Monday, May 4, 2009

The Gilbert Hall School: A New Perspective on Learning to Learn

On Saturday, I attended the Open House for a new private school, Gilbert Hall School (GHS), which is located in Culver City. The Gilbert Hall School is based on a model of learning developed by Dr. Gutstein, director of the Relationship Development Research Institute. Dr. Gutstein has basically taken the principles of Relationship Development Intervention (RDI) and applied them to classroom based learning in an innovative new school.

A few years ago, I was involved in a Fair Hearing with the Westside Regional Center that was on the issue of RDI for a child with autism. At that time, RDI was not widely used or even known here in the LA area, and I read everything I could find on the topic as we were preparing for the case. Those inquiries lead me to contact Dr. Gutstein, who gave me a lot of information about his research and the RDI program. So, when I learned that the GHS model was based on Dr. Gutstein's research and the theories behind RDI, I was intrigued to hear more about it.

During the Open House, Dr. Gutstein gave a very informative lecture on the research and theories behind the GHS model. The focus of the model is on brain development, which Dr. Gutstein argues should be the primary focus in all of education utilizing "best practices." Dr. Gutstein discussed the downfall of the typical educational system's focus on measuring success by tracking specific skills learned or academic milestones met. This focus doesn't allow for the development of flexibility to solve "fuzzy problems," to improvise or deal with "grey areas," or to come up with alternative solutions. A repertoire of skills is not enough to make it in the world; rather, individuals have to develop what Dr. Gutstein refers to as "nueral integration," which is what allows all of us to problem solve and adapt in new situations.

Neural Integration was defined by Dr. Gutstein as a "lifelong process in which the brain's different processing centers learn to work together in increasingly more sophisticated and efficient ways." The brain basically grows and forms with experiences that present mental challenges, and most children develop nueral integration through "guided participation" by their parents. Children learn not only how to address the specific situation they are faced with, but in addressing that situation, they are learning how to think through the next, unique situation.

What does all of this have to do with special needs kids? Dr. Gutstein explained that in 100% of children on the Autism spectrum, the process of developing nueral integration breaks down. Despite the fact that children on the spectrum are diverse in so many other ways, this is the one thing that unites them. Furthermore, other children affected by disabilities such as ADHD and executive dysfunction, Tourette's, Bi-Polar, Seizure Disorder, and Severe Learning Disabilities can also be affected by this neuro-vulnerability.

Dr. Gutstein's model for the Gilbert Hall School is focused on using dynamic and innovative curriculum to specifically address the development of neuro-integration. The GHS school day is focused on intensively developing specific dynamic processes. Classroom activities and academics are a part of the program, and these activities are used not only to teach the specific skill addressed in that lesson (math, reading, etc) but also as a means of teaching the students to think, problem-solve, relate, etc. The curriculum is competency based, and the program operates on a "level" system, very similar to the levels within the RDI program, in the sense that it is an assumption of the program that an individual must reach competency on one level before they will be able to be successful on the next.

This is the core uniqueness of the program - it doesn't focus on the typical measures of academic progress that we see in educational programs, but on the bigger picture of learning - learning to learn, learning to think, problem-solve, and relate to the world. Like the RDI model focuses on underlying relationship functions rather than superficial social skills, the GHS model focuses on the underlying components of thinking and learning rather than on skill sets and achievement markers.

Another unique aspect of the school is the parent involvement component. The RDI program, which forms the basis for much of what the GHS model is, focuses on parental involvement in the development of the child's ability to problem solve and relate to others. The GHS model incorporates this focus, in that the learning goes beyond the classroom and into the home setting. Parents are integrally involved at GHS, and must have a willingness to incorporate new ways of interacting with their child at home in order to allow their child to truly develop and grow.

GHS is a very small school setting, and is currently not a certified Non Public School. For more information about GHS, check out their very extensive website at Also, if you are interested in more information about RDI and Dr. Gutstein's research, check out

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