By Cheri Fancsali and Francine Almash (November 2022)
Since 2001, scholars from the NYU Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development have been partnering with the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE) to fill gaps in the programs available for children on the autism spectrum in NYC. In September 2003, they piloted the ASD Nest program at PS 32 in Brooklyn, with the goal of helping participating children learn how to function well academically, behaviorally and socially—in school and in their community.
Over the next two decades, the partners continued to hone ASD Nest as a model for K-12 inclusive public school education. The program serves autistic children who are capable of doing grade-level work when provided with appropriate classroom support (Koenig, Feldman, Siegel, Bleiweiss, & Cohen, 2014). By the 2021-2022 school year, the ASD Nest program had expanded to 59 elementary, middle, and high schools across all five boroughs of the City, serving more than 1,700 autistic students alongside nearly 5,600 of their non-autistic peers.
Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the Research Alliance for New York City Schools conducted a small study aimed at understanding educators’ experiences in the ASD Nest program and how they believe it had affected their students, their schools, and their professional practices. [i] Employing a purposeful sampling strategy (Patton, 2002), we interviewed 29 staff at three elementary schools that had been in operation for at least several years and were seen by ASD Nest staff and other key stakeholders as exemplary in terms of their fidelity to the Nest model and success in achieving positive student outcomes.
In each school, we interviewed administrators about the school’s motivation to implement the Nest program, how the program had been integrated into the school’s programming and evolved over time, successes and barriers faced in implementation, and changes in the school (both positive and negative) believed to be a result of the program. In addition, we interviewed teachers and/or related service providers in each school who work closely with the Nest students. We asked them about their preparation to implement ASD Nest, its perceived impact on students in the program and the larger school community, elements of success, and any challenges they encountered.
Below we summarize key themes that emerged in the interviews. Our findings provide useful insight into the factors that educators see as essential for a successful ASD Nest program, challenges that may need to be addressed, and considerations for replicating the model in other schools and districts. This information provides a valuable foundation for future research that will examine long-term outcomes for ASD Nest students.
Benefits of ASD Nest
ASD Nest aims to help students develop competence in their social and behavioral functioning, in order to ultimately realize their full, unique potential as independent and happy adults. The program provides training, resources and support for educators, designed to facilitate ASD Nest’s implementation in elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools. In our interviews, we asked educators about positive changes that they attributed to the ASD Nest program.
What are the benefits of ASD Nest?
Interviewees were quick to identify positive outcomes of the ASD Nest program—for students, staff, and the larger school community.
Staff noted benefits of the Nest program for both autistic students and their general education (or "neurotypical") peers. They argued that students develop an understanding of what they need to learn, and that students feel safe and free of judgment, in the Nest environment. For neurotypical students, an increase in kindness, and an acceptance of students who are “different,” were the most commonly cited benefits of the program. As one teacher told us, "[The Nest program] helps them develop a sense of compassion, a sense of understanding...and realizing that there are different types of kids out there that they can be friends with." Interviewees believed that autistic students benefitted from their neurotypical peers' models of appropriate behavior and socialization.
There were several specific aspects of the Nest program that staff saw as valuable for both autistic and neurotypical students. These included smaller class sizes, which allow teachers to give students more individual attention, as well as accommodations such as special seating and opportunities and space for breaks. Educators argued that all students benefit from efforts to increase their independence and self-regulation skills. As one interviewee put it, “Special Ed teaching and ESL teaching is just good teaching. It never hurts to use those strategies with general education kids.” In particular, staff reported seeing students in grades K through 5 make big gains in self-regulation skills before going to middle school. They also felt that students learned how to advocate for themselves and how to ask for what they need. Ultimately, staff reported, these skills translated into stronger academic achievement.
[The Nest program] helps [neurotypical students] develop a sense of compassion, a sense of understanding...and realizing that there are different types of kids out there that they can be friends with.
Teachers and administrators widely agreed that working in the Nest program benefited them in multiple ways and improved their practice beyond what they implemented in the Nest classroom. Specifically, teachers reported an increased awareness about student needs and an increased understanding that strategies in place for Nest students work with all students. Educators felt that the ongoing training and support in the Nest program helped them become more responsive to students’ varying needs.
