Driven to improve the lives of others, Dr. Joan Breault, Class of 14G, works tirelessly to make a difference.
A Dean and her Teens
She opens the building at 6:30 a.m. and works quietly in her office, waiting to hear the whoosh of the door signaling her first student’s arrival. On cue, Joan calls out “hello,” puts on a mask, and makes her way to the school’s entrance. As they cross the threshold of Bellamy Academy, a public high school in Dover, New Hampshire, Joan welcomes a unique group of bright, active students and begins to assess their needs for that day.
“Students at Bellamy Academy are all identified as having special needs and require an individualized education program,” says Joan. “They all have a primary identification of emotional disturbance, speech and language disability, specific learning disability, or other health impairment, such as ADHD.” Also, Bellamy students often have a history of trauma, and all of them contend with the stresses of common teenage problems—peer pressure, low self-esteem, negative self-image, conflicting expectations, and more.
Responsibility for the success of these students is a considerable undertaking, but as Dean of Students, Joan embraces the challenge. “I was destined for this career,” she says. “It’s a calling.”
Survive or Thrive
Almost all U.S. students with disabilities are capable of graduating on time. And yet, they don’t. Mapping their success is a complex puzzle, one that involves assembling a network of support services to facilitate stability and academic achievement. “If students are struggling with a mental health issue or trauma, they are not engaged in learning,” Joan explains.
Bellamy Academy is the ultimate advocate for its students. Joan and her team of educators focus on creating an environment that supports students’ basic needs and educational goals. The Academy provides counseling services onsite and engages family and community organizations to meet students’ physiological and psychological needs. With an improved sense of well-being, individual education plans and innovative instruction are able to further students’ educational accomplishments.
“My goal with these kids is really prevention and success as an adult,” says Joan. “You can break the legacy of poverty, incarceration, and lack of success, I think, with a good education and good support team. That’s what’s going to give the kids the biggest opportunity post-high school.”
Innovation in Education
Seeking to develop more creative and effective approaches in education, Joan pursued doctoral study at Rivier and earned her Doctor of Education in Leadership and Learning in 2014, building on her 27-year career in juvenile justice, adolescent counseling, and special education.
Her dissertation examined engaged time in learning for students with emotional or behavioral disorders, tracking students’ on-task behavior during project-centered instruction as compared to traditional class instruction. While the results varied per subject, 75% of the students in the study responded more favorably to project-centered instruction.
Guided in great part by Joan’s leadership and dissertation research, Bellamy Academy teachers employ practices more compatible with their students’ individual learning styles.
“Since I took over, the culture of the program has changed,” Joan shares. “The program now is more therapeutic in its approach, as opposed to just focusing on academics and behavior. We address the underlying needs of the students so that they can be present for instruction, and our instructional strategies are more project-based.”
Accentuating the Positive
The students also benefit from Joan’s “fill someone’s bucket” philosophy, instituted throughout the school to promote positive relationships and interactions. “Kids are so apt to put each other down, even if they’re friends,” Joan explains. “I always remind them to be nice to their friends and to fill someone’s bucket rather than putting someone down. Find something that makes them feel good about themselves, and it will catapult them through the next hour or the next day.” Joan extends this practice to staff and parents as well.
Add small classes, hands-on learning, motivated special educators and counselors, and strong peer support and the result is diplomas rather than dropouts.
Effecting Meaningful Change
Beyond Joan’s internal drive, her education, experience, and ability to empathize with her students’ circumstances have been key to her success. Prior to earning her doctorate, she received her master’s degree in counseling psychology and became a licensed mental health counselor.
“This is a challenging population to work with,” Joan shares. “I think my experience as a mental health counselor is a huge component of how this program functions now. I also try to put myself in these kids’ shoes and really understand what it might be like to be them. That shifts your mindset from frustration to empathy.”
Driven to Make a Difference
Joan invests in building solid, caring relationships with her students and their families. The effort and journey with each can be exhausting, but there are moments that fuel her.
Pointing to a whiteboard above her desk, she says, “See that sign up there … it says, ‘I love the family I have at this school.’ That was written on my board spontaneously one day. I have cards that are left for me. A young lady recently said to me, ‘You know, Ms. Breault, I just want to tell you, I appreciate you so much. I wouldn’t have gotten through this if it weren’t for you.’ You don’t get these every day, but when you get them, it propels you. And it’s emotional … because it’s a hard job.”
Recognizing the growing need for adolescent mental health services, Joan envisioned providing counseling services outside of Bellamy Academy. “The wait time could be up to six months for kids to get services, which is why I could see starting my own private practice to help meet the needs of kids like these in the surrounding communities.” The pandemic’s arrival and accompanying stressors became the tipping point.
Joan launched her practice in June specializing in youth and young adult counseling. In addition to her position at Bellamy Academy, she sees private clients after school hours either in-person or via video sessions.
Joan’s drive to make a difference provides the best education and support to her Bellamy Academy teens and clients. “So many others have it so hard,” Joan shares. “I can only hope we at Bellamy Academy and within my practice can alleviate some of the struggles for others.”