SIU’s $5.8M special ed project aims  to help keep students with disabilities in Illinois schools

SIU junior special education students Jillian Hulcher, of Springfield, Illinois, and Angie Hargrave, from Anna, Illinois, have gained valuable experience and enhanced their learning as they’ve worked on the Behavior Assessment Training (BAT) Program. Photo by Russell Bailey

March 20, 2023

SIU’s $5.8M special ed project aims to help keep students with disabilities in Illinois schools

by Christi Mathis

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A Southern Illinois University Carbondale team has launched a 2-year project to help educators around the state find effective ways to help students with disabilities and behavioral concerns stay in school rather than face disciplinary action such as suspension or expulsion, thanks to a $5.841 million Special Education Behavior Assessment Training (BAT) Project contract with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE).

“It’s all about the success of students, especially students who need help and an education the most,” said Deborah Bruns, SIU special education program coordinator and professor and a project co-PI. “We want to raise awareness and provide the resources and assistance to help special education professionals do their work as effectively as possible. We also want to help teachers, school administrators and others who work with special education children address any disproportionate administration of behavioral punishment through building stronger classrooms and sound, effective administrative practices.”

Those goals are being accomplished via the SIU/ISBE Behavior Assessment Training (BAT) project.

“We gather data and information for a thorough assessment, take all of that information and couple it with the rich expertise of our team and other experts and create presentations and comprehensive, professional training to help special educators and other professionals,” said Harvey Henson, the director of the STEM Education Research Center and associate professor with joint appointments in the School of Education and School of Earth Systems and Sustainability who serves as principal investigator for the contract.

Already about 100 people from 54 educational settings across Illinois have participated in BAT training events since it launched in fall 2022. This includes special and general education teachers, school social workers and administrators from school districts throughout the state, and regional offices of education and more.

And SIU students involved in the project are gaining valuable experience through their participation.

Early successes

Those receiving BAT project assistance, such as the Freeport School District 145 in northwest Illinois, say it is much needed and appreciated. The district, located near Rockford, is home to about 3,500 students, including about 500 receiving special education services, said Daniel Holder, assistant superintendent of pupil personnel services at Freeport.

“Analyzing behavior is so complex,” he said. “Having experts to help us do that and find solutions to communication and other issues is highly beneficial. There is such a broad range of behaviors in children, and teachers are taught to be generalists. The SIU team has helped us focus on specifics.”

He noted that people who want attention will always find a way to get it, even if they don’t have socially appropriate ways to ask. Thus, it’s not uncommon for students who have difficulty getting their needs across to jump up and down, make annoying noises or act out in various ways. The training from SIU has helped his faculty and staff learn to recognize what is happening, analyze the behaviors and find ways to establish effective communication.

“SIU has helped us clarify what the areas of focus should be,” Holder said. “After the initial workshop, one of the goals was to help us get on the same page in terms of key concepts and the language we use, from talking with families to teachers and staff. Dr. Louise Yoho (special education assistant professor and co-PI) and the others provided us with new understanding of what is happening with students and their behaviors and how we can better get a handle on it.

“It all begins with understanding. When we moralize behavior, we stop being inquisitive. Students want attention, they want to express their feelings and have some power and control in their lives. If we just write off their behavior as bad, we’ve blinded ourselves to ways to help them. But by figuring out what they are trying to accomplish with their behaviors, we can create a consistent plan to teach them more appropriate ways to handle things and reinforce proper behaviors. It’s good stuff!”

More than 50 Freeport teachers, support staff and administrators participated in an all-day workshop led by the SIU team, and their response was “overwhelmingly positive.” Holder said. The SIU team has visited the Freeport school system for the initial workshop and met eight more times with faculty and staff in the classrooms. Holder said they’ve spent a lot of time documenting, studying and learning.

“It’s been a tremendous help to me on the administrative level, too. To have regular conversations with the SIU experts, including board-certified behavioral analysts, has helped us identify the gaps in our existing protocols and provided my colleagues with the support and information they need to bridge those gaps. The teachers are really excited about it. The SIU experts have really helped us a lot with messaging – helping our students find appropriate ways to communicate. Having the SIU team in the classroom, right next to us, has really helped us realize we can do this better, and we are.”

The BAT project team also assists with functional behavioral assessments (FBA) and behavior intervention plans (BIPs), which are part of a student’s individualized educational plan (IEP) to ensure every student with a disability receives the instruction and services they need.

Many parts to the picture

The project includes several components:

  • Helping update the ISBE guidance document on challenging behavior, last revised in 1996.
  • Identifying school districts with a disproportionately high number of special education students from culturally diverse backgrounds who are the recipients of disciplinary measures such as suspension or expulsion due to their classroom behavior and offering intensive services to up to 10 districts identified by the ISBE in order to address this disparity. This includes on-site assessment and training, as well as professional development and ongoing interaction and assistance. Additional districts will be added over the course of the project’s lifespan.
  • A free, virtual 3-day conference was held last fall to provide professional development on culturally responsive assessment and planning for special education and general education teachers and administrators at all grade levels. Diverse topics were covered, including collaboration, troubleshooting reinforcement, evidence-based FBAs and BIPs, and much more. Participants earned professional development hours, and plans call for an in-person event in fall 2023.
  • Monthly webinars, providing a wide array of information about classroom behaviors, student assessments, effectively addressing behavioral concerns and more. A statewide audience participates, and the topics have included implicit bias, viewing student behavior through a contextual lens, culturally relevant, evidence-based behavior interventions and more. Faculty members from other Illinois universities and professionals are involved in this component as well.

