Professional Learning for Teachers Without Special Education Qualifications Working With Students With Severe Disabilities

Feb. 15, 2011

Source: Teacher Education and Special Education, v. 34 no. 1 (February 2011), p. 7-20.
(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

The aim of the project was to explore the impact of a small-scale, personalized professional learning project on the opportunities that teachers provided for students to communicate and on their responsiveness to potentially communicative behavior.
The project activity was based on the principles described by Gersten and colleagues
Specifically, the research question was to establish whether or not the provision of this personal and individualized professional development would increase the opportunities for communication provided to children with SMD by teachers without qualifications in special education.


The project was carried out in cooperation with two special schools enrolling students with severe and multiple disabilities, located in Sydney, NSW.
The researchers worked with two teachers and classes at one school (School A) and one teacher at the other (School B). These were teachers who were qualified teachers but who did not have additional qualifications in special education and were interested in improving the teaching of communication skills to the students in their classes.

Teachers. The teacher for the Class 1 at School A was a male and had been teaching for 4 years and had taught students with severe disabilities for this time.
The teacher for the Class 2 at School A had been teaching for 4 years. She had been working with students with severe disabilities for 2 years.
The teacher at School B was female. She had had been teaching for 11 years and teaching students with severe disabilities for 4.5 years.

All students were classified by their schools as having severe or profound intellectual disability and were identified by school executive and their teachers as having complex communication needs.


The baseline data show that before professional learning activities were provided, relatively few opportunities were provided to students in School A, around one opportunity every 2 minutes or less.
After professional learning, the opportunities more than doubled in Class 2 at School A and increased tenfold in Class 1 at School A.
A smaller effect was observed at School B where the teacher was already providing more opportunities than the two teachers at School A. There was an increase in the use of the strategies: offering choice, pausing, and deliberate draw attention by all teachers. At School B there was some increase in the use of out of reach, need help, and inform commence/finish. The teacher of Class 2 in School A also increased her use of the strategies: incomplete, inform complete/finish, and place system in reach.

The positive effect of the intervention with the three teachers would appear to confirm Gersten and colleagues' (1997) contention that professional development programs are likely to be effective if they are specifically tailored to teacher need. In this project, the teachers, in consultation with the researchers, chose the strategies they would use in their classrooms within their currently existing routines and activities, and all feedback was directly related to the use of strategies with their own students.

Gersten, R,, Vaughn, S., Deshler, D., & Schiller, E. (1997). What we know about using research findings: Implications for improving special education practice. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 30,466-476.

Updated: Aug. 29, 2011


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