The purpose of the study is to understand the extent to which research based on observation provides compelling evidence to support common practices related to current observational research. It also looks at how reporting of that evidence has changed over the years, and how scholars reading these studies could determine whether the validity of the evidence would support their intended uses.

A Summary of Previous Research

In the analysis of research articles on the subject of research based on observation, the articles reported descriptive rather than evaluative data, meaning that they intended to capture features of what was happening in the classroom(s) (e.g., number of times teachers provided feedback) without explicitly evaluating the quality of instruction. Thirty-eight studies took place in inclusive general education classes, 43 in self-contained special education classes, and 15 across both types of classes.

Findings of Previous Research Studies

The study sought published, peer-reviewed studies from 1975 to 2020, seeking observational research that targeted in-service teachers in K–12 settings serving students with disabilities. Some of the criteria included: a focus on in-service teachers of students with disabilities; systematic classroom observations employed, with a focus on teachers’ classroom activities; and observations conducted in natural school settings. Most of the studies did not take steps to prevent observation bias, and many observers were not trained beforehand in the skills needed to perform the observation. Many studies were found to under-represent participant groups. Only one observation was found that focused on teachers of students with autism spectrum disorder and none for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

Planning for Future Research

Only observations in naturalistic settings (i.e., not intervention studies) were used in this study, and the results may have been different if other types of studies had been included as well. The study also did not examine the stated purposes of the studies, because each one had a different purpose.

Notable Quotes: 

“Findings from observational research are often used as catalysts for intervention studies and as justifications for policy decisions (e.g., increased use of inclusive settings).”

“Improvements in technology and increased expectations for transparency in research methods combined with the availability of online supplemental materials in publication should lead to improved reporting in future observational studies.”

“Classroom observation research plays an important role in policy, practice, and scholarship for students with disabilities.”

Personal Takeaway

This study helped to highlight what aspects are necessary in order to conduct a research project based on observation of students, or a class, especially in the field of special education. As a special education teacher, I can take into account the criteria shared in this study to improve my teaching practice and welcome observation from colleagues in order to receive valuable feedback on my teaching methods.

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Shekufeh Monadjem

Summarized Article:

Rodgers, W. J., Morris-Mathews, H., Romig, J. E., & Bettini, E. (2022). Observation Studies in Special Education: A Synthesis of Validity Evidence for Observation Systems. Review of Educational Research, 92(1), 3-45.

The number of students with registered disabilities enrolling in colleges and universities across the United States is continuing to increase, speaking to the myriad of improvements and advancements in technology, legislation, and treatment over the past few decades. Such advances have resulted in the creation of more inclusive learning environments for individuals with disabilities and have improved overall access to higher education. However, students with disabilities continue to face barriers when it comes to integrating in postsecondary institutions. Campus counseling centers have been suggested as a positive way to provide support for students with disabilities who are experiencing academic and/or psychological distress, yet little is known about the use or effectiveness of these services. O’Shea et al.’s (2021) study serves to close this research gap by determining the effectiveness of campus-based individual counseling for students with disabilities.

To disclose disabilities, or not?

While there is an overall hesitation for students to disclose their disability to their college/university, the impact of social and structural stigmatization on students’ reluctance to disclose may be more pronounced for students with certain types of disabilities. On U.S. campuses, psychiatric disabilities (commonly including disorders such as depression, bipolar, anxiety, or schizophrenia) continue to be the largest and fastest growing sub-category of disability amongst college students (Americans With Disabilities Act, 2018), and yet are also often surrounded by the most stigma. 

Research indicates that “students with disabilities are at a higher risk in comparison to their peers of experiencing mental health issues on campus, including increased rates of anxiety, academic distress, suicidality, and self-injury (Coduti et al., 2016).” Such statistics further emphasize the need for accessible and high-quality support services on campus.

The effect of therapy on students with disabilities

This academic study was conducted over the span of three years (2016 – 2019) using data gathered from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health (CCMH) — a practice-research network involving multiple stakeholders across more than 600 college and university counseling centers (UCCs) in the United States. Participants were grouped into one of three categories based on a Standardized Data Set (SDS) — students with only psychiatric disabilities, students with disabilities other than only psychiatric disorders, and students with no disability, with the average age being 21.88 years old at the time of their first counseling session. Participants completed a multidimensional self-report questionnaire known as the Counseling Center Assessment of Psychological Symptoms (CCAPS-62) over the course of their treatment to assess any changes in symptoms.

