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UT Special Education Professors Awarded $11 Million for Research

Spring and summer 2015 saw tremendous support for special education research at the College of Education. Four research projects within the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk (MCPER) were awarded federal grants totaling more than $11 million. Professor Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education, says, “I am delighted with the recent and continued success of our faculty to attract highly competitive research funding. These outstanding achievements further affirm the top-ranked status of the department.”

The awards demonstrate national recognition and support for ideas and research that have the potential to improve practices in math and literacy as well as learning disabilities for students at risk.


Sarah Powell: Helping kids with math difficulty solve word problems

The U.S. Department of Education awarded a four-year, $3 million grant to Sarah Powell, assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, to study ways to help students better solve word-problems in math. Powell’s colleague, Professor Marcia Barnes, will assist with the grant-funded research.

Being proficient at solving word problems is necessary for successful math performance, but many students are not adequately prepared. That is especially true for students who find mathematics to be difficult. These students demonstrate significantly lower word-problem performance and make significantly more errors when solving word problems than peers without difficulty in math. Powell’s study will assess the effectiveness of word-problem equation-solving tutoring on improving performance in these students.

Each year, the researchers will recruit 150 Austin-area third-graders who have difficulty in math and assign them to one of two math-tutoring programs or keep them in their usual school environment. These conditions will allow Powell and her team to isolate the effects of equation-solving instruction within word-problem instruction and compare the results with traditional classroom teaching. Over a three-year period, 450 students will participate in the study.


Elizabeth Swanson: Discovering the impact of teacher professional development on fourth grade vocabulary, comprehension

Senior Research Associate Elizabeth Swanson will lead a new $3.5 million, four-year federal grant to gauge the effectiveness of different professional development models aimed at vocabulary and reading comprehension instruction in fourth-grade content area classes. UT Meadows Center Executive Director Sharon Vaughn and Associate Director Greg Roberts will be co-principal investigators. Funding is through the National Center for Education Research.

In each research year of the new project, Examining the Efficacy of Differential Levels of Professional Development for Teaching Content Area Reading Strategies, 60 Austin ISD fourth-grade teachers and their students will participate. Teachers will attend an annual conference at UT Austin where they will learn the vocabulary and comprehension components to use in their classrooms over the course of the school year.

The project will measure and compare the effectiveness of professional development versus a control condition in the first year, then compare different types of professional development in subsequent years.

“These efficacy grants are exceedingly competitive. These young scholars are amazing assets to the Meadows Center, the Department of Special Education and The University of Texas at Austin. I look forward to learning more about how the findings from their research influence our knowledge and practice in schools,” Vaughn says.


Sharon Vaughn: Improving literacy, engagement and school completion among at-risk English learners

Vaughn will be the principal investigator for a $3.5 Institute for Education Science Goal (IES) 3 grant to launch a four-year project to improve literacy, increase engagement and prevent dropout among at-risk high school English learners. The project, Preventing Dropout Among At-Risk Youth: A Study of Project GOAL With English Learners, will provide small-group reading instruction and a dropout prevention program to high school English learners who are struggling readers and are at risk of dropping out of school.

Says Vaughn, “This study aims to investigate the efficacy of a reading and dropout prevention program separately and in combination on the reading and school retention outcomes of students with significant reading problems.”

The interventions will be provided to students in their 9th- and 10th-grade years, and follow-up measures of cognitive and behavioral outcomes will be collected during their 11th- and 12th-grade years.


Diane Pedrotty Bryant: Training doctoral students in learning disabilities and behavioral disorders

UT Mathematics Institute Director Diane Pedrotty Bryant will be the principal investigator on a new project to train doctoral students in learning disabilities and behavior disorders. Meadows Center Executive Director Sharon Vaughn will be a co-principal investigator on the project. The two received a $1.2 million, five-year grant from the Office of Special Education Programs within the U.S. Department of Education.

The purpose of the project is to prepare five highly qualified doctoral graduates to bridge the gap between research and practice by becoming leaders who are well-trained in multitiered systems of support for students with learning disabilities and behavior disorders. The project will use a research-to-practice leadership model that engages the collaborative efforts of faculty in the UT College of Education’s Department of Special Education, professional development and policy leaders at the Meadows Center and the Vaughn Gross Center for Reading and Language Arts, and Texas school district leaders.

