Teaching English Learner Students with Disabilities

Erica Sommer

Erica Sommer is a special education teacher in Del Valle Independent School District, which serves students in and around Austin, Texas.

Sommer works closely with the district’s substantial English learner population, has almost 15 years of teaching experience and has been passionate about teaching for as long as she remembers. She shared with us how working with English learner students and those with disabilities has impacted her as a teacher and individual.


English learners make up one of the most diverse student groups in schools today. When English learners enter our schools, they come from varying racial, ethnic, linguistic, socio-economic, educational, and cultural backgrounds. Serving the needs of English learner students, particularly those identified as having a disability, can be a challenge for schools and teachers, but it is also an interesting and exciting group of students to teach and learn from.

I have had many unique opportunities to work with English learners who are also students with disabilities both at the very beginning of my career in Kansas City, Kansas and now, as I work with students in and around Austin, Texas.

In Kansas City, I worked with English learner students with disabilities who were part of a public-private school partnership in the district.

In my current school district, bilingual students make up about 87 percent of the student population, and about 60 percent of those students are English learners. I really enjoy this work, especially the relationships I’m able to build with individual students and their families.

Over the past two years, I’ve been working with a young English learner with learning disabilities including dyslexia. She has been such an inspiration to me. She is the hardest working student I’ve ever worked with, and I can’t wait to get invited to her high school graduation!

Teaching English learners with disabilities is of course challenging at times, but those challenges become learning experiences. I have found several strategies that work well when facing challenges in my work.

  1. I learned to ask for help when communicating with parents. This sometimes requires getting a translator, and these situations have helped me to develop another skill, which is to learn how to communicate effectively while using a translator.
  2. I have learned to be flexible and open to change.
  3. I have learned the importance of connecting with classroom teachers and advocating for my students. I work with bilingual teachers and mainstream teachers in settings that are more collaborative and less formal than an official individualized education program team or planning meetings. What we do is more about coordinating our work and sharing professional development opportunities and information. We work together like this because we know it will make our jobs easier and ultimately benefit of our students.

I think that the best way teachers and schools can help English learners, students with disabilities and all kids is by working with their parents. Reach out and learn how to effectively communicate with parents of English learners because this can be absolutely crucial to a child’s success in school. We, as teachers, can be someone who influences our students’ whole trajectory in life.

The most rewarding part of my work with English learners with disabilities is actually saying goodbye to my fifth graders, and knowing they have so much more to do and accomplish! These students make a big impact on me as an individual, especially those who are particularly surprising and the most challenging. I often find that my students who seem tough and rugged throughout the year are the same students who cry and hug me on the last day of school.


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.

Erica Sommer
Posted by
Special Education Teacher Del Valle Independent School District, Del Valle, Texas

October and Disability Awareness

ICYMI "In Case You Missed It!"

In addition to announcing OSEP’s new director, Laurie VanderPloeg, and interviewing Caryl Jaques at Little One’s University preschool, this October, we highlighted aspects of disability awareness for National Disability Employment, Dyslexia, Learning Disabilities, ADHD, and Down Syndrome!

Check out the stories below:


Down Syndrome


Courtney and her twin sons

It Takes a Village | 10/19/2018

Courtney’s twin sons just started kindergarten. This military family also moved across the country this year. Read how she’s advocated for her son with Down syndrome to be included in the same class as his brother.


Rachel, now an Olathe South High School Graduate

I REALLY Love My Life! | 10/12/2018

Rachel, a 19-year-old, loves her family, friends, school, social activities and so much more. She’s traveled to DC and testified in Topeka to talk about laws that will help people with Down syndrome.


ADHD | Dyslexia | Learning Disabilities


Lena McKnight

Learning About My LD: Accepting My Challenges & Finding My Voice | 10/30/2018

Lena struggled through middle and high school, but she eventually earned her GED, an associate’s degree and a bachelor’s degree. Read how Lena learned more about her learning disability, accepted her challenges and found her voice.


Strong Foundations School logo

Public Charter School Founded to Provide Excellent Reading Instruction to All | 10/29/2018

Beth McClure envisioned a school designed specifically to provide excellent reading instruction to all students, so she started Strong Foundations School, a public charter school.


Veronica and Myriam Alizo

From Miami to New Jersey | 10/25/2018

Myriam recounts her journey from a young, new mom learning her daughter had a speech delay and attention issues to a career assisting other parents of children with disabilities to help them navigate their rights and get involved in their child’s education.


Dylan and Nicola at the beach

Reflections on Where We’ve Been: A Mother and Son’s Journey with Dyslexia | 10/23/2018

Dylan is a college sophomore, a soccer player and ceramic artist who loves to travel the world when there’s time. He also has dyslexia. Dylan and his mom share their story in hopes of inspiring others.


Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents | 10/09/2018

Sixth-grade student pens blog about dyslexia in “My Truth About Dyslexia—What I Wish for Other Kids with Dyslexia and Their Parents.”


Candice Crissinger and children

High Achievement Requires High Expectations: My Family’s Story | 10/04/2018

One mom, two sons 10 years apart in age. Candice shares her family’s story of the vastly different experiences they had when seeking educational supports and services for her sons with disabilities and ADHD.


National Disability Employment Awareness Month


Hands On Hyatt trainees

Hands On/Hyatt | 10/31/2018

Hands On Educational Services, Inc., a vocational training program that prepares individuals with disabilities for careers in the hospitality industry, celebrates its 20th year of partnering with Hyatt.


WINTAC logo

Meeting WIOA Requirements: Workforce Innovation Technical Assistance | 10/31/2018

Learn different ways to stay current with employment trends related to the workforce and people with disabilities.


Way2Work Maryland logo

Way2Work: Helping Marylanders with Disabilities Transition into the Workforce | 10/30/2018

Way2Work helps Marylanders with disabilities transition into the workforce. Check out some of their success stories!


Alaska and Nevada VR Websites

Successful Work Experiences | 10/26/2018

The Alaska Division of Vocational Rehabilitation and Nevada Ready show how states are creating programs to help youth with disabilities transition into a work environment.


Logo - National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT)

Transition Resources Help Agencies and Service Providers Support Youth with Disabilities | 10/24/2018

The National Technical Assistance Center on Transition (NTACT) has many resources that help state and local education agencies, state vocational rehabilitation agencies, VR service providers and other service providers prepare student with disabilities for successful postsecondary education and employment.


