Support, No Matter What

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For the past four years, Debra Robinson has gone to Birch Family Services Mill Basin Early Childhood Center to teach children who fall on the autism spectrum. But her dedication to helping these children and their families extends far beyond the classroom.

“We spoke on the phone almost every day,” said Michele Montanez, whose 6-year-old son Brandon was in Robinson’s class for two years.

Robinson makes it a point to maintain close relationships with the parents of her students. Through regular communication and special events like Mother’s and Father’s Day breakfasts, Robinson does everything she can to promote parents’ knowledge of their child’s development.

“My goal is to let them know I support them, no matter what,” she said.

When it was time for Brandon to leave Mill Basin, Robinson worked closely with his mother to find the best kindergarten classroom for him.

“She spent five hours sitting with me, helping me figure out the applications and getting them just right,” Montanez said.

Photo by Daniel S. Burnstein

Photo by Daniel S. Burnstein

Robinson, 29, began as a substitute teacher after she graduated from St. John’s University. When she got her master’s degree at Touro College, she became more interested in instructing children on the autism spectrum and soon began teaching in her current classroom.

A lot of teachers take vacations during July and August, but Robinson knows that autistic children thrive on consistency. So for six weeks every summer, she continues working with her students.

Working with a classroom of autistic children is no easy feat. Each student has an individualized plan, or IEP, which specifies a set of goals for that student. The teacher is held accountable for meeting those goals, and creating new ones every year. Robinson teaches 11 students—which means she is responsible for 11 different plans—so she has to gear her lessons in a way that addresses each child’s needs.

“It’s very difficult,” she concedes.

Robinson overcomes her challenges by making lesson plans similar in goals, but with independent attention.

“She tries to incorporate children’s interests into the lessons—to make it interesting for them,” said Daniel Szulkin, Mill Basin’s principal. “If there’s a child who likes SpongeBob or Dora, she’ll try and incorporate it into the lesson.”

Brandon’s particular interest was penguins.

“If she can’t get him to participate because he’s just not interested months of the year, she’ll have animals jumping through the months of the year,” Montanez said, explaining how Robinson captured her son’s attention.

Robinson is also involved in Walk Now for Autism. She began volunteering when Montanez, who was then chairperson for the walk, asked if she might be interested. Now Robinson is the Brooklyn borough leader.

“I went in not knowing how involved I was going to get, and ended up being very involved,” she said. “This is for them—the children and parents.”

Debra Robinson
Special Needs, Birch Family Services Mill Basin Early Childhood Center

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