When LeAnne Johnson was partnered with a child with special needs for a college practicum course, they clicked immediately.
While the boy was nonverbal, they quickly formed a bond during the time Johnson spent working with him on motor development.
“It was a really eye-opening experience to interact with him,” she said. “There were moments when you could tell you were making a connection.”
This experience motivated Johnson, now a researcher and assistant professor with the University’s College of Education and Human Development, to pursue a career in special education.
In 2016, Johnson launched a program that aims to help special education teachers use behavioral and demographic student data to create goals and changes in their classrooms. Today, the program is expanding to include mainstream classes.
“Back when I was teaching, teachers just got together and talked,” said Kandi Larson, early childhood special education coordinator for Osseo Area Schools. “This program is giving the discussion some structure and putting some specifics into the discussion.”
Project LEAD is designed to help improve the quality of structured early learning environments, like daycares and early child care offered through school districts, Johnson said.
The program focuses on these settings because they are better equipped to identify students who may not succeed independently in a traditional classroom and, as a result, need additional support.
Additionally, Project LEAD targets children with invisible disabilities — like those with some developmental delays — as these conditions often go unnoticed until kindergarten.
“We lose tremendous opportunities by not finding those children sooner,” she said.
With Johnson’s guidance, four Osseo classrooms implemented Project LEAD — Learning to Use Educational Data for Active Decision Making — last year.
Johnson studied how these teachers used classroom data during teaming time, a meeting where educators problem-solve together.
Data can be collected through developmental screenings and behavioral reporting systems or through a teacher-created form, like a checklist or self-assessment, Johnson said.
Analyzing behavioral data allows educators to understand whether disproportionate numbers of kids from racial, gender, disability status or English language-learner groups are engaging in troubling behaviors, she said.
Using data also enables teachers to determine when they should make classroom changes or alter their teaching styles, Johnson said.
This year, all Osseo early childhood teachers are making use of the program and the district hopes to fully implement it within the next five years.
While researchers haven’t yet analyzed the overall success of wider implementation, Osseo early childhood special education teacher Liz Stuprich said she expects to see results within the next few years.
Using data to problem solve during teaming time not only increases weekly success of students, but also enables teachers to better communicate with families of children with special needs.
“We’re able to bring information to teaming that we can then bring to families,” Stuprich said. “We can share the progress and success of each child.”
Johnson said the stigma that surrounds special education is a huge barrier in assisting students.
“It’s a big deal for us to change the messaging around what special education looks like, to that parents don’t feel threatened by it,” Johnson said. “[My work] tries to break down those barriers.”