 

 

November 11, 2014

Dr. James Schaller, director of the Rehabilitation Counselor Education Program (RCEP) in the Department of Special Education, has received a $950,000 five-year federal grant. An award from the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) within the U.S. Department of Education, the grant will fund training for master’s level rehabilitation counselors within the College of Education.

The RCEP master’s degree has been in existence since 1963, and received its first external funding in 1967. The RCEP is nationally accredited through the Council on Rehabilitation Education and offers coursework leading to a master’s of education (M.Ed) degree. Consisting of 48 hours of academic coursework and practical experience, the RCEP master’s concentration prepares students to assist people with disabilities in gaining vocational, economic, social, and functional independence.

RCEP students have access to paid internships thanks to an interagency contract with the Texas Division of Assistive and Rehabilitation Services. Coursework may be used in preparation for becoming a licensed professional counselor (LPC) or a certified rehabilitation counselor (CRC). The employment rate for graduates of the RCEP is over 95%.

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

November 3, 2014

Sharon Vaughn, executive director of the Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk, has received part of a $7.5 million grant that will be used to prepare special education experts to develop intensive interventions for students with persistent, severe academic and behavioral difficulties.

The five-year grant is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP), a division of the U.S. Department of Education. Funds will be distributed to seven partner institutions that are part of the National Center for Leadership in Intensive Intervention (NCLII), a new consortium that includes Vanderbilt University, University of Illinois at Chicago, and the University of Minnesota. The funding will support 28 doctoral students nationally.

“As a University of Texas graduate, I am very excited that the talented faculty of UT’s Department of Special Education will be engaged with NCLII,” said Christopher Lemons, assistant professor of special education at Vanderbilt University and co-director of the program. “We are delighted that Sharon Vaughn is serving as the lead representative from UT. Sharon is one of the most respected researchers in our field. Her work has dramatically impacted classroom practice and she is one of the top experts on how to develop and evaluate intensive interventions targeting our neediest students.”

The project is currently recruiting applicants to begin doctoral work in fall 2015. Scholars who are accepted will contribute to the Intensive Intervention Network, a website designed to advance research on and implementation of intensive interventions. The project will provide opportunities for scholars to participate in cross-institutional research activities. In addition, the consortium will allow doctoral students to intern with national centers supported by OSEP, including the Collaboration for Effective Educator Development, Accountability, and Reform; the National Center on Intensive Intervention; and the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt University.

Special Education Professor Searches for Math Disability, Symbols Connection

Recent studies suggest that between 5 and 9 percent of school age children struggle with some form of math learning disability. Sometimes called “dyscalculia,” difficulty with mathematics encompasses a range of symptoms, including trouble understanding and manipulating numbers, and learning mathematic facts.

Over the last 30 years, copious research has been conducted on reading disabilities, while studies of math-specific learning disabilities are fewer and farther between. Sarah Powell, a second-year assistant professor in the Department of Special Education, is working to change that.

“Math is nowhere near as researched as reading,” said Powell, whose interests include developing and testing interventions for students with mathematics difficulties. “You can ask lots of very interesting questions in math that no one has addressed before. Math has a much larger knowledge base that we need to figure out.”

Powell’s passion for mathematics developed early. “I was always much better at math than reading,” she said. “Which is odd, because my parents are both English teachers. But math makes sense to me. There’s always an answer in mathematics. That’s not always the case with reading. You can interpret ‘A’ in many different ways, but three plus four is always going to be seven.”

After beginning her career as a kindergarten teacher, Powell went on to earn her Ph.D. at Vanderbilt University, where she honed her research skills as a project coordinator of grants related to word-problem solving and computation for elementary students. She found herself attracted to the idea of helping kids overcome learning disabilities that impede their math skills.

“Often when kindergartners and first graders experience trouble with math, they start to push it aside,” said Powell. “It snowballs so that you get second and third grade students saying, ‘I’m not good at math. I hate math.’”

