A new $1.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education will allow the University of Kentucky College of Education to uniquely prepare school personnel who are in high demand – those prepared to work with students with high-intensity learning and behavior needs.
The grant, awarded through the Office of Special Education Programs, provides funding for master’s level scholars who will partner with one another — one with a focus on challenging behavior and the other with a focus on instructional strategies. Academic and behavior challenges often go hand-in-hand, yet special educators and behavior analysts typically do not receive training in the same program. This grant will make interdisciplinary training possible.
As an added twist, the program will use distance education technology to connect the UK scholars with special education teachers in rural Appalachia. Special education positions can be difficult for school districts to fill, particularly in rural parts of Kentucky where there are few candidates with certification. To help fill gaps, UK’s alternative certification program allows candidates with a bachelor’s degree in any field to take university classes while teaching in special education classrooms. The grant program will particularly target these teachers, since it is critical for them to receive on-the-job training to enhance their abilities to work with students with exceptional needs.
“Those with alternative certification often lack colleagues with whom they can compare notes,” said Dr. Amy Spriggs, an associate professor in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling who serves as the grant’s principal investigator. “They may be the only special educator in the district and want to see a model to help know what a great moderate and severe disabilities class should look like. In some counties, there is a teacher with a degree in special education, but he or she desires mentoring and feedback from others in the field. We are recruiting teachers like these for the grant partnership and hope it will be mutually beneficial for all involved.”
The practicing teacher will work with a master’s student in applied behavior analysis and a master’s student in special education (moderate and severe disabilities). These students will have both practical and research-based experiences to share, as they typically have teaching experience and are pursuing a master’s degree to further their careers. Together, the teams of three will form a professional group to share information, mentor one another, and work collaboratively in the school setting, both in-person and using distance education technology.
“We saw a synergy in the College of Education’s degrees in applied behavior analysis and special education (moderate and severe disabilities),” Spriggs said. “We believe that by partnering scholars in these interdisciplinary fields during their training, they will learn to become advocates for interdisciplinary collaboration in schools and become active agents for change through working together. Being able to reach out to geographically isolated special education teachers is an especially important part of this new program.”
Need for Behavior Analysts Grows
The applied behavior analysis field is growing, with the national demand more than doubling in recent years. Behavior analysts provide behavioral consultation, support, and training to teachers, staff, parents, and individuals with challenging behaviors and/or intensive training needs. Of the 159 credentialed behavior analysts in Kentucky, 70 percent live in or near Lexington and Louisville, the state’s largest cities. There are only three board-certified behavior analysts in the portion of eastern Kentucky targeted by the grant.
“While we cannot guarantee that our scholars move to Eastern Kentucky upon graduation from our program to fill the critical demand for behavior analysts in this area, we can support and empower teachers to implement behavior change strategies in the classroom; thus, decreasing the demand for behavior analysts,” said Dr. Sally Shepley, assistant professor at the UK College of Education and co-principal investigator on the grant.
Special Educators Inspired by Students
There is also a need for special educators.
“It can be a hard job, and is not something many people think about without a personal experience in it,” Spriggs said. “I think 90 percent of our undergraduate and graduate student in the special education program have a personal background with someone with a disability, such as a sibling or a high school peer. That is what inspires them to go into the field.”
Spriggs, who is dedicated to preparing students to be high-quality special educators, described the rewards that come with a career in the field.
“A lot of times, we make these breakthroughs that impact the quality of life for them and their families,” she said. “They might appear to be little milestones, yet they can make a huge difference in the student’s and family’s life. Imagine working on communication for five years and your student says their first word. Or you get to see a student take their first step independent of a walker or wheelchair. There’s nothing like it.”
To learn more about a degree in applied behavior analysis or special education, click here to visit the website for the UK College of Education Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling.