Posts Tagged ‘The Educational Institute for Learning and Research’

Nursery School Dropouts Offered a Second Chance

Sunday, July 19th, 2009


At 4, Ronnie is a nursery school dropout.

He’s getting a second chance, however, at an unusual facility–the Cheerful Helpers Child-Family Center at the Mt. Sinai Hospital.

Ronnie has learned, for instance, that when he touches Joseph’s modeling clay, Joseph yells “no” at the top of his lungs.

“He’s angry,” Ronnie says to his teacher, Mrs. Sylvia Wald.

“Yes, he is,” she answers calmly.  ”Perhaps you shouldn’t touch his clay.”

“Joseph and Ronnie are emotionally disturbed children.” So describes the two children in the above excerpt from this charming but terribly un-PC story that appeared in the LA Times on August 31, 1966. The article focuses on two pivotal figures in the early days of autism treatment: Cedars-Sinai’s Dr. Saul Brown, an early pioneer of play therapy,  and UCLA’s Dr. Ira Lovaas, one of the founding fathers of Applied Behavior Analysis. Two doctors, two different approaches, the same message: for “emotionally disturbed” children, early help in nursery school is key.

According to Brown:

“The biggest challenge in a child’s development is one of moving gradually into a degree of autonomy.  One of the major sources of this difficulty is that parents are confused about how to bring this about.

“They may be too protective, or they may push the child out too quickly.  Nursery school can offer a very nice in-between–separateness from parents without being a cold blast.”

To facilitate this “nice in-between” Brown developed a program where “parents and child undergo therapy and counseling separately and together.”

As Lovass said:

“…unless these disturbed children have an experience like nursery school–and they may get it elsewhere–they just don’t become normal.

“Many kids start off a little bit wrong–for example, having a hard time playing with other children–start the first grade, and they have to learn reading and writing and other intellectual skills. If they have to learn emotional ones, too, they’re going to have a hard time.”

I graduated from nursery school. I didn’t drop out until fourth grade. I started having difficulty in school and hanging out with the wrong crowd, and my parents enrolled me in New York’s Education Institute for Learning and Research.  (I suspect that I had auditory processing deficit, though that was never diagnosed.) I worked with Edith Taglicht Schmidt and Ellen Auerbach (whom I recently discovered was a prominent Bauhaus photographer before becoming a therapist) and a man who helped me in math with Cuisenaire Rods (could it have been Fritz Kunz?) who once said to me in a thick German accent, “Little boy, you are not God.” They were all Germans in that crowd.  They consulted with Drs. Grace Abbate and Lawrence K. Frank who worked under Dr. Caroline Zachry who studied with Jung.  I was a pretty lucky emotionally disturbed kid.

Now my own son isn’t dropping out of nursery school. He’s repeating it. Diagnosed with autism, he is lucky to be attending a great pre-school with caring teachers including specialists in OT and speech. His play dates are facilitated by a Floortime therapist and we have hired an army of lawyers to make sure he gets what he needs. I myself am an education specialist so there’s not an unanalyzed or missed teachable moment in the poor kid’s life.

Like Joseph and Ronnie, he may never be “normal” but he’s getting a second chance.

My Teacher Knew Bertolt Brecht

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

I was looking for a name for a character in my novel when I thought about Ellen Auerbach, a therapist/teacher who worked with me at New York’s Educational Institute for Learning and Research in the ’sixties. I was surprised to find this article about her in Jewish Women’s Archive because I had no idea she was such an important figure, one of the great photographers of the Weimar Republic, partner of Grete Stern in the innovative Berlin studio, Ringl & Pit:

The life of Ellen (Rosenberg) Auerbach was a constant journey of self-discovery and, in her photographic work, a search for the essence that lies behind people and things. Her curious mind, her keen and intuitive eye and her sense of humor permeated her photography, which was re-discovered in the late 1970s, along with that of other avant-garde photographers and artists of the Weimar Republic. Auerbach belonged to the generation of New Women who sought to break with traditional female roles and become independent through their work… At the age of sixty Auerbach embarked on a new career: until 1984 she worked as an educational therapist with children with learning disabilities at the Educational Institute for Learning and Research in New York. She photographed only occasionally. Even though she had no training as a psychologist or therapist, Tate Schmidt, the institute’s director (whom Ellen had met briefly in Palestine), gave her training and opportunities. She used her keen insight and intuition to work with the children to find ways to cope with their problems and had a very high success rate despite the lack of formal training. She crafted a space where children were able to explore themselves and find out about themselves in ways that they never had before. Years later many of the children would come to visit her and remained friends.

Here’s a comment I left for the article’s author, my tribute to Ellen Auerbach, one of the most influential people in my life:

Thank you for this fascinating article.  As a child I had the good fortune of working with Ellen Auerbach at the Educational Institute.  I was having difficulty in school and my parents sent me there for a couple of years in the late ’60s.  She was a wonderful woman.  She let me drink Yoo-Hoos and shared her Edam and pumpernickel sandwiches with me.  She encouraged me to write and draw and took me on a field trip to MOMA.  As a gift, she compiled my poems, stories, and artwork and bound them in a book.  In the back was an “author’s” blurb with a portrait of me that she took.  In the blurb she correctly predicted that I would someday become a writer.  What she didn’t know was that, like her, I would also become an education specialist.  I never knew she was a famous photographer, finding out only after researching her for a novel (she is the inspiration for one of its characters, a magical teacher who flees Germany to teach in the United States.)  She was a great inspiration and a warm and friendly presence.  How was I to know that the lady sitting across from me taking my picture was such an important artist?  I only knew that she made me feel special, capable and smart.