University center working to help students with cognitive disabilities

The pilot program is being implemented at schools in Maryland.

Chuying Xie

Researchers at the University are rolling out a program to help make learning environments more inclusive for students with significant cognitive disabilities. 

The University’s TIES Center is in the process of conducting a pilot program in Maryland that aims to level the educational playing field between students with disabilities and their peers. If the five-year program is successful, the center hopes to move on to national implementation. 

“So often students with most significant cognitive disabilities, there are low expectations for them. They don’t really have the opportunities to high-quality instruction that they really should. We felt there was a real need for more inclusion of this population in general education classrooms,” said Sheryl Lazarus, director of the TIES Center and lead researcher of the program. 

Lazarus and researchers from the University’s National Center on Educational Outcomes met with a team of educators, partner organizations and education departments in Maryland earlier this month to plan the project and select schools for the pilot program. 

The program is receiving a $2 million grant each year of implementation from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs. Funding started in September 2017 and will continue for five years, Lazarus said.  

As a part of the program, researchers will train teachers on how to engage with students who have cognitive disabilities. Part of the training includes informational packets teaching instructors on how they interact with students. 

“If you are going to test kids and have high expectations for what they are going to learn, you also need instructional materials that will help and support teachers in instructing this population,” Lazarus said.

The center is trying to ask teachers to look for the needs of each student individually, said Maci Brown, a former special education teacher and graduate research assistant in the center. 

The program is also promoting the integration of students with cognitive disabilities and special education teachers into general classrooms. Brown said teachers hoping to create inclusive classrooms face the difficulty of tolerating challenging behaviors while supporting students.

“Students with disabilities are missing out on taking meaningful participation in the classrooms and students without disabilities are also missing out on communicating with these peers too,” Brown said. “People with disabilities are members of our society and they should be able to have the same educational opportunities as the rest of us,” she said. 

Amanda Shopa, a former teacher and another graduate research assistant for the center, met with local school administrators and teachers in Maryland this month to discuss the implementation of the program. 

“The most important thing is getting to talk to people who are in that space otherwise you’ve got too distant of a view and you can’t necessarily see what they need,” Shopa said.

Two school districts in Maryland will become the first sites to implement the program in 2019.