Veronica and Victor

ASPIRE! | 10/22/2018

With the help of ASPIRE, families in Arizona, Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Utah are taking charge of their futures, learning about benefits available in their state, and more.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

Finding Rehabilitation Training Materials: RSA Technical Assistance and Other Resources | 10/22/2018

OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration’s grant recipients offer numerous training materials and resources for those interested in vocational rehabilitation. Learn how to find these resources through the National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM).


Nyrka

Meriden Public Schools’ Community Classroom Collaborative | 10/18/2018

Meriden K–12, a Connecticut public school, gets creative to help students like Nyrka find success by bridging the gap between school and adult life.


AR PROMISE logo

The Importance of Connection | 10/17/2018

The Arkansas PROMISE program shows how a personalized connection between youth & their families and case managers can leave a positive, lasting impact on youth with disabilities.


Kwik Trip Storefront

Kwik Trip | 10/16/2018

The Wisconsin Workforce’s Division of Vocational Rehabilitation worked with KwikTrip, a family-owned business of convenience stores, to successfully recruit and train individuals with disabilities for the role of “Retail Helper.


Logo - National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM)

The National Clearinghouse of Rehabilitation Training Materials (NCRTM): Finding Promising and Effective Resources in the Clearinghouse Library

| 10/12/2018

Calling all vocational rehabilitation professionals. Did you know NCRTM provides quick, streamlined access to resources and technical assistance centers funded by OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration?


Ida and her service dog

Ida’s Success Story—Knocking Down Barriers for Blind People Throughout New Jersey and Beyond | 10/10/2018

Ida’s a Drew University senior with a recent internship and employment offer from JPMorgan. She’s also legally blind. Read Ida’s story and about her work with the New Jersey Department of Human Services Commission for the Blind and Visually Impaired.


Christopher Pauley does the Marshmallow Challenge.

“Always Aim High!” | 10/03/2018

Christopher has a computer science degree. Yet, he applied to nearly 600 positions without much success—that was until a California Department of Rehabilitation vocational rehabilitation counselor helped him connect with Microsoft’s Autism Hiring Program.


NDEAM 2018 Poster: Man in a wheelchair conversing with co-workers over laptop computers.

“America’s Workforce: Empowering All” | 10/02/2018

OSERS and OSERS Rehabilitation Services Administration proudly supports numerous programs relevant to National Disability Employment Awareness Month.


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Learning About My LD: Accepting My Challenges & Finding My Voice

October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month

Lena McKnight


Have you ever sat in a classroom and your teacher asks everyone to read a paragraph out loud? You skim through to see which paragraph has the easiest words to read out loud.

That was me. I was the young girl shaking in my boots when I knew I had to read out loud. Often, I would try to identify the “easy” paragraph, and if I couldn’t find one, I would make the class laugh by getting myself into trouble and taking the pressure off me. I was scared, although everyone thought I was the girl who didn’t fear anything and was tough. I was scared because I saw others do things that I struggled with. Middle school was hard for me. Not only was I dealing with social pressure, but keeping up with my academics was a lot of work in and of itself.

Have you ever just felt like you were different from others? Have you thought that people wouldn’t understand when you expressed your thoughts?

It was very hard for me share the challenges I was facing and explain what was going on for me. I always thought people would think there was something wrong with me. People still tell me, “you’re a tough girl, don’t sweat it.” As a young student, I didn’t talk about my struggles as a way to avoid embarrassment.

What I didn’t know back then was that I have a learning disability. I struggled every day with reading and processing issues. No one had explained to me what my learning disability meant. I had no idea that my individualized education program (IEP) could actually help me succeed. I couldn’t understand how I could do so well in my theatre classes but struggle in others.

Eventually, I fell so far behind in high school that I was not allowed to take any arts classes. I had too many academic classes I needed to complete if I wanted to graduate. So, I dropped out of school. I remember thinking that I would never get a GED (general equivalency degree). But with hard work and determination, I passed the GED exam after trying three times. I was so proud when I passed, and I wouldn’t believe it if anyone told me that I had a disability or needed extra supports after that to succeed. It wasn’t until college that I discovered I was still having trouble.

Soon after getting my GED, I began working at Harlem Children’s Zone. I was listening to the disability specialist speak about the problems high school students will encounter when they enter college. It clicked for me. For the first time, I was able to explain the challenges I faced and I admitted to the specialist that I had an IEP while I was in school. The specialist helped me get testing done so that I would finally be able to prove that I have a learning issue and could receive supports in college. It was like the world turned upside down. I was finally able to get the help I needed. I saw the “perks” of having a disability and getting the services I was entitled to. And, for the first time, I understood what it was I needed help with.

It took me a long time, but I have finally found my voice. I used to be ashamed to talk about my learning issues because I thought I was the only one who struggled, and I worried no one would believe me. But accepting who I am and taking the time to understand what I need has made all the difference. I was lucky to have advocates and people who believed in me. Because of them, I believe in myself and have achieved more than I once thought I could. I am grateful for the ones who stood up with me. Without them, I wouldn’t be who I am today, and I wouldn’t be working to empower others to speak up as well.

Every person with a learning disability deserves the chance to realize their potential and reach their dreams. Understanding yourself and being able to ask for what you need is the first and most important step.


Lena McKnight was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised in Harlem, New York. She attended public school in New York City until 10th grade and later enrolled in a YouthBuild program where she achieved a High School Equivalency Diploma. Lena then went on to graduate with an associate’s degree and later a bachelor’s degree in Theatre and Sociology in May 2017. Lena has served as a Student Advocate for 10th graders through the Harlem Children Zone and remains involved with YouthBuild. She now works full time and devotes her career to serving kids in her community. Lena is committed to using her voice to have a positive impact on the field of education and on society at large.


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.

Public Charter School Founded to Provide Excellent Reading Instruction to All

Strong Foundations School logo

Assistant Secretary Johnny Collett and Deputy Assistant Secretary Kim Richey visited Strong Foundations Charter School during the 2018 Back-to-School Tour.

October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month.


Seven years ago, one of my former students came to visit me and see the school I helped to found, Strong Foundations Charter School, a public charter school formed to provide excellent reading instruction to all students.

My former student was home from college where he majored in music and also played in two successful bands nearby. As we walked through the halls, he saw the elementary students working, some of whom were in Orton-Gillingham class—a structured reading approach to help students learn to read. I remarked that if he had been in a school like this, he might not have had to struggle so much with reading when he was younger.

