Learning to Teach California’s Disabled Students

One doctoral student is studying the use of computer-based instruction with disabled children ages 2 and 3. Using a computer program like “Sesame Street,” only automated, youngsters who have trouble speaking learn how to verbalize correctly. They might touch an animal on a computer screen; it makes a noise and they hear its name spoken. In the process, the youngsters gradually are required to speak more in order to continue playing, which encourages them to communicate.

A second student is using a new kind of computerized-response biofeedback to even out the heartbeats in disabled youngsters, thereby helping them calm down to do certain tasks. It was developed initially to help adults better manage stress, but she found it works well with kids who get agitated when they are asked to perform an assignment, such as writing a story.

A third is doing his dissertation on a new approach to parent training called Parent Behavior Support. He’s using this new training tool to educate parents of young adults with schizophrenia, helping them deal with their children’s disabilities and special needs.

All three of these graduate students are advised by Gevirtz Graduate School of Education special education expert George Singer. He is also the author of a four-year personnel development grant, “Preparing Teachers of Students with Severe Disabilities,” funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

The nearly $800,000 grant is intended to bring more minority students, including Latino, African American, Native American, and Asian American individuals as well as those with disabilities who want to become teachers, into a program that trains them to work with children with moderate to severe disabilities. While most teacher-training is done by the state university campuses, Singer’s program not only trains special education teachers, but provides a laboratory for Ph.D. students to study various aspects of that training.

“At UCSB, our main goal is to gain new knowledge and prepare our Ph.D.s to go into the professoriate. We use the credential program in the training of our Ph.D.s. We’re doing the practical and the theoretical, and using the educational program as a research lab,” Singer says.

There is a pressing need for more special education instructors nationwide, but especially in California. More than 170,000 special education children in the state are being taught by non-credentialed teachers, Singer explains.

The Department of Education grant not only will train more special education teachers, but it will allow UCSB to attract minority Ph.D. candidates who would otherwise have to go into debt to finish their degrees. Singer and his wife, Professor Joanne Singer, academic coordinator of the credential program, also are studying how to make special education teachers more effective in the classroom.

Over the past 40 years, researchers have made much progress in understanding how children with disabilities learn and what’s needed to teach them. Unfortunately, often little of that knowledge is applied in classrooms, Singer says.

So one major aspect of this grant is to evaluate the overall training program. They will conduct site visits and interviews with a sample from 60 graduates who are working in schools throughout California. They will be videotaped in the classroom at the beginning of a semester and then again at the end to see if they are actually causing learning to take place.

“If not, we want to figure out why and how to correct what’s missing,” Singer adds.

Teaching the moderate to severely disabled student population is difficult.

“There’s an enormous range of kids in terms of their cognitive capacity, from those who can’t yet communicate with symbols to higher functioning kids—an autistic child, for example, whose primary deficiency is social awkwardness,” Singer explains.

Additionally, the breadth of the curriculum teachers have to master is large. Teachers-in-training generally don’t get enough supervision in the classroom, and it can be difficult to find good practicum sites, he says. California State University at Northridge actually started its own charter school to train teachers of disabled children within a mainstream environment, Singer said.

“The root of the problem is that it’s a devalued population,” he says.

This Department of Education grant is expected to go a long way toward putting more credentialed and well-educated teachers in the schools who are qualified to work with disabled youngsters, and, in fact, help them to learn and succeed.