East New York educators create online teaching series for students with special needs

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P-53K’s Crista Conto and Natalie Marek on a virtual trip around the world.
CAN Time

Two East New York educators have launched a YouTube channel to help keep their special needs students engaged during remote learning — and they hope other students will take advantage of it. 

Speech-language pathologist Crista Conto and special education teacher Natalie Marek launched a video series called CAN Time in April to keep their students at P-53K, who have disabilities such as Autism and developmental delays, excited for school while they learn from home amid the coronavirus pandemic.

“We were thinking of creative ways to get our kids involved during this remote learning time,” said Conto of CAN Time, which stands for Cris and Nat Time. “It’s a fun way for the kids to get involved and learn something new.”

So far, Conto and Mark have hosted lessons on important skills such as following recipes and identifying familiar objects in their environment — while encouraging kids to have a little fun. Episodes have included a virtual trip around the world, a camping trip, an obstacle course, and tips on how to use a schedule at home. 

The pair says the videos aim to recreate some of the structure and familiarity their students have missed out on since making the switch to remote learning. Children with developmental disabilities thrive under routine, and to have it abruptly taken away from them could result in bad behavior, the educators said. 

“Change does not work well with them,” said Conto, noting that the videos allow students to emerge themselves in a fun activity that their parents can join in on, without placing any onus on their guardians to facilitate a fantastical environment.

“Visually, they can actually see it, as opposed to their parents trying to communicate to them ‘oh, let’s just go camping!’ because that’s very confusing,” she said.

And families have seized the opportunity to get in on the fun, according to Conto and Marek, who said they’ve heard from parents who all sit down together as a family to watch their new videos each week.

“Our parents will tell us it’s become a whole family affair to watch the new video each week and to get every member of the family involved,” said Marek.

This story is part of an ongoing series about group homes on the front lines of the COVID-19 crisis, and the pandemic’s impact on those with developmental disabilities.