His reply was bittersweet to me. “If I had been to a school like this, I might have been able to be your friend sooner.”

Translation: I might not have seen teachers as the enemy and schools as the battleground for so much of my childhood.

As a young teacher, nothing hurt worse than knowing I could teach someone how to read, but having them be so emotionally damaged from failure that they didn’t even want to try.

Time after time, that was my experience.

When I first began working with the student I quoted above, he was in the sixth grade. A bright mathematician, he had never learned to read despite his teachers’ efforts. Now it was my job to teach him to read and spell. For the first three months, every reading lesson was met with refusal and anger. Gradually, he began to have success and respond to my encouragement until finally, by the end of the year, we could accomplish an entire lesson in one sitting.

I had recently been trained in using the Orton-Gillingham approach. I worked as a special educator in a small private school in New Hampshire, and this student was one of many with a similar story. After years of failure, the first hurdle to help them overcome was their hopelessness when faced with the prospect of trying one more time.

I knew, though, that the English language is actually logical and can be taught systematically.

In my experiences, a multisensory structured literacy approach is essential for dyslexic learners and can also be beneficial to all learners.

At Strong Foundations, we accept all students at all academic levels, from low-achieving to high-achieving. Every student receives Orton-Gillingham instruction in a group as part of their regular education curriculum because we believe it is beneficial for all learners. We also believe it will prevent many students from ever struggling to learn to read. We work on building background knowledge using the Core Knowledge curriculum, a sequenced curriculum for kindergarten through eighth grade students.

In the classroom, students receive Orton-Gillingham instruction at a differentiated pace. Students identified with a learning disability in reading normally receive additional Orton-Gillingham instruction at a therapeutic level, so it reinforces what they have learned in the classroom.

Our hope at Strong Foundations Charter School has always been that more schools would see our success and would use structured literacy approaches from the beginning of a child’s reading instruction.

I would like to see teacher-training programs include training in structured literacy approaches so that all elementary and special education teachers are prepared to teach reading.

It has not happened as quickly as I had hoped, but I am seeing some progress.

The story of my student I mentioned above has a very happy ending. I worked with him through ninth grade, when he let his parents know he wanted to stop tutoring because he wanted to learn to play an instrument. His tutoring time with me conflicted with music lessons. We all agreed that if he could maintain his academics without my help, he could “fire me.” He went on to graduate from high school, earn a four-year degree from a prestigious college of music and now works as a professional musician.


Beth McClure has served as the principal of Strong Foundations Charter School for twelve years. She earned a master’s in learning and language disabilities and a master’s in Educational Administration. She is a fellow of the Academy of Orton-Gillingham Practitioners and Educators and currently serves as its president. She recently joined the Professional Standards Board of the New Hampshire Department of Education. Her favorite professional activity is teaching reading.


The U.S. Department of Education does not endorse specific curriculums or approaches to education. 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. 

My Truth About Dyslexia―What I Wish for Other Kids With Dyslexia and Their Parents

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Douglas Rawan II, a sixth-grader with dyslexia

Note: October is Learning Disabilities/Dyslexia/Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) Awareness Month


My name is Douglas Rawan II. I am 11-years-old, live in Massachusetts, and I have a story about dyslexia.

It starts back in fourth grade when I began to feel different than my friends in school. Making jokes was the way I would cover up having no confidence in school. No one knew that inside I felt stupid. I remember one day when my mom asked me to do some reading and writing, and I threw pencils on the floor and my book. I remember my mom looked really sad. Inside I knew it would be too hard, but I didn’t know why. Since Kindergarten, my mom hired tutors to help with reading, but nothing changed at school. I also had a hard time focusing at school until one day I came home and told my mom that I asked the assistant principal for a standing desk. My parents didn’t even know what that was.

One day, my fourth grade teacher called my mom and said she thought I was really smart but that my work did not show it. She encouraged my parents to get me tested. I did get tested, and after that I thought things would get better for me but they didn’t. My parents finally told me the testing showed that I have ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder] and dyslexia and that I was two to three years behind in reading. I was so mad and asked them “WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME BEFORE?”

My parents didn’t know what to say to me and never even used the word dyslexia, as the school told them that they don’t use that word. Once I learned about dyslexia and all the famous people who had it I told my dad one day, “Dad, I hope that I have dyslexia as Albert Einstein had it!”

I am dyslexic, which means I have a problem with reading. Having dyslexia doesn’t mean you have low intelligence or are lazy, it just means that your brain works differently. When I read, I don’t understand what I am reading, and I get easily frustrated. When I see a long word, I think “OH NO,” because I think I can’t read the word. Sometimes I break up the word or skip it. Also, when I read it usually comes out slow. I forget what happens when I read. A lot of words are hard for me to read. This makes me feel stupid.

Luckily, I go to a new school, which helps kids like me. When I came to my new school for fifth grade, I had a gap between my reading and grade level. In my first year, I made more progress in my reading than I ever had before. Today I’m still a little below my grade level, but with the right instruction, I expect to close the gap all the way. The teachers help me understand how my brain works, which helps me to read.

I am now in sixth grade in small classes and can get the tools I need, which is helping me to focus and “unlock my brain.” The way they are teaching me actually builds new connections or neurons in my brain, which changes the way my brain works, helping me to communicate and read better. I don’t have to struggle alone and think about how stupid I feel any more.

Knowing that I just needed the right tools makes me wonder what happens to other kids who are dyslexic. Are there other parents like mine that need the help for their kids? I wish that kids like me who still struggle with reading and paying attention in school can get the help they need.

This is why I decided to write a letter last year to President Donald J. Trump asking him what he could do as our president to make sure no child like me was ever left behind. After I sent the letter, my mom started getting other calls from moms who also see their kids struggling.

At the beginning of sixth grade, I met a new student who was visiting my school named Michael who was having troubles just like me. My mom told his mom that I wrote a letter to President Trump, and she sent it to Michael’s mom. The day I first met Michael, he asked for my autograph. It made me feel like I just won the World Series. Michael had never met someone like me who had the same troubles as he did.

If I look back, I wish my mom didn’t have to cry so much. I wish that my school had tested me back in elementary school so that I did not struggle alone. I wish the word dyslexia was used all the time so all kids could know that some of the most successful people like Thomas Edison, Leonardo da Vinci, Steven Jobs, Sir Richard Branson, Walt Disney and JFK Jr. all had dyslexia.

