For five years, he’s taught students with autism to self-regulate at PS 177/The Robin Sue Ward School in Fresh Meadows, Queens.
How would you describe your work?
I’m like a detective. I have to figure out what’s limiting the student’s access to an education. Why is a student not reading one word after another but jumping to the bottom of the page? A calm student is a student able to learn. I’m providing structure, but the student has to learn to self-regulate. That’s the hardest thing because everyone is different.
Tell me about your students.
I work with children with cerebral palsy or intellectual disabilities, but the most common disability I deal with is autism. I see eight children a day, either in the classroom or for pull-out services. PS 177 is a District 75 school that specializes in children with autism. All the teachers have training in autism and attention deficit disorder. We have students from ages 6 to 21.
It sounds like challenging work.
Parents say to me, “Now that I have my child diagnosed, what do I do?” They’ll start to break down and cry. Many of them can’t bring the child outside because he’ll have a huge temper tantrum or meltdown in front of everyone. Being overwhelmed is a natural reaction. I tell them, “It’s not your fault. Don’t be embarrassed. You shouldn’t feel any shame.” That is the moment when the treatment team comes together to make sure the child is educated and can take care of himself. I ask the parents, “What kind of activity does your child like to do, and what is the goal of therapy?” It’s all about the child. We try to have a lasting effect. No matter how limited the time I have with a child, I make the most of it.
Give me an example of your strategies.
If a student is antsy, I might give her a rubber ball with round spikes, and she’ll calm down. For another student, it might mean rocking back and forth. We play games that are intervention strategies, such as rowing your boat. It’s a familiar and comforting action. Now the student is returned to class in a state of readiness to learn. It’s a sensory strategy that is short-lived — it can last 20 minutes. But if I teach them to self-regulate, that’s for a lifetime.
What have been the most challenging moments?
I had one student who was defiant and wouldn’t follow instructions. He’d refuse to put his jacket on or pick up a pencil. Any change to routine, anything different would set him off. I thought it might be interesting to give him a little control. So I said to him, “I feel like writing today; where’s my notebook?” I pretended I couldn’t find it. He saw the notebook and said, “I found it.” Then I asked, “Where’s my pencil?” He started searching for it. He was helping me out, and that gave him confidence. I use little tricks like that. In another case, I was trying to figure out how to get a child to learn to interact with others in a healthy manner. We played a game of tag and then I said, “Let’s play tag with other kids.” Now I don’t have to be there; he’s playing with others. He was ultradefiant; now he can follow commands. This is progress. How do we get from screaming to a state of joy? My thinking is, “If I do this, let’s see what the reaction is.”
You’re trying different things.
Yes, but I’ve had cases where no matter what I did, it didn’t seem to be enough but eventually I learned. It’s more embarrassing if I can’t figure out what worked and what didn’t work. That’s crucial. What can I do for them? What does the child need to learn? What piece are they not getting? What’s the missing link?
What are some of the obstacles you face?
The biggest obstacle is time — you just want a little more time. We have to make the most of the limited time we have, pulling the student out of class is taking from instructional time. Before you know it, it’s June.
What made you choose this profession?
I had been a substitute teacher and a paraprofessional. I was at one school where I saw an occupational therapist at work. You get to blend a lot of different domains together — physical therapy, psychology, medical and education. You get to help heal people; you deal with people in their most vulnerable state and you make a difference.
How do you relax?
I play the guitar to relax when I’m at home with my wife. I’ll play anything by Vivaldi, and I create my own pieces. I’ll fiddle with some chords. I’m Greek, so I’ll also play Greek music. It’s relaxing and gives me a chance to process what happened during the day. It’s how I self-regulate, and that’s what I try to help students do — to get to that state.
—As told to reporter Linda Ocasio