The authors of the article hypothesized that “clients with disabilities would demonstrate significantly lower levels of improvement over the course of therapy than clients without disabilities.” Based on the results of the study, such a hypothesis was correct in that “while students across groups saw a reduction in psychological and academic distress over the course of treatment, students with disabilities experienced less reduction in psychological and academic distress than their non-disabled peers.”

Different levels of academic distress in the student body

According to the gathered data, students with and without disabilities present to counselors with similar levels of psychological distress during their time at college. With that said, levels of academic distress are much higher amongst students with disabilities in comparison to those without. Although reasons for higher levels of academic distress cannot be certain and are largely based on the individual, research has pointed to factors such as negative past experiences with academic tasks and/or instructors serving to reduce self-efficacy (Brockelman, 2009; Gorges et al., 2018; Hartley, 2010) and holding negative beliefs about personal agency in learning thus impeding engagement and motivation (Eccles & Wigfield, 2002). In the discussion, it was noted that students with psychiatric disabilities present higher levels of distress than students with other disabilities and those without disabilities. This information emphasizes the importance of understanding the source of distress for students in order to provide appropriate support and ultimately work towards improving mental health and postsecondary outcomes for these individuals. 

Ways forward

O’Shea et al’s. research helps to inform best practices when it comes to counseling practitioners who work with students with disabilities. Therapists should do their best to research and be aware of the various issues and complex challenges that students with disabilities may face, including the social, academic, and personal factors that are involved in the transition to college and adulthood. As students experiment with their newfound independence and begin to navigate their sense of identity, “counselors should include in their approach a consideration of the challenge students with disabilities may be facing in terms of navigating complex issues surrounding disability disclosure, the negotiation of intersectional identities, and use of services. As the number of students with disabilities on college campuses continues to grow, postsecondary institutions may also consider providing additional training to counselors to “improve familiarity and effectiveness in working with students with disabilities.” In particular, additional training for supporting students with psychiatric disabilities is recommended given the higher risk for self-injurious and suicidal behavior (Coduti et al., 2016). 

Additional research is needed to further explore and understand the various lived experiences, concerns, and barriers to postsecondary education for students with disabilities in order to appropriately inform targeted interventions and approaches to treatment. It is also important to note that the current study categorized participants’ disability type and status based on whether or not their disability was registered with the university office of disability services. Therefore, the academic study is limited in that it does not capture students who do not disclose or register their disability with their university, and may underrepresent or miscategorize those students with disabilities as a result.

Notable quotes:

1. According to research, “less than one-quarter of students with disabilities in college choose to disclose their disability and make use of disability support services” (Newman et al., 2009), and “fewer than 10% of students with psychiatric disabilities choose to disclose their disability to the university and register with the ODS (Megivern et al., 2003) as the stigma surrounding psychiatric disabilities continues to be pervasive within and outside of academia (Collins, 2000; Stuart et al., 2020).”                        

2. “Prior research has suggested that students with disabilities are more likely to experience increased pressure in college as students navigate issues surrounding disability, identity, and disclosure in the context of new challenges in the academic and social domains (Cawthon & Cole, 2010).” 

3. “Additional research is needed that further explores therapist perceptions of clients’ disabilities among those with visible and non-visible disabilities. Understanding therapists’ perceptions of students with disabilities and various types of disabilities (i.e., visible vs. non-visible) will help to inform training and treatment approaches. There is some evidence to suggest that counselors may be less comfortable or have less confidence working with clients with whom they perceive as having a disability (i.e., the disability is more obvious or visible; Parritt, & O’Callaghan, 2000). Therapists’ perceptions of clients’ disability status may impact treatment goals and expectations, in-session decision-making, and therapist self-efficacy and confidence (Barrett et al., 2013).”

Personal Takeaway

Providing increased access to counselling and treatment services on college and university campuses is a step in the right direction in terms of delivering appropriate support and creating an inclusive learning environment for students with disabilities. However, it is also important to recognize that students must be willing to take the first step to access such services. Part of helping our students become self-directed learners is supporting their self-advocacy and help-seeking skills. Providing opportunities for students to advocate for themselves and their needs throughout their elementary, middle and secondary school years, serves as a positive way to reinforce the value and importance of asking for help when you need it—an essential skill when making the transition into college life, newfound independence, and adulthood. Thus, as a special education teacher, I will continue to seek out ways in which I can empower students to take ownership of their learning and model help-seeking behaviors as a way to support the transition to postsecondary education.