If kids like me knew that dyslexia doesn’t have to do with intelligence but that we have a hard time understanding how sounds and letters go together, which makes it really, really hard to read. I wish kids knew that when a teacher read me a test I got a 107, but if I had to take a regular test and write the answers I would get a 67 or 57. When the teachers told my mom that I just had to study more, I wish the teacher knew that it wasn’t the material I didn’t know, it was the way that they were asking me to take the test.

I wish for so many things for the kids who struggle. I wish I could go back to my old school and talk to all the kids who feel stupid because of reading and tell them the truth about dyslexia. I wish for all of this and so much more for kids and for their moms and dads.

I hope that no kid spends another minute feeling stupid and sad.


Related Blog: OSERS Assistant Secretary Collett expressed his commitment to rethink special education in a blog post last month.


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.

Improving Early Childhood Intervention

Note: May is Better Hearing and Speech Month.

The Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC) logo

Infancy and early childhood are important times of life for all children, but more so for those who have delays in development. These delays may be from genetic conditions, disabilities, various risk conditions, or unknown reasons. While families may be the first to recognize a difference in their child’s developmental progress, professionals trained and licensed in early childhood intervention have the skills and knowledge to detect a developmental delay and to then provide intervention to remediate and/or minimize its impact on a child’s development.

Traditionally, professionals train in a single discipline that usually corresponds to an area of development. For example, speech-language pathologists are experts in the development of communication. Likewise, physical therapists are experts in a child’s physical or motor development. Additionally, most disciplines are trained to offer services and intervene across a broad age range—the lifespan of an individual. When a person completes a program of study in a discipline, the individual is then licensed in that discipline to provide services to persons across the lifespan.

These training and licensing practices create two challenges to providing effective early childhood intervention to infants and young children and their families:

  • Interventions may be focused to specific areas of development by discipline specific interventionists (e.g. an occupational therapist provides specific motor intervention and does not incorporate any other areas of development into her therapy/intervention); and
  • Interventions may be provided by a person who does not have any specific experience or competence in infancy or early childhood.

To address these challenges, the Early Childhood Personnel Center (ECPC), which is funded by the Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) at the U.S. Department of Education, joined representatives from seven national organizations to examine the professional knowledge, skills and competencies that all disciplines should have when providing intervention to infants and young children.*

First, ECPC identified personnel standards (i.e., knowledge and skill statements) for each of the disciplines represented by the organizations. This yielded 752 individual standards. The organizations and ECPC aligned and reduced these standards until four thematic areas emerged that encompassed all disciplinary standards. Representatives of the seven organizations endorsed these as equally important to all disciplines providing early childhood intervention services. These representatives also operationally defined each area, which are contained in the following table:

Operationalized Definitions of the Four Core Competency Areas

CORE COMPETENCY AREA DEFINITION
Family Centered Practice Family-Centered Practice is culturally competent practice in natural settings that involves and actively engages the family in decision-making and the provision of services/therapy.
Interventions Informed by Evidence Evidenced Based intervention requires the use of scientifically based evidence to inform all screening, assessment, intervention/instruction and evaluation delivered to an individual child and family. Databased intervention and instruction refers to the process of collecting data about a child’s level of performance and designing and implementing a plan (e.g. IEP, IFSP) of instruction/ intervention that is evidence-based and focused on remediating a child’s and family’s needs.
Coordination and Collaboration Coordination and collaboration refers to working across professionals from other disciplines and community organizations in every facet of intervention/instruction.
Professionalism Professionalism requires all who provide early childhood intervention to have knowledge and skills in the laws, policies, practices that govern their professional discipline. It also requires that all in early childhood intervention demonstrate professional ethics and advocacy with each infant, young child and family they work with. Professionals in early childhood intervention will also take responsibility to improve their knowledge and skills through professional development and self-reflection.

The organizations’ boards endorsed these areas and definitions, and the organizations are now working with the ECPC to identify and validate indicators for each competency area. Training and materials will then be developed for both preservice and in-service audiences to teach and support early intervention professionals from multiple disciplines to provide interventions for the infants and young children across developmental areas.

It should be noted that these competencies will not replace the need for therapists and teachers to retain expertise and be licensed in their own discipline to address the needs of the infant or child. Rather, it will help ensure the effectiveness of integrating all developmental areas into a child’s interventions.


* The seven organizations included: The Council of Exceptional Children (CEC), the Division of Early Childhood (DEC), the American Occupational Therapy Association (AOTA), the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA), the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA), the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) and Zero to Three.


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.

“Voices from the Field” Interview with Will Eiserman, ECHO Initiative

Will Eiserman with a back pack in the woods

Will Eiserman, Director, Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative at Utah State University.

Will Eiserman is the Director of the Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative, at the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management, Utah State University. As Director of the ECHO Initiative, he has led a national effort to assist Early, Migrant, and American Indian/Alaska Native Head Start programs in updating their hearing screening and follow-up practices. Working in close collaboration with a team of pediatric audiologists and other Early Hearing and Detection Initiative (EHDI) experts, Eiserman has been responsible for the design of training systems, mechanisms for tracking and follow-up, and evaluation strategies associated with early and continuous hearing screening activities. His career has focused on a variety of efforts to improve early intervention systems for children with special needs, and on meeting the psycho-social needs of children with craniofacial disfigurements and their families. Eiserman’s perspective is influenced by his extensive international and cross-cultural experiences that include work in Ecuador, Vietnam, Costa Rica, Russia, and Indonesia.


ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

WE: I first earned my doctorate in educational research and development, and then had an opportunity to do post-doctoral work in early intervention research that was funded by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP). The project, based at Utah State University, looked at a common set of assumptions about early intervention for young children with disabilities and developmental delays. This was back in the late 1980s, and we were exploring questions such as, “Is early really better in terms of when we intervene with children with disabilities? Is more intervention better than less? What types of interventions are more effective with children experiencing different types of developmental delays?” It was really exciting. Ours was part of the research that set the stage for developing the early intervention (EI) and early childhood special education (ECSE) programs that are now under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

I continued my work on EI/ECSE when I moved to the University of West Florida, where we focused on inclusion and family engagement. We provided a lot of training and technical assistance (TA) for local programs on supporting the role of families in EI, and helped programs think of ways to provide interventions for young children with disabilities in more inclusive environments. I then had an international opportunity through a Fulbright fellowship in Indonesia, where I taught research and development methods in social sciences.

