Center for Social Development and Education Blog

October 2, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Navigating Your Child’s IEP Process

For many students, getting an Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is the first step to changing their learning experience. The process begins when a teacher or family member refers the student to be evaluated for special education services. From there, the state is responsible for evaluating the student’s academic performance and social behavior. A district representative will observe the student and conduct an evaluation.

This report is brought to a meeting, where the IEP team, made up of the district representative, special education director, teachers, family members, and the student themselves if they are older than 14, discusses academic goals and needs. The IEP meeting is how the team determines if and what special education services are needed. Based on the outcomes of the discussion, an IEP is drafted and implemented.

This process can be intimidating and stressful for families and students, sometimes culminating in them contributing less to the IEP. Linguistic and cultural barriers and not having enough information can silence family members and students of color in these meetings (Wolfe and Durán 2013). Family members can request the presence of both a language interpreter and a certified IEP Parent Member, a fellow guardian of a student with a disability who ensures the family is heard during the process.

Families and students have deep insights into the student’s learning and what structure of support would work best. It is important that the special education director and teachers create space for families and students to share their perspectives and meaningfully contribute to the plan (Reiman et al. 2010). In a survey, family members reported good experiences of the process when teachers treated them as equal decision makers (Fish 2010). This could look like asking families to introduce the student to the rest of the IEP team or providing them a chance to add to each teacher’s report.

The best way for families to advocate for their students is to help the team get a clear picture of who the student is, how they learn best, and what types of supports would be most beneficial. Families should come prepared to discuss their students’ past academic performance, goals for the future, what has worked and not worked, interests and extracurriculars, and any strategies that work for the student at home. These insights have the potential to inform how teachers imagine supporting students in the classroom. For instance, knowing that when a student does homework they typically take quick move breaks that help them stay focused may encourage the team to put similar accommodations in place for when the student takes exams.

Though the IEP process is daunting, ideally a team will emerge from the meeting with a plan that meets the students’ needs and provides scaffolded supports towards achieving clear goals. Families play an important role in the process, and it is incumbent upon the other members of the IEP team to keep the family informed, answer their questions, and solicit their opinions.  

By Anika Lanser, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education

September 4, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Putting an IEP into Practice

An Individualized Education Plan (IEP) is a tool teachers, students and families use to meet the personal learning needs of a student with disabilities and create more inclusive classrooms. The plan has four components: goals and objectives, program statement, present levels of academic achievement and modifications and accommodations. An IEP also represents a commitment to teach the student in the least restrictive environment possible. When implemented to fidelity, an IEP supports the student in succeeding at challenging learning and skill goals in the classroom and socially.

Teachers take various approaches to implementing a new IEP, often depending on their existing relationship with the student and the resources available to support them (Burns 2001). Some teachers prefer to look at their student’s IEP right away, while others wait up to a week to get to know the student first (Rotter 2014). Though IEP’s allow teachers to draw on the knowledge of their predecessors to support students with disabilities, students’ needs change as they grow. Over time, parts of the IEP can become less relevant or less aligned with students’ present level of performance. It is important for teachers to therefore make their own assessments about students’ learning and the strategies that would best serve them. Further, getting to know students allows teachers to tailor accommodations to student interests and makes students and families more comfortable advocating for their needs.

Though all parts of the IEP contain important information, teachers find the modifications and accommodations section most useful when planning lessons and support for students with disabilities (Rotter 2014). To plan comprehensive classroom support for students with disabilities, educators can make a map of all the student accommodations, seat together students with similar goals and needs, and create lesson scaffolds that are flexible and reusable. By aligning students’ individual IEPs, teachers can identify strategies to support multiple students and create ways for students to bolster each other’s learning.

Most importantly, even though the process of implementing an IEP happens largely during class, it is crucial for students and families to be in conversation with teachers about the supports students are receiving and how it’s going. Students should have opportunities to give feedback about their learning and involving them in the process of implementing the IEP gives them ownership over their learning and their disability (Konrad 2008). Similarly, families have unique insight into how students learn and their involvement in the process only furthers their investment in students’ growth.

