By Tiffany Johnson
The Bluegrass Center for Teacher Quality hosted an event Oct. 20 called “Building the Village: A Summit on Down Syndrome and Autism Education.”
As a special education teacher, I often struggle with locating professional development opportunities specific to my field. I attend mandatory courses, or even ones I believe might be related to my field, many times only to leave disappointed that the needs of special education teachers are not addressed. The Building the Village Summit was not one of these experiences! From the moment we began our day until the last minute of the summit, the complete focus was on the needs of service providers for children with Down syndrome and autism.
The summit was unlike any other professional development I have experienced before. There were a mixture of professionals in attendance, including K-12 teachers, paraeducators, higher education professionals, outside agencies, social workers, nurses, and parents. Public schools and private schools were represented, as were both nonprofit, for-profit and government agencies. The main goal of the day was to bring all of these different groups together to talk about how we can work together, across disciplines, to help our students succeed.
This really helped me, as a public school teacher, to more fully understand the different viewpoints and how each of our professions impacts the other. It gave me the opportunity to think beyond the classroom and begin to develop a network of resources outside of my school system. All of the individual participants involved in the summit brought their expertise, but more importantly, we all shared a genuine interest in serving children with Down syndrome and autism.
Lisa Ruble, a professor in the Education Department at the University of Kentucky, shared research and the impact of a parent-teacher collaboration program called COMPASS. Two studies have demonstrated that students with teachers engaged in this program made more gains on their Individualized Education Program objectives than students of nonparticipating teachers, Ruble said. These results could be attributed to the inclusion of the parent-teacher alliance which may also include other service providers, she said.
Jenny Kimes, executive director of educational and clinical services at Down Syndrome of Louisville, discussed the physical characteristics and challenges of children with Down syndrome. Her personal experience as a psychologist and mother of a child with Down syndrome helped the audience understand the nuances of this disability.
One story that stuck with me is how Kimes was asked to observe a kindergarten student who was on the verge of being placed into the resource room for aggressive behavior. During her observation, Kimes said she was able to ascertain that he needed to be taught how to physically attempt to get attention of other students by tapping with one finger instead of using his hand. These are the simple things that many teachers, including myself, have not been exposed to frequently enough for this to be a consideration.
Another strategy Kimes said she uses is double-sided tape on the fingers of a child who needs sensory input to help them stay focused and on task in large group discussions. This helped me to remember that sometimes the smallest things can make the biggest changes for our children.
A panel discussion with three family members of children with special learning needs was an invaluable way to gain insight on the parental viewpoint. Being able to have questions answered objectively was beneficial, as it provided an understanding of how to better communicate with the parents of my students.
While the more traditional portions of the summit provided great tools, perhaps the most valuable time was spent in discussion with other professionals. The morning summit sessions were planned so individuals working in different fields could discuss the barriers and opportunities for children with Down syndrome and autism. It was interesting to me how we all see similar challenges across settings.
In my group, we discussed barriers and how we could work together to support one another beyond our particular profession. One important aspect that was brought up was the postsecondary opportunities for these children. As a first- and second-grade teacher, it doesn’t always cross my mind that I should be planning for a child’s career. This discussion served as a reminder that those plans should always be in the back of a teacher’s mind as they work day to day with students with special needs.
The afternoon summit sessions let individuals in the same field work together to identify challenges and opportunities through the lens of our profession, providing the opportunity to learn how other counties and schools address student needs. This gave us the opportunity to share resources outside of our limited network and begin building relationships with one another and share suggestions and resources. I was introduced to a new program that shows promise for students struggling to learn the most basic skills, such as letter and numeral identification.
The mix of participants really made the Building the Village Summit a valuable day. I know I came away with new strategies and ideas of how to help prepare children for life after school. I was able to expand my network of professionals, which will help me provide children with Down syndrome and autism services that I was unaware existed, including organizations like Opportunity for Work and Learning, the Kentucky Partnership for Families and Children, the Autism Society of the Bluegrass and the Down Syndrome Association of Central Kentucky.
My hope is that this type of professional opportunity is offered on a regular basis and will give an even greater network of professionals the opportunity to meet and work together to benefit all students with special needs. I can’t wait for the next one!
Tiffany Johnson is a special education teacher at Shannon Johnson Elementary School (Madison County), a Kentucky Education Association member and a former secretary for the Madison County Education Association.