A curly, brown-haired six-year-old smiled to herself as she ran her fingers through the warm park sand. The bright-eyed, joyful girl turned to pour the sand into her bucket, but it wasn’t there. A grown woman held her bucket, chewing on the handle.
She ran to her mother, scared and sobbing. Her mother explained that the grown woman had Down syndrome and lived across the street at the “Association of Retarded Citizens.” She wanted to play, but didn’t know how to ask six-year-old Cheri Alexander to join her.
Alexander is now a second-year student earning her master’s degree in special education at California State University, Long Beach.
“I think Cheri came pre-programmed with a gift for helping others with disabilities; it appears to be intuitive, with a sense and understanding of their needs as well as their unique humanity,” said Teri Book, Alexander’s former neighbor and mother to an autistic daughter. “She sees them as complete people, just as we all are.”
Alexander’s studies specialize in autism. She is in her fifth year of educating autistic kindergarten and first grade children.
She piloted the program called “S.U.C.S.E.S.S.,” which takes the pro-active approach to creating a better learning environment for autistic children, from Jan. to June 2014. By September, the program had been mainstreamed into 11 schools of the Long Beach Unified School District.
“Cheri has a lot of energy and uses it to implement evidence-based practices with her students,” Susan Leonard-Giesen, CSULB’s special education coordinator, said. “I have heard her talking to classmates, sharing her ideas and experiences … her passion and confidence shine through as she provides suggestions and advice.”
For the students’ safety, Alexander never wears jewelry, refuses perfumes and opts to wear tennis shoes when heading to class.
For the duration of the entire year, each student is assigned to a color. Within that year, everything of that hue in the color-coordinated classroom belonged to them.
Laminated prompting clipart cards scatter across counters to aid communication, like pictures of a toilet to hint at potty-time. An egg-shaped, capsule chair swings in the corner as an outlet for the children’s sensory needs in hopes to alleviate tantrums and promote a smile.
“I call it kind and concrete; that’s my theme, that’s how I manage my classroom … there is a difference between letting the kid just do what they want and being kind,” Alexander said. “Kindness really comes intrinsically from the soul and the spirit, and that’s just who I am with these kids.”
Alexander said that the 7:45 to 11:45 a.m. kindergarteners and the 7:45 to 2:20 p.m. first graders endure good days and bad days. One breakthrough moment stands out for Alexander in particular.
Every 20 minutes, a beeper signaled for one specific student to attempt using the bathroom since he couldn’t communicate outside of a laugh or cry. Sitting on the toilet for two minutes—only sitting – was his goal, receiving a Snickers bar upon completion.
To entertain him, Alexander brought ABC flash cards as a distraction. For the past two years in Alexander’s class, the non-verbal student had silently enjoyed listening to teachers read the lettered cards, yet he had never spoken the letters himself.
Alexander flipped through the cards per usual, saying, “A, a-a-a-a-a-a A.” When Alexander swapped the A card for the B card, a muffled “Beeee” echoed off of the white, tiled walls. The pair made it to the letter E.
“It was the first words he had ever spoken in his whole life,” Alexander said. “He looked at me with these huge eyes, like “I did it.” He shocked himself as much as he shocked me … it was the most impressible thing that has happened in my whole career.”
Some days are not as rosy for Alexander. She recalled one encounter while instructing a student that it was “time to stand up.” The student grabbed Alexander’s hand and bit it down to the bone. Alexander left immediately for the hospital. A permanent mark still covers her right hand.
“When I leave work each day, I take a breath, a cleansing breath and leave it all at the school,” Alexander said.
She said that she de-stresses by playing card games like hearts or shanghai with her family and taking leisurely neighborhood strolls with her husband and two dogs, Katie, a boxer, and Becky, a pit-bull.
“I use all of my behavior management skills on my dogs … I have the best-behaved dogs in town,” Alexander said. “I’m a teacher by nature; I have to refrain from teaching strangers things because it is not socially appropriate.”
Alexander plans to complete her thesis in 2016, graduating to her next goal of acquiring a PHD in special education. Some of her more distant goals include writing a book on autism and becoming a keynote speaker on the topic.