Putting an IEP into practice is an ongoing project. Teachers, students and families must be in conversation and open to making changes. Understanding individual students’ needs as they relate to classroom culture and academic needs of other students also creates opportunities for students to support each other and ensures teachers can implement the IEP.  

By Anika Lanser, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education

August 21, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Building Better Collaboration Between Teachers and Paraprofessionals

A special education teacher often works with at least one paraprofessional in delivering academic instructions, behavioral and social support. When teachers and paraprofessionals effectively work together, students with disabilities and their families benefit greatly. For example, Brock and Carter (2017) found that when special education teachers and paraprofessionals actively participated in professional development, the levels of social interaction increased among children with severe disabilities. More recently, Mehta et al. (2019) assessed a paraprofessional-led service model refined through processes of trust establishment and shared decision-making between teachers and paraprofessionals across 16 schools in the U.S. Their findings showed that paraprofessionals were able to successfully implement behavioral interventions and facilitate parental participation. 

Building collaborative teacher-paraprofessional relationships also buffers against the turnover of teaching workforce. Although there is an increase in the overall number of paraprofessionals, the number of special education teachers has decreased due to high attrition rate in the U.S. (Billingsley & Bettini, 2019). In a review of factors associated with attrition and retention, Billingsley and Bettini (2019) found that special education teachers most often leave their roles because of stressful working conditions, including overwhelming workloads and demanding classroom management responsibilities. However, emotional support and job satisfaction were enhanced when they received support from paraprofessionals and school administrators (Billingsley & Bettini, 2019). Paraprofessionals are similarly inclined to stay when working in supportive school cultures. For example, paraprofessionals reported that developing collaboration, mutual respect, and open communication are key to retention (Ghere and York-Barr 2007). 

The Teacher-Paraeducator Interactions Framework (Cipriano et al., 2016) was developed from a series of classroom observations to assess partnerships between teachers and paraprofessionals. Based on this framework, Barnes et al. (2021) uses the lenses of solidarity, role clarity and respect to illustrate best practices for collaboration that support special educators in team building and classroom management: 

  • To promote solidarity, teachers and paraprofessionals can defer to one another, make sure the consistency and alignment of tasks and information. For example, a paraprofessional can confirm with the teacher whether it is time to guide the child to the next assignment. Reciprocally, the teacher should check-in with the paraprofessional about the student’s progress through the lesson. Using “we” language in the classroom is another strategy to kindle the teamwork spirit. Listening to and reinforcing each other’s perspective ensures a clearer and more cohesive learning experience for the student. 
  • Role clarity is another important factor in collaboration. Following conversations with school administrators, teachers should get a sense of paraprofessionals’ expertise, interests, and strengths while communicating role expectations. Teachers are also encouraged to participate in hiring processes to ensure a good fit. Open and consistent communication between teachers and paraprofessionals provides support in clarifying roles and responsibilities (Barnes et al. 2021).
  • Teachers and paraprofessionals should respectfully acknowledge one another’s role in the classroom. For teachers, building respectful relationships can manifest as understanding a paraprofessional’s needs and strengths and matching the task with their current skills and training (Giangreco et al., 2010). A sense of respect can be promoted in daily interaction using both verbal and non-verbal communication, like using a warm tone and affirming expressions when making requests, making eye-contact, using body language, and sending thank-you notes to compliment team members’ work and achievement. 

Maintaining a solid team, clear role and respectful communication make effective teacher-paraprofessional collaboration possible, which in turn benefits students’ academic, personal, and employment outcomes. 

By Yu Xia, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education

August 7, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Can Community Engagement Influence Identity Development in Young Adults with Disabilities?

In short: yes! In a recently published article, several CSDE researchers took a participatory approach to studying this topic with seven young adults with self-identified disabilities. Using a series of audio diaries, group interviews, and individual interviews, researchers worked with the young adults to explore the idea that opportunities for community engagement – including participation in inclusive programs, such as the Youth Ambassador Program through Special Olympics – had impacted the development of their sense of self. By engaging in leadership activities, connecting with a community of young adults with and without disabilities, and participating in service activities, the young adults noted that they were more prepared to navigate the tricky process of identity development. They described the process of learning to accept their disability, incorporating it into their overall identity, but ultimately developing a holistic sense of self that encompassed all parts of themselves, transcending the social pressure to define themselves only by ability.  

