A passion for progress

PreK teacher helps children with special needs
By Shelby Harrell Staff Writer | Apr 30, 2014
Photo by: Shelby Harrell Kathy Swanger, a special needs prekindergarten teacher at Central Elementary School, interacts with autistic twins Christopher and Caleb Neal during recess.

For prekindergarten teacher Kathy Swanger, the best feeling in the world is to see a child smile when they learn something for the first time.

"It never gets old to see that expression on their face when they learn a new concept," Swanger said about her 4 and 5-year-old students at Central Elementary School. "This age group is just so much fun."

Her passion for working with young, developing children is what led her to the front of a special needs classroom at CES. Swanger also works with teaching assistants Melanie Ashe and Susan Breece.

While applying her patience and enthusiasm for learning, Swanger works with students who struggle with speech, have disabilities or who need occupational therapy.

This year, Swanger was introduced to Caleb and Christopher Neal, two identical twins who were diagnosed with severe autism when they were 2. Autism is a mental condition characterized by difficulty in communicating and forming relationships with other people and in using language and abstract concepts.

When Swanger first met the twins at age 4, they were not talking and could not sit still. After several weeks in Swanger's class, Caleb and Christopher's behaviors were transformed. Today, Caleb and Christopher can be seen sitting down in class, playing with puzzles and reading books quietly — something that never happened before the two were enrolled in school.

"You almost can't even tell they have it," said Emma English, the twins' grandmother who visits the classroom often. "In a month, I saw a difference. (The teachers) are so patient with them. On their second day here, I came and saw the boys walking around and being still and not jumping up and down."

Swanger said she was pleased with the progress the twins have made this year. Caleb and Christopher are the only autistic students in her class.

"You just have to figure out their little personalities," Swanger said. "That's true for all of them."

Swanger helps students learn good behavior, manners, and potty training while also teaching them their letters, numbers and colors. After the past year in prekindergarten, Caleb knows the alphabet and can name 30 out of all 50 states and Christopher is also learning quickly.

"You would not believe all the progress they've made since the beginning of school," Swanger said about the twins. "They're doing so wonderfully well."

Aside from the rewarding feelings that come from teaching, Swanger also loves how active her students are.

"They keep us on our toes and keep us moving," Swanger said. "I like to be moving, so I know where they're coming from. It's not like another classroom where you just sit at a desk. There's no teacher desk in here."

The key to helping her students, Swanger said, was figuring out a teaching strategy that worked for each of them. Swanger has been teaching since 1979, and has a two-year degree in early childhood education from Southwestern Community College and a  birth-kindergarten degree from Western Carolina University.

"You start with one (strategy) and keep going until you find a strategy that works," she said, adding that in the past she had comforted students by giving them a special cushion to sit on or a special chair."It's all a matter of finding the right one for them — and that goes back to just knowing your children."

For the twins, Swanger has made the most progress with them by using a picture schedule — a poster that displays small photos of daily activities. Because autistic children are strong visual learners, the visual representation placed in sequence has helped the twins learn to perform daily tasks.

"We use the pictures to show them what they'll be doing during the day," Swanger said. "It will show a picture of a group, of breakfast, or lunch or outside time or a nap — it's just things they normally do every day in order."

Swanger admits that teaching students with behavioral problems could sometimes be a challenge, but she said it's a challenge she enjoys.

"At this age, they're wanting to learn and they do such funny things," Swanger said. "Plus they love you no matter what mistakes you make.  ... There's never a dull moment in preK."