May 2, 2023

Sleep is an essential part of a healthy and productive life. For children who are growing and developing, beginning the day with a solid foundation of a good night’s sleep is crucial. At NECC, ensuring that happens falls on the residential counselors.

“We often say that our goal is to set our students up for success, and fundamentally that starts with the residential counselors,” shared Shawn O’Brien, director of residential services. “Getting a solid, age-appropriate night of rest so our students can be as engaged as possible is the best way to set our students up to learn. The residential counselors are setting the tone for the next day by creating an environment that is conducive for our students to get a quality night of rest.”

O’Brien knows firsthand the important function residential counselors play in student success at NECC. He began his career at NECC as a residential counselor 24 years ago. “Part of my rapport with the residential counselors is that I was one of them, and that I understand the unique demands and challenges of the position. And like them, I was older when I found this career and came into the job with a lot of life experience.”

While teachers usually come to NECC as early career talent, residential counselors come at various stages of career and life; many are already established caretakers. In O’Brien’s case, he took time off when his mother was sick, and after she passed a few years later, he was finally able to finish his degree. He was in the process of taking a job working with troubled youth when he saw an ad for NECC.

“I didn’t know much about autism at that point, so I decided to apply to be a residential counselor rather than a teacher, to see what it was like,” he said.

After a year working as a residential counselor, O’Brien moved into an administrative role, becoming a specialist and lead specialist before he was named director 18 years ago. The Residential Services department serves as a support system for the residential teams, both teachers and residential counselors. And while both those positions care for NECC students, they are very different.

“The role of the residential counselor varies from that of a teacher because teachers work on skill acquisition, while residential counselors are in more of a surrogate parent role, creating a nurturing environment for our students,” O’Brien shared. “For example, residential counselors are there to comfort the kids when they wake up in the middle of the night, whether it be from being scared or sick.”

Sleep issues are a common challenge for NECC students, according to O’Brien, and if a student doesn’t receive quality sleep, the likelihood of problem behavior increases. An uptick in these behaviors can lead to a disruption in students’ daily programming.

“The data our residential counselors collect during the night and share with our nursing staff and clinicians is so important to creating a sleep program for our students,” he said. “The feedback from residential counselors can be crucial in adjusting treatment programs to help our students get the most rest and be the most productive during the school day.”

Having an impact on the students, even in the smallest way, is O’Brien’s favorite part of his job. “At the end of the day, everything we do starts and ends with our students,” he said. “We’re all a team, and we need to maximize what we can do for our students to help them live their best lives. I love being part of the team that helps them be as successful as they possibly can be.”

This article appeared in the Spring 2023 issue of NECC’s Insight newsletter. 

If you’re looking to join a passionate team of educators and researchers united by a common cause – to transform the lives of children with autism – then visit today.