A common thread across these experiences is the social integration and empowerment of individuals with special needs or disabilities. They allowed me to see how often there is a constellation of variables that impact the social placement of individuals with disabilities, and how that can be addressed through policies and support.

ED: What are periodic hearing screenings and why are they so important for healthy early learning and development?

WE: When you ask early childhood educators what is important for young children, one of the things they discuss is language development. Language is at the heart of social-emotional development, cognitive development, and school readiness. As conscientious as most early childhood professionals are about promoting language, there is less awareness about the importance of monitoring the status of hearing throughout the early years of development. We tend to think about language primarily as expressive, but we are not as attentive to receptive abilities. Monitoring children’s hearing status is an important investment in healthy language development. If there are concerns, we can intervene and ensure there is minimal impact on language development.

I direct the Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative, which is part of the National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management (NCHAM). NCHAM has been funded for over 25 years by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau (HRSA/MCHB) as a national resource center. It has been instrumental in expanding

  1. hearing screenings, and
  2. the follow-up that may be necessary based on the results of the hearing screening for young children.

Over the last two decades, significant advancements have been made through the provision of newborn hearing screenings. These screenings are now available to more than 95 percent of the children born in the U.S. This is transformative and has dramatically changed the life landscape for individuals who are born hard-of-hearing or deaf.

The work of the ECHO Initiative arose from the observed success of newborn hearing screening efforts across the nation. Recognizing the significant changes newborn hearing screening represented for children and families, the HHS Head Start Bureau (now Office of Head Start) raised an important question about the technology that was making newborn hearing screening possible: whether any of it could be used to continually monitor the status of hearing for the children ages birth–3 years old who were being served in Early Head Start (EHS) programs. Head Start and EHS programs are required to ensure that all children in their programs receive evidence-based hearing screenings. We couldn’t think of any reason why the newly available technology wouldn’t work with this population, but it had never been done. This would require EHS program staff to be trained to screen young children with the Otoacoustic Emissions (OAE) screening method. While research suggested increased likelihood that continuous screening would result in additional identification of children with hearing loss as a result of late-onset or progressive loss, we weren’t sure what we would actually find.

The ECHO Initiative began as a pilot project with a handful of EHS programs in three states: Oregon, Washington, and Utah. From this pilot we discovered that yes, we can train early childhood program staff to conduct the OAE screenings and, in fact, staff often already had the set of skills most needed for conducting the screenings—getting young children to cooperate! Additionally, we found that when you screen 0–3-year-olds with the OAE, you do in fact find children with hearing loss that have not been previously identified. Newborn hearing screening programs have been shown to identify approximately three babies in 1,000 with permanent hearing loss. We found that in the 0–3-years-old range, subsequent to newborn screening, we typically identify another one to three children in 1,000 who have permanent hearing loss. This finding was consistent with research that had suggested the incidence of permanent hearing loss doubles between birth and the time children enter school; from about three in 1,000 at birth, to about six in 1,000 when children reach school-age. This finding was very compelling and led to what has been a multi-decade commitment from the Office of Head Start, in collaboration with HRSA/MCHB, to support the provision of evidence-based hearing screening and follow-up practices for all children in EHS and Head Start across the nation. This has occurred through the availability of online resources, training, and TA. Our website includes a broad array of resources and information about training and TA opportunities that help promote evidence-based hearing screening for young children.

ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in promoting regular hearing screenings, and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?

WE: Obviously, the use of technology nearly always involves some costs. Hearing screening equipment has associated costs, whether you’re using OAE, the recommended hearing screening method for children 0–3 years of age, or Pure Tone screening (historically used with 3–5-year-olds). Training is critical and needs to be provided in a timely fashion. It should also respond to high staff turnover, which is a reality in nearly all early care and education environments. To address these needs, the ECHO Initiative offers online trainings. We also partner with audiologists in locations across the country who can assist individual programs to conduct evidence-based hearing screening and follow-up practices.

Another challenge inherent in implementing any health or educational screening program has to do with ensuring the necessary follow-up occurs when children do not pass. There are multiple reasons why a child might not pass a hearing screening. Our data show that about 25 percent of children in the birth-to-age-3 range don’t pass the initial OAE hearing screening on one or both ears. We don’t recommend, however, that all of those children be referred for further evaluation. Instead, our protocol recommends screening these children again in 2 weeks, at which point we consistently see the “not pass” rate decline to about 8 percent. This may be due to screener error during the first screening; a transient condition that caused fluid in the middle ear and prevented an ear to pass the screening; or even a temporary wax blockage that worked its way out during the transpiring 2 weeks. For children who don’t pass the second screening, we recommend families go to a health care provider for a middle ear evaluation and treatment, if necessary. It is not uncommon that these children are found to have had an ear infection that wasn’t noted. This is not the completion of the screening process, however. Once any middle ear disorder is addressed, we screen the child again to see if they pass. If they still do not pass, then the child is referred to a pediatric audiologist for a complete audiological evaluation. You can see that there are potential challenges in supporting families to complete these many follow-up steps. Additionally, the availability of pediatric audiologists can present as a challenge. We have found that EHS and Head Start staff are often very skilled and innovative in supporting families through the completion of all follow-up, and recognizing that monitoring hearing is a critical part of promoting language development during the early years.

Spreading the message about the importance of hearing screenings is an ongoing challenge. We want to increase the awareness of this for parents, caregivers, and providers of health and educational services throughout early childhood. Given that the status of hearing can change at any time in a child’s life, we cannot rely on any single screening, but must screen periodically. We’ve developed several short videos about the importance of monitoring hearing throughout early childhood, and we invite viewers to share them and help us spread the word:

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in expanding regular hearing screenings as part of high-quality early learning programs?

WE: We encourage people to explore the resources and learning opportunities we have available on the ECHO website. In developing our various resources, we have recognized that those doing hearing screening nearly always have many other responsibilities as well. We have tried to provide a comprehensive set of resources so that programs can easily develop evidence-based practices without having to recreate the wheel. And we’ve tried to provide resources that are applicable and relevant across a variety of early childhood program contexts, including center-based or home-based programs; rural or urban program settings; and programs serving children in Head Start-funded programs, IDEA Part C, or health care settings. We also try to make our resources helpful across our stakeholder groups, which include many partners with an interest in increasing periodic hearing screenings—health care providers, IDEA Part C early intervention programs, EHS and Head Start programs, child care providers, families, and the Early Hearing and Detection Initiative (EHDI) programs within states.

