This is an interview with Jamie Levine, MS Ed, who works as a SEIT, or Special Education Itinerant Teacher, and has also started an agency for SEITs called Team Esteem.
Jamie, can you start by explaining what SEITs do?
A SEIT is a teaching specialist who travels to different schools and homes, and helps children who have behavioral, social/emotional, speech, language, or developmental issues integrate successfully into the classroom. Maybe a child is getting physical with other kids, or he’s not sharing. Maybe she’s just very, very shy; she doesn’t interact with other kids.
SEITs can be hired by the Board of Education, or by parents directly. A SEIT has a master’s degree in special education, psychology, social work, or counseling. A good SEIT works on social-emotional skills and drawing out language, or changing bad habits that aren’t working for a child, helping develop positive ones so that after a couple weeks, he can say, “Wow, I can ask for a block, or I can ask for more space, and I made my first friend in preschool, and I’m not the monster that other kids think I am.” By the time they’re 4 or 5, the kid might be completely fine.
Who decides when a SEIT is needed?
The recommendation to bring in a SEIT usually comes from the director of a school or a therapist who’s been working with the child. The child may have a diagnosis of a psychiatric or learning disorder, or be on his way to getting a diagnosis. When I come in as a SEIT, I collaborate closely with the parents and the therapists—whoever is working with the child—reinforcing what they’re doing.
Some of the children I see are last-minute, emergency cases where a school will say to parents, “If you don’t get a SEIT in here by the end of Christmas break, your kid’s not coming back to school.” That’s not the best scenario. It happens when parents are really reluctant to recognize that there’s a problem—”My kid’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with my kid, I was like this.” That reluctance can be reinforced by the director and the teachers, if they are afraid to speak up to parents until something blows up.
How do you get started working with a child?
The first thing I do is get a lot of background information: I speak to the parents, the director, the teachers, the therapists they’ve worked with. I ask to read the reports on the child. Then, I observe the child either in the classroom or the home, depending on what the parents and the school feel comfortable with. Then, I meet with the teachers and the parents (I try to encourage everyone’s involvement, although I don’t always get that) and I say, “This is what I see, this is what I would do to help and work towards change.”
The minimum is usually 2 days a week for 3 hours a day; it could be as much as five days a week, full days. Most of my students are between 3- and 7-years-old.
What do you do once you’re in the classroom?
First I observe: I have to get a feel for the classroom culture and the personality of the child. A good SEIT has to be a chameleon: I work in religious schools, I work in the exclusive private schools, I have to dress accordingly for each; I don’t want to stand out.
In the classroom, the kids aren’t told I’m there to focus on one child. I’m not going to start by approaching the child I’m working with; he has already been pointed out for so many reasons, he doesn’t want me pointing him out even more. I come at playtime, and my first mission is to get children comfortable with who I am. I use a lot of humor in my work—I want my student to think, Who’s that fun teacher? She’s funny, people like her, everyone wants to play with her.
All of my actions and communication in the classroom have an underlying purpose. At this age, successful integration is accomplished through imaginative peer play. I’ll be working on pulling my child in, so if we’re all sitting around playing with blocks and talking about how one kid’s tower has a pointy top with a triangle, and one has more of a rectangle, and a third has some windows in there, and my student is starting to build something but can’t really get it done ’cause he’s distracted for some reason… I’m still going to say “WOW! Look at the tower you’re building, you’ve already put 3 pieces on, it’s going in this cool-looking direction, I’m wondering what it could be…”
Some kids will pick up on it and say, “You’re here for so-and-so,” and I say, “No, I’m here for all the kids.” And they say, “Well, so-and-so is a scary monster and he hits people,” then I say, “Oh, is that what you think? Maybe he used to hit people, but he’s working on it and he’s getting much better don’t you think? And you’re really getting better at adding your numbers… so-and-so is a really good mathematician, maybe he can help you and you can help him make happy friendly faces. That’s what good friends do.”
Another thing I do is I say to teachers, “Who does he like? Who likes him? Have they had any exchanges in the past?” Then, I may say, “Tomorrow, when you do small groups, can you put them together and see how that goes?”
What led you to become a SEIT?
I grew up in Long Island, graduated from Jericho High School and then went to Boston University. The real reason I went into this this work is something that happened there: I got suspended from BU—told to stay away for a semester—because my grades were too low. I got home for Christmas vacation and they told me I couldn’t come back to school.
I had been seeing a therapist in college and she would always say to me, “Jamie, you are so bright, I don’t understand why your grades are C’s. I really think you should get tested. You may have ADHD; you should get a neuropsych evaluation.” I’m like, “I’m just stupid, I’m just stupid.” She said, “No, you’re very, very bright, I think that you should get tested.”
So I ended up getting tested at that point. And I did have a mild form of ADHD. And I went on Ritalin, it helped me a lot. I went back to college, switched my major to business and psychology, and I got straight A’s. The medicine didn’t change who I am, it didn’t make me a genius of a student, but it kept me more concentrated. Instead of thinking about the material, I had been thinking about everything else—what everyone was wearing, if that boy liked that girl, why that professor’s hair was sticking out. Now, I was able to think of the material. It really made a difference.
The big reason why I wanted to do this work was because I felt so sad that I went through 20 years of my academic life in all these schools. Nobody knew. My parents always said, “We weren’t good students, you won’t be a good student, but don’t worry, we’re successful.”
I feel very passionate about this work and I don’t want other kids to suffer.
How did you get started?
I saw a job posting in the New York Times at the Park Side School—a special-needs private school that takes mostly speech- and language-impaired kids—for a floater. That’s a teacher who fills in when the regular teacher is absent; another time you could be working one on one with a kid if they need an extra help, or as an extra hand in a classroom. While I was working at Parkside, I was getting my masters in special education at night, at Fordham. And then from there I worked as a head teacher at the Gillen Brewer School. It’s another private special-needs school, but they focus more on kids with social-emotional disorders. There I taught kindergarten through second.
Why did you switch to SEIT work?
I always knew I wanted to do SEIT work because I like the one-to-one. You can make more progress in a shorter period of time. My unique experience teaching in a self-contained special ed classroom at Parkside and Gillen Brewer enabled me to bring my specialized skills to any mainstream setting, because I’ve learned from the best.
Why did you start an agency?
In essence, the reason I began my agency was to bring my knowledge and skills to a broader spectrum of schools and families. The demand for skilled SEITs is so great, I’ve been turning away a lot of cases and it’s been frustrating for me. In addition to the 1:1 with students, my agency, Team Esteem, also does parent collaboration where we go to parents’ homes and observe what’s happening between parent and child, give them feedback and tips to make their home life more peaceful.
I hear you also do facilitated play dates.
Directors have said to me, listen, this kid needs play dates. Parents aren’t setting them up for whatever reason (often because they can’t get the play dates to happen because no one wants to play with the kid, or they’re busy and they get turned off when someone says no a couple of times) so I set up the play dates and we’ll go to other people’s homes, or we go to the playgrounds or the museums, or whatever. I’ll do snack sessions at Whole Foods, and then we all go off to the playgrounds.
What are the rewards of working as a SEIT?
My position as a SEIT is the ultimate give-back. Having personally struggled with ADHD since childhood, I recognize the symptoms, feel the frustrations, and celebrate the victories with the children as well as with their families. Working on a 1:1 basis in a mainstream setting I see real positive results in a short period of time and it’s unbelievably gratifying.
Learn about Jamie Levine’s SEIT agency at TeamEsteem.net.