“Math makes sense to me. There’s always an answer in mathematics. That’s not always the case with reading. You can interpret ‘A’ in many different ways, but three plus four is always going to be seven.” – Dr. Sarah Powell

Powell’s doctoral dissertation, which won awards from the Division for Learning Disabilities of the Council for Exceptional Children and the Council for Learning Disabilities, focused on the equal sign as it relates to students with math difficulties. “99 percent of kids misinterpret the equal sign,” said Powell, whose previous research on the subject revealed that when asked to provide a definition of the equal sign, most kids had no idea how to answer. “Equal is almost a word you use that has very little meaning. In Asian countries, when they talk about the equal sign, the interpretation is ‘same sign,’ so instead of six plus two equals eight, it’s six plus two is the same as eight. In the U.S., it’s very different.”

“I did a textbook analysis two years ago and discovered that textbooks don’t do a good job of providing accurate definitions. Some textbooks would actually say ‘Equal sign means where we put our answer.’ That’s not what equal sign means at all. I wondered if we provided instruction on the equal sign as balance – if that would improve kids’ equation solving. We found that kids who received equal sign instruction showed improvement in equation solving, which in turn mediated word-problem performance.”

Since joining the Special Education faculty at the College of Education last fall, Powell has distinguished herself as a motivated interventionist. In recent months she received two prestigious honors: a Spencer Postdoctoral Fellowship and a Greater Texas Foundation Faculty Fellowship. The Spencer Fellowship will allow Powell to investigate elementary and middle school students’ understanding of math symbols and vocabulary, while the Greater Texas Foundation Fellowship gives her the opportunity to look at algebraic development of college level students with math difficulties.

“Both of these awards are highly competitive,” said Mark O’Reilly, chair of the Department of Special Education. “Sarah’s developing a line of research on interventions to remediate mathematics difficulties is important and timely.”

“I wrote the Spencer proposal not only to study students’ understanding of the equals sign, but to examine their understanding of all math symbols,” said Powell. “I’m hoping to learn which math symbols cause the most difficulty.”

The Spencer Fellowship provides funding for a two-year project. Powell will do assessments during the first year and devote the second year to developing interventions. Research involving first graders will focus on basic math signs like plus, minus, and equal, while work involving third, fifth, and seventh graders will focus on more complex signs like multiplication symbols and inequality symbols like greater than or equal to.

The Greater Texas Foundation grant, which Powell will work on concurrently with the Spencer Foundation grant, will explore very different territory. “During the three-year project, I plan to work with college students with math disabilities or difficulties — a sample of students that is rarely studied,” she said. “I want to learn how the math performance and math experiences of college students contribute to preparation for and success in college.”

Powell hopes her research helps to increase students’ confidence in math by providing better instruction. “The research shows that when students perform better in math they feel better about their math abilities. It’s all linked.”

With classroom teaching experience in her background, Powell has enormous respect for teachers, but she relishes the different responsibilities her career in higher education provides.

“A few weeks ago I was in a fourth grade classroom working with teachers and students,” she said. “But then I get to come back to the office and figure out, ‘Okay, what are we learning from that?’ I love connecting those pieces.”

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey

Melissa Chavez, Ph.D. in Special Education, 2013, M.Ed. in Educational Administration, 2004, and B.S. in Applied Learning and Development, 1997

Melissa Chavez

Melissa Chavez

Melissa Chavez is associate vice president and executive director for UT Elementary School and the UT University Charter Schools. She began teaching in Austin public schools in 1997, rapidly rose to the position of assistant to the superintendent, and soon was recruited to help open UT Elementary School in 2003. She started at UT Elementary as an assistant principal and created the school’s special education and reading programs. Chavez was promoted to principal in 2006, helping the school win numerous exemplary awards, and in 2009 became superintendent. As executive director, she not only has excelled at academic and operational management and leadership of the school, but also oversaw the development and construction of Phase I of UT Elementary’s permanent school building, which opened in August 2012.

Her Story

While I was in the College of Education’s principalship program and obtaining my master’s degree, I was selected to intern for an associate superintendent in Austin ISD. Although it was a very demanding position for me at the time – I was a full time graduate student and pregnant – I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything in the world. I got to work with 15 very talented principals in Austin ISD. I learned so much from them about managing schools, working with parents, training teachers, collecting and using school data, understanding school law and school policy, and working with budgets. That experience was invaluable.

Why UT?

