For as long as she can remember, Sheila Slatter has loved children. Her mother never tires of reminding her how, when she was growing up in Glasgow’s east end, she would take home youngsters who were needy or under-privileged and try to help them.
The need to look after kids, it seemed, was in her blood, and it was a natural progression for her to become a Girl Scout and Girl Guide leader. She volunteered for youth service work, and when she and her husband moved to England she started up a group for youngsters there.
“I always had an affinity with children,” said Sheila, who grew up in the city’s Carntyne area and whose fellow pupils at Smithycroft School will remember her as Sheila Whittaker.
That affinity was strengthened when she and husband David moved first to Greenock, then to Bedfordshire in England and in 1994 to Texas. Everywhere they went, Sheila worked with youngsters.
But what Sheila has achieved in the years since arriving in the Texas city of McKinney has been nothing short of incredible. Her passion for helping children who need care and attention grew, she volunteered in special needs groups, and she then spent years studying the science of applied behavior analysis.
Now she runs her own independent school dealing exclusively with children who need help in developing their social skills. The Compass Academy is run from Sheila’s home.
Many of the pupils are on the autism spectrum or suffering from conditions such as Asperger’s or attention deficit disorder (ADD). At their regular schools they lack social awareness and are unable to communicate properly with other youngsters. Some have mutism – they can speak but they choose not to.
“I saw this need for peer interaction and what I call teaching in the moment so I decided to set up my own school and focus completely on that,” said Sheila. “I teach social skills rather than academics. They can go to other schools for academics but I saw the biggest deficit was lack of social skills. There’s no point in learning quadratic equations if you can’t introduce yourself.”
She added: “Scottish people are practical, and I think what I bring to the table is practicality. Our field trips involve going to Dollar Store and Target, because that’s where their parents are going to take them, and learning how to behave in that environment.”
The curriculum she has developed over the years “bends and flows to feed each kid what they need”, she said. The emphasis is entirely on helping them to communicate, to interact with each other, and to work as part of a team. Class sizes are limited to six and Sheila encourages them to participate in debates, and prepares them to deal with any teasing that comes their way.
Sheila has become something of an angel for the parents of these youngsters. She gives them respite and manages to fix problems, and never get angry with them. The school has been in existence for 12 years and she has been doing the work for 19 years in total.
“Parents will often cry and say ‘you have given us hope’ because many feel their lives are out of control, they can’t see beyond tomorrow. But it is fantastic watching the children grow up. I am dealing with a kid who at five years old didn’t want to talk, screamed if you took away his train, and now wants to be the school mascot.
“I have seen almost 100 pupils in that time and some are now coming back to volunteer. My door is never closed. When you work this way you get so involved with them, you just can’t turn it off. I am so excited to see the ones who are going off to college.”
Together with a hypnotherapist colleague, Sheila has developed a programme called Relax Now which teaches children to manage their energy and emotional levels. It has been so successful they are now selling it as a commercial product. The trigger words ‘relax now’ are used to bring the child back down if they start to feel out of control or escalate.
It’s a long way from her beginnings as a Girl Scout leader at High Carntyne Church. “It has been a journey; I have learned as much as I have taught. I feel that I’ve been very lucky to get to do something I love. There was clearly a need and people weren’t focusing on it, social skills were a by-product rather than the main event.
In McKinney, Texas, thanks to Sheila’s school, all that has changed. It is a truly Positively Scottish story. “I love what I do and I think that makes it easy,” she said.