Online Learning Communities Support Children with Complex Communication Needs

  • Sarah N. Douglas, Ph.D.
  • Associate Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
  • Director, Research in Autism and Developmental Disabilities Laboratory
  • College of Social Science
Augmentative and Alternative Communication (AAC) technologies present information in ways that are compatible with the child's learning style.
Dr. Sarah Douglas develops online training programs for paraeducators and teachers who support children with complex communication needs.

When the global pandemic hit in March 2020, Sarah Douglas was not too concerned about moving her research to an online format. Douglas is an expert on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) technologies for young children with disabilities, especially autism spectrum disorder; the family, school, and community partnerships that support these children; and online learning for school-community partners in general. She has been publishing articles on those topics for the past several years.

"Many of the children we work with use alternative means to communicate. They might use picture symbols or apps on an iPad. They might use sign language, different things like that. Children who might have autism, or developmental or genetic disabilities, are included as well," Douglas said.

Her current research, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, is to develop and implement an online training program for preschool teachers, their teaching assistants, and other paraeducators who work with children that have complex communication needs. The goals are to get the most out of the available AAC technologies, build partnerships for mutual support of caregivers and educators, and make the training available to a wider audience once it has been tested and evaluated.

"When we initially started this project, we wanted to make everything, all the training and the materials, available online. But we still had the idea that we would go into classrooms to collect the data, that we would still interface with the teachers, because we wanted to have a connection with the people in our research. And we wanted to be able to troubleshoot. But COVID-19 put a stop to all that."

Sarah N. Douglas, Ph.D.
Associate Professor, Department of Human Development and Family Studies
Director, Research in Autism and Developmental Disabilities Laboratory
College of Social Science

Learning How to Pivot

During the first couple of years of the project, the team had carried out its mission with only limited contact needed in the schools. The training was online, complete with materials the teachers and paraeducators could use to lead their own training sessions once they became more adept at the coaching model that the research team was working from—but the in-school data collection had to stop.

As it became apparent that COVID was not going to go anywhere very quickly, and it was going to affect data collection for the year, the team had to switch gears and figure out how to do it all virtually. Thankfully, Douglas said, she had previously done a project that involved training a whole family to work with a child who had the same communication challenges, learning how to support them using a computerized system. "We were training five different members of this family, and all of it was being done virtually over Zoom," she said. "The only time that we needed to meet with the families was in the beginning, to give them an iPad to facilitate the Zoom meeting where we asked them a few questions for screening. And then we were supposed to have a meeting at the end also."

They knew that wasn't going to happen. But then they got an idea. They knew there were some children who were receiving services directly in the classroom. This population is considered especially high risk, not just for COVID but also for losing major skills from being away from school. Many schools are doing some sort of modified learning, where children may be in the classroom a couple of days a week. In smaller communities in Michigan, they are still in classrooms four to five days a week, as they would be normally. So, thought Douglas, we can still do the intervention as planned, only collect the data in classrooms rather than in homes. All of the training is online, and all the team would have to do was pivot in how and where they would actually collect the data. They would observe and record the paraeducators at work with the children via Zoom.

Kelli Corey
Mom on the family project

What did you gain from this collaboration?

The whole program helped me to communicate with Amelya [daughter who has communication challenges] so much better. The program took longer [because of having to re-orient for the COVID-19 lockdown] but I am actually thankful it took longer. Amelya got into using her device. She'll bring me the tablet now, but she also comes to me and says, 'I want this or that.' It's a new way to communicate for her. It's special because we weren't sure we would ever have that. Atikah [the project's data collector] guided us through the whole program.

Our son Eli [typically developing sibling] is now asking for the device. It's created a richer relationship between brother and sister. It's the same for my husband and me. We are so grateful for this program.

What did you contribute to it?

We were able to contribute encouragement about the value of this type of program with families. It can and does promote the ability to communicate. It is possible! I am hoping it will reach other people with kids like Amelya. It gives families options and opportunities to communicate.

"I started by reaching out to our funder, finding out what would be allowable for changes that we needed to make," she said. "They're pretty flexible about the work that we were doing. A lot of people that are funded currently just did an extension, basically a year without funding, because they couldn't do what they needed to in schools. For our work, they felt like we were well positioned to make adjustments and still make it work. And schools are so hungry for support right now."

Douglas has only just received approval from the University for her revised plan, but she has four partner schools that she is hoping to work with this next calendar year. Those schools are all very interested in providing the training, especially given that they may have to do any number of things in a virtual format and be able to provide support at a distance. In some districts, the paraeducators still go into the child's home and facilitate that way. The training specifically for the paraeducators is critical, she said, because they often don't have very much training in general.

"So all of our training is already online," Douglas said, "but now we're also going to do all of the data collection virtually. I'm not exactly sure how that will work out. We've decided to use mics, because we think that will help with being able to hear what's happening between the paraeducator and the child. But it's definitely complex. And there are some schools that are just like, ‘No, we're not interested in participating.' But that's given us the opportunity to reach out to other schools that aren't usually approached for this type of work." She is working with her project manager for the grant, Dr. Sarah Dunkel-Jackson, a colleague in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies, who has contacted about 30 different districts or intermediate units across Michigan, trying to connect with this particular population.

