our parents are introduced to the heads of all of those departments so that they can start navigating all of the enriching pieces that Lab School can offer.” Importantly for families on the move and joining a new school, “we also offer our parents opportunities for coffees to meet with each other virtually,” continues Amy Oswalt. “Sometimes we have very specific topics in mind. Sometimes it’s just an opportunity for parents just to get together and get to know each other. We’ve had parents set up virtual playdates with children on the weekends, so they really get a sense of that togetherness.“We really work hard to make those connections so that our children and our families feel that they are part of something and that they a place and a sense of belonging. That’s very important to us.”

Finding your tribe

As other webinars have shown, developing this sense of rootedness and belonging for all children, especially those in internationally mobile families and their third-culture kids (TCKs), is critical to children thriving and achieving their full potential.“Some of our students come to us having been in a general education setting having been 'that kid': the kid who couldn’t read, the kid that couldn’t do their maths well, the kid that couldn’t spell,” says Amy Oswalt. “Suddenly, they enter our programme and they see they are not that kid. We are all that kid. In this virtual format, they really get a sense of ‘I’m not the only person out there that thinks this way.’ It helps them feel more comfortable in themselves. “They see that they are really smart and they have lots to offer the world. We have students I know will become the entrepreneurs, the inventors, the artists of the future.“Being able to learn in a place where there are other people like you is so powerful. Our students feel a sense of belonging with another group of children. They all learn from each other and recognise they need extra support or a different method to learn. “Once children feel better about themselves, then they are willing to take more risks in their learning and that’s when we can really see them grow and thrive.” 

Making educational transitions beyond The Lab School

The Lab School currently caters for children aged 8-12 who have been diagnosed with dyslexia, dysgraphia and language-based learning difference.It is focused on supporting children with learning differences develop academically and – critically – understand and equip students with the knowledge and tools they need as individuals to learn effectively. They can then take this insight and practice forward to their next stage of education or other school setting. “Our teachers get to know our students really well, so they are able to help them identify what they need as a learner,” says Amy Oswalt. “When they leave our programme to go to a new programme they can say, 'this is what I need as a learner; this is how I learn best.'“We help our students transition to the next setting by meeting with parent at the beginning of that final year and really help them identify what the next programme will be that will work really well for their child. “We are able to reach out to the independent or public school and work with them if there are learning opportunities that we can share. Whatever information we can share with the other parts of that child’s life, we want to do that because we want them to be able to transition into other environments really well.” 

Learning at The Lab School

Until that point of transition, The Lab School offers a flexible, as well as a personal, approach with two pathways. The core programme is three hours of reading, writing and maths instruction each day. “Some of our students have chosen to participate in the core programme, and then are enrolled in another independent school for the other portion of their day. Or their parents have decided to home-school them for the other portion of the day.“The second part of our programme is more asynchronous. This provides students with the other subjects, so science, social studies, the arts. We provide assignments and an opportunity to check in with a teacher for those assignments. Students can work at their own pace and whenever that works best for their family.“Our approach is highly individualised,” continues Amy Oswalt. “For reading, writing and maths, we are following an American curriculum, but we are really following the needs of the child first.”This includes children where English is a second or third language. “We do have students where English is their second or third language and we are able to instruct them as well, but The Lab School is different to a foreign-language teaching school.” 

The future of The Lab School – virtual learning on the move

“The pandemic really demonstrated to us that we can do virtual schooling as well as a bricks-and-mortar school,” reflects Amy Oswalt. The Lab School’s Global Division, in parallel with other virtual schools, is at a very interesting point and has exciting plans for the future, including potentially extending the age group it is focused on upwards to older children and young people.“I feel very passionate about the Lab School Global Division and the virtual component, and I really look forward to meeting with parents who have a need for this kind of schooling for their child because I know how difficult it can be. We’re here to help.”

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