Instituto Renacimiento: Unlocking Neurodivergent Kids’ Superpowers

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    What is Neurodivergent? It is Wednesday, 8:20am in Villareal, and the energy is already vibrant in Instituto Renacimiento (iREN). In this bilingual school are welcome children with neurodivergent conditions, as well as those experiencing trauma, anxiety, or depression and who may have faced challenges in in traditional schools.

    Located outside of Tamarindo, this institute was founded in 2019 by Sylvia Barreto Benites, a Paraguayan American teacher who has been living in Costa Rica for years.

    “I am dyslexic, attention deficit and oppositional. School was very difficult for me as a child. Then I had my own kids, and it was even harder for them. We moved in Costa Rica thinking we would find different solutions, but we didn’t. We found the same traditional schools but with less resources. I ended up having to homeschool my own children.

    At the time I was a Spanish teacher, they were so many people coming complaining that they needed services for their children and there were not any. Dealing with a child who is either very brilliant or very behind is difficult in a school with classrooms of 15 – 20 kids.

    I decided at that point that I wanted to do something, I wanted to change the perspective of how we saw neurodivergents as something that’s negative and awful and in the way to something that’s positive and part of the growth of humanity”.

    Celebrating Neurodivergent Kids

    It is estimated that 15 to 20 % of the world’s population exhibits some form of neurodivergence. Yet in most mainstream schools, the potential of neurodivergent children remains overlooked, even though their unique perspectives, sharp creativity, and ability to focus could be of great benefit to our societies.

    In Instituto Renacimiento, the education team truly recognizes the immense value of neurodivergent kids and believes they should never be viewed as burdens but as children with great potential. In fact, iREN is centered on the acceptance and use of individual specialties and strengths rather than attempts to “heal” the children in order to make them fit the norm. The purpose is to create an environment where neurodivergent students are celebrated for their abilities in order to empower them.

    “iREN represents the belief that children who are different, who diverge from the norm have worth and should be invested in, that’s what I believe. Everything we do is for that, the entire system we created is for that”, explains Barreto.

    A Special Learning Environment

    Instituto Renacimiento diverges from traditional schools by the learning environment it provides. Nestled in a 33-acre eco-park filled with lush canopies and creeks, the school offers an immersive learning experience within nature. Such a unique setting allows students to have access to unconventional activities compared to other schools such as horseback riding every week and ziplining once a year, adding an uplifting dimension to their academic journey.

    Other aspects of the learning environment are very unique. With a deliberate focus on keeping class sizes small, each teacher supervises a maximum of 10 students, guaranteeing personalized attention. Moreover, these classes, filled with students from 3 to 18 years old, are not organized by age but level, allowing a customized learning trajectory for each student, accommodating their unique needs, and maximizing their academic potential.Haut du formulaire

    Stephen French, teacher at iREN, explains: “I used to teach in the US. We had to do one curriculum, it was hard to differentiate between the needs and levels of each student which could be vastly different. Here at iREN, through our small class sizes, we are allowed to have a lot more flexibility. We have a great autonomy in how we teach the material. Here we are encouraged to embrace the neurodiversity of our students and try to use what a lot of people see as a detriment as an advantage”.

    The concept of Instituto Renacimiento extends beyond a mere educational institution; it aims to foster a sense of community. Here, parents are actively involved in the decision-making process alongside their children. Barreto orchestrates regular meetings—approximately 6 to 7 times a year—with parents to share ideas and collectively shape the school’s future. Moreover, children are empowered to voice their opinions through initiatives like the “iREN idea box”, in which they can slip suggestions to enhance the school experience. Children are also welcome to share breakfast every morning with their teachers and parents, providing a pleasant start to the day before classes begin.

    “What is your superpower?”

    Instituto Renacimiento has a revolutionary approach to education for Neurodivergent kids, focusing on social emotional development as much as academic development, implying a deep effort to address the behavioral issues of students.