I had such positive experiences with the professors and instructors in the College of Education during my master’s program and I felt very successful as a student. I also felt that the instructors cared about me. For those reasons, when I decided to get my Ph.D. in special education I knew UT Austin was the place for me. As far as faculty who were particularly influential, Dr. Norma Cantu, Dr. Martha Ovando, and Dr. Terry Falcomata definitely stand out. Dr. Cantu’s passion for civil rights through the public education lens made me appreciate the job I do every day. Like Dr. Cantu, I believe high quality education for all children is important and that this goal deserves our complete attention. Dr. Ovando taught me how to be an instructional leader by modeling the instruction I wanted to see for my teachers, and modeling how respectfully children and parents should be treated. Dr. Falcomata taught me how to make meaningful, data-driven observations of students and how to use that information to implement behavioral or instructional interventions. I loved that class!

Life After UT

My story is pretty straightforward – I have simply continued to do what I love, which is work in public education. In addition to being a school administrator, I have done some guest lectures, committee work, served on dissertation committees, and written some articles about UT Elementary School.

Advice For Students

First, build strong relationships. The education you get at The University of Texas at Austin is of the highest quality, but it’s the relationships you build with your peers and professors that are crucial in order for you to thrive in the real world. Your peers become your colleagues and your professors become your mentors. Second, create opportunities to learn more and gain new experiences. Volunteer to guest lecture in a class you love, tutor a student in an elementary school, or volunteer to support a research project. Once you leave the Forty Acres, it ends up being your experiences, along with your degree, that help you do well! And, finally, never stop learning. Learning shouldn’t cease once you leave school. I still learn something new almost every day.

Special Education Professor Investigates the Positive Effects of Teacher-Student Relationship

“Psychosocial,” the intertwining of the psychological and social aspects of an environment, is a term not usually associated with classroom education. We often think of classrooms simply as utilitarian environments, like offices or conference rooms — places where instruction is dispensed to waiting minds.

The truth is that a classroom is an environment every bit as alive and complex as other social environments and, in fact, is the primary social environment for developing children. The delicate balance of relationships in a classroom – between students, and between teachers and students – can make the difference between academic achievement or disappointment.

This dynamic is no surprise to Jessica Toste, a second-year assistant professor in the Department of Special Education.

“My work is centered on the idea that consideration of psychosocial factors, such as motivational beliefs, is essential to understanding how students learn,” she said. “The focus of my interests is in understanding psychosocial processes for kids who struggle with reading.”

With a background as an elementary school teacher and reading specialist, Toste is passionate about utilizing psychosocial elements of classrooms to better serve students.

Toy Dice“I’m very interested in how we support kids with learning difficulties,” said Toste. “Alongside that, I’m very interested in psychosocial processes. What’s happening in classrooms that makes it more likely that kids will succeed, especially those students who are struggling?”

Toste’s approach to studying teacher-student relationship is unique. While working on her dissertation, she delved into the counseling psychology literature and was intrigued to find that the concept of a therapeutic working alliance (the relationship between a healthcare professional and a client) had clear parallels to the classroom environment.

“The idea of the therapist and client having a strong working alliance is one of the main things that’s focused on in therapy,” said Toste. “The way we talk about teacher-student relationship is usually very focused on an emotional attachment between the teacher and student. I have worked with enough students and teachers to know that this emotional attachment can be very difficult, and that sometimes teachers have a hard time connecting with students in this way.”

Toste focused on borrowing the idea of the therapeutic working alliance, which includes both the affective and collaborative components of the relationship.

“I applied this idea to a classroom context and developed the classroom working alliance. Looing at relationships through this lens sets up an environment where teachers can naturally connect and bond with kids,” she said. “But they can also create collaborative partnerships where students feel very invested in what’s happening in their learning and in the classroom.”

That initial investigation led to some of her recent publications, which examine classroom working alliance for children with and without high-incidence disabilities, i.e. learning disabilities and behavior disorders.

“We looked at teacher and student ratings of classroom working alliances, and then at how they were predictive of different school outcomes,” Toste said. “Not surprisingly, kids who had difficulties had more challenging relationships with their teachers.”

What Toste found particularly interesting was that students with high-incidence disabilities demonstrated greater overall satisfaction with school, as well as exhibited higher academic competence, when they felt they had a strong collaborative relationship with their teacher.

