When psychologist Ruth F. Boland, EdD, earned her doctorate from Harvard University in 1946, she'd already worked as a kindergarten and special-education teacher in the Cambridge Public School District for 10 years. That drive to help children with special needs led to a career as an educational psychologist--in the same Cambridge schools she had taught in and even attended as a child.
But as a psychologist in them, her focus was instituting school policies that gave special-needs children full education experiences within a traditional high school. As such, she helped implement programs and philosophies to help those children, including giving cognitively challenged children personal assistance to help them flourish in mainstream classes and creating enrichment programs for gifted students.
In 1947, Boland published an article in Understanding the Child titled "High school pupils with IQ's below 75," in which she advocated for special programs that allowed cognitively challenged children to enter high school and graduate--an innovative idea at the time, because most schools didn't see the need to spend the resources to offer developmentally delayed students a high school education or to develop different curricula for them. Until then, the only students given that chance were nondisabled "slow learners."
Upon her 100th birthday this June, the Clearwater, Fla., retiree reflected on her life's work in educational psychology.
Q. What first attracted you to psychology?
A. I thought back to some of the very interesting lectures I'd had in college...and it seemed to be important work. I was particularly interested in taking the science of psychology and applying it to the needs of children and schools.
Q. What was it like to pursue a doctorate at Harvard in the 1940s?
A. It was during World War II and they were opening more opportunities for women to go because there were so many men gone. I felt very lucky as a woman to have that chance. The school district, in fact, encouraged me to go and let me work part-time while at Harvard.
Q. As director of pupil services at the Cambridge School District from the 1950s until your retirement in the 1970s, you were on the front line implementing programs for students with special needs. What was that work like?
A. It was difficult, and I didn't always feel too successful at meeting student needs and in compelling teachers and parents to provide them with resources. But...I used to have meetings with the teacher who taught classes for mentally retarded students, and we worked on ways to be most effective, like putting an emphasis on learning to read and interact with the world outside the classroom. I also had a very good superintendent who was willing to let us try a lot of innovative things, like teaching the skills they would need to live independently.
Q. What was your philosophy for working with special-needs children?
A. One of the most important things was to give those children self-respect. [It was] a common sentiment at the time that we were just waiting for these children to die. Even parents sometimes needed convincing that their children could have opportunities to be productive.
We considered that some of these children could be in regular classes if they received special help, so they didn't have to be in special classes. It was only the very lowest that we kept in the special classes, and we had specially trained teachers who would help them.
This was a real departure from the traditional methods that kept mentally retarded children in separate classrooms without the opportunity to interact with anyone else.
Q. How did education for special-needs children improve over your career?
A. One of the things I wanted them to do was to teach extracurricular subjects that other children had, such as cooking classes and how to travel in a city. That kind of integration began while I was in Cambridge.
Q. Are you pleased, overall, with the way educational psychologists have advanced education for special-needs children?
A. I know that there has been a strong, elemental shift in the way we view mentally retarded students. I think schools today are willing to give them a chance at being productive and contributing to their communities, which is so important.