UMaine receives federal grant to train special educators, other professionals to support young children with high-intensity communication needs

The University of Maine will provide funding to support 40 graduate students working toward master’s degrees in special education or communication sciences and disorders with an early childhood intervention focus thanks to a nearly $1.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education Programs.

The Cross-disciplinary Online Training to promote Augmentative and Alternative Communication and Tele-Intervention for Maine (CONTAACT-ME) project will train educators to support young children with intensive communication needs and their families, including the use of augmentative and alternative communication tools. UMaine will receive $249,950 from the U.S. DOE during the first year of the grant, with continued funding expected for five years.

Deborah Rooks-Ellis, assistant professor of special education in the College of Education and Human Development’s School of Learning and Teaching and director of the Maine Autism Institute for Education and Research, will lead the project. Partners include Jennifer Seale, assistant professor in the UMaine Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders, and the Maine Department of Education.

“Infants and young children with high-intensity needs also commonly have communication impairments, which when left unaddressed increase a child’s risk for limited cognitive, language and social development,” Rooks-Ellis says.

The goals of CONTAACT-ME include teaching master’s students evidence-based strategies for working with children with disabilities who also have specialized communication needs and their families, with an emphasis on children and families in rural, remote and sparsely populated areas with limited access to resources. The project will use research-based tele-intervention practices to provide equity and access and to support language and cognitive skill development for young children.

“Early interventionists and speech-language pathologists serving this population are critical for helping families, related service providers and educators recognize the ways in which they can support a child’s social skill development,” says Rooks-Ellis.

UMaine is the only institution in the state to provide graduate programs in early childhood intervention and communication sciences and disorders. The CONTAACT-ME program will assist students in earning a master’s degree that leads to state-approved certification in early childhood special education (birth-age 5). Speech-language pathology students will earn a master’s in communication sciences and disorders with an early intervention concentration.

Contact: Casey Kelly,