by Julie Lineback

The University of West Georgia recently received a $204,000 grant from the Alice Huffard Richards Foundation that will enable the College of Education (COE) to further support the community in learning and language development of children from birth to age 5. The grant is in collaboration with the Marcus Autism Center (MAC) and the Carroll-Carrollton Education Collaborative (CCEC), which will provide extensive training to help early childhood intervention specialists, childcare providers, parents and healthcare professionals to identify developmental disabilities, including Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD).

UWG College of Education students working with a child in the Comprehensive Community Clinic.Dr. Laura Smith, COE associate dean and director of the COE’s Comprehensive Community Clinic (CCC), said the grant helps create an “ecosystem of care” that will utilize MAC facility-based services for early identification and diagnosis, parent education and parent-mediated training, and educational and treatment services in Carroll, Heard and Haralson counties.

Since 2008, MAC has provided services for more than 300 patients from these counties. Most reports and statistics for ASD and other developmental disorders have focused on children past the preschool level, but research suggests early detection and intervention can result in gains to developmental outcomes, such as language, cognitive and reading skills.

“Often, if a child isn’t diagnosed with a developmental delay or learning disability until kindergarten, there isn’t enough time to prepare the child for reading on grade level by third grade,” said Smith, who added that more than 60 percent of Carroll County children are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade.

“Reading development begins at birth and is extremely complex. The Early Learning Team of the CCEC identified this need for our community and began to shift our focus to birth to 5,” she continued. “The school systems do a fabulous job once the children get there. However, there isn’t an entity you can go to easily reach parents and caregivers of children ages birth to 5. If they are not in a positive environment by the time they get to kindergarten, we have lost critical periods of brain development . That’s why we are focused on early childhood development beginning with prenatal care and education.

Smith explained that the ecosystem consists of two MAC programs—the Autism Navigator (AN) and Social Emotional Engagement-Knowledge and Skills (SEE-KS). Both use train-the-trainer models.

Coaches from the MAC Infant and Toddler Community Outreach program will facilitate the AN program, which employs a screening instrument for developmental delays and communication issues. The course allows early childhood caregivers to gain the knowledge and skills to better identify, assess and intervene with young children who are at risk for development disorder vulnerabilities such as ASD.

The MAC Educational Outreach Program will facilitate the SEE-KS training for preschools in Carrollton and Carroll, Heard and Haralson counties. SEE-KS fosters a positive learning environment through communication and positive interactions.

Smith described the training as a large undertaking. Beginning in January 2018, COE will train approximately 25 people in various professions. As the program grows, a sustainability plan will be developed for each entity.

“We aren’t anticipating a huge gain this upcoming year in reading scores,” Smith noted. “However, because we are out with this message, our school systems are responding with a sense of urgency and focus on early literacy as well. They are becoming aware of the urgency, and we are already seeing some changes. As we look to markers five and six years out, we are hoping to see major differences and changes.”

The grant will also provide UWG and West Georgia Technical College faculty training, which will be incorporated into course work for education students. Drs. Lama Farran and Twyla Perryman from the Department of Communication Sciences and Professional Counseling will join Drs. Katy Green and Cindy Head from the Department of Literacy and Special Education in representing UWG.

Farran, associate professor and program coordinator of communication sciences and disorders, said she plans to use the SEE-KS module for learning to disseminate current social neuroscience research.

“This will likely improve interaction dynamics among teachers and children with and without ASD, thereby transforming classroom culture and resulting in positive developmental and academic outcomes for all students,” she explained.

“Although SEE-KS has been used with teachers and educators since 2015, this grant provides the first opportunity to use SEE-KS with speech-language pathologists (SLPs),” she added. “Importantly, no such training exists for SLPs at the pre-professional level. I am excited to be part of the UWG team to spearhead this work.”

With faculty members incorporating the material into their course work, UWG graduates will already be trained as they start at the state level.

“They will have the knowledge and skills to move right into training others,” Smith concluded. “Not only will our school systems benefit, but UWG will as well. It’s a unique partnership for the common goal of building community capacity in early development.”

Posted on November 28, 2017