Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Love & Learning in the News

Daughter's disability serves as motivation for this family
October 16, 2007



Nearly 23 years ago, a doctor stared at a happy couple with a newborn daughter and told them she'd probably never read.

But instead of taking the news with tears and defeat, Joe and Susan Kotlinski looked at their baby girl, Maria, diagnosed with Down syndrome, and decided to turn the prognosis into motivation.

Today, Maria Kotlinski not only reads, she volunteers at a hospital and child care center, takes jazz dance classes and plays the piano.
Working out of their living room in Dearborn, the Kotlinski family has developed a reading system targeting special needs children, particularly those with Down syndrome and autism. Their company, Love and Learning, has touched 6,800 families worldwide.

"We were faced with a challenge that changed our life completely," said Joe Kotlinski, a 53-year-old Ford retiree who worked on the automaker's technical hotline.

They use instructional books and computer programs, but their most successful approach has been with DVDs.

"We know the average child watches 5,000 hours of TV before first grade," Joe Kotlinski said. "We use TV in a very constructive way."

The key to the Kotlinski family's success is repetition and starting early with children.

"The first thing we do with parents is congratulate them on their newborn, because what you get in hospitals and the perception of your child can be scary," Joe Kotlinski said. "Then we tell them about Maria -- she was reading a thousand words by age 5. That opens their mind."

But the most important message for these parents is immediacy: "We tell them to start now. Don't expect the school system to be able to teach your children to read."

The videos focus on simplification. The words on the screen appear by themselves: black words with a white background. The next frame shows an image of the words. The first kit, for example, teaches the alphabet and about 24 words.

And the lessons are intentionally short: only 2 to 4 minutes a day.

"We try to stimulate the child to try and imitate sounds and play around with sounds," Susan Kotlinski said. "Those sounds are the building blocks of spoken words."

One of their satisfied customers is Wayne County Medical Examiner Carl Schmidt, whose 3-year-old son, Lawrence, has Down syndrome.

"They provide the tools to help parents make that commitment, which I think is their most significant achievement," Schmidt said. "When you have a child with a disability, you become aware of the many misconceptions regarding particular ones, even among the medical community."

Schmidt said his first meeting with Maria Kotlinski surprised him.

"I was taken aback by the clarity of her diction and enunciation," he said. "Although it's obvious that her parent's efforts had much to do with it, their systematic way of approaching language instruction also played an important role."

Maria has a close relationship with her parents and younger sister, Lea, 21. They joke about Maria's piano playing, her dancing classes and proudly sit back as she describes her job duties as a volunteer at Cotter Early Childhood Center in Dearborn.

"I interact with the children," Maria said. "I play with them. I help them with their work and I keep them safe."

Joe Kotlinski still marvels at this foray into the world of educating kids with special needs.

"It's really turned into a wonderful opportunity to help people," he said. "The word 'miraculous' is appropriate. But it's not just for Maria. It's there for a lot of children."

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