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New project to help kids with disabilities form language skills

Helping infants and toddlers with disabilities develop communication, language and early literacy skills is the goal of a new federally funded project at the Life Span Institute.

Dale Walker, associate research professor at the institute's Juniper Gardens Children's Project, and Steve Warren, vice provost of research and graduate studies, have been awarded a four-year, $1.6 million grant to establish a Model Demonstration Center for Promoting Language and Literacy Readiness in Early Childhood. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Special Education Programs, the center will provide staff development and technical assistance to early childhood programs in Kansas City, Kan., Olathe and Topeka, and North Kansas City, Mo. It will be one of only three model demonstration centers in the United States to be funded by the Office of Special Education Programs on the topic of early language.

The center will work with practitioners in home-based and early childhood education and preschool settings on the use of techniques to enhance the communication and early literacy skills of children with disabilities and those at risk for language delays.

"This center will evaluate the use of language and early literacy intervention strategies in programs serving infants and toddlers and how to provide continuity of those interventions as children move into preschool," said Walker.

The center will work with early childhood educators to evaluate strategies to promote early language and literacy readiness with 225 children with disabilities. The center will ultimately benefit 1,200 young children and their families. More than 150 early childhood educators and other intervention specialists are expected to participate.

The grant will extend the groundbreaking work by Life Span Institute researchers Betty Hart, professor emeritus, and the late Todd Risley, former professor and senior scientist. Their 10-year study showed that children who heard more language from infancy through age 3 developed substantially larger vocabularies than those who did not. The differences between children persisted through the third grade according to a follow-up study by Walker, Hart and researchers Charles Greenwood and Judith Carta.

"The early work of Drs. Hart and Risley inspired us to test ways to increase the amount and quality of language learning opportunities for very young children in community-based child care," said Walker. "Their work showed a connection between early educators' use of language-promoting strategies and corresponding increases in children's communication. This new center will permit us to extend this work to infants and young children with disabilities."

The Life Span Institute is one of the largest research and development programs in the nation for the prevention and treatment of developmental disabilities. The institute includes 12 centers and more than 140 programs and projects located on the Lawrence and medical center campuses and in Kansas City, Kan., and Parsons.

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