In Honor of All Teachers During Teacher Appreciation Month
Pictured above: Mildred and her son, Jan Luis
When six-year-old Jan Luis started at the NYC Autism Charter School (NYCACS), he quickly became attached to his teacher Chelsey, so much so that when dismissal came around each day, he would throw himself onto the ground, refusing to go home. “I was a little surprised at first,” confessed his mother, Mildred Arjona. In the past, such behavior typically meant that Jan Luis was acting out negatively, in frustration, not in response to a happy experience. After her initial astonishment, Mildred understood the gradual transformation that was happening in her son.
“He used to do a lot of things he wasn’t supposed to,” explained Mildred, a single mother and native of the Dominican Republic. “He hurt himself, he bit himself, a lot of violent, frustrated behavior. For a long time, it was very difficult. No touching, no understanding.”
All of that changed this year when Jan Luis became one of four New York City kindergarteners who won the lottery to enroll in the charter school. Jan Luis’ progress, according to Mildred, was a measured and steady growth, nurtured by head teacher Chelsey Speir-Morrone, clinical supervisor Rebecca Wells, and the classroom teaching team. “Chelsey and Rebecca are so wonderful! They helped me a lot. I didn’t understand before why he got so frustrated, what he was feeling, so I didn’t know how to deal with him.”
Pictured above: Rebecca, Chelsey and Jan Luis
“When we first met Mildred, we let her know right away that this was going to be hard,” recalled Chelsey. The teamwork began with a home visit in September, an NYC Autism Charter School protocol that most parents opt into. “Mildred was very open with us, and answered all of our questions.”
The group immediately identified a key barrier in the family’s life and in Jan Luis’ potential success at school. At six-years-old, he was not toilet trained, despite Mildred’s repeated attempts. The teachers returned within the month and spent a full day to toilet train Jan Luis with Mildred. The intense focus worked. It also cemented their parent-teacher bond.
“Things get intimate very quickly. It’s a deep relationship,” explained Chelsey, referring to all parent-teacher relationships at NYCACS. “The work that we do feels and looks a lot like parenting, but it’s clinically grounded in ABA [Applied Behavior Analysis] training.”
Upon the child’s enrollment, teachers work with parents on building trust, setting priorities and creating an individual educational plan. For six-year-old Jan Luis, the priority was toilet training, so that he can attend school out of diapers. “When I first met Chelsey, I trusted her right away,” recalled Mildred. “She and Rebecca spent a whole day at my house. Anybody who spends that much time really cares.”
Each family at the NYC Autism Charter School requires a tailored approach that could include overall training in language skills, methodologies for interacting with the child such as breaking down processes or using timers, and other behavioral or learning interventions. With Mildred, they began by modeling strategies for her to manage Jan Luis’ behavior. They taught her how to coax him to eat the foods that she cooks and develop systems to create order in the family’s routine. “They changed my relationship with Jan Luis,” said Mildred. “Before, I didn’t know what he was going through, why he got frustrated. Now I understand him so much better.”
“Mildred is very motivated to learn and practice; she’s always ready to implement what we teach her,” said Chelsey. “She’s committed. She always follows through and is good about letting us know what is happening, how things are going.” Trust and transparency are the key to a successful parent-teacher relationship, according to Chelsey, because it ensures that home and school priorities are aligned. And when difficulties arise, there is a foundation that enables the team to cooperate on solutions with mutual understanding and greater flexibility.
Pictured above: Chelsey and Mildred
Soon after Jan Luis started school, Mildred approached the team for help with a persistent problem. Born with complications in his vision, Jan Luis required regular visits to the optometrist. These almost always went poorly, with Jan Luis becoming agitated and impatient, not allowing the doctors to touch him. The team at NYCACS approached the problem concretely. Every day for three months, they enacted the process of a doctor’s visit with Jan Luis, walking him step-by-step through a mock eye exam, introducing new procedures one at a time. They made a list of each step, and as Jan Luis accomplished a step successfully, he could cross it off the list. As an incentive, they promised him a visit to Kmart, his favorite store. They also modeled the training for Mildred, and after three months, Chelsey, Rebecca, and Mildred accompanied Jan Luis to his first, mostly calm and smooth doctor’s appointment. On successive visits, the teachers have deliberately stepped back, allowing Mildred and Jan Luis to manage on their own.
“One of the most rewarding things about my job is when I can see that the parent has followed through at home, and I can see the change in the child’s behavior so visibly in and out of the classroom,” said Chelsey. Mildred, she believes, has done this and more. “What I love about Mildred is that she holds Jan Luis to such high standards. She doesn’t let him get away with not trying. And, she doesn’t let his disability get in the way of him fulfilling his potential.”
The admiration seems to be mutual. “Chelsey and Rebecca have absolutely changed my life,” Mildred added. “We work together like a team to help Jan Luis feel supported…It’s like a marriage, you know?”
The NYC Autism Charter School was founded by New York Collaborates for Autism and is located in East Harlem. It is the first charter school in New York State dedicated exclusively to educating students with ASD.
Chelsey Speir-Morrone, Head Teacher at the NYC Autism Charter School, holds Masters Degrees in Special Education and in Social Psychology.
Rebecca Wells, Clinical Supervisor, holds a Masters Degree in Special Education and Board Certification in Applied Behavior Analysis.