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The proverb, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” has been around since the 17th century. Over three hundred years later, it’s still widely understood that play is important to rejuvenation and creativity.

Education researchers also understand that, for children, play is essential to learning.

Experts like Christopher Brown, an associate professor at the College of Education of The University of Texas at Austin, are alarmed by the sharp reduction in play time for kindergarteners.

In Brown’s recent op-ed, published in the Conversation and Yahoo News, “Researchers have demonstrated that five-year-olds are spending more time engaged in teacher-led academic learning activities than play-based learning opportunities that facilitate child-initiated investigations and foster social development among peers.”

This shift is alarming, says Brown, because, “focus on rules can diminish children’s willingness to take academic risks and curiosity as well as impede their self-confidence and motivation as learners – all of which can negatively impact their performance in school and in later life.”

Christopher Brown during the recording session for Academic Minute.

Associate Professor Christopher Brown

Brown’s research-based perspective is becoming a call-to-action among the public. He has appeared on programs like the Academic Minute and most recently on Wisconsin Public Radio’s On Point broadcast.

Says Brown, a former kindergarten teacher, “No one … is advocating for the elimination of academics in kindergarten. … Kindergartners require more balanced learning experiences that nurture their development and their desire to learn and interact with others. This will improve their performance in school and assist them in seeing school as a place that will help them and their friends be better people.”


Jennifer Adair, associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction in the College of Education, is no stranger to discussing race and education. Her research and teaching interests focus on the role of race, culture, and cross-cultural experiences in early childhood education.

In addition to preparing pre-service teachers to address race and inequity in their classrooms, Adair believes it is valuable to help white parents of young white children address these issues with their kids too. According to Adair, young kids can handle learning about social justice issues and do not need to be sheltered from them.

Recently, on KLRU’s Blackademics TV, Adair drew from her experiences with her own children and outlined three steps that she has observed white parents of white children take as they strive to raise anti-racist kids.

  1. Teach children to notice and value differences in race and culture, and to see these differences as normal and wonderful.
  2. Share stories highlighting people of color that stress the characteristics they want their children to have, such as kindness, generosity, and ingenuity.
  3. Dive into difficult and challenging conversations about race and inequities their children may observe.

To learn more, watch, as Adair outlines the three patterns she has observed in white parents of white children as they raise their kids to appreciate the racial differences they see around them.


More than 100 families with children with autism and developmental disabilities have received clinical services from a partnership between the College of Education’s Department of Special Education and Austin Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC). Andrew and his family are one example of the power of the partnership.
Audio slideshow: Christina S. Murrey
Narrated by: Taylor Rowland, special education graduate student and Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapist

The Department of Special Education and Travis County join forces to help families with children with autism

When the College of Education’s Department of Special Education launched a modest partnership with Austin Travis County Integral Care (ATCIC) eight years ago, no one could have foreseen the robust, multi-faceted program it would blossom into by 2014.

“There’s a symbiotic relationship between us and ATCIC that’s been there from the beginning,” said Dr. Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education.

Under O’Reilly’s guidance, the department had recently established one of the first U.S. graduate training programs to specialize in preparing special educators, psychologists, and speech pathologists to work with children with autism and developmental disabilities and their families.

At the same time, ATCIC, a community-based behavioral health and developmental disabilities service provider, was struggling to provide enough board-certified behavior analysts (BCBAs) to serve its growing population of in-need families.

“An efficient and effective training program needs more than just ivory tower instruction. We have to link with those practices and we have to influence the community in positive ways.”

“We reached out to them and they reached out to us,” said O’Reilly. “We thought it would be essential as part of that curriculum to partner with community programs that actually deliver services to families who had children with autism. An efficient and effective training program needs more than just ivory tower instruction. We have to link with those practices and we have to influence the community in positive ways.”

At the outset the terms of the project were limited in scope: ATCIC would fund one University of Texas doctoral student to provide 20 hours a week of behavior supports for program families. Ten hours would be clinical services to families and the other 10 would fund student research.

This was a tall order, considering that challenging behavior and communication issues included potty training, eating difficulties, sensory issues, aggressive behavior, and self-injury.

“He came in and served as many people as he could, working in one little office downstairs,” said Maya Vega ATCIC Director of Intellectual and Developmental Services. “But the services that one UT Austin doctoral candidate was providing for this collaboration were of such high quality that we knew this was a relationship we needed to nourish and continue.”