So what do we do with these findings? In the broadest sense, we need to be advocating for and offering more opportunities for meaningful and inclusive community engagement, for both youth with and without disabilities. Creating opportunities for social connections, for students to use and develop skills, and nurture passions can be incredibly influential for adolescents and young adults. This is particularly true for those about to leave high school. These types of opportunities can facilitate social inclusion for all, which is too often denied for those with disabilities. So get out there and start getting engaged!

By Staci Ballard, Graduate Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education

July 10, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Centering Educator Perspectives on Community-Based Vocational Instruction

Community-Based Vocational Instruction (CBVI) programs in schools provide students with opportunities to explore their career interests through sampling a variety of paid and unpaid jobs. In these roles, students develop skills related to their future jobs and gain insight into choosing a career path (Pickens & Dymond, 2014). These programs are especially beneficial for students with disabilities, as job-related skills are not usually learned through standard special education curricula, and not having learned these skills prior to entering the work force can put them at a disadvantage (Benz et al., 1997). For instance, providing students with work experience opportunities during high school is positively linked to employment after graduation (Benz et al., 2000). Given the roles both teachers and CBVI programs play in supporting students with disabilities’ transition into the workforce, examining teachers’ perspectives on them is critical for their development.  

Since teachers are often at the helm of CBVI programs, they have unique insight into areas of improvement. When interviewing special education directors about their perceptions, Pickens & Dymond (2014) found that they were uniformly supportive of CBVI programs, and many identified as strong advocates of them. Many directors also agreed that CBVI helped students learn skills that are necessary for the work force and adapt them to different settings. Programs also increased students’ chances of success on the job market. Colley & Jamison (1998) found that students who participated in CBVI while in high school were significantly more likely to get employed upon graduating. 

Although school staff agree that CBVI is beneficial for students, there are still impediments to successful implementation. Pickens & Dymond (2014) reported that one of the greatest barriers was a lack of school staff participation. For the most part, special education teachers were responsible for delivering CBVI programs, placing additional labor on teachers who are often already going beyond their job description. It was also challenging to secure transportation to and from job sites. Although teachers understand the importance of an in-person experience for students to get a sense of an authentic work environment, it has nevertheless remained difficult for them to coordinate transportation, often due to the lack of vehicles or drivers.  

For high school students to derive the maximum impact from CBVI programs, the concerns of and suggestions raised by teachers implementing them must be taken into consideration. By responding to the challenges teachers face, education systems can work to further improve CBVI programs and the benefits for their students. 

By Arielle Papalimberis, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education

June 12, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Universal Screening: What and Why?

With a return to in-person learning, the impact of COVID closures on students’ academic and behavioral functioning became starkly apparent. Schools saw many of their students falling below grade and age-level benchmarks. The already-challenging circumstances of remote schooling were exacerbated by pre-existing social inequities, including access to technology, internet, and at-home support, resulting in a disproportionate impact on BIPOC communities and those living in economic marginalization (Sullivan et al., 2020). This combination of circumstances left schools wondering how to best identify and support student needs.  

Universal screening is a process that can help schools collect critical information on how to best support their students. Universal screening involves having students, teachers, or parents complete a short questionnaire on all students approximately three times per year. These screenings can evaluate academic, social, emotional, and/or behavioral concerns (Kettler et al., 2014).  

Based on the results, schools can determine which of their students are meeting expectations in response to the universal supports offered at the school level (“tier one”), which students may benefit from more targeted supports (“tier two”), and which students may require highly individualized supports (“tier three”; Stoiber, 2014). Ideally, 80% of students or more will be meeting benchmarks with access to tier one supports; post COVID closures, this is not the case for many schools.  

However, this does not mean all students should automatically receive tier two supports, as this would be resource inefficient. Instead, this likely means that schools need to readdress what types of evidence-based, culturally-responsive programming is being offered at tier one (Sullivan et al., 2020). Universal screening also offers a way to progress monitor the impact of new curricula and interventions on students to ensure that any changes made are effective. 

