Our *Lucky* Shamrock

Since St. Patrick’s Day is Sunday, we are celebrating early on Thursday and Friday. As you walk the halls of our school, you will see every shade of green that you can imagine. Yes, it is a fun day for both students and staff! Wendy Sadlier, our head “chef” will be offering Reuben sandwiches in the cafeteria, and we will have our annual parade with Julie Moore playing Irish fiddle, leading students as they dance through our halls. However, it’s also a day rooted in a tradition that is the basis for our mission. Why is that? Well, it all started with the shamrock…

We all know that the shamrock is the familiar emblem of Irish culture. Often I have been asked, “Do you have a shamrock for your emblem because the Barber Family is Irish?” While we do come from an Irish heritage, the shamrock truly has a meaning that extends beyond just our lineage. I recall sitting with Dr Barber as she explained her concept of the shamrock to artist Frank Fecko.

BNI Shamrock

The Barber National Institute Shamrock

Each of the three leaves has significance: Faith, inspired Hope, and enduring Love. And the stem? It is our community of supporters, our children and adults, families, staff, and friends. With this in mind, Frank, designed our shamrock, an emblem we have used every day since!

Today, the shamrock endures as our promise to future generations that the BNI will continue our commitment to serving children and adults with disabilities and their families. It’s comforting to think that we will continue to see this “lucky” green symbol for decades to come!

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Why We Dance: Guest Blog by Shari Mastalski

Recently, we said goodbye to our artist in residency, dancer Shari Mastalski. During her final recital, “Room 113 and the Girls Group” performed their interpretative dances of the Four Seasons. It was a fun and inspirational day! I asked Shari if she would be willing to write a guest blog for me, and I’m thrilled she agreed! I hope you enjoy her creativity and vision as much as we did. 

~ Maureen

What is creative dance and why does it matter?  Creative dance offers a playful exploration of three elements: Space, Time, and Energy.  Space includes levels, size, direction, pathways, and shape-making.  Time includes rhythm, beat, tempo, duration, and stillness.  Energy includes contrasting qualities of movement.  These elements become the solvent to infuse class or individual goals and subjects, making learning more available and relevant.  Creative dance creates an environment to learn body and space management, listening, focus, and relationship building.  Perhaps the one learning the most is the teacher who is practicing the lessons along with the students.  What have I learned?  Presence, being the space-shaper, the brilliance of being together, voicing vision, listening, doing something that moves the vision forward, and being momentarily still.


Shari and the group move like snowflakes.

These 20 days have been spent playing with seasons and weather: winter snow, spring rain, summer sun, and autumn wind.  Offering props inspires.  We felt the smoothness of the satin and the crunch of the Cheerios, responding with smooth and sharp dance moves.  Building stories relates. From the students: “If I were snow, I would be the snow in the clouds waiting for the right moment to fall.”  “If I were rain, I would be a puddle for jumping and splashing.”  “If I were the sun, I would brighten the room.”  “If I were the wind, I would blow a sailboat across the lake.”  What would you be?  We have danced with umbrellas and rainbows, snowflakes, sun hoops, water drops, and fans.

Putting this residency together requires a complex process, including gathering six girls from three classrooms and sparing paraprofessionals or teachers to come to the lessons.  Thank you to all who made this creative dance residency possible for these beautiful students.  I am blessed to be in this grand learning environment.  Everyone has graciously invested time and energy to bring this dance to life.  The impact must surely be powerful on unseen, unmeasured levels.  What we do see, is astounding enough.  Students respond with attentiveness, smiles, laughter, movement, sound, bringing great energy, cheerfulness, and enthusiasm in all they do.  We are always looking for each student’s unique talents and abilities.  We are also looking for ways to enhance the ongoing classroom experience with the active arts we have practiced.

Snow is falling gently, softly, smoothly

Snow is whirling wildly

Snow is blowing everywhere

Cold, Brrr!

