Jennifer Brenon recently finished her second year at the Stanley S. Lamm Preschool for students with special needs in Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn. The school’s 40 staff members joined the UFT in 2004.
I have eight students — four kids who are turning 5 and going off to kindergarten, who have been with me since September 2016, and four children who joined me this past September — and two assistants. At least three of my students have been diagnosed with autism and the others have cognitive or other learning delays. When I started at Lamm at the start of the 2016–17 school year, all my students were nonverbal. Now they’re singing to each other. They’re very empathetic toward each other. They’re kind, they’re caring, they try to share. They help set the table, they help feed each other. It’s a beautiful thing to see.
Tell me about your school.
Lamm is a not-for-profit preschool affiliated with the Infant and Child Learning Center at SUNY Downstate Medical Center. It is a preschool program for developmentally delayed and medically fragile children. We have about 12 classes of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds in mixed-age groups, all of whom have special needs. We have speech, occupational and physical therapists who are contracted to come in and work with the children. We’re one of a few private preschool sites that have been granted access to implement the pyramid model, which is a way of creating a cohesive atmosphere throughout the school where the rules for each classroom are the same. We’ve also started participating in the Get Ready to Learn yoga program, which is a half-hour every day of doing yoga with the children following a specific protocol. We collect data about how the kids are behaving and focusing after yoga. I have seen improvements.
What teaching methods do you use with young children who are nonverbal?
I start out by trying to keep an eye on what they like and what they do to get the attention they need. For example, if there’s something they really like, say a picture book, I’ll use that as a hook and tell them over and over, “That’s a book.” Once we get used to each other, I start requesting words. “If you want more milk, say ‘more’ or show me ‘more.’” If they don’t have words, that’s fine, but they can make a gesture I’ll recognize so we can use that going forward in our communication back and forth.
How would you describe your approach to teaching?
Not all of my students are at a functional level for learning basic academic skills, but social skills are so important, especially at this age. My focus is on creating a small person and helping them be whoever they can possibly be. Everybody has a role in my classroom and everybody’s important. If there’s a child who loves to close the door, that’s my door person. If there’s a child who loves to help, I let her be my helper. I don’t focus solely on academics. Once they have the ability to sit in a chair the right way, they can catch up and learn their letters. They’ve made such great gains. I am so proud of them.
What qualities do you think a teacher needs to have to work with students who have special needs?
It takes patience, perseverance and creativity. I’m learning to fight for these children and for what’s in their best interests. It’s not like you can look in a textbook and follow the steps; it’s more about trying different things. Every child is different no matter what diagnosis they have. It’s a challenge to figure out what works best for them, but that’s also part of the fun. When I first started working with children, I wasn’t sure about going into special education because of the challenges. But once I was in, I realized that this is where I want to be. This is my niche.
As a UFT member in a not-for-profit preschool, do you notice a difference in your working environment because your staff is unionized?
We have a UFT representative fighting for us and making sure we’re being taken care of. We have protocols to follow at our school and boundaries that administrators must respect. I really appreciate having the support of the union.