By Staci Ballard, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education

May 29, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Dear Research Diary: How do I determine which questions to ask? 

Qualitative researchers often explore a new topic by interviewing those directly involved, aiming to learn from their expert experience.  In this entry, we’ll look at how to determine which questions help answer our exploratory question: “What is it like being a Unified sports coach?” 

Our first step is to decide who is best positioned to help us answer this question. It is important to consider every person who might have relevant information or experience. In this case, because we specifically want to learn about the experiences of Unified sports coaches, we’ll start by talking directly with the coaches themselves. Students, parents and administrators may also have helpful perspectives on the experience of being a Unified coach based on their interactions with them. Since their perspectives explain or be compared to coaches’ self-perception, it may be helpful to interview them later in our project. 

Next, we want to think of questions we can ask coaches that will help answer our research question. The way we ask a question will shape how the participants share their experiences. Depending on how structured the interview protocol is and how closely the researcher intends to follow it, researchers can ask a mix of interview questions to elucidate different aspects of participants’ experience (Roberts, 2023).

Orienting questions help put the participant at ease. These are the questions asked before the actual interview, which help communicate the goals for the interview and demonstrate that the researcher wants to learn from the participant. Ex: “Today we want to learn about your experience as a Unified track coach, does that sound okay?” or “Is it alright if we record today’s interview?”. Researchers can also use orienting questions to develop a rapport with the interviewer and make them feel comfortable. Ex: “How’s the school year going?” 

Main questions are broad questions that allows the participant to freely talk about their experiences. Main questions outline the overarching themes of the interview, and often serve as an introduction to a topic. Ex: “Can you walk me through a typical unified sports practice?” or “Can you tell me how you encourage teamwork?” 

Follow up questions are flexible questions that ask respondents to answer more in-depth. They can ask the respondents about their reactions to an experience or make connections across experiences. Follow up questions require the researcher to actively listen to determine if the respondent shared enough information about a topic. A follow up question to “Can you walk me through a typical practice?” may be, “What’s your approach to planning a practice?” or “How does your experience coaching college basketball inform your approach to coaching Unified sports?” 

Probes, like follow up questions, can encourage the respondent to continue sharing details about their experiences. They can also help manage the flow of the interview by keeping the respondent on topic, asking for clarification, summarizing a response to check for understanding, and asking the respondent to share more details. Unlike follow up questions, probes can be as simple as saying, “uh-huh”, “okay”, “can you give me an example”, “that sounds…”, and “could you go back and tell me more about…”.  

These types of questions help us establish an ordered approach for each topic. We start with a broad question that allows the respondent to answer freely, follow up with questions that flesh out the details, and always ask probes to ensure all the relevant details are clearly understood. We’ll use our next entry to assemble a list of all the main questions (i.e. topics) we want to ask coaches and learn how to give the interview structure and flow.  

By Nathan Barrett, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education 

May 15, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education
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Qualitative Analysis with QDA Miner and WordStat

Link analysis of a dendrogram topic from our qualitative archive.

Our qualitative archive provides new analyses of the themes discussed across locations and years. Some of the main analysis tools we’ve relied on are frequency and cooccurrence data, topic modeling, dendrograms, and link analysis. In this post, we’ll share how each of those analyses functions and some of the most interesting findings within the archive found through each method. 

WordStat can either show the frequencies of the most common words and phrases (excluding those which come up incidentally) or can show the frequencies of words and phrases specified in a list created by the researcher called the categorization dictionary. Frequency refers to the number of times a given word or phrase appears in the archive. Categorization dictionaries allow searches for lists of words and phrases created based on the project. For example, a dictionary seeking to understand how people with disabilities relate to employment might include words like disability, employment, job, and career. Frequency is useful for knowing how often participants are discussing a topic, the distribution of the topic across cases, and the percentage of participants who discussed the topic.  

The cooccurrence data draws on the frequency data to illustrate where in the archive words and phrases are discussed together. This analysis can be done at the sentence, paragraph or document level, giving researchers a multitude of ways to understand connections between topics. This cooccurrence analysis can be as simple as comparing the number of times topics come up together within the archive or can culminate in a visual representation like a dendrogram or link analysis.  

