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College of Education to train special education teachers and school psychologists together in interdisciplinary program funded by $1.04 million grant

College of Education to train special education teachers and school psychologists together in interdisciplinary program funded by $1.04 million grant

Emma Carberry | December 16, 2019

Faculty in the College of Education are launching an interdisciplinary advanced degree program that will train special education teachers and school psychologists together to better prepare them to collaboratively serve children with learning and behavioral needs in schools. The program is funded by a $1.04 million grant from the Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) that will allow the College of Education to fully fund ten students pursuing a master’s degree in special education and ten students pursuing a specialist degree in school psychology over a period of five years.

a school psychology student talks to a young girl with a flip chart between the pair

The program, called Partnering Assessment and Intervention Responsiveness in Interdisciplinary Teams (PAIR-IT), will enroll its first cohort of five special education master’s students and five school psychology specialist students in Fall 2020 and another cohort will begin in Fall 2021. Students in the two disciplines will have share select coursework, complete assignments together, and perhaps most uniquely, be placed in dyads for the program’s field work components, consisting of both practicum placements and an internship year. This joint field work allows students’ collaborative learning to continue outside of the classroom and prepares them to serve on interdisciplinary teams in their future roles.

PAIR-IT was borne of associate professor Dr. Cathy Thomas’ desire to find a sustainable solution to the prominent shortages and high rates of attrition in the special education field. Thomas was the beneficiary of an OSEP grant herself as a doctoral student, and when OSEP released a grant competition focused on interdisciplinary preparation for personnel serving children with disabilities earlier this year, she was immediately interested in pursuing it. Because studies have shown that graduate school training increases retention for teachers, Thomas framed her grant proposal in recruiting students to Texas State’s special education master’s program. More specifically, she was interested in recruiting students seeking a first-time special education certification in order to bring new teachers into the field.

Special education teachers and school psychologists work together in school districts to provide learning and behavioral interventions for students, including special education students and to identify students with disabilities, so it was also logical to Thomas that these two disciplines should also be trained together in their advanced degree programs. “The first day they step onto a school campus, they sit at the same table with somebody who uses different jargon and has a completely different specialty set,” she says of the professions. Through PAIR-IT, Thomas hopes to bridge these communication barriers by training future special education teachers and school psychologists to become consultants to and collaborators with each other.

So, Thomas asked Dr. Jon Lasser, professor in the College of Education’s school psychology program, to partner with her on this project. Lasser had just completed the very successful Project SUPERB, an OSEP-funded grant aimed at training bilingual school psychologists, and enthusiastically signed onto PAIR-IT, noting that school psychology has also been experiencing shortages in the field over the past decade due to a heightened demand. Lasser sees PAIR-IT as an opportunity to train school psychologists to be better consultants to special education teachers by arming them with improved knowledge of their colleagues’ capacities and skill sets that will enable them to collaboratively support students.

The third member of the PAIR-IT team, assistant professor Dr. Alyson Collins, agrees that improved communication is a key piece of the program’s intended outcomes. By learning and training together, Collins says, students will have a better insight moving forward of how communication between their two roles should look, know what questions to ask, and have the confidence to be able to talk to the each other because of their deeper understanding of their respective roles. Collins was also the recipient of an OSEP grant during her doctoral work and feels a sense of pride in being able to provide her students with a similar experience.

Beyond training new professionals, PAIR-IT aims to improve how children with disabilities are identified and how services are provided to them. Thomas hopes this interdisciplinary training will contribute to a tiered support system in which both professionals can work together to match instruction and intervention to student needs. Stabilizing the workforce is another important intended outcome for Thomas. The OSEP grant requires PAIR-IT students to remain in their respective fields for one year for each year they receive funding, which will help to alleviate the shortages of professionals in both fields.

Ultimately, Thomas hopes to institutionalize these interdisciplinary partnerships at Texas State and to continue training professionals in collaborative fields together. “It’s just a logical fit,” Thomas says, “everybody benefits from both a highly trained special education teacher and a highly trained school psychologist.”