Success Stories

Brent Smallstig Success Story
Cole Success Story
Patrick Success Stories

Brent Smalstig: Students with Multiple Disabilities/ASSISTIVE DEVICE

Using advanced technologies to advance one student’s independence.
Working together to turn technological advances into life advances.
As a student at The Day School, Brent wants to communicate with his teachers, friends and family; he wants to be able to advocate for and express himself.

Brent Smallstig

As a student with severe cerebral palsy, Brent’s ability to communicate requires extra work, advanced technology, and true collaboration.

Brent’s most effective and controlled motions are with his head. At The Day School, he became adept at using an augmentative communication device that was attached to his wheelchair, making selections by inclining his head leftward onto a padded switch. The reliable but slow process involved scanning through multiple options then choosing what the computer would say for him.

Then, our staff heard about a new-generation device that could greatly enhance Brent’s ability to communicate. Brent’s teacher, the school’s lead physical therapist, the staff rehabilitation engineer, and Pitt’s Rehabilitation Engineering Department—a longtime research partner— collaborated to figure out how to make this new technology work for Brent.

They outfitted Brent with a high-tech marvel: a tiny sensor that can adhere to his forehead; and on his device, a little camera that can see where the sensor is pointing.

It took a lot of painstaking practice, but now Brent can look at his device’s screen, moves his head, and make a selection simply by pointing the sensor at whatever he wants. His communication’s device is also an entertainment center with an MP3 player, e-books and video capabilities.

Kathy Smalstig, Brent’s mom, says, “Being able to entertain ourselves is a lifelong skill. The Day School wants Brent to have the quality of life his father and I want for him, and they’re caring and expert enough to help him achieve that.”

Dylan and Cole: Students with Autism

For twins, Cole and Dylan, The Day School provides incredible life lessons.
The Day School: Providing pivotal life lessons for children with autism.


When her twin sons, Dylan and Cole, were 9-years old, Beth moved her family across the country, convinced that The Day School at the Children’s Institute was the best place for her sons.

Both boys are on the autism spectrum. Dylan had severe behavioral issues and was able to eat only baby food and graham crackers. Cole was quieter, wanted to be alone and play out scenes from a favorite movie. Neither boy was toilet trained.

Beth enrolled both boys in The Day School’s Sheila and Milton Fine Classrooms for Students with Autism. Each of these ten controlled-stimulation classrooms will accommodate six students, three staff members, plus specialty-subject teachers, therapists, dieticians, and in-house consultants.


Here, every student receives a highly individualized education plan with specific learning, communication and behavioral goals. To achieve his or her goals, the entire staff uses Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA), a very structured method of delivering instruction and reinforcement, and Verbal Behavior Initiative (VHI), which helps kids develop and use language as a means of increasing appropriate behaviors and interpersonal skills.

Used together, these methods help students change their entire world: behaviors improve, thoughts, emotions and needs are expressed and understood, and real learning can begin.

Working with one child at a time, The Day School has achieved remarkable success:

* More than 50% of the students who enrolled in The Day School over the past two years with no functional way to communicate can now communicate.

* Over the last five years, 80% of our students who enrolled with significant behavioral issues have seen decreases in those behaviors.

Over the years, Beth has witnessed The Day School’s impact on her twins. Dylan no longer needs one-on-one behavior support, and at lunch time, he will happily munch on a ham sandwich. Cole has been able to move to a less intensive classroom setting, and the once completely withdrawn child now reads stories to his friends during circle time. Both boys are now toilet-trained.

“They have progressed so much” Beth concludes, “I couldn’t have made a better choice for my boys.”

Jerome Shanaway: Assistive Technology

Learning how to communicate made all the difference in Jerome’s world.

Jerome was adopted as a toddler through The Children’s Institute’s Project STAR and came to The Day School at 9-years old. A lively boy with multiple diagnoses in addition to autism, Jerome couldn’t speak, and couldn’t sit at a desk for more than about two minutes. When he was frustrated — which was often — he’d stand on tables and throw whatever was handy. Fortunately, Jerome was in the right place to make some profound changes.

As a student in The Day School’s Sheila and Milton Fine Classrooms for Students with Autism, Jerome was able to participate in the Verbal Behavior Project, an ongoing Pennsylvania Department of Education research initiative that uses Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) to help improve both communication and behaviors of students with autism.

Through it, teachers give instruction, expect a behavior in response, and providing feedback using positive reinforcers, such as computer time, reading a book, or listening to music. The children also learn to ask for what they want, clearly and simply.

The Day School is the only approved private school in the state to participate in the Project.

The process of building communication skills is a painstaking one, requiring patience and consistency. Each staff member in The Day School’s autism program — teachers, classroom aides and therapists — has received ABA training, and parents learn to apply the approach at home.

For non-verbal children, The Day School utilizes augmentative devices to help them speak. Jerome was introduced to a device made by DynaVox. Through it, he can press a picture representing the word or phrase he wants to say, then the DynaVox will “speak” it.

Jerome’s progress has been dramatic. He is a virtuoso on his DynaVox, using it not only in school but when the family is out in the community. He now can sit for 25 minutes at a time, doing sequences of tasks by himself. His teacher, Lynn Hawkins, says, “He’s gone from being a child who was often out of control to being a successful learner. And his behaviors have improved dramatically.” His mom adds, “At home, he’s more cooperative and not so aggressive. He still has some behavior issues, but he’s definitely getting there.”

Patrick Morrison: Transition Programming

PATRICK MORRISON: Learning to make the transition from school to life.

Patrick Morrison was born at 25 weeks, and his parents weren’t sure he’d make it. But he did, and as his mom says, “He’s always been our charmer.”

Patrick Morrison

For over a decade, Patrick has been a cherished member of The Day School family. Born with severe cerebral palsy and blindness in one eye, and with a medical history of a dozen surgeries, Patrick comes to school each day with a positive outlook, a gregarious nature and a willingness to learn.

In addition to science and math, reading and writing, The Day School teaches Patrick independence and prepares him for day he reaches 21 and can no longer come to school. It’s a hard transition, but The Day School works very hard to make sure our graduates and their families understand the options and are well-prepared for the opportunities.

The Day School has two transition classes designed to help students achieve the greatest possible level of independence across all facets of life. This includes practicing self-advocacy, assessing career interests and preferences, even finding internships so our students can comfortably move into employment after graduation.

Patrick’s future is a bright one. As one former instructor said, “He is a very cool kid. He’s interested in everything, he’s working to expand in his world in every way he can, and we are so happy to be part of that process.”

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