Horn lands grant to help improve education for preschoolers with disabilities

Preschools often lack a system for modifying their curriculum for children with disabilities. A new three-year, $1.5 million grant to Eva Horn, professor of special education, will make it possible for educators to provide a more appropriate and challenging curriculum for preschoolers with disabilities and help them be better prepared for kindergarten.

Funded by the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education, the project will develop, refine and test a comprehensive curriculum framework so children with or at significant risk for disabilities can participate and make meaningful progress in preschool.

According to a 2006 Department of Education study, almost 1 million U.S. children age 5 and younger receive services under the Individuals with Disabilities Act. The act mandates that all children with disabilities be held to “high expectations” and ensured participation and progress in the same general curriculum taught to children without disabilities.

But achieving that goal is complicated by the lack of monitoring systems in preschools, methods that are commonplace in elementary schools.

“Historically in early childhood education, our main concern has been to make preschool fun and engaging for kids,” Horn said. “We haven’t thought about what things we want preschoolers to learn by the end of the year. But what if we can achieve happiness and joy at the same time we think about where we want to take them?”

With the Institute of Education Sciences grant, Horn and colleagues at KU, Indiana University and the University of Maryland will use the Children’s School Success Curriculum Model and field test a version with 4-year-olds using universal design for learning modifications. Patterned after universal design in architecture, universal design for learning calls for multiple methods to help students learn, express what they’ve learned and stay motivated.

“We will ensure that the curriculum meets UDL principles so that all children show progress,” Horn said. “We also will develop procedures so that teachers can individualize the curriculum and meet the learning needs of all children, with a special focus on those with disabilities.”

The Children’s School Success Curriculum Model was developed through an earlier grant from the National Institutes of Health to Horn and colleagues. In that project, the researchers created, implemented and evaluated the curriculum for at-risk children. They documented that children made measurable progress using the curriculum although children with disabilities did not progress to the same extent as children without disabilities.

“We heard anecdotally from teachers that they did not feel they had the skills and knowledge to modify the curriculum for children with disabilities,” Horn said.

The goal is not to bring the children with disabilities up to the same levels as children without disabilities but to ensure that they make significant progress compared to where they started, Horn said.

“Our research has shown that children who benefit the most from a high-quality curriculum are children who are the most in need, that children who are at risk actually gain the most.”

Horn said another goal of the grant is to determine if the approach is feasible in a real-world, preschool setting.

“Other interventions have been proven effective but take the kind of resources and staff that preschools simply don’t have,” she said.

The research will be conducted at preschools in eastern Kansas, urban areas of Maryland and rural West Virginia.

Co-investigator at KU is Susan Palmer, associate research professor of special education. Horn and Palmer are affiliated with KU’s Life Span Institute, one of the largest research and development programs in the nation for the prevention and treatment of developmental disabilities.

Other investigators are Gretchen Butera, associate professor of special education at Indiana University, and Joan Lieber, professor of special education at the University of Maryland.

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