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Partnership provides teachers with hands-on experience with students with disabilities

Teachers working with student
Master's student Maria Priore (right) works with a student, while Emily Mondschein (far left), a parent and executive director of GiGi’s Playhouse Buffalo, watches the lesson. Photo: Meredith Forrest Kulwicki

UB has partnered with GiGi’s Playhouse Down Syndrome Achievement Center of Buffalo to provide UB students with in-classroom experience teaching students with disabilities.

The pilot program — developed as part of the independent study course GiGi’s Playhouse Experiential Learning — allowed a handful of UB students to earn credit toward internship or professional teaching certifications by providing individualized tutoring to preschool and elementary-age children with Down syndrome.

The course addresses a critical gap in preparation for future teachers to educate children with disabilities, a need that has become more urgent as schools increasingly integrate classrooms to include students with learning differences, says co-instructor Claire Cameron, associate professor of learning and instruction, Graduate School of Education.

“Most students who qualify for special education spend 80% or more of their time in typical classroom settings. Decades of classroom-based research show that students with disabilities benefit from inclusion, or learning alongside their typically developing peers whenever possible,” says Cameron. “With the nationwide wave of retiring teachers, there is a shortage of special education teachers. Colleges must prepare professionals, including teachers, to work effectively with exceptional people.”

Gigi’s Playhouse is a nonprofit that provides free educational and career development programs for individuals with Down syndrome, their families and the community through a playhouse model. The facility in Buffalo, which opened in August 2020, is the 49th location in the United States and Mexico.

The GiGi’s Playhouse Experiential Learning course syllabus was co-developed by Krystal Starke, doctoral candidate in the Graduate School of Education and classroom instructor at UB’s Early Childhood Research Center.

Through the course, students reviewed research literature on educating children with Down syndrome, then turned their knowledge into practice by volunteering in the Gigi’s Playhouse One-on-One Literacy Tutoring Program.

The students were matched with families and employed a hybrid model of weekly Zoom sessions and in-person lessons to provide personalized activities. For the final project, students developed at-home lessons and activities for families to use with their child.

“There are certain skills, such as behavior management and tailoring curriculum and instruction styles to unique student profiles, that are limited during formal instruction. Experiential learning teaches our future teachers these skills by allowing them to observe and practice them in real time,” says Starke, whose dissertation will explore neurological functioning during play-based learning in both young children with autism and young children with Down syndrome.

Cameron and Starke hope to open the program to dozens more UB students by expanding the partnership to include other community locations specializing in teaching youth with special needs. They will also conduct research that measures the effectiveness of the program.

“Exceptional individuals are an integral part of our society,” says Cameron. “We can do more to educate all members of society about the gifts and advantages to everyone when exceptional people are meaningfully included in our classrooms, workplaces and communities.”

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