Secret Garden: Online Special Education for Catholic Families
The Secret Garden approach seeks to help children with special needs through mediated teaching and insights from St. Thomas Aquinas.
Addressing the special needs of their children is an educational obstacle that many Catholic families face. Many services of this kind are offered through public school systems that Catholic families would rather avoid, or are too specialized for a private Catholic school or a homeschooling family to take care of on their own.
Margaret Walsh, a former homeschooler and expert in special education, is striving to fill this need for Catholic families. Recently, I had an opportunity to interview her about her online Catholic special education service, Secret Garden Educational Pathways.
Tell me a little about yourself — your educational background and your inspiration for starting Secret Garden Educational Pathways.
I grew up as a homeschooler. My parents made that choice early on and I was homeschooled from kindergarten through twelfth grade. I loved it! After completing high school, I attended Thomas Aquinas College, which really prepared me spiritually and intellectually to enter the field of special education as a practicing Catholic. I could bring the philosophy and theology I learned there to the work I did with children. Upon completing my B.A. in Liberal Arts, I pursued a M.S. in Special Education, so that I could professionally work with families and know the typical approaches as well as focus in therapy.
I was inspired to start Secret Garden Educational Pathways for two reasons, both based on my experience working in a secular clinic. The first reason was to start a company where the parents could trust the teachers to work with their students. In the secular clinic, oftentimes the parents never even met the teachers, and yet they would drop their students off without a thought for who influenced their children.
The second reason was a bit deeper — that of helping expose students to Catholic stories. I encountered two students who I knew were Catholic and asked them a question about Purgatory. They had no clue what it meant or why it is important. I used the remediation techniques to walk them through all these connections and they had an epiphany at the end of our conversation. At that point I realized that children who struggle to learn, can struggle to grasp or read about the Faith. I wanted to help students to prepare themselves to receive the Word of God, while at the same time recognizing that with God all things are possible and he can touch anyone’s soul, despite learning struggles.
What is Secret Garden Educational Pathways? What services do you offer?
Secret Garden Educational Pathways is a company that supports Catholic families, especially those who homeschool and have students in Catholic schools who have students who struggle with learning disabilities. We work with students who have a diagnosis, as well as those who do not. The primary focus of our services is in remediation or education therapy, which is designed to help the student increase their processing capabilities and strengthen their imagery, both of which are needed to learn.
What is special education therapy and who can benefit from it? How would a parent know if they should pursue it for their child?
Education therapy is specialized and mediated teaching. It is very intensive, to help students build the foundational skills for learning. Honestly, any student can benefit from it. However, it is most helpful for students who struggle with learning, because typically they are struggling with an underlying process or several processes, which is manifesting as a learning disability. Once you help them strengthen that process, they are able to perform much better!
I would recommend that most parents pursue this course for any student showing significant signs of learning struggles as it is a way that really helps to support their student academically. Some indications might be that their student is showing signs of frustration, shutting down when doing school, struggling to comprehend content or even conversations, slow processing in general, has symptoms of dyslexia or dyscalculia, struggles with attention, memory deficits. There are many indications that a student might need this and if parents are unsure, it’s okay to ask.
What is unique about your approach to special education that a Catholic parent might not find elsewhere? What is Thomistic about your approach to remediation?
We are Catholic! Even though we are trained in research-based methods, we see the connection between our mediated teaching, the thought process, and St. Thomas Aquinas. We work with students online, so no matter where you live, we will be able to connect and help. Our heavy focus on education therapy is also unique. Many special education professionals focus on accommodations, modifications to existing curriculum and also telling parents what to expect. We focus on helping students move beyond their current predicament, using therapy, so that they will need fewer accommodation and modifications. The power of rebuilding the through process is truly amazing!
St. Thomas Aquinas explains the connection between the senses, the imagination/phantasms, abstracting information and finally understanding. Most students struggle with sensory input, creating phantasms and abstracting information. With this knowledge, we can see the remediation techniques with the big picture in mind. And any time we can, we will use Catholic materials to give students the freedom to discuss their Faith, thereby helping them prepare the soil of their hearts to come to know God more and more.
Do you have any success stories you are able to share?
Yes! We have worked with many students who couldn’t read when they initially started with us, and many of them have put in hard work and made it up to the point where they can read books like The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. After working with us, I’ve received many emails from parents telling me their student picked up a book on his own, or the mom would find her kid surrounded by a pile of books, or others where they choose a book over a movie. And these are children who couldn’t or didn’t like to read initially!
One student who was working on retention and comprehension started off with Aesop's Fables and then several months after we finished classes, her mother emailed me to say she was reading encyclicals!
Another student was stuck on addition and subtraction facts — couldn’t get past them. We worked for a time and now the student has made it through multiplication, division and is working on fractions. The family never thought their student could get that far.
Is there anything else you would like to say to families considering special education therapy?
First, don’t doubt what you’ve already done!
Second, it’s okay to ask for help. This could mean getting help from a professional through consulting or classes or help with babysitting while you work with your student who struggles (some parents get trained how to work with their children themselves). If you are looking into education therapy, make sure that the company you work with uses mediated learning and addresses the underlying strengths/weaknesses of the student to actually build back some of the capability.
Third, this may mean an initial investment, but it is an investment in the future of your student.