Telehealth collaboration trains paraeducators in reading intervention

Young boy with Down syndrome and teacher

VKC TRIAD educational consultants are partnering with Vanderbilt special educators in a telehealth model to train paraeducators in a reading intervention for elementary students with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities.

Chris Lemons, Ph.D.

Chris Lemons, Ph.D.

“In our previous research on reading interventions for students with Down syndrome, teachers have consistently said that they think our intervention is effective and helpful for their students,” said Chris Lemons, Ph.D., associate professor of Special Education and Vanderbilt Kennedy Center researcher. “However, they also report that they lack the time in the school day to deliver the intervention with the frequency and intensity that we recommend. In this project, we’re addressing that barrier by using distance technology to train paraeducators to deliver the intervention.”

A second barrier that the model addresses involves reaching young students with intellectual disabilities where they are across the state.

“One of the struggles we’ve had in doing large-scale studies with children with Down syndrome is being able to have enough students in given geographical locations,” said Lemons. “TRIAD approached us about collaborating on their telemedicine and telehealth initiatives, and it was the perfect opportunity for us to pilot this virtual coaching with paraprofessionals in elementary schools across Tennessee.”

In this pilot project to evaluate the model’s feasibility and effectiveness, 12 paraprofessionals, all of whom are supporting a student with Down syndrome or other intellectual disability, will receive distance training to deliver an evidence-based reading intervention.

The paraprofessionals who have volunteered to take part are serving in urban, rural, and suburban school districts, and thus are representative of the geographic diversity of Tennessee’s schools.

Michelle Hopton, M.Ed., BCBA

Michelle Hopton, M.Ed., BCBA

“The approach has a lot of promise for projects like this to have greater impact because we can have a greater geographic footprint,” said Michelle Hopton, M.Ed., BCBA, TRIAD educational consultant and assistant in Pediatrics. “It could lead to supporting a lot of larger projects in the future.”

The project team first meets in-person with each paraprofessional to set up the distance technology and to provide coaching support in how they will access the training modules. Thereafter, the coaching and fidelity support is being delivered using Zoom distance technology, which meets the confidentiality protections required for telemedicine and telehealth.

The online training modules are brief, 8 to 10 minutes in length, so that paraprofessionals can view them in the limited “free” time they have available in the school day.

“The training modules are very straight forward, very practical,” said Hopton, M.Ed., BCBA. “In each module, the paraprofessional is given a specific skill within the reading intervention to practice with the target student in the next week. Then, when we check in for coaching, every two weeks, we can focus on that content.”

The modules can be accessed by smart phone, tablet, or computer.

“The paraprofessionals are excited to have this training,” Lemons said. “They want to receive more training so that they can do their jobs better. And because this is a pilot project, we have flexibility in adjusting the model as we go along. We’ll be learning from the paraprofessionals what works and doesn’t work for them.”

In addition to the modules related to the reading intervention, the project team plans to pilot additional modules.

“An important research question in training paraprofessionals is whether it is more effective to target narrowly a specific intervention or whether there is value added by providing broader training,” Lemons said. “This pilot will give us an opportunity also to provide training in deeper knowledge of reading instruction, in behavior management, and in explicit instruction. We’ll explore whether the modules impact paraprofessionals’ knowledge and skills in these areas, how students’ reading outcomes are impacted, and whether such paraprofessional training leads to greater job satisfaction and retention.”

This pilot project is supported through funding that TRIAD receives from the Tennessee Department of Education to advance training of educators statewide.

The project aims to answer a range of questions. Are the paraprofessionals delivering the reading intervention with fidelity? Are their students responding? Is online training and on-line observation and coaching every two weeks sufficient?

“Our ultimate goal is to figure out how to support paraprofessionals using distance technology,” Lemons said. “We want to learn to do this in a way that is feasible and beneficial for paraprofessionals and for the students with Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities whom they serve.”

Jan Rosemergy is VKC deputy director and director of Communications and Dissemination.

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