My final suggestion is to be aware of the assumptions we often make in early childhood. We don’t ever want to assume a child can hear before that has been verified. For example, even if a child turns toward sound, that doesn’t give you enough information to know that the child’s hearing is in the normal range. We also don’t want to just assume a child has been assessed. Unless you have ear-specific results from an objective screening that was conducted within the last year, you really can’t be certain of the current status of a child’s hearing. Finally, we must caution that, even if a child passes an objective hearing screening, any concerns about a child’s hearing ability or language development would warrant a referral for a complete audiological evaluation.


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.

Will Eiserman
Posted by
Director, Early Childhood Hearing Outreach (ECHO) Initiative, National Center for Hearing Assessment and Management, Utah State University

Autism—A Family’s Journey and the Lights Along the Way

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

Carolyn Hayer with son Chris and their family

Carolyn Hayer with son Chris and their family


Carolyn Hayer is the Director of Parent and Professional Development at the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) in New Jersey, a federally funded Parent Training and Information Center.


Autism.

There was a time when I couldn’t even say the word out loud. It was too painful, too devastating to utter. I wanted to believe that if I didn’t say the word, it didn’t exist. But it does exist; it’s real, and it’s beautiful, and it’s challenging all at the same time. And whether I say the word or not, my son Chris has autism.

I’ve been on this autism journey for 30 years now, more than half my life. Back in 1990, when Chris was first diagnosed, there was no autism awareness month, because there wasn’t autism awareness. Family, friends, and neighbors looked at me quizzically when I shared his diagnosis. What does that mean? How did he get it? How do you cure it? But I did not have the answers. Even the multitude of doctors we saw could not provide the answers. Since that time, there has been an exponential increase in the number of children diagnosed, and almost everyone has been touched by autism in some way. So today, when a family shares the diagnosis, others are usually aware of what it means.

As I reflect on the past 30 years I recall so many memories.I remember, as if it was yesterday, sitting in the doctor’s office; the diagnosis confirmed my fears following months of research into what might be causing the unusual behaviors of our little boy.

I remember…calling anyone and everyone I thought might help my family; the feelings of isolation at the playground, Sunday school, birthday parties, and all the other places where we just never seemed to fit in; the stress before every outing, wondering if there would be a meltdown or some other embarrassing event; wondering if my marriage would survive the stress; and the feelings of inadequacy for not parenting my children the way I thought I should have.

I remember the fear, guilt, and sheer terror of not knowing where my child was that day when he wandered off. But I also remember the intense relief and gratitude I felt when he was found.

I remember the vast uncertainty I felt when Chris was diagnosed, wondering what his life would be like as he grew to adulthood. And now that we have reached that point, I want to share some of the bright lights we encountered along the way, especially for those of you who may be new to the journey.

When he was four, I remember watching Chris climb aboard the school bus to begin the 45-minute ride to his “special” school. My gut told me that he needed to be with his community friends, and I spent years trying to persuade my school district to serve him in our local school. I learned about Chris’ right to be included with his neighborhood peers when I attended a workshop hosted by the New Jersey Statewide Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN), our state’s federally funded Parent Training and Information Center. SPAN became one of the bright lights on our path. The information our family received from SPAN allowed us to develop an IEP (individualized education program) that brought Chris back to our home district for high school. I remember watching anxiously as he disappeared into the building on his first day of high school, also his first day of school in a general education setting. Despite my concerns, I remember how kind and supportive Chris’ peers were to him; serving as beacons lighting our journey. I remember Chris learning math, reading, and how to play an instrument—things I was told he wouldn’t be able to do—and working with teachers who never gave up on him. And I will never forget, four years later, watching him climb into a limo with friends to attend the senior prom. My heart was so full of happiness and pride I thought it would burst.

This journey has taught me a great deal; autism has been my teacher for some of life’s most important lessons:

Gratitude.

Autism helps you to be grateful for the small things, the things you might have overlooked had they not been such a struggle to achieve: hugs, first words, friends, independence, general happiness and physical health. I’ve learned to take nothing for granted.

Community.

I continue to be in awe of, and inspired by, all the people we’ve met on this journey, most of whom have gone out of their way to help us any way they could: doctors, teachers, therapists, neighbors, friends, strangers, other families on the same path, and my colleagues at SPAN. Today, Chris has a circle of support that makes it possible for him to live a full, rich life. My husband and I appreciate the love and support of family; siblings have been caretakers and cheerleaders, and extended family members step up and help, no questions asked. Autism has taught me that I can’t do it all alone, no matter how hard I try. We need the support of others and must learn to accept it graciously.

Courage.

Fear is an everyday struggle on this journey. I fear what will happen today and in the near future, and dread what might happen to my child when I’m not able to care for him. I feel trepidation in trying something new, and doubt with every life decision. But sometimes I must take a leap of faith. In this, I have always been rewarded, either with success or increased knowledge, both very valuable. I have learned to trust in myself and follow my gut.

Forgiveness.

Of yourself and others. Don’t hold onto past mistakes and don’t carry the burden of anger and resentment toward others. Learn to let go, learn from your experiences, and move on.

Humor.

Laugh at yourself and your circumstances. Laughing releases endorphins and helps you feel good. We can learn a lot by seeing the world through a different lens and by not taking things—or ourselves—too seriously.

In closing, what I want to share with you more than anything is how immensely proud I am of Chris and all he has accomplished. He is a 30-year-old man living with autism, working and volunteering in the community, and often struggling to find his voice and get by in a world that can be overwhelming for him. Yet he manages to do it with dignity and grace, with unwavering support from the circle of love and light that surrounds him—his parents, siblings, and extended family; his peers, support staff, and therapists; our neighbors and friends. I shall always be thankful for Chris and the guiding lights that autism brought into our lives.


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.

