Future Reflections                                                                                       Convention, 2002

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The Lilli Nielsen FIELA Curriculum in Action:
The Skylands School Experience

by Cathy Bailey, OT; Rosemarie Lakawicz, PT; Toni Vidro, Head Teacher; and Linda Zani Thomas, Parent

It is definitely to the benefit of a child with special needs for learning to have a curriculum developed relative to his levels of development rather than simply providing the materials that are available on the shelves or using a National Curriculum that has been developed for children with special, regardless of what those special needs may be. –Dr. Lilli Nielsen

Dr. Lilli Nielsen
Dr. Lilli Nielsen

From the Editor: If there was a Lilli Nielsen fan club, I am sure I would be a member. So, when Linda Zani Thomas asked if I would consider this article for publication, I did not hesitate. Of course, it also helped that I already knew something about Linda. In New Jersey, Linda Thomas is known for her expertise on children who are blind and multiply impaired. She has published several articles on the topic and speaks regularly at workshops conducted by the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and the Parents of Blind Children—NJ; on which she serves as a board member. Linda’s interest in the needs of blind, multiple impaired children began with a passion to help her daughter, Marisa. Marisa is 13-years-old, blind, non-ambulatory (she has cerebral palsy), and she is severely developmentally delayed. She is also, according to Linda, “very independent-minded, outgoing, and adorable!” In 2002, Linda’s daughter, Marisa, was introduced to the Lilli Nielsen’s FIELA Curriculum when her school incorporated the curriculum into their program. According to Linda Thomas, “The Skylands School for the Exceptional is a full-day program of the Passaic County Educational Services Commission located in Ringwood, New Jersey. The school is devoted to providing the finest possible educational experience for children identified as multiply disabled and/or medically fragile.” Here is what the authors, who have worked together at the school for many years, have to say about their experience with the FIELA Curriculum:

The FIELA Curriculum was designed by Dr. Lilli Nielsen, a pioneer in learning techniques for multiply disabled children and creator of the learning approach called Active Learning. Dr. Nielsen has recently been awarded the Knight of the Cross of Danneborg in her native Denmark for her 30 years of research and development of Active Learning. Her techniques and materials, which are known in nations all over the world, have helped thousands of extremely challenged children realize their true potential.

Marisa in her room.
Marisa may choose from a variety of different objects presented in her Room [Lilli Nielsen designed learning environment]. Items include Essef board, daily living objects, tactile pillows, and musical instruments. The items are rotated regularly.

The premise of Active Learning is that all children learn through their own actions, on their own initiative. According to Dr. Nielsen, “…if given the opportunity to learn from his own active exploration and examination, the child will achieve skills that become part of his personality, and so are natural for him to use in interaction with others, and for fulfillment of his own needs, and will gradually make him ready to develop to be as independent as possible.”

One of the most striking elements of Active Learning is the banishment of physically guiding the hands, even the hands of children who are blind or visually impaired. Instead, the parents’ and educators’ role is to construct a personalized learning environment that leads the child to perform learning tasks on his or her own, with no physical intervention, regardless of the extent of the child’s disabilities. In this manner, the multiply handicapped child experiences genuine independence and his/her learning becomes meaningful and relevant.

The FIELA Curriculum is unique in that it specifies that professionals must take more of a hands-off approach, and focus instead on providing rich learning environments where the child can explore and learn independently at his or her own pace and from his or her own self-initiated movements. It can be used for all children with a variety of disabilities, including deafness, deaf-blindness, and autism. [Note: By hands-off we mean that once the child has been positioned in the carefully constructed, individualized learning environment, the instructor must refrain from physically moving the child’s hand, legs, etc. Naturally, you want the child to be hands-on—that is, to touch, manipulate, and explore.]

.The FIELA Curriculum requires:. .

* Precise observation of all areas of a child’s development level in all areas...

* The structuring of the child’s learning activities based on the
child’s own needs and preferences.

The educator’s role is to provide enriched learning environments, respect the child’s need for sufficient time and quietness for learning, and to be ready to share the child’s experience when the child is ready to share it.

The Skylands School, located in Ringwood, New Jersey, is a sensory-based program that uses a trans-disciplinary team approach of instruction to serve students with multiple disabilities. In September of 2002, the Skylands School began implementing the FIELA Curriculum with their students. This article chronicles the stages of preparation for its use and the results to date.