    Barreto elaborates on the topic, stating, “No child wants to be bad. Children are not bad or good; children are hurt or healthy. When a child is behaving in a way we consider annoying, disruptive, or violent, the child does not want to live that. He wants to live like everyone else, but he does not have the tools or the path to get there. What iREN does is creating these pathways with the child. The child, the psychologist, and the tutor work together on a game plan and ask themselves ‘What can we do next time?’. ‘Next time I’m going to breathe, next time I’m going to find a friend, next time I’m going to ask a teacher’. And we practice the game plan”.

    At iREN, the education team approach revolves around understanding each child’s learning style and interests in order to create a hook to engage them in the learning process. “What we believe here is that every child has value. We study every single child and ask, “What is your superpower?”, “What is the thing that you do the best?” “And these things that you’re struggling with, how do we make them better?”, Barreto explains.

    Another particularity of iREN is their point system. In fact, you won’t find any grade on the assignments in this school. Instead, students collect points based on their individual and team efforts each week. The child who has demonstrated the most progress, has done the most work or has done something considered extraordinary during the month will be elected student of the month. They are rewarded with a meal prepared by the education team and the school organizes a party. Such celebrations foster a positive and inclusive learning environment. When students get a wrong answer on an assignment, they do not get a definitive grade but instead are encouraged to rethink and provide alternative solutions.

    Barreto highlights, “Right answers are not the main objective. The main objective is critical thinking, imaginative thinking, being able to solve problems, being able to be empathetic, being a good citizen, being conscious of the world around them… Our goals are different”.

    A Different Way of Teaching

    In the classroom, between the yellow and orange walls, students voice their answers at the teacher who is walking around the ten desks, offer ideas and team up to brainstorm on some exercises. Every corner of the classroom is adorned with all kinds of objects while the walls are covered with maps and colorful signs, stimulating different senses.

    The teachers here are passionate and enthusiastic and captivate the students’ attention through interactive lessons. They walk from desk to desk to talk individually to each child, making sure that every one of them is included and following the class. With this focus on individual attention, they create an environment where every student feels accepted and encouraged to express themselves freely.

    Additionally, at iREN, several members of the education team are neurodivergent themselves, allowing a deeper understanding of the children’s behaviors and issues. In fact, when asked what prompted him to join this school, French answers, “I get these kids; I understand the things they struggle with. I felt like I could really help here. I feel like my delusion of the US school system really is a benefit to me here because I can see the mistakes that were made in the US, and I realize that at iREN I get to try something different, so I really enjoy the freedom that comes with it”.

    A parent of an iREN student shared insights into her child’s experience with the school system in the region. Having resided in Tamarindo for seven years, they sought quality education for their child but encountered a recurring issue: bullying. Despite trying three local schools, their child struggled with inadequate support from educational professionals. Forced to make a mid-year change, they turned to iREN as a last-minute solution to address the urgent need for a safer educational environment.

    After months of learning at Instituto Renacimiento, the child has made impressive progress academically, emotionally, and socially. The family noted improvements in English, writing and concentration, as well as a massive reduction in stress and anxiety levels, with the child appearing much happier.

    “iREN does not tolerate bullying at all, they simply do not let it happen. iREN is not a business. They treat children with a lot of respect. They do not give up on children. I have seen children coming to adults at iREN to complain. They immediately stop everything they are doing, take the child aside, put themselves at their level and truly listen to them”, the parent expresses.

    Future of iREN

    Although iREN stands as a well-established and fully operational institution, Barreto’s primary objective now revolves around finding investors to uplift the place and enhance both the learning environment for students and the working conditions for teachers.

    A key priority includes addressing the nutrition aspect, which may involve hiring a nutritionist and offering healthier meals to students. Funds may also be directed towards increasing the salaries of teachers, ensuring their financial well-being and motivation.

    French adds “Ideally, I would like to see iREN find some angels who really care about the future of this country and the future of our youth to invest in and support the work that we are doing here at iREN”.

    Maïna Couturieux

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