“Voices from the Field”
Interview with Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel

Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel from Jolly Toddlers

Nancy Thompson and Janine Figiel from Jolly Toddlers

Nancy Thompson
Nancy is the owner and director of Jolly Toddlers, a thriving high-quality early education center. She opened this child care center in 1984 to meet the needs of local families looking for high-quality care. Nancy graduated from Fitzgerald-Mercy School of Nursing with a degree in nursing, becoming a registered nurse (RN). Later she attained an undergraduate degree in early childhood and elementary education, as well as a master’s degree in counseling from Gwynedd Mercy College. Nancy is the proud mother of four children, and grandmother to six beautiful grandchildren.
Janine Figiel
Janine is the Jolly Toddlers assistant director and the center’s facilitator of the Pyramid Model/PBIS. Janine graduated from Seton Hall University with a bachelor’s degree in psychology. After college, Janine worked as a human resource manager in her family’s business while raising her two children. Human interaction and positive reinforcement has always been one of her interests so when Nancy Thompson asked her to help facilitate the Pyramid Model/PBIS pilot program at Jolly Toddlers, she was thrilled. Janine has been at Jolly Toddlers since 2010 and has since received a Child Development Associate (CDA) certificate as well as a director’s diploma in early childhood education.

The Pyramid Model

The Pyramid Model, as referred to throughout this post, is a Positive Behavior Intervention and Support (PBIS) framework for young children. It is a tiered intervention model made up of evidenced-based practices. At the base (tier 1), are the universal supports for all children, provided through nurturing and responsive relationships and high-quality environments. The second tier (tier 2) is made up of prevention practices that target social and emotional strategies to prevent problems. The final tier (tier 3) consists of practices related to individualized intensive interventions for children with pervasive challenging behavior that need more than tier 1 and 2 supports and practices.

ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?

NT: I started my career as a nurse and was a visiting nurse for several years. When I had my own children, I became really interested in early childhood education (ECE). I knew how to physically take care of my children but didn’t know how to promote their learning and development. I decided to take some ECE classes and went back to school. I learned about the importance of the environment you create for young children and supporting social and emotional development. Eventually, I earned a degree in counseling. I thought it was critical to understand what is going on in children’s minds, what motivates children, and the best ways to support their growth and development. Then I decided to start my own business and opened a child care center to meet the needs of local women who were going back to work six weeks after having a baby. I was shocked because I couldn’t imagine, as a working mom, having to find care for a baby that young. I thought that with my background in nursing, education, and counseling I could create a child care center that would meet the needs of babies. We started out serving seven children and now, 33 years later, we have 25 employees and serve 110 kids ages 6 weeks to 6 years old.

JF: I graduated with a psychology degree and was thinking of applying to law school but decided to have children and work from home. I did this for many years while my children were young. I’m close friends with Nancy’s daughter and about eight years ago Nancy called me to see if I wanted to volunteer in her center and help her implement Pyramid Model/PBIS. I didn’t know anything about Pyramid Model/PBIS, but with my background in psychology it seemed like a good fit. I started out as a volunteer and loved it. I went back to school, took ECE courses, and earned my director’s diploma in early childhood education. Now, I am committed to our center and to implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS.

ED: What is the Pyramid Model/PBIS and why did you decide to implement it?

NT: For us, Pyramid Model/PBIS is all about being respectful to one another. You can walk into a center doing Pyramid Model/PBIS and it will take just a few minutes to realize that it feels different. Teachers are respectful to each other and the children, administrators are respectful to teachers, and staff are respectful to families. We actually teach children expectations and rules, and then we teach them strategies for sharing, making friends, and being kind. When I first learned about Pyramid Model/PBIS, I knew I wanted to implement it. There was an opportunity through our local early childhood intermediary unit to pilot Pyramid Model/PBIS. They offered to provide us with the initial training and a coach. We’ve been implementing with fidelity (the degree to which an intervention is delivered as intended) for 6 years. We’ve really seen it transform our center’s climate. There is much more collaboration and there is no gossiping; teachers really help each other out. Across the center we are clear and consistent about expectations of classroom rules and playground rules. We also use visual schedules to facilitate children’s understanding of what their day looks like.

JF: Nancy knew what she wanted to do, she just needed a name for it and some support. Pyramid Model/PBIS fits perfectly with her vision. Leadership is critical to implementation, so having her committed has been really important. Implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS isn’t easy; it takes about 3-5 years to get to a place where you are implementing with fidelity. It requires teachers being aware of how they talk to one another and to children. It is a tiered framework for figuring out how to support children in their social and emotional development. When implementing, centers must determine the specific strategies that will work best in their particular center. We have been focused on the bottom tier of creating a safe, warm, and nurturing environment. We have built in a lot of reward systems for the children; our goal is to catch them being good. Staff said they wanted a “reward” system too and soon the teachers started acknowledging one another, thanking each other, and recognizing accomplishments. Pyramid Model/PBIS really opened us up and bridged a gap we had with positive communication and collaboration across staff.

ED: How has your work with implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS improved the quality of early learning and development?

JF: We are a star 4 program (the highest quality) in our state’s quality rating and improvement system (QRIS), Keystone STARS. Implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS is a big part of why our rating is high. Children attending our center are happy; you don’t hear teachers yelling. The overall climate is wonderful. With Pyramid Model/PBIS, our teachers have been equipped with tools to meet the needs of all the children who attend. Twenty-five percent of our children are children with disabilities—our environment is an inclusive one. Pyramid Model/PBIS gave our teachers confidence to support all of the children, and to meaningfully collaborate with the therapists and special education professionals that come into our classrooms to work with the children with disabilities. Our teachers feel empowered to problem-solve and to figure out what works in an inclusive environment. In addition to the supportive climate we’ve created, our teachers take advantage of the great resources about implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS available online.

NT: Helping those with special needs is a priority for us and it has helped our overall quality improve. We regularly monitor children’s progress using the Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ). Families don’t always catch when a child is struggling. We now have the tools to help parents, so if there is a real issue we can help families get the child the services they need. Pyramid Model/PBIS gave us a framework for understanding when a child may need more intensive intervention, and showed us the importance of monitoring children’s progress.

ED: What are some of the challenges you’ve encountered with implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS and any strategies you’ve used to overcome them?

NT: When change comes to a center there are those that will resist. When we decided to implement Pyramid Model/PBIS, I told our coach that some of our staff may not stay working with the center. In order for this to work, you need to have staff buy-in and for both administrators and staff to truly believe this approach is the right thing to do. I was prepared to potentially lose staff, and we did, but long-term Pyramid Model/PBIS has actually reduced our teacher turnover rate. I believe it’s because the teachers are happy and love to come to work. When we bring on new staff, they are supported by the veteran teachers. For example, if a new teacher starts and doesn’t know how to set up a classroom to maximize positive social, emotional and behavioral development, our veteran teachers will work with them and discuss what works and what doesn’t with a particular age group.

