At Sisu Integrated Early Learning in Gainesville, students and staff are encouraged to show their sisu, a Finnish word for grit, every day.
At first glance, Sisu seems like a typical preschool, with colorful walls, tables piled with blocks and toys and two outdoor playgrounds.
What separates Sisu from other preschools is the integration of children age six weeks to six months with special needs and their typical peers.
Sisu offers learning programs similar to any other preschool- reading, writing and playtime. But Sisu also offers in-house physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy and applied behavioral analysis.
Staff at Sisu believe each student is special and that there should be no stigma surrounding those with special needs. That was part of the reason staff decided to change the non-profit name from Challenged Child and Friends around five years ago.
“We realized that every single person has grit and resilience and resourcefulness, so we wanted to capture more of those characteristics or traits versus a disability,” said Sisu Executive Director Jamie Reynolds. “We wanted to change the lens and we wanted to really highlight that every single person has sisu.”
In order to help their students learn the new name, staff at Sisu implemented a program using positive reinforcement and a firefly mascot named Sue. Signs posted around the building list phrases such as “See Sue have looking eyes” and “See Sue have listening ears”.
Carla Baker, Director of Program Operations at Sisu, explained that the “See Sue” program encourages good behavior.
“[The program] focuses on positive interactions, because that’s more motivating for children,” said Baker.
Sisu plans to open their doors for the first day of school on August 17. Due to the amount of young children that they serve, staff have been taking many preventive steps to combat the spread of COVID-19.
Some of these steps include installing Plexiglas shields at the front desk and in between each mat where the students will nap. Staff will be required to wear masks at all times and students age three and older are encouraged to wear face coverings.
In addition, Sisu staff will also conduct screenings on each person that enters the building. The screening process includes taking each visitor’s, staff member’s and student’s temperature and asking questions before they enter the building.
Despite the added challenges, Baker said that teachers are prepared to make learning in a pandemic as fun and normal as possible.
“Our teachers are going to function it just like they would have before…they’re still going to be music and movement, there’s still going to be story time and opportunities for table activities,” said Baker. “A lot of our families are so excited to get their kids back in our program because of the isolation.”
More information about Sisu Integrated Early Learning is available on their website mysisu.org. Sisu serves 11 counties in North Georgia.