Teachers also described benefitting from an environment of strong collaboration. They reported that the Nest program encourages teamwork, collaborative problem solving, and consistency in the use of practices and strategies across settings. Some noted that this was in contrast to non-Nest schools where they have worked, where the staff may have very different approaches that sometimes work at odds with one another. As one teacher explained, "The biggest benefit of Nest is the consistency in support and strategies, e.g., consistent use of language and terminology and approach. Everyone has the same mindset or lens/frame in terms of working with these students. That helps us work together and be consistent in support and strategies. Consistency is what makes it so successful for the students."
In addition, staff and administrators reported that the Nest program changed how they communicate, both inside and outside of school. They described an increase in patience and a greater awareness of how they use language and convey ideas. For example, one assistant principal described being more sensitive to differences and more patient in her personal life. A speech therapist talked about choosing her words more carefully and being more mindful of how she speaks to people in her everyday interactions, as a result of her participation in Nest. She also described a willingness to hear other perspectives that she felt she didn’t have previously.
The biggest benefit of Nest is the consistency in support and strategies, e.g., consistent use of language and terminology and approach. Everyone has the same mindset or lens/frame in terms of working with these students. That helps us work together and be consistent in support and strategies. Consistency is what makes it so successful for the students.
For the Larger School Community
When asked about the benefit of the ASD Nest program to the larger school community, teachers and administrators said the overall school culture was more caring, kind, and supportive for both learners and staff. “As a school, we are more supportive for all learners,” noted one administrator. Interviewees described schoolwide changes, both in terms of interpersonal interactions, and in terms of instructional support and practices. For example, staff at two schools talked about how features of the Nest program, such as break corners and special seating, were integrated throughout the building and thus available to all students. The thinking behind this was that all students benefit from an environment that reduces distractions and overstimulation.
In addition, several teachers said there was an overall shift in thinking among staff, characterized by a higher level of collaboration and an openness in discussing challenges, as well as a willingness to accept suggestions and share strategies. One Nest coach noted, “There’s more perspective taking in general across the building [as a result of the Nest program].” This sentiment was echoed by an administrator in the same building: “There’s a lot of new learning that happens across teachers.” In general, respondents reported feeling that teachers were more open and flexible, and that they used language that was focused on positives rather than deficits, as a result of participating in the Nest program.
In describing the benefits of the program for the larger school, one administrator noted that the ASD Nest program was consistent with and enhanced the school’s overall commitment to implementing social emotional learning programs. “We connect the social/emotional curriculum we are using across the school to what we are doing in Nest, and show teachers how they all relate to each other. We are speaking a common language and making it all work together instead of another new program. We identify commonalities in programs and how they benefit all students, not just Nest.” This insight may be valuable for other schools that are considering adopting the ASD Nest model.
Challenges to Implementation
While the educators we spoke with identified a number of powerful benefits that they attributed to ASD Nest, they also described notable challenges to implementing the program. Anticipating and responding to the challenges described below will be important in the context of efforts to expand the model to more schools.
What are the challenges to implementing ASD Nest?
The Right Mix of Students
The most commonly cited challenge for schools was creating a composition of Nest and non-Nest students who work well together in the classroom and benefit from the support and services ASD Nest provides, while at the same time maintaining fidelity to the tenets of the program. Creating a class in which the students are “a good fit” was described as a difficult “balancing act” that staff sometimes get wrong. One challenge is that not all neurotypical students are good models of behavior. When non-Nest students in the Nest class have challenging behavioral needs, it can sometimes create a conflict. Teachers noted that neurotypical students with behavior issues often benefited from the Nest strategies, but that it came at the cost of drawing attention and resources away from the autistic students in the class. At the same time, they noted that placing all students with challenging behaviors in general education classes was perceived by staff as placing an unfair burden on the teachers in non-Nest classes.
Other staff pointed to a different challenge related to class composition, observing that some autistic students with challenging behaviors may not be a good fit for the program. They suggested having students spend time in a Nest classroom as part of the evaluation process, to judge if they are a good match for the program. A few teachers felt more generally that it would help to have more clear and consistent guidelines on selection criteria for the program. Since these interviews were conducted in 2018, the NYCDOE has worked to increase clarity and consistency around selection criteria, as well as to broaden the pool of students considered for Nest placement. Further, the DoE encourages school staff to be open to a wider range of students, including those with more challenging behavior, which has enabled more young people to benefit from the Nest program.
