Improving Outcomes in Special Education

Project LEAD and Project Engage: Improving Outcomes in Special Education

When I was young, things came easy for me in school. The same couldn’t be said for my brother, who needed a lot of extra help to get by. This is where my interest in special education began – it introduced me to the notion that schools have different layers of people who are there to support kids so they can unlock their potential.

When I was an undergraduate in the 90s, I took a course on motor development in which I was paired with a child with autism. This was a time when autism wasn’t talked about nearly as much as it is today. One of the course assignments was to teach the children how to catch a ball. The child I was working with was struggling to do things in the same way as the other children. I noticed that he didn’t even consider putting his arms up to catch. It was that experience that taught me the importance of looking past a child’s behavior to build connections and learn more about them, which can open a whole new world for that child.

Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about special education and how to more effectively serve kids with skill deficits. But there’s still so much more we can do to improve outcomes for these children.

Identifying the Problem

The adage “if you’ve seen one kid with autism, you’ve seen one kid with autism” is true for all kids with disabilities. It describes the dynamic that is often created between a child’s needs and the system (family, caregivers, educators, community) in which they are growing and developing. When the adults within any of the systems that envelop a child have concerns or questions about a child’s developmental skills, by working with the school district in which a child lives, the special education system is available to conduct a full evaluation for children as young as infants, at no cost to families, to help identify ways to support the child and family. If special education services are needed for children before they start kindergarten, the school district will work in tandem with the family to determine appropriate services that meet the child’s needs. This can be in the form of sending a special education teacher to the daycare center or having the child attend a program run by the school district for part of the day. One of the greatest challenges for young children comes when a childcare program deems a child’s needs to be “out of scope” for their services. At that point, though special education services continue to be available, an opportunity gap may now exist for children whose social, emotional and behavioral needs are deemed outside of the scope of what the program will provide.

In my previous work with elementary-age kids, I found that opportunities for children with special needs were very hit-or-miss because they don’t apply equally to everyone. When we don’t support their special education needs from the start, these kids enter kindergarten at a disadvantage. This cascades throughout the years, leading to a much higher risk for school failure, expulsion and substance abuse. It’s this dynamic that made me realize that we need better and earlier interventions. Once a child is on a detrimental trajectory, it’s very hard to change it.

Developing Solutions to Prevent Negative Outcomes

It has been a multifaceted effort to enact changes that will prevent these negative outcomes. My current focus includes two research projects designed to empower early educators with the knowledge and skills needed to use data to drive their work with preschoolers. One of the research efforts underway is called Project LEAD: Learning to Use Educational Data for Active Decision Making, and it’s all about creating a mechanism for teachers to better use data for their students. Often, there are very few opportunities for teachers and early childhood providers to sit down and have a meaningful conversation about what their kids need. Our goal is to change the existing models in education, especially for preschoolers, and have whoever may be responsible for the development of a child – whether it’s the school psychologist, social worker, principal, special education teacher or general education teacher – formally sit down and communicate with each other. That kind of team meeting doesn’t usually happen in early childhood the same way it does in later years. This way, giving help to a child shifts from being reactive to proactive.

Today, teachers are doing more with less, leaving them with little extra time. Project LEAD is designed as an online training platform that offers early childhood teachers an on-demand professional development resource. It allows teachers to keep track of notes, input a particular problem they are trying to address with a child, specify solutions to be implemented and share it across the network in a simple, easy-to-use structure they haven’t had before. By installing this problem-solving platform with teams in early childhood programs, they’re able to reflect on information and data geared to supporting children and become more effective as a team.

Another prominent research effort I’d like to highlight is called Project Engage. We received a grant from the Institution of Education Sciences to develop a cloud-based observation system that will provide preschool classrooms with data that meaningfully ties the early childhood educators’ use of effective practices to kids’ actual engagement in learning. Through an app, the goal is that the classroom team will have immediately available data that is summarized in a prescriptive way. With that knowledge, a teacher will be able to more effectively engage kids within the learning environment given the real-time, date driven feedback they receive about how their practices directly impact children’s engagement.

Tips for Early Childhood Special Education Teachers

  • Consider the child’s behavior. Kids can only use the tools they have. Their behavior is a way for them to communicate their needs. If the adult in the room is appropriately responsive, there’s an opportunity to support the child’s development effectively.
  • Understand your role as an adult. When interacting with kids, it’s important to be thoughtful about the information required to understand who the child is and what he or she needs. Observing for a while and using appropriate data collection tools will empower teachers with knowledge about the child’s behavior to better interpret what their needs are.
  • Build relationships. Whether it’s with parents, kids, co-workers, administrators or policy makers, there is tremendous value in building relationships and understanding where each person is coming from. It creates opportunities to discover the needs people have – not just kids – and helps teachers notice when there’s an issue that needs to be addressed. This will better equip you to support the kids and celebrate their successes.
LeAnne Johnson

About the Author

LeAnne Johnson

  • Assistant Professor
  • Department of Educational Psychology

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