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Taryn McBrayne

Summarized Article:

O’Shea, A., Kilcullen, J. R., Hayes, J., & Scofield, B. (2021). Examining the effectiveness of campus counselling for college students with disabilities. Rehabilitation Psychology, 66(3), 300–310. https://doi.org/10.1037/rep0000349

The study by Kozibroda et al. (2020) was conducted as a meta-analysis of research into the practice and innovations of inclusive education following a noteworthy increase of inclusive classes and a rise in the number of teaching assistants within the Ukrainian education system from 2016-2019.

Diverse Approaches and Definitions of Inclusion

Throughout their meta-analysis, the authors report various approaches to and definitions of inclusion on national levels across Europe. However, they found the following common ground for effective inclusion:

  • Inclusive culture as the creation of a trusting environment.
  • Inclusive policy includes innovative teaching methods and the development of teachers’ competences to support the diversity in students’ education and needs.
  • Inclusive practice encompasses training and mobilization of resources such as technical equipment and sufficient classroom space.

Nonetheless, inclusive education rises and falls with “the availability of resources and the level of provision of human resources determines the level of perception of inclusive education by teachers.”

The Role of School Management in Creating a Culture of Inclusion

The authors highlight that a combination of open mindedness, communication, teacher training, parental involvement and mobilization of resources can allow for successful inclusive practices and strategies within schools and their context. The willingness to integrate students with special educational needs and disabilities must be modeled, financed, and supported by the school’s management to create a culture of inclusion.

Notable Quotes: 

“ Inclusion is a process of comprehensive provision of equal access to high-quality education of children with special educational needs through the organization of education in general educational institutions, using individualized teaching methods and taking into account the educational and cognitive activities of children.”

 “An integrated approach provides the introduction of innovations in inclusive education in the following elements of the educational system, namely: the concept (strategy) that defines the model, external preconditions and stages of inclusion; a school that defines the internal prerequisites for inclusion; a community. A differentiated approach is used in combination with the integrated one in order to identify the internal prerequisites for inclusion: values, beliefs and attitudes of teachers, and the competence of educators.”

Personal Takeaway

A rise in the numbers of students with disabilities in mainstream schooling has led to an increase in practices of inclusion. This study aimed to identify effective practices, proving that all stakeholders are responsible for effective provision for students whilst teacher efficacy and training are integral to the success of inclusive practices and cultures. This resonates greatly with my own practice because a child-centered approach rooted in transparent communication with all stakeholders and the common aim to identify and implement best practice for the child within the given context are the pillars of my own practice.

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Frankie Garbutt

Summarized Article:

Kozibroda, L. V., Kruhlyk, O. P., Zhuravlova, L. S., Chupakhina, S. V., & Verzhihovska, О. M. (2020). Practice and innovations of Inclusive Education at school. International Journal of Higher Education, 9(7), 176. https://doi.org/10.5430/ijhe.v9n7p176

This study was conducted in order to identify practical ways for teachers to create a socially inclusive environment for children who demonstrate persistent challenging behaviors (PCBs) and/or who have social-emotional delays.

Main Reasons for the Challenging Behavior

The existing research suggests that there are two main reasons why some children demonstrate persistent challenging behaviors:

1) They are enrolled in school before they have developed the social-emotional readiness for the demands of group care, including managing emotions and getting along with peers.

2) They have delays in other developmental areas, such as play skills, speech and language development, and motor development.

Furthermore, there is a growing body of evidence to show that children who demonstrate PCBs are vulnerable to significant long-term effects from exclusionary disciplinary practices such as suspension and expulsion, along with a higher risk of academic difficulties leading to grade retention. Children who engage in PCBs typically find the social-emotional skill gap widening as they progress through school.

Recommendations for Working With Children With Challenging Behavior

This paper puts forth the authors’ recommendations, based on extant research, on the best practices that early childhood teachers can adopt to create an inclusive, prosocial environment for children with PCBs. They describe interventions that can be put into practice immediately, including example “scripts” for how these can be rolled out in the classroom. The authors recommend the following classroom-based supports for working with children who engage in PCBs:

  • Ensure equitable and active participation for these children in the social milieu of the classroom through facilitation of the appropriate social interactions. This must be explicitly modeled by the teacher through role play, ideally utilizing the child who struggles with PCB as a partner so that their peers view them as an example of prosocial behavior.
  • During any social skills instruction, teaching should take place in three phases: first, the teacher introduces the expected behavior and explains its importance; second, the teacher models the social skill and allows the children to practice it; and third, the teacher provides ongoing corrective feedback and behavior-specific praise. 
  • Classroom activities should be carefully planned to incorporate a variety of social interaction types and to be inclusive of children who demonstrate PCBs. Considering the background experiences of these children as well as their interests and abilities can make or break participation. Equally important is creating a physically intuitive and well-organized classroom that allows for both large- and small-group activities.

