Maine Schools in Focus: The ABC’s of EBPs—Translating evidence-based practice to usable interventions for Maine’s educators working with students with autism
Deborah L. Rooks-Ellis, Assistant Professor of Special Education
The prevalence of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased markedly over the past two decades, rising from 2 per 10,000 in 1990 to 1 in 50 (CDC, 2015). A diagnosis of ASD usually includes deficits in the areas of social skills, language and communication, and the presence of repetitive and restricted behaviors. However, the exact characteristics and the impact on everyday functioning will be different for each child. Teachers may find it difficult to effectively meet their students’ needs in the classroom, given these unique challenges.
The increase in prevalence of students with ASD is accompanied by the demand for teachers to instruct using evidence-based practices (EBP). Both the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA, 2004) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA, 2016) require that schools use programs, curricula, and practices supported by established evidence whenever possible. This means teachers are accountable for implementing evidence-based instructional strategies with their students with disabilities, including students with autism. However, the burden of accountability is also placed on the school districts to provide professional development on EBPs to educators serving students with disabilities.
Although the use of EBPs in schools is federally mandated, Maine’s educators report that identifying and staying current with research for individuals with ASD can be a daunting task. Likewise, school districts charged with planning for EBP professional development and training often report feeling overwhelmed with distinguishing between effective strategies and misinformation. To address these and other EBP concerns expressed by teachers and districts, the Maine Department of Education Special Services director and the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development Special Education faculty established the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research (MAIER).
MAIER strives to build statewide capacity to improve outcomes for individuals with ASD in various ways, with a priority of providing EBP professional development and training. We define professional development (PD) as structured professional learning that results in changes in teacher practices and improvements in student learning outcomes. MAIER’s model of professional development includes the following components: 1) focused content on EBPs, 2) active learning, 3) collaboration, 4) models of effective instruction, 5) ongoing coaching, 6) feedback and reflection, and 7) sustainable practice supports.
MAIER’s Maine Autism Leader Team PD uses a team-based approach to professional learning, with a required team composition of administrators, general educators, special educators, related service providers and educational technicians. This team approach supports what we know about creating sustainable change within systems. To date, 48 districts and agencies throughout Maine have participated in and completed the Maine Autism Leader Team training. The 6-day comprehensive EBP PD includes: 1) characteristics of ASD, medical diagnosis and special education eligibility, 2) foundational EBPs and a comprehensive autism planning system, 3) academic supports, environmental structure, sensory supports, and generalization, 4) social skill deficit vs performance deficit, and strategies for building skills and increasing performance, 5) communication supports including augmentative and alternative communication, and 6) challenging behaviors including proactive strategies, characteristics of ASD that impact behavior, and functional behavior assessment.
Coaching is an integral part of the Maine Autism Leader Team PD. Used as a form of embedded professional development, MAIER coaches build competency and capacity of district/agency teams and help to create a culture of professional learning within the school or system. Coaching is a sustainability feature of the MAIER PD model, giving teams an opportunity to apply the EBP content learned, participate in discussions, and develop a joint action plan with goals that will improve student outcomes. Coaches work to develop a shared understanding by team members of the priorities outlined in the team action plan, and team members use data to determine the progress of priorities and to inform next steps.
Maine Autism Leader Teams continue to reflect on the impact of their professional learning experience. Teams co-wrote statements describing the impact for their school districts, and a few of these success stories are shared here.
Augusta MALT developed recurring training sessions to support staff implementation of EBPs. “Our TEAM exudes collaboration – each staff member ever watchful and very aware of each students’ challenges, an eagerness to learn and understand because every little bit of knowledge can help support all of our students, not just those on the spectrum.”
RSU 12 MALT celebrated their connection to families. “Over the last two years, our MALT team has made things common practice within the autism program such as home/school communication logs and a family activities night. We engage in extensive planning so that students can join their peers on field trips. Our students participate in the community garden, growing, maintaining, and harvesting. Each year culminates with a social dinner, so family and staff have the opportunity to connect.”
SAD 40 MALT focused on providing more training opportunities to their staff. “We use one day of staff development as well as monthly early release days to build programming, collaborate with other professionals, and provide hands-on practice for competency building.”
RSU 39 MALT created lasting partnerships through community outreach. “We have a presence at orientations and conferences, we collect resources to share with families, we set up displays so parents and students know who to contact for support, we work closely with law enforcement, the local hospital, and first responders to educate our community. With the combined efforts of the Caribou Police Department and our team, we have implemented a community safety program for children with ASD to help protect against the dangers of wandering. We are creating a stronger support system in our community for students with ASD.”
For more information about our work, please visit the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research website.
Special thanks to Jan Breton, Director of Special Services Birth-20, Maine Department of Education, for her ongoing support for this project.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – https://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html
IDEA – https://idea.ed.gov/
Any opinions, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in the Maine Schools in Focus briefs are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect institutional positions or views of the College of Education and Human Development or the University of Maine.