ED: How did you begin your career in early childhood?
During my undergraduate work, I completed an internship at the University of North Carolina’s TEACCH Autism Program. From this experience, I knew I wanted to work with individuals with autism. I began my career as an inclusive preschool and kindergarten public school teacher. As a teacher, I was unaware of many specific interventions or resources used to support the social, language, and behavioral skills of students with autism. Fueled by my desire to support students with autism in classrooms, as well as the teachers serving those students, I began my doctoral program in 2008 at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I was fortunate to be funded through an Office of Special Education Program leadership grant: Interdisciplinary Preparation in Teaching, Research, and Service focused on Young Children with Autism and Their Families. When I graduated, I accepted a postdoctoral research position at 3C Institute, a small business that focuses on research and development. After completing my postdoctoral work, I returned to the University of North Carolina as a Research Scientist at Frank Porter Graham (FPG) Child Development Institute. At FPG, my work focuses on supporting the use of evidence-based practices for children with autism using a variety of professional development approaches including coaching and interactive, online modules.
ED: What efforts have you been involved in to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services?
My efforts to improve the quality of early childhood programs and services are grounded in the challenges I faced as an early childhood teacher. I struggled to find information about what strategies or interventions I should use for my students with disabilities. With funding from the Office of Special Education Programs and the Institute of Education Sciences, our team developed the Autism Focused Intervention and Modules (AFIRM). This free, publicly available website provides information on evidence-based practices identified through systematic reviews of the literature (see the National Clearinghouse on Autism Evidence & Practice (NCAEP)). The information is specifically designed for teachers, paraprofessionals, and other practitioners to learn how to plan for, use, and monitor evidence-based practices. Providing information on evidence-based practices is a first step in implementing these practices in classrooms.
ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in your work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
One challenge we face is working with teachers and practitioners who are overwhelmed with all the demands placed on them. Adding or enhancing the use of evidence-based practices can feel like an additional burden for staff with limited time for professional development and support for implementation. One strategy we suggest is first selecting foundational practices for use with students. Once learned, these practices can be used to address many different skills and behaviors for students. Additionally, foundational practices are embedded in more complex practices so once they have learned the foundational practices, these more complex practices are much easier to learn. Starting small and adding additional practices with the support of a team can have a huge impact for children.
ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in improving early childhood services and programs?
Retaining quality teachers in the early childhood field is key to building and sustaining strong programs. One way to keep teachers is to help them feel supported and connected to each other and to a larger community of professionals. In our work, and in the work of many in the field, we emphasize creating resources and training/coaching opportunities that tap the expertise teachers already have, support them in learning new skills, and encourage them to be part of a larger learning community. It is important to focus efforts on helping teachers feel empowered and confident that they have what they need to be successful in the classroom.
Ann Sam is an advanced research scientist at Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her work to support children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) was sparked by her teaching experiences in public schools. Ann’s work is centered around ensuring that providers from underserved communities have access to technology and research to successfully implement evidence-based practices.
Blog articles provide insights on the activities of schools, programs, grantees, and other education stakeholders to promote continuing discussion of educational innovation and reform. Articles do not endorse any educational product, service, curriculum or pedagogy.