Alumna inspires families amidst pandemic

Closen virtual games

Heather Closen’s work is about connection and facilitating growth in children whose needs may differ from their peers. A psychology major and early childhood education alumna from the Class of ’08, she meets face-to-face with children who have autism or other developmental disabilities and their families as an applied behavior analyst for Reaching New Heights, a pediatric therapy provider in north-eastern Ohio. “I love making connections with people and helping kids and families realize their full potential,” she said. “I get to watch academic, social, and behavioral growth happen before my eyes, and I know my excitement pales in comparison to that of each child’s family members.” When the coronavirus pandemic forced teachers and therapists like Closen to stop meeting in person, she found new ways to inspire the children she works with and their families.

“We’ve transitioned to telehealth sessions, and families have invited me into their homes via computer screens,” said Closen. “Parents are the ‘hands on deck’ in the work we’re doing, and I’ve been so proud and touched to see them transform.” Closen and her colleagues at Reaching New Heights are also sharing ideas and giving examples of activities on the organization’s Facebook page including virtual games that can be played with family across the miles as well as simple tips on how parents can work with their kids to build language, turn-taking, fine motor, visual perception, and other skills at home. “It’s a novel way to stay connected and share activities with therapeutic and academic value with families who are suddenly full-time parents, teachers, employees, and therapists,” Closen said.

Combining her interests in psychology and education at Wooster, Closen says her Learning and Behavior Psychology class with emerita professor of psychology Claudia Thompson changed her. “It challenged me and forced me to begin to think about and identify how discrete learning opportunities promote new behaviors, and how those behaviors are reinforced to promote habits and new routines,” she said. After completing her degree, Closen worked as a teacher and administrator as well as an after-school tutor for seven years, ultimately deciding to focus on her passion by studying her master’s in education at Kent State University and becoming a board-certified behavioral analyst. “My work now combines what I learned in the education department about developmental norms with those behavioral building blocks that were instilled by the psychology department,” she explained. Closen continues to keep in touch with Thompson and other faculty from Wooster. “It’s inspiring and exciting and I love that my career has evolved with the continued support from my Wooster mentors along the way.”

As a mother of two working from home, Closen is facing the same challenges as other parents with her boys off and sometimes on screen. “Being a working mom has always been hard, but these times are exceptional,” she said, and while she’s been able to incorporate behavioral strategies herself, most importantly she recommends parents give themselves grace. “At the end of the day, I know that what they’ll remember from this time is a mother who was happy, comforting, and present. Sometimes the best thing is to ditch the plan and snuggle reading books.”

Above Closen and her two boys demonstrate a virtual game of “I spy” that parents can use with their kids in a screenshot from a Facebook video post.

Posted in Alumni on May 6, 2020.

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