Since then the Department of Special Education/ATCIC partnership has grown to include several separate and distinct branches that employ the skills of four to five doctoral students and about 10 masters students annually. In the eight years the program has been in place more than 100 children have received services.

“It’s basically four programs,” said Cindy Gevarter, a doctoral student in special education who supervises the program’s recently implemented Early Childhood Intervention (ECI) program. “Behavior supports is where the program initially started. Doc students would go out, write behavior plans and do short-term follow-ups. But now that we have more support we’re able to actually go in to a home setting and teach a family how to implement those behavior plans instead of just saying ‘Here you go.’” The ECI program provides in-home behavior therapy for children ages 0-3.

Now, in addition to the long-standing behavior supports program, the partnership features an Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) autism program, the ECI program, and a social skills program that is geared up to start this spring.

Both the ABA and ECI programs provide children from low-income families with free or reduced-cost behavior services in the home. Both approach therapy in a naturalistic manner, although ECI tends to involve more on-the-go parental interaction.

“With the autism program we do a formal assessment and then put together individualized programs from that assessment,” said Laura Rojeski, a doctoral student in special education and manager of the ABA program. “We might have 10 to 30 goals for a kid depending on his level of functioning, and we’re working on those and taking data on those. We’re always trying to do things in a more naturalistic way, making sure we’re not just sitting at a table, but with our 3-6 year-old population it’s a bit more structured.”

“With the ECI program it’s mandated by law that the parents must be part of the training,” said Gevarter. “It has to be what’s called ‘vetted instruction.’ If the natural routine for mom is to play for 20 minutes, have snack time, and then go outside, we’re following that. We’re not saying to mom, ‘Hey, this is what we’re going to do.’ We’re figuring out how we can work within routines that are already happening.”

The success stories that stem from these programs are manifold.

“We used to not hear from families,” said Vega, “but now we hear from them all the time. We have individuals who are using zero ability to communicate verbally who start working with these clinicians and a few months later they have a vocabulary of 20 words.”

Cassandra Medrano is just one parent who has seen life-changing positive results. Her four-year-old son Andrew has been involved with the ATCIC program for more than a year, and in that time has progressed from being almost completely non-verbal to signing and talking more frequently. Thanks to the hands-on therapy his behavior issues have also quieted.
“He’s actually around other kids without temper tantrums,” said Medrano. “Now he’s side by side with them. He doesn’t lash out. He’s able to attend school and actually sit down for a good five to ten minutes and do activities.”

The relationship O’Reilly describes is beneficial to all involved. ATCIC’s stretched-thin staff gets much-needed support; doctoral students receive leadership and supervision opportunities; masters students gain learning opportunities and a chance to complete work toward their Behavior Analyst Certification; and the Department of Special Education builds research partnerships that help advance the field from an educational perspective. Most important, families struggling with the issue of autism are granted a ray of hope and a measure of success.

“We get excited to see the kids making progress, such as speaking their first word or using a communication device,” said Rojeski. “But sometimes parent’s reaction to that progress is the greatest thing. Seeing how excited the parent becomes when they watch their kid communicate, learn new skills and do something without behavior issues, that’s just incredible.”

In keeping with The University of Texas at Austin’s motto, “What starts here changes the world,” the unique Department of Special Education/ATCIC partnership’s influence has extended well beyond Travis County.

“It’s not just the here and now in terms of training,” said Dr. O’Reilly. “Doctoral students have flown out of here and have been very successful in terms of getting jobs at universities all around the nation and replicating this program.”

Student Spotlight

Interested in learning more about the Department of Special Education? Click here

November 3, 2014

Libby Doggett

Libby Doggett

On October 25, Dr. Libby Doggett visited the College of Education and spoke on the topic of “Early Education in the Spotlight,” explaining challenges and opportunities that policy makers and local governments encounter as they work to improve services for pre-K children. Doggett is Assistant Deputy Secretary for Early Childhood Education in the U.S. Department of Education and a three-time UT Austin alumna.