Some challenges to this plan are not directly related to COVID-19's intrusion into the classroom—for example, the researchers have found that it's harder to find a quiet spot for a paraeducator to work one-on-one with a child in a busy classroom than it is at home—but most challenges are COVID related. For both of Douglas's current projects, the study with families and the one being carried out in preschool settings, she had to stop data collection altogether, at least for a time.

Meanwhile the team was able to maximize what they already had by doing more follow-up interviews with the paraeducators than they had originally anticipated, "trying to get a little more feedback from them since we wouldn't have as much data as we'd hoped," Douglas said.

She was less satisfied with the derailment of the family study, which was essentially stopped in its tracks for a while. "With the family that we were doing the study with, and all that being done virtually, still, with COVID hitting, the University told me I had to stop data collection... I knew I wasn't doing anything that was outside of the safety measures they're asking us to engage in, but because my study was listed as human subjects research, it was automatically coming down. At least we were able to continue with that study after a lot of justification for the work that we needed to do."

Partnerships Based on Trust Make a Difference

Atikah Bagawan Atikah Bagawan
Data collector on the family project
Doctoral Student
Human Development and Family Studies
College of Social Science

What did you learn from this project?

I learned a lot. The top three things...First, it was amazing to see the family, including the extended family members, being able to build their family capacity to support the child's communication. Second, the mom providing the training and coaching to the typically developing sibling. It's great to see because she understood how her son learns, and not just using our training and coaching materials, but in a way that she modifies it individually. Third, the method of telepractice helps families to navigate their training and coaching amidst their already tight schedules.

How did the COVID pandemic affect your work?

At first it just made me thankful that implementation of the intervention is already underway, so the project itself is not highly impacted. But for a couple of weeks, the extended family couldn't come [due to quarantine]. So we had to strategize on how can we collect data and still follow our protocol. That was very interesting to navigate.

I also thought about how things can change within the family support system. I have to be mindful of all of that, because it's safer not to assume how the families will be impacted. So I need to approach the family with extra compassion when scheduling for sessions, and with a lot of understanding. If they can't make it, that's okay. And just make myself more available for the family, with their needs.

Can you give us a success story from the project?

I think it was the third session, when I was data collecting, and it was one of the extended-family sessions, just before the session. The grandma was like, 'She has been using the AAC device! She's using the device much more now, and she told me that she needed to get to the bathroom. She needed help!' And that just made my day. Because if they tell you these things, it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, she is communicating!'

Douglas had nothing but good things to say about her school partners: "They're giving us a lot of trust right now. They often don't know exactly what their teachers and paraeducators will learn. But they trust that when we send them iPads and materials, that we will set everything up as much as we can to make this easy for them and their teachers," she said.

"We've had such good experiences in some of our other partnerships; we've shared those success stories and the word is starting to spread. At one of our partner schools, we recruited them to work with some of their children in homes. And seeing how successful that was gave them the confidence in our work to be able to do this also in school settings."

Douglas and her team have built trust with their partners by being responsive to their partners' needs. "We say tell us about what school is going to look like for the kids you're working with, and we'll tell you what we can do as far as research," she said. "So if they say, ‘We're only going to have this particular child that we'd love to have in this project at school two days a week'? Awesome. We can work with that. Or they may say, ‘We're going to have so many changes with PPE and our cleaning and sanitizing routines, we don't want to start the project until we've had a few months of figuring that out.' And that's fine."

Advice for Working in the COVID Context

A coaching model is useful. What's changed as a result of the COVID context? According to Douglas, in her field there has been a lot more coaching of family members to learn how to support their child, with good long-term implications: "Traditionally, schools have maintained the role of educator and have not taught families and loved ones, who support these children day to day, how to best help them with their communication. And we've seen some really good things that have come from that."

Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Douglas also believes it's important as a researcher to have a variety of projects on hand: "I was already working on some literature reviews and analyses and I was able to funnel some of my efforts there when things got shut down."

Use downtime to write. "In some ways this is a great time, as a researcher, to write. That is what I spent most of the summer doing, writing and getting as much of my research out as possible. So far this year I have 11 publications, because I was able to keep moving things along in a quicker fashion when normally there would have been things like data collection that I needed to be facilitating, and some of those things got paused. It enabled me to focus in on other things."

Beware: Funding limits are coming. Douglas believes that more than ever, funding is going to be limited at universities. She said, "it's really important for faculty to make sure that their research will be funded. It's about getting those external grants as much as possible, because we will see more cuts in the future."

Finally, Douglas said, "I would say, don't be afraid to continue to do research. These children are so young and have such limited communication, and they're really resilient. They just roll with the punches. This is their life; this is their day-to-day. There are a lot of ways in which researchers who are trying to support schools can still do important and valuable work. Schools need our support now more than ever. I think innovation is going to be so important the next few years, and we have to be ready to think creatively about how we continue our work, what is the most important thing to be looking at and how we continue to support those who are most vulnerable."

  • Written by Linda Chapel Jackson, University Outreach and Engagement
  • Photograph courtesy of MSU University Communications

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