LAWRENCE — Working with young children with disabilities and their families is not an easy job. Researchers at the University of Kansas are developing a multimedia, online program to marry the latest academic research in disability studies with ethics, policy and the experience of those working in the field to provide professional development for early intervention specialists.
Early Years, a program developed at the Beach Center at KU, was established with grant funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Ann Turnbull, Distinguished Professor of Special Education and director of the Beach Center on disability, is co-principal investigator of the project, along with Dave Lindeman, director of the Schiefelbusch Life Span Institute at Parsons. The program is starting in Kansas but will move on across the country.
The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act oversees early intervention programs, designed to help children from infancy to three years old and their families foster development, build coordinated community services and address priorities and concerns.
“This work started with Kansas’ need to have training for early interventionists who work with kids and toddlers with disabilities,” Turnbull said. “We decided what was created for Kansas would be a model for the country. Our vision is this program will eventually be used in all 50 states and many countries.”
Early Years has begun working with a leading publisher in the disability field to develop the first of eight online training modules. Each module consists of about eight hours of instruction and an additional 64 hours of onsite mentor coaching. The modules will be multimedia presentations, featuring video clips, interviews with the foremost researchers in early intervention in the nation and information from professionals working in the field, as well as adults living independently with disabilities.
The advantage of online courses is adaptability, Turnbull said. The modules can be quickly adapted to fit new practices and research, whereas the traditional textbook is updated only every three years.
Once the online courses are complete, the program will match participants with mentor coaches to help implement the lessons in everyday practice. Research has shown that knowledge gained in such courses is often lost if further training is not provided to help implement it in the field, Turnbull said.
Three of the first eight modules are near completion and will start being tested in October. Early intervention practitioners who take the courses will be involved in focus groups and tests to see what they learned and what can be improved in the modules.
“We want to combine the best research, ethics and experience-based knowledge with the current policies,” Turnbull said. “So much of what we’re doing is making knowledge manageable and making it relevant in real life.”
Once they are complete, they will be piloted in three additional states, pending additional funding: New Mexico, Illinois and Michigan. Research has shown that all four of the states have infant and toddler populations above the national average that receive early intervention services.
The training is especially poignant because early intervention practitioners typically come to the field from a variety of backgrounds, including social work, special education, nursing, speech and hearing therapy and others. People who begin a career in the field traditionally have received on-the-job training and addressed continuing education by attending conferences. Early Years will help provide a rounded knowledge base for all practitioners. The publisher will also survey states to find out the specific needs of each and customize training modules to match.
Early intervention practitioners are not the only ones who will benefit from the Early Years training. Families will be welcome to take part as well. The online modules for practitioners will be repurposed specifically for families through DVDs, booklets, fact sheets and full modules.
“The goal is to prepare practitioners and families to have a trusting partnership as the means of both working to improve child development and family quality of life,” Turnbull said. “Most programs are not brought from the perspective of families being equal partners. We really emphasize that we’re in the dignity business.”