What I do

What I do: Marie Edelstein, preschool special education teacher

Since 1982, Edelstein has been a preschool teacher for special needs children at the private, nonprofit Block Institute in Brooklyn. Marie Edelstein

Tell us about your school and the types of special needs that your students have.

Our school is funded by the state and the city Department of Education. Our children come mainly from early intervention and other programs. Most are ages 3 to 5, though we have some school-age classes. We have children with cerebral palsy, pervasive developmental delays, speech delays, and kids on the autism spectrum. But what I try to focus on is just getting the skills developed instead of worrying about what they have. We don’t label.

How do you approach teaching kids with such a wide range of special needs?

You have to meet them where they are. With cerebral palsy, when someone is clearly not walking or talking, you have to work on their physical mobility, feeding skills and other self-help skills along with language and motor skills. Whatever the needs are, that’s what we’re working on. I’ve had children come in and they’re bouncing from one wall to another, and I think, “Wow, what’s going on?” If it is sensory processing problems, I might go to a therapist for things to do in the classroom and take the child out for therapy. That’s why it’s been important for me as a teacher to work with a therapist and to learn to ask questions. We have therapists for occupational therapy and physical therapy. We also have assistants in the classroom who are our right hands. They are all helping you achieve the goals for the children.

What is the first thing you do with new kids?

I make eye contact. Many of the kids don’t make eye contact. Then I work on focus and attention because if they don’t have that, they will have a difficult time. I also teach by modeling. So many children learn by modeling, whether it is a new word or how to write something. If they are taught through theory rather than by imitation, they can be all over the place, looking at the ceiling.

What else do you do to keep kids engaged and learning?

A lot of times as teachers, we fall prey to focusing on negative behavior. What I try to do is when a child is behaving in a way that is acceptable, I reward that behavior so that the other children think, “What is he doing that he’s getting praised?” The reward could be a simple smile, or a “You did a good job,” or “Look who is sitting so nicely.” I focus attention on the positives in the room so I can get other children to serve as role models for that behavior.

What led you to this job?

When I was in high school at Fort Hamilton HS in Brooklyn, I volunteered for a program called “Friends in Need.” Through that, I used to visit a girl with Down syndrome. I knew back then that I wanted to go into special education. After getting my bachelor’s and master’s degrees, I began working here when I was 22. I haven’t left.

What have been your toughest challenges?

The heartbreaking times are usually when a family is in distress, whether it’s because of poverty or a parent who is sick or dying. With Hurricane Sandy, we had a little girl whose family lost their home and were unable to find any landlords in the area who would rent to them because the family had a few kids. So she ended up leaving the country and moving to the family’s home country. This was a little girl who needed school and the stability of school. She had been doing so well. I have no idea what happened to her.

Your best moments?

I had a child this year who didn’t want to taste or eat food. He just wanted to drink from a baby bottle. This is a sensory issues problem, which can make different areas, especially the mouth, very sensitive. Now this child is eating and tasting new foods. When a parent tells you that the doctor says her child has gained five pounds since the child has been in your class, it is a happy moment. And I have had children who went maybe a year without being able to say a word. When finally the day comes that one of these children repeats something, it is all joy.

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