Irina was puzzling to her teachers in the day care center. For a 3 ½ year old, she spoke very little, sometimes mixing English and Russian words or phrases. She seemed to like being nearby the other children but did not initiate interaction or seem to follow the sequence of activities going on around her. She used only a few materials in the room and always in the same way and sometimes resisted changing activities. Her family had been in the U.S. about 2 years, so maybe she was unfamiliar with the language or the routines of a busy New York day care center. Irina’s teachers needed some guidance to better understand her development and what Irina needed. They worried about how they would communicate their questions and concerns to Irina’s parents. Our project was developed specifically to help early child care settings that serve émigré families become better able to meet such special needs as emerged with Irina and her family. We accomplished this through a teacher training program on autism spectrum disorders and ongoing early childhood consultation.
Nowadays there are more children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) than ever before. Yet teachers trained to work with young children in mainstream early childhood programs are not routinely taught about spectrum disorders. Because of the proven value of early intervention, and the need for teachers to have information about ASD, a course was designed to provide early childhood educators with information to help them become aware of children who may be on the spectrum and to understand and better serve these children in their classrooms. The community-based sites that participated in this program each served émigré families (primarily, but not exclusively Russian) so it was important that our program be bicultural-bilingual in order to address the unique needs of families unfamiliar with both the language and culture of the dominant community served by the day care centers.
The funding for this course was made possible by a partnership grant from the UJA-Federation of New York, Butler Foundation and New York Community Trust. The course became a part of a larger program that was designed to support community-based organizations in early identification of children who may be on the spectrum, support efforts by schools and parents to provide these children with the services they require and integrate the children into the community.
The funding organizations conducted a twenty month needs assessment and were convinced that early childhood teacher education would be crucial in helping to identify ASD children and helping their families. Parents with children on the spectrum often become more conscious of their children’s difficulties when preschool begins. The funders believed strongly that knowledgeable early childhood educators could help these parents by offering support and information and by instilling the confidence to find therapeutic services when necessary.
The funders sought expertise from The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services both for well-informed teachers to work with the four chosen sites in Brooklyn and for experienced early childhood consultants to provide consultation services to settings that didn’t already have it.
The teaching portion of this grant was designed to cover normative development, atypical development, communication and interactions with parents, classroom management and problem-solving. The four-session course included supplemental readings, information about important websites, discussion, a listing of community resources and videos. The program covered four distinct areas:
Typical Development, Infancy to Age 5: Temperament, Personality, Age & Stage
Knowledge of child development governs the principles of practice for early childhood education. This session covered physical, cognitive, social, emotional and linguistic development and explored how growth, maturation and certain behaviors, beginning in infancy, follow a well-defined sequence in typically developing children.
Atypical Development, Infancy to Age 5: Red Flag Behaviors
Participants were questioned about their familiarity with ASD in an effort to look at their previous knowledge and experiences with children who displayed a variety of behaviors that were either hard to understand or difficult to manage.
We used a ‘First Signs’ video aimed at improving observational skills and showing the routine screening that is designed to identify children at risk for ASD and other developmental disorders. The video clearly showed the sometimes extreme behaviors associated with ASD. It highlighted children from infancy to age five and included children from many backgrounds.
Participants also read and assessed descriptive anecdotes that involved children who had subtle signs of ASD, but still exhibited behaviors that should cause concern. The ability to understand these anecdotes was based on understanding of development from the previous class.
Working Closely with Parents
Changes in the field, in family life, in identification and remediation for developmental problems have all increased the responsibilities of teaching staff to interact with parents in helpful ways. The course covered both daily parent/teacher interactions and then the very complicated and difficult meetings that take place when a child is in difficulty and needs to be evaluated by outside professionals.
Just as early childhood education for teachers doesn’t include ASD awareness, teacher training for early childhood educators rarely includes the complicated work they sometimes do with parents. Work with parents is always central to practice, but when parents begin to realize that their child isn’t managing in preschool, they experience indescribable anxiety and pain.
Training can help professionals become more empathic toward parents, respecting both their feelings and culture. Teachers can develop knowledge of the way in which to approach parents and be able to make appropriate suggestions when help is needed. Teachers can also become familiar with the services available in their community and can be ready to lend a hand to parents when it is necessary for them to negotiate the public education entitlement system.
Classroom Management: Problem Solving Together
This class explored the day to day experiences that teachers have with the children and with the specialists who visit their classrooms. We explained who the specialists are: Occupational Therapist (OT), Physical Therapist (PT), Special Education Itinerant Teacher (SEIT) and/or Play Therapist, and what their area of practice tries to accomplish.
The reality of specialists in early childhood classrooms and what having other practitioners in your classroom means to classroom teachers is another topic not addressed in most pre-service or in-service teacher training. This was a class where discussion was central to the goal of relationship building in the service of enhancing the sense of community in the classroom.
Participant teachers were very interested in knowing how they could work more effectively with specialists. Moreover, they wanted to acquaint themselves with helpful classroom strategies and interventions to address the problems of children when the specialists were not on-site. These included how to help specific children with language acquisition, social skills, self-regulation and managing their anger and aggression. Teachers contributed a lot of anecdotal information and were pleased to receive individual and specific as well as more general recommendations.
A series of teacher training workshops such as those described above are not sufficient to sustain the teacher’s learning or support teachers as they take on the difficult tasks of including youngsters with special needs in their classroom and being able to work collaboratively and empathically with the parents of these children. For that reason, this project also placed early childhood consultants in each participating site. These consultants had experience and training in work with special needs children and autism spectrum disorders in particular. Moreover, the consultants were all sensitive to the cultural issues of the émigré families in the centers and in most cases the consultants were also bilingual. The consultants enabled the teachers to feel better prepared to include children with a range of developmental challenges in their classrooms.
Moreover, the consultants were there to work with the directors and the parents themselves in order to put into motion the efforts necessary to have these children evaluated and become eligible for all the therapeutic interventions needed to address their challenges. We have found that for émigré parents in particular, the process of understanding and accepting their child’s developmental differences and then negotiating a complex system of evaluation, intervention services, and entitlements is daunting and confusing. Accomplishing this outcome became a central role for the consultants.
Participating teachers became open to new ideas and new ways of working with children as they became informed about special needs children and working with their parents. The support of the consultants each week also helped further inspire the teachers. The teachers spoke of their own willingness to change classroom routines and activities to meet the needs of specific children and to plan carefully to reinforce the strengths of each child. The participating teachers showed increased curiosity about children who were puzzling, and wanted to know about other kinds of delays or difficulties that interfere with development.
Good training for early childhood educators inspires improvement of practice, greater understanding of child development and an enhanced capacity to work with parents and other professionals. It was clear that our program kindled new understanding in teachers and ignited a sense that they could be helpful to families struggling with ASD.
Bruce A. Grellong, PhD, is Chief Psychologist and Director of the Center for Child Development and Learning at JBFCS, and Fern Fisher, MA, MS, LCSW, is Director of JBFCS’s Early Childhood Consultation Services.