“When kids who struggle in school feel that they understand what they’re being asked to do, it can actually help them in their learning,” she said. “They understand that their teacher has their best interests at heart and, for a variety of reasons, they tend to have better outcomes.”

Toste is also examining psychosocial factors within the context of reading interventions. During the last school year, she ran a pilot randomized field trial that examined the effectiveness of a multi-syllabic word reading intervention for struggling third- and fourth-grade readers. The intervention featured an embedded motivational beliefs training element designed to restructure performance by enhancing and supporting behaviors that then enhance and support learning.

“When kids who struggle in school feel that they understand what they’re being asked to do, it can actually help them in their learning. They understand that their teacher has their best interests at heart and, for a variety of reasons, they tend to have better outcomes.” – Dr. Jessica Toste

“The project has two pieces,” said Toste. “We’re looking at whether or not the reading intervention worked first, and then whether or not having this added motivational training supported students’ learning even further.”

Evidence revealed that children who received the reading intervention outperformed control students on word reading measures. Toste also found that students who had the added motivational training outperformed controls on their sentence comprehension and reading attribution.

“The idea is that this embedded motivational beliefs training will foster an instructional environment that makes it more likely that students will respond to the intervention,” said Toste, who plans to re-run the study next year. “This year was a pilot to see if there’s potential. Next year, we’re going to scale it up with more students, and refine and expand the motivational beliefs training.”

From there, Toste plans to look at the development of psychosocial processes as they pertain to reading skills. Specific reading skills may then be identified as affecting various psychosocial factors like motivation, self-esteem, and self-efficacy.

“Struggling with reading is a huge risk factor for kids as they go through school,” she said. “They’re not able to successfully engage in the primary task of the early grades, learning how to read. And then as they get through third and fourth grade, when instruction is no longer focused on learning how to read, they’re now unable to access many tasks of school that involve text.”

For students struggling with reading, the results of Toste’s work could be life changing.

Herb Rieth

Dr. Herb Rieth

On April 10 former Department of Special Education chair Herb Rieth was awarded the Council for Exceptional Children’s (CEC) Lifetime Achievement Award at the council’s annual conference.

The prestigious award recognizes significant, lifelong professional contributions to the education of children and youth with exceptionalities.

“I was very flattered,” said Rieth. “My nomination packet included letters from leading scholars across the country, including two from our own faculty – Sharon Vaughn and Dianne Bryant.”

During his 40-year career Rieth has worn many professional hats and garnered numerous accolades.  He is particularly proud of his accomplishments in The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education.

“In 1996, Dean Manuel J. Justiz provided an opportunity for me to work on the program here,” Rieth said. “When I joined the college, the Department of Special Education wasn’t ranked in the top 30. Now we’re typically rated around fourth or fifth.”

Rieth also takes pride in his role in developing modules to train special education teachers to implement intervention strategies and a successful computer-based instruction program at the Del Valle ISD.

“Additionally, we worked to transform our undergraduate and doctoral programs,” he said, citing graduates who went on to be among the top teachers in Travis County school districts.

“Dr. Rieth has served as my department chair for 15 years,” said Sharon Vaughn, executive director of The Meadows Center for Preventing Educational Risk. “During this time I have had the opportunity to observe firsthand his significant and noteworthy contributions to teacher education.

“He has demonstrated outstanding service and leadership in advancing the development and improvement of teacher education in special education, including revisions in course content, improved internship experiences, and ongoing integration with other curriculum teams at UT.”

Rieth stepped down as department chair in 2012, remaining on staff as professor emeritus.

 

Dr. Terry Falcomata’s involvement with education stretches back to his days as a seventh-grade language arts teacher. But it wasn’t until he tackled his master’s work in behavior analysis and training that he developed a passion for the research he currently pursues: assessment and treatment practices for challenging behavior exhibited by kids with autism and developmental disabilities.

One of Falcomata’s current focuses is a collaboration between the College of Education’s Department of Special Education with Bluebonnet Trails Community Service. Falcomata supervises a team of doctoral students who conduct a two-pronged assistantship based on a combination of research and in-home clinical work with children who demonstrate challenging behaviors and other skills deficits.