Snow is still when it stops


The Girls Group with Shari


After achieving her bachelor’s degree in horticulture with minors in dance and theater, at the age of 54, Shari Karn Mastalski went on to complete a master’s degree in sustainable systems.  Shari is a creative dance teaching artist with Erie Arts and Culture and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.  She also leads Bible studies with active arts and informal sustainable systems sessions.  Shari performs with Wing and A Prayer Pittsburgh Players.

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Digital Learning Day ’19!

It may be difficult to believe but Digital Learning Day is just around the corner – this Thursday, February 28th! It seems like yesterday that we were in the gym welcoming our exhibitors, staff, and friends from the community for last year’s event. But DLD is far from just an Erie, PA celebration… it is celebrated around the world!


At ELBS, we use DLD as a way to celebrate our educators, therapists and professionals who create and implement strong instructional practices that use technology and technology tools. I am proud to say that we have many, many staff who exemplify this concept!

I think back to when we purchased our first Apple 11E…could that have been over 30 years ago?  Fortunately we had a handful of staff who wanted to learning everything and anything about the Apple.  Who could have guessed that today we would not only have mastered computers, but be using equipment such as iPads, smartboards, and TAPits, just to name a few!

Why has digital learning been so successful here?  It is quite evident that our faculty has seen the many successes for our students by way of technology. Doors that would have been closed are now open and enable our students to achieve success in communication, academic skills, activities of daily living, and social skills. With – and because of – this knowledge, they have truly embraced learning.

We hope you will find time to stop by the BNI gymnasium from  11am to 1pm to view the exhibits from our therapy departments as well as local colleges and universities. It will be an opportunity for you to view the latest and the best of what technology can offer children and adults with disabilities. See you then!

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Finding Inspiration

As many of you know, I am a big believer in the power of positivity and inspiration. Not only do I enjoy Maria Shriver’s weekly newsletter, I always welcome suggestions of motivational books. So, of course, when I learned that one of our teachers writes a daily inspirational quote on a white board in a school office, I look forward to reading the quote each morning. Today’s quote particularly stood out to me.

They say I have special needs and while that is partly true,

The needs that matter most to me are the same ones that you have, too.

I need to be accepted. I need friends that make me smile.

I need a chance to learn and grow feeling valued all the time.

Sure, I need some extra help and some things I cannot do,

But I hope you’ll see beyond all that. Inside I am just like you.

My first thought was, “That is exactly what sets our school apart from all others.”  We see the child first: The enthusiasm, the desire to learn, the laughter, the unique talents.

While our students may have a special need, to us, that only means that it is our responsibility to learn the very best ways to teach. We believe that all children have the right to grow, learn and reach their fullest potential.  Only by working together, can we can achieve the drams of children and their parents.


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The Dream Gap

Recently, I read an article on the importance of playtime. Much of the article was centered around the startling statistic that, on average, around 6 years of age is when girls stop thinking that they can be and do anything; perhaps even more upsetting, this is when “they become less likely than boys to see themselves as ‘really, really smart.’”

dreamgap.jpgNeedless to say, this line stopped me in my tracks. I re-read it, hoping I was mistaken. I wondered, how can this be? Referred to among researchers as the “Dream Gap,” this phenomenon is evident in developing girls around the world. The article continued on to explore the ways we can encourage girls to continue to dream and to believe that they are capable of anything. One answer? Play.

Often, playtime is one of the only opportunities for a child to explore concepts, roles, and tasks in an unstructured, open-ended way. Whether building, baking, taking care of a baby doll, pretending to be a doctor, or even computer coding, the highest potential of play can create a sense of wonder and curiosity within a child that, ideally, allows them to envision their future as a firefighter, or scientist, or software developer.

I remember when Ryan was about 10 years old, his dream was to be a behavior specialist. Some of you may already know of my deep belief in the power of dreaming. Each of us has dreams: dreams not just for ourselves, but dreams for our loved ones, our children. Of course, they, too, have dreams of their own.

Together, we can close the Dream Gap – we just may have to play for it!


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100th Day!