The project also provides participants with informational documents packed with helpful guidance, including a glossary of terms relevant to information shared in the monthly webinars and annual conference. In addition, the SIU team is conducting research regarding student outcomes as a result of these efforts.

“We are examining the impacts of the professional development,” said co-PI Justin McDaniel, a public health associate professor with a co-appointment in the neurology department of the SIU School of Medicine. “We want to determine how the webinars and other assistance we provide affect the participants and their perceptions and what changes they make as a result.”

Collaborative project

The project involves a multifaceted, cross-campus collaborative team of SIU faculty and staff from the School of Education, the STEM Education Research Center, the School of Human Sciences and the College of Agriculture, Life and Physical Sciences. The leadership team includes:

  • Henson, who is the principal investigator for the contract.
  • Co-PI McDaniel, who is handling much of the data analysis for the project.
  • Co-PI Daniel Brown, a former Illinois State Board of Education assessment supervisor, who serves as the project manager.
  • Co-PI Bruns, who also leads webinars and brings background in working with young children as well as families.
  • Co-PI Yoho, who also leads webinars and helped create secondary and postsecondary school disciplinary policies.
  • Co-PI Peter Nelson, assistant professor of curriculum and instruction, who assists McDaniel with data analysis.
  • Michelle Connet, the BAT project coordinator who brings a decade of experience as a special education teacher and principal.

Impacting Salukis

Four SIU students involved in the project have something distinctive to put on their resumes, including opportunities to present to state and national audiences.

While working on the project, Jillian Hulcher, a junior special education major from Springfield, Illinois, said she has learned “how to effectively help students with disciplinary problems. Often that means looking more at the bigger picture than the minor interruptions a behavior may cause. It’s important to figure out how to communicate with all students in a way that is the most productive and that works for both of us, not just what is easier or more beneficial to me.”

Angie Hargrave, a junior special education major from Anna, Illinois, has worked as a paraprofessional in several local school districts and hopes to obtain a special education teaching position in Jackson County when she completes her degree.

“This group of experts, students and other participants has already taught me so much,” Hargrave said. “While listening to the webinars and doing research in preparation for future projects, I have vastly expanded the knowledge I obtained in my classes at SIU. The expert presentations are thorough, and they’ve given me a better understanding of what is necessary to provide my future special education students with the best education possible. From a student point of view, sitting in on these meetings and listening to the experts collaborate, is a really good experience for us as we are going into the profession. I’ve learned what it really means to have biases toward students and how it affects their learning and behavior. I’ve also learned how different techniques and approaches toward classroom behavior can make a big difference and about the many resources and supports available to teachers. In working with the teachers, I’ve also discovered that what they experience in real life can often be different than what they have learned in textbooks.”

Nhi Nguyen, a senior special education major from Binh Duong, Vietnam, said her experience with the project has enhanced the learning and practice she’s gotten in the last four years at SIU. For instance, she said after watching several webinars from the BAT project, she’s learning that these reports are “not just another method to accommodate the students who exhibit behavioral difficulty but plans to increase the students’ chances to attend their academic classes with their peers in the most inclusive classroom. This helps the teacher improve unwanted behaviors, not just to improve students’ academic outcomes but also their relationships with others.”

In her career as a future special education teacher, Nguyen said she will “see the students’ issues and situations in a different way. It’s taught me to widen my knowledge of their different cultures and better understand where they come from and what they are trying to do because that helps us deal with the situation better.” Nhi Nguyen was just accepted into the graduate program in the College of Health and Human Sciences and will receive a research assistantship from the STEM Education Research Center in support of her graduate studies and research on the BAT project.

Madi Ledbetter, a senior special education major from Vandalia, Illinois, has also been involved with the project and assisted with the conference last fall.

Hargrave noted that Connet and everyone else has been very supportive and encouraging and that all of those working behind the scenes have been appreciated by the experts involved in the project.

“The ultimate goal is to help identify any educational biases or poorly written policies and provide statewide high-quality professional development and other help to educators and administrators so they can better serve their students,” said Brown, a STEM researcher and project manager.

The SIU team working on the BAT project

The SIU team working on the BAT project includes, front row left to right: Justin McDaniel, Deborah Bruns, Angie Hargrave, Michelle Connect, Dan Brown and back, l-r: Peter Nelson, Harvey Henson, Jillian Hulcher, Ezigbo Ugochukwu, Louise Yoho, Madi Ledbetter and Nhi Nguyen. Photo by Yenitza Melgoza