The stereotype is ever present. People with Down Syndrome are thought to be intellectually disabled.
Matthew Brock has always been close to his younger sister Lori, who has the syndrome.
“I remember one time when I was in 12th grade and Lori was in ninth, I helped her study for a general education class test,” said the assistant professor of special education. “We spent only a few hours the night before, and she got a C.”
He didn’t think the grade was that amazing, but the teacher was surprised — that Lori could pass the same test as the rest of the students; that she even outperformed some.
“I remember thinking how little effort it took to help her blow past her teacher’s expectations,” Brock said.
Seeing the disconnect inspired him to pursue a career in special education. “I was optimistic,” he said. “I believed I could be a special education teacher with high expectations for my students, and the ability to help them reach those expectations.”
The two keys: Training more teachers, discovering new strategies to help kids learn
The United States is currently experiencing a shortage of special education teachers. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the demand for special educators will rise 17 percent next year, a larger increase than in any other occupation.
One of the biggest reasons is a dearth of university faculty to train special education teachers.
In addition, more faculty are needed to discover and fine-tune strategies to help kids in special education achieve.
Brock took on both challenges. After teaching special education for a number of years — he worked with students in preschool and K-12, trained teachers and taught in the Peace Corps on St. Kitts — he earned a master’s at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, then a PhD from Vanderbilt.
Now in EHE, he teaches research-based strategies to college students who are as eager as he was to become special education teachers.
He also won a four-year, Early Career Award for $400,000 last year from the Institute of Education Sciences to create a training model for school paraprofessionals, also called aides.
His innovative approach can prevent students with disabilities from being underserved.
A budget-saving solution
Schools have far more aides than special education teachers, Brock reasoned, but most receive little or no formal training on how to deliver instruction to those students.
“We know we can train aides to use instructional strategies through one-to-one coaching, but that isn’t efficient,” he said. “You sometimes get quick turnover, too, among aides.”
Brock’s solution is a tiered model that starts with large-group trainings and incorporates the most effective strategies to prepare the aides.
One strategy he teaches, both to the aides and in his methods class for college students, is called errorless learning and prompt fading. “You teach a skill the first time and provide maximum support to the student,” he said. “Then you systematically fade back your support over time.”
This simple strategy can be used to teach anything, from sight reading to how to tell which number is larger of two or, for older students preparing to work as cashiers, how to use a calculator to make change.
“The win is we’re going into classrooms and observing the aides five times to gauge if they are implementing what we taught them and if students are progressing. The aides who are not proficient will receive more intensive coaching – first small group, then if needed, one to one. The model is efficient and ensures learning.”
To date, Brock and his team have piloted a large group training in central Ohio’s Olentangy School District. Last spring, they piloted a more intensive small group training. Next autumn, they will conduct a larger, randomized, controlled trial.
A manual that is free for all to use
By the end of his project, Brock will produce a manual. “We’ll be able to say we’ve tested this approach, we know it works. We hope people will be motivated to use it by seeing its success.”
He is refining the training process with support from his two prestigious mentors — EHE Distinguished Professor Laura Justice coaches him in his role as a faculty associate with the Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy, which she directs.
His other mentor, Samuel Odom, was his advisor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.
With these two major names in the field, Brock will help make progress in serving students with disabilities.