Today, February 5th, marks our 100th day of school! In many ways, it’s difficult to believe that much time in the school years has already passed. Still, we’ve managed more than a few accomplishments in that short time.

We started the new school year with an inservice by Jim Donovan, M.Ed. on drumming. This is a training program designed to show professionals who work with children with autism and special needs how to facilitate strategies using music and rhythm. These clinically proven techniques were developed and tested at Saint Francis University in Loretto, PA and are designed to meet goals such as increased attention to task, non-verbal expression, socialization and stress reduction. We were so excited about the initial results that we are having him return in March for a Level 2 program.100-days-of-school

First initiated in January of 2018, we have continued to expand our implementation of Ukeru, a safe, comforting crisis management technique recognized as a best practice in restraint reduction. The main components of the Ukeru program include verbal and nonverbal communication, managing and deescalating conflict by converting/diverting aggression, building an environment focused on comfort versus control, and recognizing traumatic experiences of students we serve. We have seen a drastic reduction in our use of restraints in not only these past 100 days but the overall year.

The Arts have always played an important role at the BNI. We are participating in two important events this year. Currently, Shari Matalski, a creative teaching artist with Erie Arts & Culture and the PA Council of the Arts is working with some of our young ladies in a creative dance group during her 20-day residency. Creative dance helps build healthy minds, bodies, relationships and emotions, and thus far our students have really embraced the sessions. On another note, Trisha Yates of the Erie Playhouse is working with our students on the stage adaption of The Rainbow Fish. Last year was our first time to experience the “big stage” and we will be back again in May.

I can guarantee that there will be more exciting developments in the next 80 days; be sure to tune in!

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Hidden Challenges: Disparity in Autism Diagnoses

I recently read an article on “How to Help Low-Income Children with Autism.” All of us acknowledge the critical importance of early intervention for a child with special needs. However, this article made the point that, too often, children from low income families do not receive the early intervention services that they so desperately need. Many years ago, the prevailing opinion was that prominent, affluent, Caucasian families were the most likely to have a child with autism.


As a result of methods such as routine screenings and increased awareness, we know today that the prevalence of autism (1 in 59) has little to do with socioeconomic status. However, even with that statistic in mind, less than half of the anticipated number of low-income children receive a formal diagnosis. The implication here is profound: not that low-income children are less likely to have autism; rather, that low-income children are half as likely to be able to receive the diagnosis needed to receive supports.

“It’s so complicated to get an autism diagnosis and treatment in the US,” quotes a pediatrician in Portland, OR. “[With a] process that’s really convoluted and complicated, it’s always the families with the least privilege who don’t make it through.”

autism.jpgOften, we forget that as confusing as this process can be, it is even more challenging for parents who may not speak English nor have any resources to aid them. Consider the many families who live in rural parts of our country; they may need to travel hours to get to the nearest physician or clinician.

Thankfully, community leaders are working hard to bridge this gap, in part by creating a variety of programs designed to meet the particular challenges of their communities.

In Baltimore, a parent-to-parent program has been initiated to work with families of newly diagnosed children, in addition to those who have just begun the process of requesting a screening.

In Southern California, when data showed that minority families visiting regional centers for people with disabilities were receiving fewer services than white families, the state invested $11 million to explore multiple strategies that best reduce the disparity in all of its regional centers.

In the cities of New Haven, Boston, and Philadelphia, more than 80% of families are receiving public insurance. So these cities have paid “navigators,” rather than volunteers, who are culturally matched to families from the point of initial referral to 100 days after diagnosis to ensure that the children receive treatment.

Looking back, Ryan was very fortunate. Uncle Joe was a pediatric neurologist and diagnosed him before he was 2 years old… that was rare 23 years ago. Given my background, I consider myself fortunate to have known, far before the opinion was wide spread, the essential need for Early Intensive Behavioral Intervention, which I believe made a crucial impact in his success. While I am pleased that we have progressed as a community and nation, our work should not end until we see to it that all children with autism receive the treatments/guidance they deserve!

autism 2

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