During the event, early childhood education faculty members Jennifer Adair and Christopher Brown also announced the winners of the first-ever Early Childhood Education Awards. Susana Guzman-Ortega, a pre-K bilingual teacher at AISD’s Pickle Elementary, was honored with the Mitchoff Family Teaching Excellence in Early Childhood Education Award and Manuel Martinez, a second grade teacher at AISD’s Houston Elementary, won the Zezula Family Teaching Excellence in Early Childhood Education Award.

What is your connection to UT Austin’s College of Education?
I received a Ph.D. in special education there, and I often draw on what I learned during those years: the values, focus on innovation, the incredibly smart thinking.

Did you spend any time teaching?
I did. In fact, I taught a first grade bilingual class at Ortega Elementary here in Austin. Teaching at Ortega gave me a passion I still retain for helping children.

Why is early childhood education (ECE) getting so much more attention these days?
It’s because of the amount of great research that’s being done in that area. For example, a fairly recent study showed that children from upper income families have heard 30 million more words than children from lower income backgrounds. To address this problem, the White House developed a program called Bridging the Word Gap, which works with low income families to increase the amount and quality of communication parents and other caretakers have with children from birth.

How do you sell the argument that putting more money into ECE is a good idea?
It’s all about that great scientific research. Studies show that in states where it’s a priority to offer quality care and education to the youngest children, more children grow up with better reading and math skills, graduate high school, get and keep jobs, and form stable families. There is a proven connection. And 75 percent of Americans who were surveyed want Congress to invest more in early childhood education this year or next year.

At the federal level, what’s the main focus when it comes to addressing ECE?
In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama called on Congress to expand access to high-quality preschool to every child in America, from birth to five years of age. As part of that effort, the President has proposed a series of new investments that will establish a continuum of high quality early learning for each child. The President wants to invest resources in an area where we know there will be a return on that investment: our preschool learners. The benefits include savings reflected in improved educational outcomes, increased job productivity, and lower crime rates.

What’s the biggest challenge the U.S. faces when it comes to improving early childhood education?
It’s definitely funding. There are so many competing interests. Finding funds for reform is always difficult and, as you know, children don’t have lobbyists. They can’t go to the White House and make their needs known. They have to rely on adults who can act on their behalf. There are some bright spots, though. Health and Human Services has offered $500 million in grants to the states, and they’ve received 600 applications. There will be an announcement of the winners in December. Also, the Department of Education has $250 million available for preschool development grants, and that money will fund services in 12-15 states.

How does the level of funding for K-12 compare to funding for ECE?
There’s a huge disparity, with much more put into K-12. Imagine what pre-K would look like if we put the same kind of money into it.

How are cities and states helping?
States and cities are stepping up, with more than 30 states increasing funding for preschools. North Carolina, Alabama and Oklahoma, for example, already are putting in extra money and operating some of the highest-quality preschool programs in the nation. As far as cities, San Antonio has done a wonderful job. They implemented a one-eighth of a cent sales tax and, with the extra money, were able to open four very beautiful new early childhood centers, which I recently visited.

How well is Texas serving its youngest learners?
Texas is offering services to 52 percent of our four-year-olds, which is actually very good compared to the rest of the nation. About a third of the states are serving only around 10 percent of their four-year-olds. In Texas, spending per child is low, however, and although there’s access to services, the quality of care often is quite poor.

What does high quality preschool care and education look like?
High quality standards include having a child-to-staff ratio of no more than 10:1 and a class size of no more than 20 students. A high quality program has early childhood teachers who are certified to teach, have training in ECE, and who are paid the same as K-12 certified teachers. Services include care for children with disabilities, and instruction is developmentally appropriate as well as culturally and linguistically relevant. Instruction is regularly evaluated, data are collected and assessed, and there’s continuous quality improvement. There is also a high level of family engagement, as well as intensive parenting skills education, home visits, and evidence-based health and safety standards.

-Photo by Christina S. Murrey

College of Education faculty have expertise in areas as wide-ranging as school administration, behavioral health, and exercise physiology – because of their landmark research and reputations as top scholars, they’re often tapped by state and national media. Check out the coverage our faculty recently received on topics such as school finance and academic challenges facing males of color.


Christopher Brown

“Despite Campaign Focus Pre-K Won’t Likely Expand Soon”


“Pre-K is one piece of a larger puzzle that we need to think about. As we focus on the K-12 system and the larger debate, I hope we don’t forget the children who aren’t enrolled, but are a part of our state who need a high quality education.”



