#AdmissionsPros: Independence & Advocacy With Samantha Curiale-Feinman

Welcome to #AdmissionsPros! In this series, admissions advisors and educational consultants offer their advice and insight on the big picture of elementary, secondary, and graduate school admissions — from extracurriculars, to essays, to, (of course) standardized tests.

As the Director of New Frontiers in Learning, an organization devoted to providing educational and social supports to middle school through college-aged students who learn differently, Samantha Curiale-Feinman has helped thousands of young people meet their academic and career goals and learn to thrive as independent adults. Here, she shares NFIL’s process for helping students develop executive functioning, academic learning, and social interaction skills as they transition to college.

Can you give us a little bit of information about yourself and the work that you do at New Frontiers?

My training is in speech pathology, audiology, and special education. I spent a lot of time in the classroom as a classroom teacher, and from that, I transitioned into working at a university doing teacher training —specifically in a special education teacher preparation program as clinical faculty. I worked with new teachers on setting up their classrooms, behavior management, classroom management, that type of thing. I was very hands on, helping teachers understand how to reach groups of students with really diverse learning needs.

When I was at the university, the work that we were doing was through a center called the Teaching and Research in Autism Center. This was primarily a research-based teacher-prep center, but because it was called the Teaching and Research in Autism Center, we started to see families of undergraduates coming to us saying, “My son or daughter got accepted to school here, and they have the academic capacity to do college-level work, but we we’re concerned that they’re going to struggle in some way. What types of services do you have to offer?” After enough families came to us asking these same questions, we realized that there really was a need. So our team started a program for undergraduate students with varied learning differences, to support them as they were beginning college. After a couple of years of assessing what students were struggling with, we realized that there was a pattern. Oftentimes it was not the curriculum itself, or being able to demonstrate knowledge, but really self-monitoring, executive functioning, and social communication that were common obstacles for a lot of our students.

So after being part of that program, I realized that I wanted to reach more students and do more for them. I wanted to be able to help students choose where they wanted to go to school — not based on the supports that would be available on a given campus, but on their actual interests. The best way to do that was to bring support services to the students, wherever they ended up. So that’s how New Frontiers was founded.

At New Frontiers, we really focus on the lens of college and career post-high school, but we do start working with students as early as middle school. We often work with students throughout their high school years, and beyond into college and career. Our job is to assess the skills students need to learn prior to starting school, and then to support the development of those skills throughout the college experience. We want students with learning differences to be able to go to art school, be able to go to a two-year college, to be able to go to a four-year college, private, public, whatever they want, and whatever is the best fit for them based on their goals.

A lot of our work involves global skills that are necessary for success in college and independent adult life. The five areas we really focus on are academic foundations (developing strong study skills, knowing how to break tasks into small pieces, the writing process, reading comprehension, being able to distinguish relevant from irrelevant text); executive functioning (managing time, organizing work, prioritizing and multitasking); self-advocacy (recognizing when you need to ask for help, knowing where to go to ask for it, asking for it, and following through); independence (learning to take care of yourself and live on your own in some capacity); and social communication (learning to participate, network, and make friends). So in broad strokes, that’s the work that we do.

We think of it as coaching; our goal is to coach the students through learning these organizational and day-to-day skills, so that eventually they can do all of this independently and they don’t need us anymore.

When you’re working with high school and middle school students, how does the support you offer line up with that they’re already receiving in school? Do You participate in a student’s IEP meetings, for example?

We do participate in IEP meetings if the family and the school think it’s advantageous for us to be there. But a lot of times, we are really supplementary to what’s going on in school. Starting in middle school, we frequently hear from teachers that a student is extremely bright, does really well on exams, but doesn’t hand in any homework. So we help to develop the necessary systems so that students can structure themselves and be independently successful. In the same way, when we do go to IEP meetings, it’s for the purpose of helping students to learn how to be active participants themselves. Our goal is to move them towards the independence that comes from self-advocacy. And of course, that is really important once they get to college.

What are some things you ask in an initial meeting with a new student?

During that initial meeting, our goal is to find out how we can best help them, and how we can build a relationship with them so that they can trust us and be honest with us.

A lot of times, it’s really hard for students to talk about what they’re struggling with in school, and it’s really hard for them to be honest. We often see a pattern where students will procrastinate getting something done because they don’t really know how to do it. They will wait until the last minute, and then they won’t be able to get it done because there isn’t enough time, so they just won’t hand it in. In those key moments, our job is to assess the underlying skill deficits that were preventing the student from knowing how to get the work done in the first place. It’s important for us to assess that, but we can’t assess it properly if the student is not honest about what they have — and have not — been doing. So a big part of that initial meeting is about relationship building. We try to talk with students about their particular interests, so that we can help to match them with a coach that is relatable to them, and somebody with whom they can build a strong mentoring type relationship.

