DVMS Profile: Marissa Achong, Learning Resource Specialist

by Jason Phillips

Marissa Achong is the Learning Resource Specialist at Dundas Valley Montessori School. I sat down with Marissa this week to discuss her role, both specific to DVMS and in the larger Montessori community.

What is the role of a Learning Resource Specialist?

My role is to provide direct assistance to children who need extra practice with materials or need to have materials adapted for them to successfully master a presentation or concept.  At times I can provide additional instruction and repetition, particularly with Casa children, for reading and writing skills, and, as they get older, creating bridge materials that provide an extra step in learning concepts and processes, such as with Golden Bead material for math in progressing to the Stamp Game.

Marissa in action in the Learning Resource environment with assistant Shannon Chambers.

Marissa in action in the Learning Resource environment with assistant Shannon Chambers.

Do all Montessori Schools have a Learning Resource position?

Not all Montessori schools do. The larger the school, the greater the likelihood that there is someone who works in this capacity to varying degrees, providing extra instruction and repetition to those students who need additional practice, or specific spelling or reading programs such as Spalding or Orton-Gillingham.  However, they don’t necessarily have the same title and the position changes from school to school.  It is also a position you see more in schools that have multiple higher levels: Casa, Lower Elementary, Upper Elementary, and Adolescent.

Is there specific training for a Montessori Learning Resource Teacher?

No.  There is instruction on how to adapt Montessori materials and presentations to children with different needs as a part of the Masters of Montessori Education Diploma offered by Loyola University in the United States [the degree Marissa holds]. The new program that has emerged the last two years is the AMI Inclusive Classroom Diploma, which focuses on training classroom Montessori teachers to adapt to the needs of children with developmental challenges in the classroom, but not as an external specialist position.

Is Montessori especially relevant or advantageous for children with developmental difficulties?

Absolutely, particularly at the Casa age. The first Montessori materials were developed for children with developmental issues. Specifically, Maria Montessori was working as a physician and she encountered a group of children in a wing of the hospital where she was working, in Italy, who had been sort of closeted away and who were considered the “unteachable” children – those who were developmentally delayed or who were experiencing intellectual disability. Maria Montessori was determined that all children could learn and that’s how the first Montessori materials were developed, to serve those “unteachable” children.

Is there a higher rate of children with developmental issues in Montessori schools versus public schools?

I don’t know what the rates of diagnosis for children in public schools are, but when we are receiving calls from prospective parents, especially for children who have not been in Montessori before and are of elementary age, they are often students with special needs.  Their parents are looking for an alternative to the public system, looking for more one-to-one instruction and an environment that can tailor an independent program to their child within a classroom, where they won’t be isolated in a special needs room. They want an inclusive classroom environment but still a lot of one-to-one attention, a lot of repetition, and a lot of attempts at finding what works best for their child. Particularly as our Upper Elementary program has developed, we have received more and more students with less severe learning challenges – the more common dyslexic or dysgraphic-type disabilities that are more manageable. We do find that we are getting more families with students that are struggling in the public system who come here looking for assistance with those learning challenges.

Another area that has evolved with this role is looking at whole school needs such as how to access publicly funded support services in the community that are easier to access when you attend public school, but at a private school parents and teachers don’t always know how to access those resources. We have been able to arrange for speech language pathology, occupational therapists, physiotherapists, to either provide us with consultation plans or to provide direct service to our students.

What is a daily routine like for a Montessori Learning Resource Specialist?

The role will change dramatically from term to term depending on the current needs of the school population, but at any given point a lot of prep work is required because you are further individualizing for each student. You also need larger blocks of time for individual lessons as the process may be slower or a lot of repetition may be needed. As the needs of the school population change, you spend a lot of time researching new conditions that arise or come into the school. For example, last year we had a student diagnosed with Non-Verbal Learning Disorder, so as the LRT I spent a lot of time researching that so as to best advise the classroom teachers. This year, we are looking at a student with Fragile X. Another year it was Expressive and Receptive Language Delay. Depending on student population, the role can change significantly.

Marissa helping an elementary student in the library.

Marissa helping an elementary student in the library.

I also run speech groups. I handle the library resources, making them accessible, making sure there is information at each level that will be accessible to all the different Montessori levels in the school. I also do preparation of text, developing alternative methods; for example, a student with fine motor difficulties was switched to print on the advice of her occupational therapist because short strokes were easier for her muscle development than cursive, whereas typically we promote cursive for every child.

What advice would you give to Montessori schools looking to either develop or expand a Learning Resource role?

I would say there are two ways to go about it. The first way would be to specifically address those students who have diagnoses from outside professionals of learning disabilities or other developmental challenges and to begin addressing their needs directly.

If you do not have students with explicit diagnoses within the school community, evolve an LRT role focused around reading at the Casa level and early sound acquisition. The most common learning challenges we see through the elementary years tend to be related to reading and writing, whether it’s dyslexia or something else. By starting with intense intervention at an earlier age for that third year Casa child who still hasn’t mastered phonetic sounds you can head off a lot of the later problems, or identify those who will continue to need a higher level of support and who should be tracked to see whether they do present with a learning disability later on.

If you have any questions for Marissa, or would like to share your experiences, please don’t hesitate  and join the discussion below.

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