Staff and administrators agreed that more education about the Nest program in general is needed throughout the District in order to improve the quality of evaluations and IEPs for students coming into (or being recommended for) the program. For example, one administrator noted that she often gets referrals for autistic students who do not meet the criteria for the Nest program (e.g., students who are not working at grade level) from administrators who do not fully understand the program.
Some respondents noted challenges related to families failing to consistently follow through at home with strategies developed at school. This might occur because families have a different perspective, or do not agree with the plan developed in the classroom, which can be rooted in cultural differences. In other cases, families agree with the plan, but face challenges at home that prevent them from following through.
Interviewees reported that attendance at family workshops and meetings was often low. They offered several possible explanations for the lack of participation:
- Scheduling: Families may not have time or be available to participate in workshops or meetings.
- Understanding/misunderstanding of autism: Families may not fully understand autism or may not have fully accepted their child’s autism diagnosis.
- Communication: Not enough staff who speak students’ home languages and limited capacity for translation services.
Nonetheless, some interviewees saw the family workshops as an essential component of Nest because they facilitated coordination and consistent application of strategies across both settings. Further, it was noted that the financial support of Nest allowed schools to cover the cost of providing dinner at these workshops, allowing some families to attend who might not have been able to otherwise.
Transitioning to Middle School
While there was unanimous agreement that ASD Nest helped students in K-5 make gains socially and academically, teachers and principals emphasized the importance of helping students develop independence. There was concern that both autistic and neurotypical students in Nest classes may be “over supported,” leaving them unprepared for the demands that will be placed on them in general education classes in middle school.
Respondents felt that it is important to balance support and services with a focus on independence and executive functioning skills. They argued that group work and an emphasis on stamina and communication can help autistic students build skills in areas they often find challenging, which better prepares them for the expectations of the upper grades.
Misconceptions about the Nest Program
Interviewees noted that families in general education and special education can have misconceptions about the program. Some special education families see the program as too “elite,” while some general education families believe their child is being labeled by being placed in a Nest class. One school, where all classes are Integrated Co-Teaching (ICT) classes, addressed this problem by referring to the Nest classrooms as “micro ICT,” in order to make families more comfortable.
Some respondents also said a lack of understanding about the Nest program within the DOE created challenges. Teachers from one school noted that staff from the DOE don’t always understand the Nest goals, so writing IEPs that mimic DOE standards or meeting rigid benchmarks can be difficult. For example, one teacher said that the social development benchmarks for Nest students don’t always “mesh” with those that the DOE is more used to seeing. These teachers felt there should be more alignment, which they noted could be achieved by opening up the workshops held at NYU to more DOE employees. More recently, the NYCDOE has worked toward greater alignment by incorporating Nest goals and strategies into the IEP process.
Resistance from Teachers
Some interviewees noted that more experienced staff can be resistant to changing their practice to include Nest strategies and approaches, and that they may worry about having “a lot of eyes” on their classroom, as is typical of Nest schools through coaches’ visits, intervisitation, etc. Similarly, general education teachers may at first be hesitant to implement suggestions (such as break corners, or sensory breaks) because the strategies are unfamiliar to them. However, according to one interviewee, when teachers see that a strategy works, they often change their minds and embrace it. One coach also noted that once teachers are “on board,” it’s important that everyone on the team is aware of the agreed-upon plans and strategies for students so that they aren’t unintentionally undermining implementation.
What advice would you give to schools considering implementing an ASD Nest program?
Staff and administrators frequently told us that “buy in” from teachers and administrators is a key component of a successful Nest program. As one administrator noted, it is important to understand that not all teachers and staff will agree with the thinking and ideology of the ASD Nest program at first, because they sometimes have approaches they’ve used for years and don’t want to change. Educating them about the program and how it works can help create buy in. Seeing Nest models in other schools can provide a sense of what the program looks like in action, which may also be helpful for schools considering joining.
Another principal’s advice focused on building Nest into the fabric of the school, for all students. She felt strongly that ASD Nest should not be a stand-alone program, but rather should be integrated into the philosophy of the school. To help accomplish this, she rotates teachers in and out of Nest classrooms, so that all of the teachers in her building have Nest training and experience and are able to apply its principles and practices across the board. As she noted, “inclusivity and collaboration are the cornerstones of the program’s success…Every student gets what they need to succeed.”