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KU lands grant to co-train specialists who both aid children, yet rarely work together

Thu, 09/09/2021

Joseph R. Pearson Hall at the University of Kansas.

LAWRENCE — Students with intellectual and developmental disability and complex communication needs are often supported by both special education teachers and speech-language pathologists. However, these professionals are rarely trained in both areas, and they rarely have the opportunity to learn and work together during their preparation programs. A new $1.25 million grant from the Office of Special Education Programs will support work at the University of Kansas to train these specialists while they are still in graduate school so that they can help students succeed.

“Students with intellectual disability and complex communication needs often need academic and communication supports in the general education classroom,” said Alison Zagona, assistant professor of special education at KU. “So we want to prepare the professionals who will provide these supports using best practices for interdisciplinary collaboration. Our intention is to provide opportunities for the master's students in special education and speech-language pathology to gain skills in collaboration so that they feel prepared and confident to use these skills when they obtain positions in schools across the region and country.”

Jennifer Kurth, associate professor of special education, is principal investigator of Project INSTRUCT and is collaborating with Zagona and Jane Wegner, professor emerita of speech language hearing sciences and disorders. The five-year project provides tuition assistance and funding to attend professional conferences while participants complete their master's degrees. These Project INSTRUCT scholars, from both special education and speech-language pathology at KU, visit K-12 schools together, enroll in coursework and complete assignments together.

“They’re getting on-the-ground, collaborative experience before assuming positions as professional educators,” Zagona said. “It’s innovative in that master's students in special education and speech-language pathology are collaborating and moving through their programs together. They take courses together, complete assignments together, and they collaborate to support students with IDD and complex communication needs at local schools. Our students will be well-equipped to plan for their students’ needs, and they will support their students to access the general education curriculum.”

The project will also help boost inclusion of students in the general education classroom. While students with IDD and complex communication needs have traditionally been segregated to separate classrooms for special education and speech-language pathology, a large body of research from KU and other institutions has proven that inclusion boosts performance of all students, not just those with disabilities. Project INSTRUCT will prepare educators to boost inclusion by providing training in five key competencies for supporting students with intellectual disabilities: High expectations, intensive collaboration, differentiated instruction, intensive individual instruction and inclusive services.

Schools often face shortages of both special education teachers and speech-language pathologists, much less professionals with training in both areas. Those who complete Project INSTRUCT will have training in how to adapt curriculum to meet students with disabilities’ needs, or adapt communication services so students do not need to be pulled out of the classroom to receive services in those areas.

“These are often the students least likely to be included. But we know outcomes for students with intellectual disability and complex communication needs are better when they are included,” Zagona said. “With these professionals in schools, our hope is they will be able to put their knowledge into action and include these students in the general education classroom.”

For information on applying to Project INSTRUCT, contact Zagona at zagona@ku.edu or Kurth at jkurth@ku.edu. Applications are currently being accepted for programs beginning in fall 2022.

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