We also always like to ask “what are the classes that you like versus the classes that you don’t like;” “what classes do you feel that you’re doing really well in versus the classes where struggling;” and then, if the students are open to talking about goal setting, we’ll ask, “if you had a mentor or a coach from our organization, what do you think would be the most helpful for you two to work on together?” And sometimes what the student wants to work on personally might be different from what the school or parent has told us the student is struggling with, so this can help us come up with a very comprehensive plan. 

You mentioned parents. What is your perspective on parental involvement? Can parents ever be too involved?

As students get older, parents do need to start slowly pulling away so that the students have the opportunity to become more responsible for things. This is so that when they do eventually get to a setting where they’re expected to be independent, like college, they have the skills to do so.

In terms of our coaching sessions, sometimes the parents are very involved, and sometimes they have limited involvement. We try to help parents find the middle ground between doing everything for their students or simply pushing them in the water and saying “sink or swim.” That middle ground does exist, and it’s very beneficial to the students that we find it.

Because we work with an older population of students, relatively speaking, a lot of times the parents want to start taking a step back anyway. There’s a very high emotional component to school and responsibilities, and what we’ve found is that when parents can let the coaches take the lead and help students develop these executive functioning skills, it helps the whole family dynamic — beyond academics.

Since you’re helping many of your students reach college, they must encounter standardized tests along the way. How do you help students get through standardized testing?

We don’t focus specifically on the content; we focus on access to the content. Oftentimes, students are missing content because they’re having a tough time paying attention, or because they don’t have a good system for taking notes. So we teach them strategies to become more efficient learners within a specific curriculum.

Sometimes it is helpful for our coaches to have backgrounds in specific areas — math and science in particular — but families don’t necessarily come to us just to help their student pass the Algebra Regents or certain AP exam. What we’re really doing is embedding executive functioning skills and study strategies into a student’s daily routine, which helps them learn the curriculum better.

What is your typical process for working with a student?

It depends on the student. We work with students for anywhere from an hour per week to five hours per week or more, depending on their specific goals. Generally speaking, when a student has a tough time with executive functioning and follow-through, it’s helpful to have one or two longer sessions during the week for planning and developing an organizational system, and then shorter check-ins to see if the systems are being used and are working. Sometimes students are really good at knowing exactly what they need to do, but they might need more help with the writing process, or with reading comprehension, or with learning a strategy for a specific type of curriculum. And so those sessions may look different. On our end, we shift with what the student’s needs are in the moment.

I’ll tell you, especially in New York City, we work with a lot of college students. In their first semester of freshman year they’ll come to a session with their coach, and the coach will ask how everything is going. Oftentimes the student will say, “Everything great! I love college — making new friends is great, the classes are great…” etc. and the coach will say, “okay good, so what do you need to work on?” and the students will respond “oh, I don’t have any work.” And of course, we know if they’re full-time students they probably have some work to do, in some capacity. So we start to unpack the syllabi, and show students that though there might not be anything due this week, next week there’s an exam, and a paper, and a group project, all due on Tuesday! And if the student waits until Monday to do all of those things, they’re going to get very overwhelmed. So we work with students to develop organizational systems that work for them. Then after a semester or two, sometimes they will come to a session and say “I’m so overwhelmed, I have so much work due in two weeks! But can we focus on my paper, because I have no idea what to write about…” So we get to see that shift in their thinking, towards planning ahead.

There’s also a lot that that needs to happen the summer before students go away to college, and that’s a perfect platform to start teaching them how to organize responsibilities and follow a timeline to get things done. We work with a lot of students in that summer between senior year and college, helping them with whole process — immunization forms, choosing housing, meeting their roommate and figuring out who’s going to bring what. It’s a perfect platform to start developing those follow-through systems; without fail, every summer we have a student who turned in their immunization form, and the office didn’t get it for whatever reason. And it’s an excellent opportunity to teach the student that it’s not only about filling out a form, but also making sure the form was received.

Do you have a final closing piece of advice for students who have learning differences and are entering college soon?

There are so many things that are important during that transition. But if I had to pick one, I would say being able to self-advocate and ask for help is a really, really crucial skill, not only for college but for life. Students have to become comfortable communicating what they’re struggling with, and asking for the specific supports they need in order to overcome those struggles.

I explain to my students all the time that the most successful people in the world all get help from somebody, in some capacity. Nobody’s out there on an island by themselves doing everything. So it’s not just about a learning difference. It’s really about knowing where to go for help when you need it, and knowing that everybody needs help in some way at some point. People ask for help and advice all the time! And that’s what will make you successful, not only academically, but also in your career. You need to be able to advocate for yourself, recognize when you need help, and know where to get that help. That will put you in the driver’s seat of your own education.

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Are you interested in working with Samantha Curiale-Feinman and her team? Reach out via the New Frontiers in Learning website.

Are you an admissions specialist who would be interested in being featured in #AdmissionsPros? Reach out via our online form.

KC is a writer and educator for Noodle Pros, and is currently earning her MA in Educational Theatre and English at NYU's Steinhardt School. She is from a big family of gifted and 2E kids (and parents), and is passionate about creating inclusive learning environments for all children.