What is the Bluebonnet Trail Community Service?

It’s a community-based organization that provides services to individuals across eight counties. Bluebonnet has several services including ones that focus on early childhood intervention, mental health services, and autism services. We’ve partnered with the autism services program.

How is the work structured?

Ten hours of the assistantship is dedicated to clinical work in which our doctoral students work with families that are referred to our group. Typically, the focus has been on assessment and treatment for challenging behavior, but we’ve also worked with children and families on other skill areas such as self-care, toilet training, and other family priorities. The other 10 hours of the assistantships are dedicated to research activities, which gives us the opportunity to pursue our research agenda. This typically overlaps with our clinical work in assessment and treatment practices for challenging behavior. An advantage we get from the partnership is the opportunity to conduct research with families in the home and in the schools.

“Our results have consistently shown that children with little or no communication abilities can be taught communicative skills that replace their challenging behavior.”

What is your role in this project?

I supervise the work of the doctoral students. I also provide training when Bluebonnet requests some additional help. They call me into some cases to assist when they feel the circumstances are particularly difficult. We had a child recently who refused to go to school and had not been to school for an extended period of time due to his behavior. Two of my students and I developed a plan in conjunction with Angel Filer, a Bluebonnet BCBA. We arrived at the house at 7 a.m. every morning for about a week and a half and provided assistance to the family in implementing the plan. We taught them how to transition the child and actually rode with him in the family’s car to school, helped transition him into the school, and then faded ourselves so the family could provide that support themselves.

The program helps evaluate potential assessment and treatment practices in the community. Have you reached any conclusions or results along those lines?

Our results have consistently shown that children with little or no communication abilities can be taught communicative skills that replace their challenging behavior. We just completed a study in which we were able to teach children to vary their use of different modalities of communication. We have been researching some procedures that so far have been effective in facilitating children’s use of appropriate communication skills instead of challenging behavior by choosing from a selection of four to five other communication options when one fails to produce the outcome the child is requesting. The data showed that by teaching several different modalities of communication the children would use the appropriate communication instead of reengaging in challenging behaviors. And this delayed the reemergence of those challenging behaviors.

What is most rewarding for you personally about your involvement with this project?

It’s gratifying to see the doctoral students’ growth as clinicians and researchers and to see the interaction between them and the families as success is achieved with the children. It’s rewarding to participate in the process of identifying why the child is engaging in those challenging behaviors and then implement a treatment that teaches them to communicate. And then, to see the child start using appropriate communication and the parents’ excitement — we were part of that. It’s just a really powerful thing.

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

 

Helen MaloneYour story
I entered the doctoral program in 2002 after working as an in-home behavior specialist and teacher at the California School for the Blind, where I taught students with severe and profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. I constantly struggled with the idea that I wasn’t able to impact the lives of as many people with disabilities as I had hoped, and I felt somewhat isolated in my practice. I believed that entering a doctoral program would teach me how to reach a broader audience, and as a result positively impact more students with significant disabilities.

Why UT?
The special education program at UT Texas offered such a vast array of opportunities to me. I was given opportunities to work with students with various disabilities and hone in on the population of students I most enjoy working with; those with severe and profound intellectual and developmental disabilities. In addition to other world class faculty in the program, I was able to work closely with Mark O’Reilly and Jeff Sigafoos, developing my skills as a teacher and researcher. Through them, I learned to critically analyze the problems surrounding students with disabilities and develop solid research studies that would have positive impacts for the students while also adding to the field.

Life After UT
When I graduated I moved to Columbus, Ohio, and joined the faculty in special education at The Ohio State University, where I continue to conduct research with students with severe and profound intellectual and developmental disabilities and teach courses in applied behavior analysis and those related to severe and profound disabilities. I am in regular contact with my advisers and colleagues from the program, and use them as resources. The relationships I built at UT — both personally and professionally — have been some of the best.

Advice for Students
I would advise students to be open to new ideas and perspectives on the problems faced in special education. Rather than relying on any one perspective alone, I would encourage students to be open to the possibility of viewing the problems they are researching from different perspectives in order to find other, potentially better, solutions. A willingness to accept other views will also increase the potential of collaborating with others who see the same problems differently.