$1.5 million grant aids early learning in children with disabilities

Researchers from three universities will test a method for parents to teach infants and toddlers with disabilities essential skills through everyday activities and routines, under a new $1.5 million grant.

The grant, from the Institute of Education Sciences, was one of only 13 awarded from 900 applications.

Christine Salisbury

Christine Salisbury, professor of special education, is co-principal investigator for the EPIC research.

The research will be led by Christine Salisbury, professor of special education at the University of Illinois at Chicago; Patricia Snyder, professor of early childhood studies at the University of Florida; and Juliann Woods, professor of communication sciences and disorders at Florida State University.

Using the researchers’ method, early-learning practitioners will show parents and caregivers how to recognize and use learning opportunities in a child’s everyday activities, like playing peek-a-boo, drinking from a cup, rolling a ball or getting into a car seat.

The researchers will develop a visual cueing system with guiding questions to help parents recognize:

•    opportune moments to teach their child essential skills.
•    what to teach, when, and how.
•    what their goal is in teaching.
•    how to know whether learning is taking place.

“This cueing system is expected to improve the consistency of parent actions and the learning outcomes of their child, ” Salisbury said.

The researchers call the approach EPIC — initials for “embedded practices and intervention with caregivers.”

“The EPIC intervention is unique in that it will develop two components — coaching and intervention — that, together, are expected to improve the professional practice of early intervention providers and the learning outcomes of caregivers and children involved in home-based, early intervention services,” Salisbury said.

The researchers say the new approach could benefit tens of thousands of the nation’s youngest children. According to the U.S. Department of Education, nearly 350,000 children under age three who have disabilities are enrolled annually in federal programs providing early intervention services.

Recent studies identify the use of embedded instruction in everyday activities as a recommended practice for young preschoolers with disabilities, but researchers say additional studies are needed to identify the best methods for coaching parents to engage their children in natural environments when learning opportunities arise.

“Early intervention for young children with disabilities traditionally has involved practitioners working directly with the child. Very little time is spent supporting regular interactions and learning opportunities between the parents and child,” Woods said.

The three-year study began in June at each university, with focus groups and a panel of practitioners and parents evaluating the intervention and resource materials. A trial involving eight children and their families and providers will follow, to confirm the method’s feasibility and adjust interventions as needed.

In the second year, researchers will test a prototype of the coaching and embedded-intervention components, then revise as needed.

In the third year, researchers will compare an EPIC test group with another receiving traditional intervention. Twenty families in Illinois and 20 in Florida will participate as researchers evaluate the approach.

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