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Education Special Section Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, March 18, 2010

With the help of a hero
One boy’s victory over brain trauma leads his school forward

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

GUILDERLAND — The struggles and ultimate successes of a boy who suffered brain trauma have changed teaching at Lynnwood Elementary School.

Joseph Infantino was a bright little boy. “He was considered a highly intelligent child, genius level,” said his mother, Sharon Infantino.

When he was 5, he had an accident that crushed his skull; he went into a coma. Doctors removed 70 percent of his right frontal lobe and 20 percent of his left frontal lobe. “They said he wouldn’t survive the night,” his mother relates in an even tone six years later. “He did.”

But, when he returned to his home in Las Vegas, he was like an infant. “We had to train him all over again, everything,” said Mrs. Infantino. “How to walk and talk and use the potty.”

Because of the damage done to his brain, “Joey had real issues with behavioral problems….They call it impulse behavior,” said his mother.

She said, for example, that Joey might suddenly get an urge to pull a person’s hat off of his head, and he’d do so. “His behavior was very disruptive in a classroom,” said Mrs. Infantino. “He couldn’t be a good social buddy.”

The Infantinos looked for a state that had good school programs for children with his special needs and settled on New York State. Mr. Infantino, a risk manager for AIG, arranged for a transfer to the Albany area while Mrs. Infantino scoured the Capital Region, looking for a good school district.

“Finding Guilderland was a godsend,” she said. The Infantinos moved in 2007. Joey was placed in a program at Lynnwood Elementary. The teaching assistant in his classroom, Nancy Armstrong, knew Mark Ylvisaker, a professor at The College of Saint Rose who helped develop a systematic way to teach children with brain injuries.

“He was in his car and over the next day,” said Mrs. Infantino. “He came to our house, and we started implementing some of the programs.”

There are posters throughout the Infantinos’ home now that guide Joey in everyday activities. A poster in the bathroom, for example, goes through the steps for showering. A poster in his bedroom outlines what to do when he gets up, from dressing to taking his medicine.

Self-regulation benefits all

James Dillon, Lynnwood’s principal, was very receptive to Ylvisaker coming into the school. “Self-regulation is something all kids would benefit from,” Dillon said. “Mark came up with a simple, consistent language on how to deal with social situations. It’s a different approach to behavior management, relying on internal rather than external cues. We have a lot of signs and posters,” he said.

A kindergarten classroom, for example, is hung with bright yellow banners that say ready/not ready and big deal/ little deal, complete with illustrations drawn in crayon by the kindergartners.

“Mark was world-renowned in his field. A Renaissance man, he went all over the world,” said Dillon. Ylvisaker helped a school in Scotland to try the strategy he’d used on special-needs students on the general student body. “Discipline issues went way down; academic achievement went up,” said Dillon.

He likened it to building ramps, making buildings accessible to people with handicaps. “They used to build with steps and no ramps,” said Dillon. “With a ramp, everybody has access. If you design that from the start, it’s the best design. It’s the same thing in education.”

When Ylvisaker visited Lynnwood to help Joey Infantino, he saw that it wasn’t a school where teachers rewarded students with stickers or punished them with time-outs or suspension, Dillon said. The school had worked on community building for years.

A small group of teachers volunteered to use Ylvisaker’s techniques and from there it spread, including parents in the school’s best-attended workshop, Dillon said.

The lessons in self-regulation have carried over to classrooms throughout Joey’s school.

When Joey first came to Lynnwood, for example, he had a problem keeping still when his class would line up to go to music class or to the gym. “He had an impulse to step on the back of everybody’s feet,” said Mrs. Infantino. “Dr. Ylvisaker said, ‘Let’s make him the line leader to see if we can change the behavior.’ It took time…Now he has hardly any impulse reactions. Everything is done with a thought.”

Ylviskaer broke concepts down into simple pairs for Joey, such as good choice/bad choice or no choice/a choice, or big deal/little deal.

“He understands now that ‘no’ means you have no choice,” said Mrs. Infantino.

“A miracle”

“He has just come so far, it’s truly a miracle,” said Mrs. Infantino of her son’s progress under Ylvisaker’s system. “He has become much more independent.” Aside from taking care of his own needs, Joey now does chores like emptying the dishwasher or feeding the dog — a Shih Tzu named Buddy — and taking him out.

Sometimes now, Joey teaches his mother. The other day, she said, she was quickly stopping by the grocery store to grab a few things on the way home from bowling and was urging her son, who just turned 11, to hurry along. He pointed out his shoes weren’t tied, and she kept going. “So, when he got in the store, he said, ‘Wait just a minute. Is this safe or unsafe?’ So I tied his shoes,” said Mrs. Infantino with a chuckle.

She enjoyed sharing another example with Ylvisaker. When the Infantino family returned home from a vacation, their dog, Buddy, who had been left with a friend, was upset. He began to vomit in the living room. “I shouted, ‘Buddy!’ and Joey said, ‘Mom, that’s my dog. I’ll clean it up. It’s not a big deal’….He gets down and pats Buddy on his head, and says, ‘Don’t worry, Buddy; it’s just a little deal.’”

Sometimes the issues to be grappled with are much larger. Joey’s grandmother, Mrs. Infantino’s mother, died in February a year ago. “My sisters, my brother, and I were in the hospital room when she passed away,” said Mrs. Infantino. Afterwards, she said, “We were all crying as we were explaining to the grandkids what happened.

“Joey said, ‘I don’t understand. What does that mean?’

“I told him, ‘Gramma is in heaven; she’ll live with Jesus now.’ He put his hands on his hips and said, ‘That’s not a big deal. That don’t sound so bad to me.’ This,” said Mrs. Infantino of Ylvisaker’s approach, “has made him able to better handle situations than any other 10-year-old I know.”

“Pathway to independence”

Mrs. Infantino regrets that Ylvisaker will never see the progress Joey has made. He had planned to study him for 20 years, she said. Ylvisaker died of cancer last May.

At his memorial service, Mrs. Infantino recalls eulogizing him. “If it wasn’t for Dr. Ylvisaker, I don’t know where we would be today,” she said. “Life was very frustrating and difficult….Dr. Ylvisaker gave us a pathway to independence…God bless him and rest his soul. He was a very, very, very good person and a blessing to us. I don’t know what I could do without knowing what he gave us.”

As part of a tribute to Ylvisaker, Joey’s classroom teacher wrote how Ylvisaker thought it was important for children to associate with a hero they could look up to. She said she met with Joey to find out who his hero was; this is what he came up with: “My hero is Dr. Mark Ylvisaker. He is helpful and a good friend. He has helped me to be good to people and to be a great learner.

“Dr. Mark taught me how to ask for help when I need it. I am more ready to start my day because of the help he gave me and my family at home. He is a good friend because he is kind to me, my friends, and my family. Dr. Mark Ylvisaker is my hero because he is a superstar!”

Joey knows now not only how to be responsible for himself but for others, too. He knows how to be a good friend. He loves going to school. “He is a very remarkable boy,” said Mrs. Infantino.

“Dr. Ylvisaker changed our lives, bringing a lot more happiness to every day,” concluded Mrs. Infantino. “I think it would be great if every school in the country had this program.”

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