JF: Another big issue for us has been when we have a child with significant needs, but that child hasn’t been identified as qualifying for special education. We need extra help to support the child, and this can add a lot of stress for our teachers. At times we have hired extra teachers to provide the support. We know that if this child receives the interventions and attention early, they will thrive, but it can be hard for us as a small business. Our teachers are great at being resourceful and problem-solving; they usually get online and try to find creative approaches.

NT: Janine is the internal coach at the center. She works really hard to support our teachers when we have a child with more intensive needs. We are still trying to figure out what this support looks like, particularly when we don’t have access to other professionals to help us problem solve. We are seeing more and more children with behavioral issues, born with drug addiction, and with parents in jail; the kids and parents in these situations are tired, and it takes a lot of energy to help and support them. One solution we’ve found involves working with and educating families. We have shared a lot of Pyramid Model/PBIS resources with our families. When a child is really struggling with behavioral issues, we will collect and share data about the child’s behavior with their family and then develop a plan with strategies that can be used at both home and school.

ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in promoting positive social, emotional, and behavioral development in young children?

JF: My advice for a program interested in Pyramid Model/PBIS is to start small, with easy and concrete steps for teachers. Lay it out for them and incorporate their strengths. For example, our teachers were really visually creative and focused on making things pretty, so one of the first things we did was to work on posting rules and expectations visually, including visual schedules that helped kids know what was happening each day. Also, implementing Pyramid Model/PBIS is a process, so be aware that you will likely have to go back and make changes to what you are doing. It really does take 3-5 years, so start small. Some other things we implemented early were bucket-filling books and beginning to teach children to recognize and understand different emotions. These were concrete strategies teachers could begin to use in order to see positive change.

NT: Also be flexible as an administrator. You may need to move teachers around. For example, we had to move a teacher to a different age group. You also need to think about how you staff your classrooms. I know that I want a teacher in each classroom that knows those children every day, so we make sure that happens; we staff our classrooms intentionally. We don’t put all of our kids in one big room at the end of the day. It is critical for kids to have their “own” room, and for the teachers in that classroom to really know them. My final suggestion is to be thoughtful about communicating with families on a regular basis.

JF: Hold onto your vision but be flexible. Take staff buy-in seriously. This can take time, but once teachers see the positive impact of the new strategies, they become more engaged. Providing structure, establishing clear expectations for kids, redirecting and replacing behavior with something positive—these strategies give teachers the tools to support all children. It is powerful when they use the strategies with a child with challenging behaviors and they see that it works. Our teachers also now recognize the importance of teaching kids social skills. Some children need to be taught how to play, make friends, and behave, and our center now has the tools to do this! Another important thing to remember is that Pyramid Model/PBIS looks different in every classroom and every center. It is an overall feeling of positivity and support among staff, children, families, and administration. It’s building a welcoming atmosphere as opposed to completing a checklist of things you do every day.


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.

Another Journey

Note: April is National Autism Awareness Month.

The Bae family during trip to England

The Bae family during trip to England

Just like any other school day, Eugene, my son with autism, left on the bus this morning to go to a day program provided by our school district. For the last 20 years, he and I wait for the bus by sitting on our front porch. As he steps on the bus, he shouts at me with his happy high-pitched voice, “Bye Mom!” This is our ritual to begin each new day, to meet that day’s challenges, emotions, promises, and hopes.

In June this year, he will age out from the district program. I cannot help being emotional whenever I think about his first day of preschool and the journey that Eugene and our family have been on since then. On that day, I cried in the car for two hours after separating from my miserable, crying child.

Since that first day, school has been a challenging place for both Eugene and me. While Eugene was learning the alphabet and phonics, I studied the never-ending list of special education acronyms.

Just like other special education moms in this world, when my child cried about his school work, I wept on my steering wheel, but when he was happy in school, I felt like I had the world on a string. At times, figuring out how to navigate the world of special education for our son with autism while struggling with his atypical behaviors seemed like a brutal mission for a family like us, and we often felt we were not understood, not just because of our heavy Korean accents

However, our fundamental concern has not changed in these 20 years, and that is to help our son reach the final destination for his journey—Eugene being able to live an independent and inclusive life in the community. Of course, this is the same concern shared by thousands of moms and dads who have children with disabilities.

Young and Eugene Bae

Young and Eugene Bae

As a family we have had to adjust the sails of our ship quite a lot to reach this destination. We had to get past phrases like “below average range” or “socially maladjusted” since they were not helpful in steering the path for our son. As a family, we now see more clearly the incredible strengths and positive qualities of a young man who is able to say proudly “I am a person with autism.” We have learned that it is more helpful for us to make sure that Eugene is in the center of all service plans than putting systems first and having him fit around these systems.

Because of putting Eugene at the center, we have become more efficient in figuring out how to change the world around us and finding the resources we and Eugene need to reach our goal. As Eugene grew, our family grew too and our minds opened up to the new experiences that our son brought us.

I am not completely positive about Eugene’s future in the community. I see and feel the gaps between how my family and how society see the possibility of Eugene becoming a “successful” member of the community, and how we define success.

Many people still have a difficult time moving away from the stereotype that measures people with autism and other developmental disabilities as a social cost. However, I also believe that our society is moving in a better direction, becoming more able to envision a person with a disability as a valuable asset.

We have witnessed the notably increased capacity of our schools and workplaces to accommodate individuals with disabilities since the first form of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act became law in 1975. These accomplishments were not possible without the sacrifices and efforts of so many parents, educators, and leaders of this country. Today, their legacy continues through the next generation of families, educators, and leaders, and it only expands as we as a family sail toward the final destination of our journey.

The next three months will be an interesting time for our family. Frankly, it makes me nervous thinking that Eugene will no longer be in the classroom. There will be no more IEP meetings to attend and no school buses to pick him up.

Eugene and our family know that this is a start of the next stage of journey. However, this time, Eugene will be the captain of the ship, steering us toward that goal of independence and community inclusion. This time, I am not crying; I will take a deep breath to prepare myself for another thrilling sea of possibilities and opportunities.


Young Seh Bae, Ph.D. is Executive Director of Community Inclusion & Development Alliance (CIDA) a federally funded Community Parent Resource Center in Queens, New York. She was a faculty member of Teachers College, Columbia University, and served as president of Korean-American Behavioral Health Association.


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.