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Interdisciplinary students work together to serve children with complex needs

Kathryn Kao

October 24, 2019

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When a baby is born three months early and is later diagnosed with cerebral palsy, several steps need to take place to ensure both the child and her family receive the support they need to thrive.

This past summer, 12 graduate students in the UGA College of Education’s Preparing Interdisciplinary Providers (PIPs) Project—along with students from Mercer University and Brenau University—had the opportunity to form comprehensive intervention plans for children with complex needs and their families during the project’s inaugural Summer Institute.

Over the course of two days, scholars in the PIPs program, as well as students studying occupational therapy and physical therapy from affiliated universities, worked together to support young children with high-intensity needs. Building on their collaborative and problem-solving skills, six interdisciplinary teams of students specializing in fields ranging from early childhood special education to speech language pathology engaged in case-based learning through real-world scenarios presented by faculty and family representatives who facilitated students’ learning and engagement.

“Students didn’t get all of the information for their cases at one time,” said Rebecca Lieberman-Betz, associate professor in the department of communication sciences and special education and principal investigator of the five-year, $1.1 million grant funding the project. “We gave it to them as they were moving—kind of like when you work with a family, you never know what’s coming down the pike and things might change based on new experiences.”

While all cases started with the birth of a premature baby, students had to re-adjust and re-evaluate their intervention plans to address the conditions they were presented with later in the case study. These conditions included autism, deaf-blindness, congenital limb defects, cerebral palsy and hydrocephalus, with the latter often leading to developmental delays and other neurological conditions.

In one case, the main concerns for the premature baby were feeding, weight gain and family support. To tackle these issues, Amanda Freeman, a PIPs scholar in the birth-kindergarten program, and her team brainstormed different programs to provide the family with financial support, training and strategies for coping with stress and trauma. They also began an intervention to strengthen the baby’s sucking reflex with the goal of eventually introducing a bottle.

“Whatever the area of concern, my team was able to come up with a solution,” said Freeman, who will graduate in spring 2019 with the first cohort of PIPs scholars. “Our different disciplines made our team that much stronger. The institute created an environment for early interventionists and other service providers to practice collaborating as a true interdisciplinary team.”

In addition to using evidence-based practices to form collaborative intervention plans, participants of the Summer Institute also had the opportunity to hear Philippa Campbell, a professor from Thomas Jefferson University and an occupational therapist, discuss the benefits of assistive technologies and her research on young children with significant needs.

“It was great to hear scholars reflect on the institute because when you have all of those disciplines come together—occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy, special education—everyone has their lane and their domain, and I think they learned a lot about collaboration and that their roles bleed together,” said Sarah Weigand, a graduate assistant on the project and a doctoral student in communication sciences and special education. “I think it was an eye-opening experience for a lot of our students who have the opportunity to take joint coursework.”

Funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, the PIPs Project offers collaborative learning and training to graduate students across a range of disciplines, including speech language pathology, special education as well as physical and occupational therapy. Through hands-on practicums in schools and other community settings, students learn how to apply evidence-based interventions, such as assistive technology and augmentative and alternative communication, in diverse settings with diverse teams.

Data on both cohorts of the PIPs program is currently being collected by Lieberman-Betz and her research team to assess inter-professional training, development, skills and attitudes. The team will also collect information on where graduates are employed in the future and the services they are providing in their field of work.

“The idea is that our students will work within the area that they have been trained in,” said Lieberman-Betz. “They will leave our program with a really specific skillset already in place for collaboration and teaming, and they will also have more knowledge, experience and expertise that will be valued by agencies looking to employ them.”