February 3, 2016

PROFILES IN EDUCATION: Special Education Teacher Krysten Yee Pursues Her Career at Eden Autism Services

Profile in Educ

“POSITIVE ENERGY”: Krysten Yee, assistant teacher at Eden Autism Services, works one-on-one with the Eden students, looking forward to helping them to develop the skills that will lead to increasing independence and self-fulfillment.

Krysten Yee started her career in education just last year as a teaching assistant at Eden Autism Services. The 23-year-old Westchester, New York native graduated from James Madison University in 2014 with a major in psychology, a minor in non-teaching special education, and a certificate in autism spectrum disorders. She joined Eden as a counselor at their Crossroads camp program in the summer of 2014, and signed on with the full-time staff at Eden Institute the following fall.

She has wasted no time in tackling the challenges of teaching at Eden, where most of the students are on the severe end of the autism spectrum, often needing one-on-one instruction and training in the areas of social interaction and communication skills.

“Krysten is a fantastic teacher,” said her boss Rachel Tait, managing director at Eden. “She is one of those people who you can tell is so dedicated to her students. She comes to work every day with a smile on her face and no matter how rough the day is, she is always smiling, which has a huge impact on our kids. She has the positive energy that she brings to her job, and the kids respond favorably to it.”

A Teaching Family

Her mother, who is a public elementary school special education teacher; her brother, a math teacher; and her cousin, who is a year younger than her and has severe autism were all influential in Ms. Yee’s career choice. “I was very curious, as I watched my aunt and uncle, seeing all the choices they made as they worked with him,” she said. “What they needed to do to get services for him, what they go through every day, his education programming and how his communication with the family is so different — all really got the wheels turning for me.”

Ms. Yee described how her non-verbal cousin would use a picture exchange communication (PEC) system that she now uses daily in her teaching at Eden. “He would communicate using a visual board, an array of 12 photos giving a picture of what he wants to my aunt or uncle. So if he wants a drink from the fridge, he’ll pull off a PEC that says “I want” and then a picture, so he’ll be able to say “I want a drink” or “I want a pretzel” through pictures.

When she got to college at JMU in Virginia she began to connect her experience with her cousin to what she was learning in her special education classes. “I realized — wow — this is what my aunt and uncle go through.”

A class in human behavior led to further explorations in applied behavioral analysis therapy and a series of three courses during her senior year leading to practicum experience in the classroom and her autism spectrum disorder certificate. She knew she wanted to continue in special education, in particular working with autistic children, but she wasn’t sure whether she should pursue speech therapy, classroom teaching, occupational therapy, or another field of specialization.

“That’s why I’m really happy working here,” said Ms. Yee, “Every day I get to see what the speech therapist, the occupational therapist, and the classroom teachers do. It’s great.”

She looks forward to graduate studies, but is still considering her options. “I still haven’t specifically chosen my program, but I’m leaning toward my masters in education for special ed. teaching — I would love to have my own classroom one day — but I haven’t ruled out school psychology or school counseling,”

A Day in the Classroom

When Ms. Yee comes to school each day, she first sets up the day’s lessons and programs for her student, a 17-year-old high school girl — having all the work sheets and other materials ready, clearing the girl’s schedule board so she has the appropriate PECS in place and knows what to expect for the day, providing the environment where the student knows what her transitions for the day will be.

“It’s definitely about finding their interests and getting to know them, then building that foundation into their academic and vocational work,” said Ms. Yee. “It might be getting to know that they love math and that they love using a calculator but they’re not so intrigued by making sentences and reading, so you want to make programs that they are drawn to.”

“When I first came in I thought early childhood was where I wanted to be,” she explained, “but I’ve enjoyed so much working with high school kids, and I feel that they teach me so much. It’s fun — you definitely need a sense of humor at this job.”

Ms. Yee described a breakthrough achieved last Friday with her student, who is learning personal relaxation techniques. “She was really worked up, but she stopped herself, took a deep breath and counted to ten. That was an indication to me that she is learning to calm herself and self-regulate.”

“With the younger students you’re working more with the fundamentals, like keeping their hands in their laps and learning to wait for even just five seconds. It’s cool to see when you move to the older students and can see the skills they are developing. They can sit for a minute and are capable of independent play.”

Also working to prepare her students for the next step, Ms. Yee commented, “A lot of our students transition into employment, so we focus on transferring the skills learned in the classroom into the work force.”

Challenges and Goals

Patience is a crucial attribute for Eden teachers. “You feel you’re investing all your power to help the students succeed both academically and behaviorally and it’s hard not to get emotionally attached to your job and the students you’re working with,” Ms. Yee said. “You have to know that you’re doing as much as you can and have the patience for them to learn over time.”

Describing the most important goal for her with her students, Ms. Yee declared, “As their advocate I want to cultivate their drive to want to work and to be drawn to the work they’re doing. It has to do with their behaviors, developing their personal relaxation techniques, then learning to go about their day independently. Little skills all build up for them as they move out into the work force and into adult living.”

In addition to advocating for her students, Ms. Yee also sees it as a part of her job to bring awareness of autism to the larger community. “Outside of school, it’s important to talk to community members and even my own family about what we do and how we do it, increasing their knowledge about this population.”

Ms. Yee especially enjoys sharing her stories with her mother. “I love hearing her stories [from the elementary special education classroom]. We always talk. She’s proud of me and I’m proud of her too. It’s a very rewarding job.”