Kevin Cokley

“Obama: Boys teased for ‘acting white'”


“What the President just described is known in academic circles as the Ogbu Thesis. It’s named for researcher John Ogbu, who popularized the belief that Black youth shun educational achievement as a way of proving their racial authenticity. Scholars like the University of Texas’s Kevin Cokley have said that issues of racial identity and educational achievement are far more complicated than Ogbu initially imagined.”



Greg Vincent and Project MALES

“Addressing the Crisis Among Men of Color in Higher Education”​


“The abysmal underrepresentation of men of color on college campuses is symptomatic of admissions processes, which have fallen under strict scrutiny. It is also indicative of the larger lack of research on, support for and access to higher education for young men of color.”


Here’s a description of a classroom where a wealth of learning occurs.

Students choose small groups and the teacher asks them to plan a vacation. They can go anywhere.

The first group decides on Washington, D.C. After they do some online research they mark on a map the sites they hope to visit while they’re there. The teacher suggests one student check to see what the average March temperature is for D.C. so they’ll know if they need to dress for snow or sunshine. The teacher also talks to them a bit about what “average” means.

Someone else in the group points out that Virginia is very near the Capital and wants to know if they can drive to Virginia and see some historical sites while they’re so nearby. The teacher tells them to do a little online research and determine if they can fit that into their four days in D.C., given the full schedule they’ve already developed.

She also gives the group one iPad and asks them to find two people who already have been to D.C. They must develop five questions to ask these travelers about the destination and use the iPad to videotape the responses.

The first-graders fire up the iPad and get to work on finding the driving distance between D.C. and Williamsburg.

That’s right, first-graders.

Decades of research show that project-based learning – an approach that encourages students to create, design and implement project ideas that interest them – promotes deeper learning of academic content, boosts problem-solving skills and increases students’ motivation to learn.

It’s only recently, though, that scholars and teachers have embraced the approach for the youngest students.

“Before children enter school their lives are about exploration and learning – they’re going through an extremely rich, rapid phase of development and then, all of a sudden, that can be shut down when they get in the classroom,” said Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair, a College of Education assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and an early childhood education expert.

“Children are made up of a plethora of capabilities, and in the early years they’re developing very quickly in several different domains. When you have children this young sit still at a desk and listen, for 45 minutes at a time, about one way of doing something, you’re only addressing a miniscule area of their capabilities. And you’re shutting down their natural curiosity and drive to figure things out.”

According to Adair project-based learning gets to more of those capabilities quicker, more deeply and more effectively, and children retain the content longer.

Research also shows that children taught with project-based instruction reach academic benchmarks and tend to perform on standardized tests as well as or better than traditionally taught peers.

“Standardized scores are not the reason to embrace project-based learning, however,” said Adair. “The reason is to develop children who become adults who have a wide array of capabilities. They’ll be able to become scientists, problem-solvers and thinkers who can tackle the issues facing their families and communities.”

“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time, but the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children.” – Dr. Jennifer Adair

In a class where project-based instruction happens, activities start with an inquiry, with children pondering and then formulating questions that puzzle or interest them. The teacher acts as a facilitator and guide in their exploration.

Students, even as early as pre-kindergarten, are motivated to search through books, conduct online research, interview fellow students, consult experts and do experiments to answer questions that excite them.

“The students don’t just choose a topic to pursue but they also get to choose the way they want to learn more it ” said Adair, who has spent over 10 years in classrooms with varying levels of what she calls “school-based agency,” or the ability to influence how and what you learn in a classroom. “They’re given the opportunity to fail and then pick right up again and keep exploring. The teacher gives them direction and pushes them to keep moving when they stall, but it’s amazing what children are able to figure out on their own and through discussion with their peers.”

Adair noted that project-based learning also has been successful at narrowing the achievement gap and promoting learning in traditionally low-achieving student populations.

“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time,” said Adair. “But the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children. Young children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.”

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey


  • Dr. Jennifer Adair examines how much autonomy young children can manage in the classroom.
  • Traditional instruction limits the amount children learn.
  • Project-based teaching yields deeper learning, better problem-solving skills, increased student motivation.
  • Low-achieving student populations benefit from project-based instruction.