The project started small—a handful of graduate students teaching in a classroom for autistic students in kindergarten through second grade.
That was in the spring of 2016. One year later, students in all levels of the College of Education's communication sciences and special education program are working with a range of ages—a new preschool class, as well as a new class for children in grades three to five—at a local elementary school. As a result, the project has blossomed into a partnership that brings together teaching, research, and service under one roof.
"When I step into one of our classrooms, I'm working alongside an undergraduate student, a master's student, and a doctoral student, and we're providing a service to the community," says Kevin M. Ayres, professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Special Education and co-director of the Center for Autism and Behavioral Education Research at the College. "We're also asking questions and trying to figure out what things work. The university students are learning scientific approaches to evaluating treatment effects, and they are learning to teach. It just all overlaps and meshes."
The partnership is innovative because it creates a classroom within a classroom. Here, 19 area children with autism or intellectual disability, representing a range of ages, help university students learn to be better teachers. At the same time, the students apply the most recent research to their classroom practice, benefiting the children. And because the three classrooms span a range of ages, Ayres adds, it's exciting to have the opportunity to watch as the younger children grow up, progress, and move on to middle school.
Students in Ayres' program have also branched out to other areas of Georgia in the past year, working with the Easter Seals of Southwest Georgia to bring teams into areas that lack specialized services for children with developmental and behavioral difficulties. Four times a year, faculty, graduate, and undergraduate students pile into several cars and drive to towns such as Valdosta, Albany, or Savannah, where they work with children and their parents or caregivers.
Each visit includes follow-ups via telephone or video conference to help support the methods and recommendations made by the faculty and students.
"We will spend two days doing assessments and treatment plans for people who engage in self-injury or aggression, or we will work with the family to implement that plan in the home," says Ayres. "We also do parent empowerment training, where we target parents of young kids with developmental disabilities between ages 2 and 6. We're teaching them some of the skills and strategies they need to prevent development of problem behavior down the line."
Related links: Department of Communication Sciences and Special Education