A Path to Leadership: An Interview with Kristie Patten Koenig

Kristie Patten Koenig, chair of Steinhardt’s Department of Occupational Therapy, is the principal investigator of NYU’s GIFTED Program and ASD Nest programs.  She teaches professional and post professional courses in the area of pediatric intervention, school based practice and sensory processing and regulation.

You had a whirlwind week with Ghanaian teachers at NYU in June.  Can you tell us about the Ghana Wins program?

As the culmination of our year long GIFTED program, we hosted ten teachers and two principals from local school districts in Ghana, and two lecturers from the University of Education at Winneba. GIFTED, which is short for the Ghanaian Institute for the Future of Teaching and Education, is an NYU program that works with our local faculty partners at UEW  in Ghana to empower teachers and principals to build on the strengths of their community.

Fellows travelled from Ghana to Washington Square.

When the women apply, we give priority to women that have not had any international travel. So it is quite amazing to experience New York City through their eyes and all the “firsts” they experience when they are in this great city.

This year our fellows visited PS 396 in the Bronx, which is one of our ASD Nest schools, to learn about alternative instructional methods. Dean Patricia Carey gave an inspirational message about leadership at our opening ceremonies and they attended a talk on sustainability and community engagement with Steinhardt faculty member Dana Burde.

We also discussed sex education in the Ghanaian context with Jon Zimmerman and got to hear Ohkee Lee share a very personal story about her path to being a woman leader.

You are an occupational therapist by training.  What is the link between your GIFTED work, your work with children with autism spectrum disorder and OT?  Or maybe I am asking simply: ‘what is occupational therapy?’

Paul Kotler and his mother were guests at a seminar on sensory processing challenges taught by Kristie Patten Koenig (at right) in January.

I am an occupational therapist by training with a doctorate in educational psychology. In my role as a practicing OT, I have worked in public schools to improve functional outcomes for children who are often marginalized. As a researcher, I have sought to study the effectiveness of interventions that work in the public schools.

In the case of autism, students often have poorer than expected postsecondary outcomes when compared to their peers with other disabilities.  NYU’s ASD Nest Program is a comprehensive program that targets their specific needs to improve these outcomes for students in the public schools.

Our GIFTED women know what their schools need and work with young girls, which are another marginalized group in Sub-Saharan Africa, in order to improve their long-term outcomes.  We help them to design clubs that can offer meaningful activities and occupations to achieve their results.  Some examples of these clubs are cultural dance, role-play, batik and tie dying, soap making, photography, and math and science skills. This use of activity is a core value of occupational therapy.

As a woman leader, I benefited early in my career from being a part of a fellowship program that chose fifteen leaders and engaged us in a year of goal-setting, mentoring circles, and interaction. This program, which was a joint collaboration between the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Occupational Therapy Foundation, laid the groundwork for the perspective I have brought to the GIFTED program.

How do you bridge the difference between yourself and others?

At our first meeting with the faculty of education at the University of Winneba, my principal co-investigator, Rose Vukovic, and I made it clear that we did not know what schools in Ghana needed and that we wanted a true partnership.  Our approach has been to build on the wisdom of our partners and to facilitate the change that our GIFTED fellows would like to make in their schools and community. In practice this means that we listen a lot.  We let our GIFTED fellows be the experts of their own contexts, and we directly confront, as much as possible, our own assumptions about working in communities that are not our own.

This mutual respect — that I think pervades every aspect of the program — has helped bridge many of the obvious differences.