WORTHINGTON Special education teachers in Worthington Public Schools are participating in an innovative project designed to increase the team’s capacity to work effectively with children with developmental disabilities, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD), during the critical years of brain and behavior development.

Despite being in a pandemic, special education teachers and paras at Prairie Elementary have been learning from national trainers in the STAR Program (Strategies for Teaching based on Autism Research). STAR provides school districts with effective tools to implement evidence-based strategies and to train and coach school teams in these strategies. The goal of this plan is to increase student outcomes.

The STAR program is a comprehensive behavioral program that incorporates the applied behavior analysis strategies in the areas of functional routines, spontaneous language, receptive and expressive language, pre-academics concepts, and play and social skills. STAR also promotes the use of positive behavior interventions and environmental supports (visual supports, visual schedules, etc.). Prairie Elementary staff will move through year two of training during the 2021-2022 school year.

Prairie Elementary teachers Erin Ahrens and McKenzie Helgeson have the following to say about the STAR curriculum and training:

“STAR has been impactful to my teaching and the learning for my students. It has helped lower functioning students be able to follow routines and directions more independently. Students are taking daily skills and applying them across the settings of the school.”

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“As a teacher, STAR has taught me how to break down skills for students even more. STAR has shown staff how important motivation is for some students. Beginning with a reward to work for, and then building independence until the reward is not as necessary, has helped students build greater independence.”

“Routines in life are so important. When students with developmental cognitive delays struggle to learn them, there is a reason for that. STAR helps staff learn how to teach routines so students with disabilities can be successful and more independent.”

Retiring teacher Amy Ebbers has been using the STAR program for a number of years. She shared, “I wish I would have had the cohort training when I started using it. The cohort training was valuable. Problem solving was much more helpful with the group and trainer. When we start as early as we can with the STAR program, we set the students up for success and then keep building skills from there.”

Next fall, middle school staff working with students with autism and developmental cognitive delays will begin their training. As students transition from the STAR program, offered in grades preK-4 into the middle and high school grades, they reap the benefits of the Links program.

The Links Curriculum (Linking Assessment and Instruction for Independence) continues the evidence-based and comprehensive curriculum to teach upper elementary, secondary and post-secondary students with autism and other developmental disabilities across school, community and vocational routines. Links promotes student independence in natural environments and utilizes skill assessments to identify target areas for instruction. Staff are equipped with tools necessary to teach both individual skills and independence in daily routines.

Implementing successful programming for students with autism and cognitive delays is a priority at ISD 518. Staff report how they love working with their students and smile everyday because of connections with their students and their families. The students truly love the people in their lives, and the staff wholeheartedly love being part of the lives of their students.

Allison Eitreim is assistant director of special education at Worthington Public Schools.