Based on the cooccurrence data and the strength of the association, WordStat groups words and phrases together. Seeing how words relate to each other in a dendrogram can illustrate how participants connect ideas and experiences. Link analysis is another way to visualize these relationships, depicting each word as its own bubble and illustrating the strength of its individual ties to other topics in the cluster. Topic modeling similarly groups words together based on cooccurrence and assigns them a topic that describes the most common use of the terms. These analyses provide big picture representations of the archive and insight into the themes that participants have discussed the most frequently over the years. 

By Anika Lanser, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education 

May 1, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Dear Research Diary: How do I pick a research topic?

Choosing a research topic can be hard. You might know what topic you want to explore, but what specifically do you want to investigate and why? If you’re stuck, ask yourself, “what questions do I want to answer?” Below we explore three kinds of research questions and how to go about developing a study to answer them. 

1. Exploratory questions: Researchers ask these questions when a topic is not well documented or researched, i.e. “What’s going on here?” These are often the first questions asked by researchers in the brainstorming process. Often, they start by looking at what is known and unknown. For example, if researchers want to know more about high school Unified sports coaches, they may first look for research on high school sports coaches, or research on inclusive sports teams before asking more specific research questions like, “What is it like being a high school Unified sports coach?” or “How does coaching Unified sports compare to coaching non-inclusive sports?”  These questions are often flexible and change over the course of the study as researchers learn more about the topic. Sometimes, the best way to frame a question to guide the study does not become clear until later in the process.  

2. Follow-up questions: Researchers ask these to continue exploring a topic. For example, if we learn in our first study that Unified sports coaches see themselves as mentors to their players, in the next we may ask, “How are players’ experiences influenced by their Unified coaches?” or, “What do players think of their Unified sports coaches?” 

3. Confirmation questions: Researchers ask these to see if the results from a previous study hold up across different circumstances. This helps to confirm or refute the findings of previous studies. For example, we learned Unified coaches saw themselves as mentors in our first study. A replication study may ask similar questions to a new group of coaches to see if they also talk about mentorship.  

In the Unified coach project, our team asks an exploratory question chosen based on data collected for a previous project: “what is like being a high school Unified sports coach?” This is an important lesson: qualitative research is non-linear. That is, there is no list of steps that need to be followed in a particular order. In our case, we first interviewed Unified coaches for a program evaluation of high school Unified sports. We were interested in exploring topics that emerged naturally across conversations with coaches but were not included in the program evaluation.  

Sometimes researchers can start looking for answers in a dataset that already exists. Other times, data on a topic doesn’t exist, and the researchers must decide how to collect the data they need. Creating a new qualitative dataset takes a lot of work, so in the next two entries, we’ll look at what it takes to build a qualitative dataset from one-on-one interviews.  

By Nathan Barrett, Research Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education 

April 17, 2023
by Center for Social Development and Education

Cultural Humility in Education

The term cultural humility was first coined by Melanie Tervalon and Jann Murray-Garcia in 1998. According to Fisher (2019), it is a lifelong process that involves critical analysis and self-reflection about one’s intersecting identities and how that might influence relationship building. This means acknowledging the power differentials that exist within relationships and consciously approaching others from a place of humility. Fisher (2019) proposes that cultural humility helps educators and researchers gain unique perspectives about cross-cultural relations and enables them to advocate for marginalized communities. 

Pham et al (2022) advocates for applying a cultural humility framework when delivering services in schools especially since the educational system in the United States is built on principles that perpetuate white supremacy, oppression, colonialism, and racism. Systemic barriers like these have led to disparities in educational services for students from marginalized communities.

In education research, cultural humility can be practiced by reflecting on the inequities and gaps in academia as well as attempting to highlight experiences and perspectives of marginalized communities. School-based practitioners who practice cultural humility strive to unlearn the idea that they are the experts of their students. They understand that suffering and healing are conceptualized differently across cultures, and that it is important to collaborate with the student, their family, and community to develop and implement interventions. 

By Reshma Sreekala, Graduate Assistant at the Center for Social Development and Education

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