Gail is the mother of a 12th-grade girl who is bright, creative, passionate, and has what Gail calls a “wild, wonderful sense of humor.”

Over the years though, her daughter has changed schools eight times. She has been in different types of classrooms with different class sizes. She has been in public schools, private schools and therapeutic schools — none of which had been quite the right fit.

“My daughter has severe anxiety, autism, sensory processing, memory and other challenges,” says Gail. “She was born with a brain stuck in ‘high alert’ mode and it is very difficult for her to settle enough to function and learn. It is like being a burn victim — only with her brain. She is so sensitive that the slightest interruption, something that you and I might not even notice, can trigger her panic chemistry, and her thoughts are derailed.”

Gail’s daughter is frequently misunderstood by those around her. Sometimes she comes across uncooperative or rude, though that is not her intention. She tries really hard every day, but she still struggles with learning and school.

Yellow Wood Academy ended up being the school that stuck. Its student — teacher ratio is one-to-one, though there are small group classes in art and music. This style of instruction has many benefits, helping students who need it the most enjoy and thrive in school.

Destigmatizing special education

Dr. Elizabeth Peterson, a special education teacher and also the special education department lead at Yellow Wood Academy, says that the one-to-one environment being the norm helps destigmatize special education since no one gets pulled out of class to go to special ed.

“Any student who has struggled in a larger classroom environment would really benefit [from a smaller classroom environment],” says Peterson. “For instance, we might get kids who have learning disabilities that have not been detected yet — or we might have kids who have been bullied — or they have anxiety and a typical classroom environment is just too much for them at the moment. … If any student just feels like they hate school and they can’t do and it’s not working for them — they should consider this as an option.”

Gail’s daughter needs time to build a relationship with a teacher because it is very hard for her to trust. This is why the one-to-one instruction has been pivotal to her growth; it allows her time and space to develop trust and build connections.

“And if she can’t make it in one day, she just picks up where she left off the next,” says Gail. “No guilt or embarrassment, no classroom of people adding pressure — just moving forward at her own pace. She is experiencing the feeling of success and gaining confidence.”

Gail adds that when her daughter experiences setbacks, which are bound to happen from time to time, her daughter willingly regroups and comes back to school for more.

“That has not been possible for her in other settings,” says Gail.

Designing and implementing solutions

Teachers tend to be observant and generally have a sense of when a student is going through something challenging — but whether or not a teacher can act on their observation can depend on the teacher having the resources, bandwidth and support to help students who need help the most.


“It’s so much easier to see what students need if you have a smaller class size,” says Peterson. “And not just observing issues that arise, but also having the ability to implement ideas or solutions that will be useful to our students.”

Peterson says she finds that the more individualized attention between teacher and student allows for self-efficacy, in which teachers feel like they can really design something that will work for their students to really help them.

“Not just going, ‘Oh my gosh, if only,’ ” says Peterson. “It’s really empowering, to know our students well and be able to assess them thoroughly, to not only see what their areas of growth are, but also what their strengths are. … In my position, I will know if a kid who walks into the classroom is really happy or if the kid is bummed out. It’s nice to have the ability to figure that out and do something about it — that’s one of the most rewarding things about my job — helping students in that way.”

Flexibility in learning

More direct attention given to students offers a lot of flexibility in learning. Peterson says some students attend YWA for a set period of time and then later transition out into a more typical school environment. Some students attend YWA part time, spending the rest of the day at another school. Peterson adds that there are some students who stay at YWA for their entire education. The trajectory learning takes for each student is dependent on the student’s needs.

For Gail’s daughter, what has made all the difference is this flexibility.

“[My daughter] has specific topics that are her areas of intense interest — so all of her curricula are built around her passions,” Gail says. “The communication loop between school, district, teachers, and family is always flowing so that her teachers know what’s happening in her world on a daily basis. They adjust on the fly each day, to take learning at my daughter’s pace, not some predetermined schedule.”

Founded 30 years ago, Yellow Wood Academy is a nonprofit K-12 school on Mercer Island that provides its students with individualized education. Our collaborative, accessible learning environment uniquely engages each student, embraces their potential and prepares them for their future.