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Helping the Special Needs Student to Excel:
The TOPSMARTS Approach for Educational Therapy

By Melissa Katz, M.S.
What Is It?

TOPSMARTS is a unique therapeutic teaching approach for building mastery level skills in Reading, Reading Comprehension, Writing, Handwriting, Math, Test-Taking, and The Content Areas. It goes well beyond tutoring. It includes nine key areas to bring about optimal learning and performance. These areas include: Thinking, Organization, Processing, Speed, Multisensory, Action, Recall, Tracking, Strategies.

What Makes TOPSMARTS Different?

Remedial teaching approaches often focus on building academic skills, but do not address the underlying learning functions that impede performance. They tend to focus on following the pace and content of class materials. TOPSMARTS is more comprehensive than many other therapeutic teaching approaches.

Many other approaches place much of the emphasis on helping the student keep up with classes. TOPSMARTS places emphasis on closing the student’s learning and performance gaps. It works on building academic skills while at the same time greatly enhancing the underlying learning functions that impact performance. It draws on techniques from different disciplines including special education, language therapy, vision therapy, occupational therapy, neuroscience, neuropsychology, and psychology. These special research-based techniques are used to optimize underlying learning functions, such as perception, memory, tracking, discrimination, and processing in addition to academic skill-building.

Often other approaches move from one skill to the next when there is just satisfactory progress. Therefore, the student may improve in a skill without having mastered it. TOPSMARTS advances a skill to mastery (98% or better) before moving to the next skill. This enables the student who receives this intensive educational therapy on a regular basis to become equipped with the tools to compete with or exceed his peers who initially breezed through school.

Who Is It For?

The TOPSMARTS approach is for the student with learning disabilities, learning delays, language delays and other special needs. However, the student without special needs can benefit from it as well. For the student with severe behavioral or emotional challenges working with a psychologist or counselor may be appropriate. This can be done before or along with educational therapy.

What Are The Benefits?

TOPSMARTS is used to ensure that a student gains mastery skills. It builds essential academic skills, accelerates learning, and enhances all the key areas of performance. As a result the student is able to overcome learning disabilities, gain confidence, and to excel.

The TOPSMARTS Approach Includes These Areas:

The approach covers the two realms of thinking. One is the gaining of factual knowledge. The other is critical thinking. They are both important for academic achievement.

Factual Knowledge
The student needs to accumulate a good foundation of information. It is helpful for him to have knowledge of important facts, vocabulary, rules of language, etc stored in his long term memory. Also, it is important for him to be able to recall facts in the short term. With the use of the TOPSMARTS approach, the student is able to expand his accumulation of stored knowledge to grade level or above. He also gains the ability to locate literal information and answer fact-based questions.

Critical Thinking
The TOPSMARTS approach incorporates every aspect of critical thinking. Critical thinking involves the understanding of implicit information. It is also the ability to identify what is important and separate it from what is not needed.

In order to become a critical thinker the student needs to have factual knowledge. He must also become competent in several different areas of thinking. These are: comprehension, analysis, application, synthesis, and evaluation. The student must be able to recognize meaning, sequence events, make inferences, compare ideas, and make predictions. He also needs to recognize patterns and parts. In addition he should be able to generalize and draw conclusions. Equally important is his ability to sort and make judgments about information. Finally, he needs to be able to use the information to solve problems.

Critical thinking skills are not only essential to academic success, but to success in life. The TOPSMARTS approach addresses all of the sub-skills related to critical thinking. The student gains competence in this area by first working on one sub-skill at a time. Then he practices putting the skills together.

Organization is critical to success. The student who struggles in school often has poor organizational skills and needs to replace these old behaviors with effective habits. With TOPSMARTS, the student is provided with materials and techniques for managing time, managing tasks, planning, note-taking, and managing workspace. He is given direction and ample practice using the materials and techniques.

The student's visual, tactile, or auditory sensors act as pathways. Information flows from these sensors to the brain. Once in the brain cognitive processing begins. The student with learning disabilities such as dyslexia often experiences slow or diminished sensory processing. The research-based multi-sensory teaching used with the TOPSMARTS approach facilitates and enhances processing. In addition it increases the rate at which the student is able to process information.

In order for a student to perform well he must develop fluency, accuracy, and speed. The TOPSMARTS approach incorporates attention and sensory processing which addresses all of these aspects.

The student with learning disabilities often has difficulty performing these tasks. He may take a long time to complete tasks. On the other hand, he may rush through tasks but not complete them well. When speed is coupled with fluency and accuracy the student makes great strides. Therefore he needs to work on increasing fluency and accuracy in addition to speed.

Fluency is ability to read or do mathematical calculations accurately, quickly, effortlessly, and with appropriate expression and meaning. When the student improves his fluency and accuracy at a skill, his speed will gradually increase.

The student needs to be able to complete tasks and perform them with precision. The student who is able to perform well in school will achieve good grades. He will gain a sense of pride and self-esteem through accomplishment.

TOPSMARTS uses special techniques increase his ability to apply skills. Progress is recorded so the student can see his gains. Mastery level skills coupled with good attention contribute to accuracy.

Research shows that children learn best when two or more senses are engaged simultaneously. The main sensory areas for learning are: visual, kinesthetic, auditory, and tactile. Using the TOPSMARTS approach, the student is provided with ample practice involving multi-sensory techniques. This is a fun, easy, interesting, meaningful, and highly effective way to learn. As a result barriers to learning are removed and skills are mastered. This leads to success.

Multi-sensory learning involves action. The right movement can help to facilitate learning. With TOPSMARTS, the student is directed to move with a purpose. Cues and prompts signal the student. They guide him to the correct course of action or procedure to follow. These actions or procedures become associated with the learning of a skill that has meaning. When repeated, a neurological connection is made (i.e. from the fingers to the brain). Over time the student begins to develop what is called “muscle memory”. This enables him to perform tasks with much more ease.

It is important for the student to be able to remember facts, words, details, directions. Fact retrieval been shown to be a strong predictor of performance on achievement tests. The student with learning disabilities may have difficulty with long and/or short term recall. Memory can be visual, auditory, or motor.

The techniques practiced through the TOPSMARTS approach greatly improve memory. The student gains the ability to store and access information more easily and faster. He can then successfully problem-solve, answer test questions, participate in class and even develop life skills.

The student who has learning disabilities often needs to overcome visual-perceptual and/ or motor deficits. He must be able to follow information when he reads, writes, or listens. This requires attention and focus. He needs to develop good visual-perceptual skills, motor skills, and related skills such as spacing, locating information, and discriminating. These skills are needed for reading, math, writing, and handwriting. The student also needs to be able to copy information accurately. TOPSMARTS uses specialized materials and techniques to help the student develop all of these tracking skills.

The use of effective strategies is essential to learning and optimal performance. With the TOPSMARTS approach cues and prompts are utilized to help the student understand and remember strategies. He uses them on a regular basis and once he internalizes the strategies he can apply them to tasks related to class-work, studying, and test-taking.

Where Can You Get TOPSMARTS?

If your child is having difficulty in school despite tutoring or other support help, consider an approach that really works, TOPSMARTS. To find out more see

Ms. Katz is a learning specialist in private practice who does reading therapy, educational therapy, teacher and parent training, and consulting in Long Island and NYC. Her training includes Orton-Gillingham and Wilson Reading in addition to multi-sensory writing, skill-building, and multi-sensory math. She can be contacted at Her website is".

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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