The First Step:
Including the FIELA Curriculum in the Child’s IEP

The FIELA Curriculum is extremely user-friendly and affordable. The basic FIELA instruction manual, The FIELA Curriculum—730 Learning Environments is available for under $50. Since many of the learning environments can be created from ordinary household items and by the creative use of existing classroom equipment, implementing the curriculum should be within the financial reach of all school systems. The FIELA Curriculum Kit is comprised of the manual, a Velcro Schedule Board, and a Velcro notebook of moveable Learning Environment cards. These items facilitate planning, scheduling, and full implementation of the program. The manual, the kit, and other specially designed Lilli Nielsen equipment and teaching tools—referred to in the FIELA manual as Perceptualizing Aids—can all be purchased at reasonable prices in the United States either from Lilliworks or Vision Associates (see the resource list at the end of this article).

The FIELA goals should be included in the child’s IEP and results tracked according to the school’s protocol. Ideally, it is best to specify a specific time period per day in which the FIELA goals will be targeted in school. For example, scheduling one to two hours per school day for Active Learning will ensure ample time for the FIELA program to be pursued.

Skylands School Results with the FIELA Curriculum

Skylands School has always maintained an eclectic approach to instruction. One of our foremost goals is to find techniques that work best for each of our students. Our staff is always looking for new educational techniques and methods of instruction that we can apply and adapt into our classroom. Two of our staff members had the opportunity to attend Dr. Lilli Nielsen’s three-day Active Learning workshop in October 2000. The information we gained was invaluable. Our staff immediately began to pull from Lilli’s ideas and to incorporate her philosophy into our methods of instruction. This past September, we officially began using the FIELA Curriculum in our classrooms.

In the state of New Jersey, the IEP goals and objectives for all students must be based on the Core Curriculum Content Standards (CCCS), which were developed by the state board of education. For students with more severe disabilities, there is an adapted form of these standards known as the Core Curriculum Content Standards for Students with Severe Disabilities (CCCSSSD). We have found the FIELA Curriculum to be a wonderful supplement to our core curriculum content standards. Our challenge was to find an effective classroom balance between our required core curriculum content standards and Active Learning.

Skylands School has incorporated time for Active Learning into our five and one-half hour school day. We are currently using the FIELA Curriculum for three thirty-minute sessions each school day. Our staff created and adapted equipment in accordance with the curriculum guidelines and philosophy in order to provide the most stimulating learning environments possible.

Our results with the FIELA Curriculum have been incredible. Not only have we found the students’ Active Learning sessions to be positive and successful, but we have also noted that the students performed better during the more structured learning activities that follow the Active Learning sessions. We find that adding three Active Learning sessions has added balance to our school day. Students respond better to a mixture of Active Learning time and structured learning activities than they do to structured activities alone. We are very pleased to have implemented the FIELA Curriculum goals for the students at Skylands School and look forward to the continued success of the Active Learning approach for our Skylands School students.

Beyond the FIELA Handbook
Active Learning Training Opportunities and Educator Resources

Training Conference: November 3-5, 2003.

Dr. Nielsen will be holding a training conference November 3-5, 2003 at the Penrickton Center for Blind Children in Southgate, Michigan. For registration information contact Patty Obrzut, Assistant Director, <[email protected]> (734) 946-7500.

FIELA Curriculum Kit, instruction manual, and other Lilli Nielsen Books: Vision Associates, 2109 U.S. Hwy 90 West, Suite 170, #312, Lake City, Florida 32055. Phone (407) 352-1200; Fax (386) 752-7839; Web site <www.visonkits.com>

Active Learning Equipment and Teaching Tools: LilliWorks Active Learning Foundation, 535 Palace Court, Alameda, California 94501. Phone (510) 522-1340;

Web site <www.lilliworks.com>; E-mail <[email protected]>

Dr. Lilli Nielsen is available to provide educational consultations via reviews of videotapes of children. For more information about content of the video, fees, etc. contact Dr. Nielsen at <[email protected]>.

Some state agencies—such as the New Jersey Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired—have Dr. Lilli Nielson’s books and materials available for loan. Please contact your blindness agencies, organizations, and/or public and private early childhood programs and ask about Dr. Nielsen’s books and literature.

To visit The Skylands School and see how the school has implemented the FIELA Curriculum, contact the Passaic County Educational Services Commission at (973) 962-1122.

Information about how parents and professionals can collaborate to set up a school or home Active Learning program is available from the Parents of Blind Children of New Jersey. Contact Linda Zani Thomas at <[email protected]> or call (973) 0962-9307.

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