Former teacher drawing national attention for research on special-needs students

Former teacher drawing national attention for research on special-needs students

Mike Krings

As a teacher, Tracy McElhattan was known among her colleagues for her work with early childhood students who exhibited challenging behaviors. Now as a University of Kansas doctoral student she is researching methods and resources to help teachers serve students with disabilities, and her work is drawing national attention.

Special education teachers regularly identify challenging behaviors as their greatest concern. McElhattan saw this concern firsthand as a teacher in Oklahoma and Arkansas schools. However, a need for additional support and resources inspired her to seek a doctoral degree at KU’s nationally No. 1 rated special education department.

“I absolutely fell in love with the kids and the environment,” McElhattan said of her time as an early childhood special education teacher. “I’d always wanted to pursue a higher degree and see what I could do to help improve special education. Teachers often feel like they don’t have enough resources, and I want to address that through my research.”

McElhattan is a graduate research assistant at KU’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project and the Center for Response to Intervention in Early Childhood. There she is a part of an Institute for Educational Sciences grant led by co-principal investigators Judith Carta, KU professor of special education and senior scientist, and Charlie Greenwood, KU professor of applied behavioral sciences. She’s expanded on the research project she assists and has presented her findings at international conventions and recently won KU’s Friends of the Life Span Institute award for her work.

“The first project I led was comparing the language and literacy growth of pre-kindergarten children with and without IEPs (individual education plans) across the school year,” McElhattan said. “I’m also interested in analyzing the effectiveness of positive behavioral support for preschool children and their families.”

As part of the former project, McElhattan and colleagues showed that early childhood students with IEPs did in fact make gains throughout the school year as a result of exposure to quality early childhood instruction, but they were not catching up with their fellow students. As a result, it was clear that additional interventions are necessary to help close the gap.

In her doctoral research she focuses on positive behavioral support and related early childhood interventions. Interventions exist to help teachers who work with early childhood students in special education programs work on language and early literacy, she said, but while the focus is solid in the curricular areas, a stronger foundation is needed in behavioral aspects. A focus on academics is absolutely necessary, McElhattan said, but she hopes to help develop and refine interventions that can help teachers address emotional and social behaviors as well. Her goal is to help bridge emotional, social and academic interventions to better prepare young students for school life.

“I think it’s important that we look at the whole child and not look at a child’s education as separate compartments. I’m hoping long-term to affect social, emotional and academic aspects, all with the goal of improving school readiness," she said.

McElhattan has presented her research at the Council for Exceptional Children, an international conference; and at the Kansas Division for Early Childhood. She has shared her findings with teachers, parents, administrators and fellow researchers. She’ll continue to present her research at future state, national and international events.

McElhattan will soon begin her doctoral dissertation and complete her Ph.D. She hopes to find a position as a postdoctoral researcher or as a faculty member at a research university and continue her work in studying early childhood and special education. She credits her advisers, experience as a teacher in the classroom and continued volunteer work with teachers as the keys to her research success.

“I get to be part of the research process and see how decisions are made. It’s been very influential,” McElhattan said of her work at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project. “Having been a teacher has been huge. I can look at research questions and remember just a few years ago, thinking, ‘This is how I would have approached this.’ And team members have told me it’s great to have a former teacher on the team.”