Mailman Center Receives Prestigious Grant to Develop Training Program to Build Language Skills

Many South Florida children with developmental disabilities benefit from assistive technology devices to improve their hearing, vision or communication skills.

“Unfortunately, a substantial number of child care workers, pre-school teachers and parents have not been trained in how to use assistive devices to help these children, especially in underserved neighborhoods,” said Michelle Schladant, Ph.D., assistant professor of pediatrics and Assistant Director of the Mailman Center at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine.

To address this health disparity problem, Schladant is launching an innovative program called “Step Up AT” to educate parents and teachers in child care centers to adopt evidence-based assistive technology practices and evaluate outcomes. She recently received a $2.3 million, five-year grant from the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs (OSEP) to develop the new educational program. It was one of only three OSEP grants awarded this year to researchers across the country.

“We will develop a digital toolkit that includes interactive training videos in English and Spanish to show teachers how to use assistive technology to support early literacy and language expression, which are critical to success in school,” Schladant said. “We will also create complementary training videos for parents, so they can use these tools to support literacy experiences at home.”

“This grant represents a big step forward in empirically evaluating technology and intervention in special education with young children with disabilities,” said Daniel Armstrong, Ph.D., professor of pediatrics and psychology, Director of the Mailman Center and Interim Senior Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs.

Schladant will collaborate with the Florida Alliance for Assistive Services and Technology (FAAST) — a longtime Mailman Center partner — to develop and disseminate the training materials. They will be placed in early child care and education centers in underserved communities that are the focus of the Mailman Center’s efforts to reduce disparities at the intersection of disability and other minority status. During the next five years, the program will involve 17 child care centers in Miami-Dade and Broward counties, reaching 85 teachers and the parents of 340 preschool children.

For example, storytelling applications on portable tablets are used to engage a child who is not talking. Amplified sound devices are used to improve language skills for children who have hearing deficits, and low-vision devices make words and pictures larger for children who can’t see small print.

“We want to address a wide range of developmental disabilities that affect the development of language and literacy skills,” Schladant said. “We have a curriculum team developing the training materials in both video and print formats. We also have a multimedia consultant to be sure our material can be accessed at any time and anywhere by teachers and parents using their mobile devices.”

In addition, staffers from the Mailman Center team will provide coaching — both virtual and in person — to help caregivers and teachers learn how to use these strategies.

“As we move into the telehealth era, providing support through online channels will be an increasingly important component of the educational process,” Schladant said.

Ruby Natale, Ph.D., Psy.D., associate professor of clinical pediatrics and co-principal investigator on the grant, will assess the results of the initiative as part of the research component of the project.

“Our goal is to increase teachers’ and parents’ knowledge and responsiveness to the needs of these children,” Natale said. “We also want to look at the literacy outcomes to see if these children make gains as a result of this project.”

As the training project moves forward, Schladant will work with FAAST staffers to incorporate the new material into the agency’s statewide “lending library” of assistive devices.

“In the future, our work will be part of the state library for preschool teachers and parents,” she added. “We will also post the materials on the Mailman Center website after the project is completed, to sustain this initiative over the long term.”

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