The Benefits of Creating an Inclusive Environment

Teachers who seek to create a socially inclusive environment – meaning one that actively integrates children with PCBs into the classroom community, ensures that they have equitable opportunities to participate in social activities, and promotes positive and reciprocal social relationships with peers and adults alike – can expect to see a decrease in PCB.

With this in mind, researchers and policy-makers would do well to consider the professional development needs of early childhood educators, providing more opportunities for teachers to engage in training specific to the social inclusion of children with PCB.

Notable Quotes: 

“As children age, the skill gap related to social-emotional functioning widens for children who engage in PCBs, leaving them at higher risk of being referred to special education and/or retention.”

“Despite the use of exclusionary disciplinary practices with children, there is no evidence to show that they decrease PCBs (Meek et al., 2020). Instead, the consequence of suspension on children who engage in PCBs is decreased time in the classroom (Loson and Gillespie, 2012) which can be detrimental to their social-emotional development (Skiba et al., 2014).”

“Schools and classrooms that promote positive climates report lower rates of PCBs and suspensions, which is important for children to feel welcomed and have an environment where they are able to develop prosocial behaviors (Farmer et al., 2018; Merritt et al., 2012; Skiba et al., 2014).”

Personal Takeaway

The notion that children benefit from discrete and explicit instruction for social skills is not new, but one that truly benefits from repeating. The current paper presents highly practical advice for teachers seeking to implement this type of instruction in their classrooms, with details on when and how such teaching could take place. Early childhood educators may be reassured to know that these techniques, which may be familiar to them already, are backed by rigorous research evidence. I would argue that these strategies can also be applied to older struggling students.

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Akane Yoshida

Summarized Article:

McGuire, S. N., & Meadan, H. (2022). Social Inclusion of Children with Persistent Challenging Behaviors. Early Childhood Education Journal, 50(1), 61-69. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10643-020-01135-4.

Within American school districts, there is a call to reimagine what inclusive education looks like to respond to the overall need for equity. As a means to initiate this transformation, the study seeks to assess the current understandings of inclusive education amongst a triad of stakeholders (school administrators, special educators and general educators) in order to outline next steps for creating inclusive schools.

Inclusive Practices in Planning Professional Development Opportunities

School administrators play a significant role in ensuring that all stakeholders in the school commit to equity, including all staff, parents/guardians, and students. Thus, when planning professional development opportunities, school leadership must carefully consider how both general and special educators can be collaboratively involved in professional learning contexts regarding inclusive practices. However, it is also important to acknowledge that it takes time for inclusive practices to become institutionalized (5 or more years) and administrators should be prepared to encounter some level of resistance given the disruptions to the status quo, including but not limited to shifts in power dynamics, established practices, and the role of the teacher as an expert to a learner. All members of the school community must be willing to grow, experiment, and learn in order to initiate positive changes in the area of inclusion.

Feedback From General Educators vs Special Educators

Ricci, Scheier-Dolberg, & Perkins’ study surveyed K-12 administrators, special educators, and general educators from 21 U.S. schools across 9 districts in Southern California and Las Vegas areas. The participants worked in both charter and public schools. Through the collection of written responses to a series of questions, the researchers were able to identify emerging themes that served as part of their qualitative analysis. The study revealed that all stakeholders agreed that inclusive education prioritizes focusing on every learner as an individual, emphasizing practices that are centered around relationship building, providing appropriate accommodations and modifications, and meeting the needs of all learners. However, special educators were amongst the most to comment on this theme as important compared to general educators and administrators. Other significant themes that arose from the results included: a focus on the school, focus on the content, focus on instruction, focus on providing support for teachers, focus on personal characteristics, and a focus on collaboration.

Collaboration Needed Between Different Departments in a School

As discussed in the article, “collaboration between administrators, general educators, and special educators is needed to understand the frames of reference (e.g. the beliefs, values, experiences, and expectations that affect how individuals perceive and react to situations) that each stakeholder brings to the school and how these assets can be leveraged to promote inclusive practices.” Ricci et al. highlight that schools must move away from the idea that inclusion is the sole responsibility of special educators, but rather that inclusion is a shared practice across the school community. Thus, professional development opportunities that encourage stakeholders to reflect on their own practices and see inclusion through the perspectives of one another must be provided to achieve the goal of fully inclusive schools.

Notable Quotes: 

“We believe that it is important to cast aside this rigidity in role-based responsibilities to move all stakeholders toward taking ownership for all aspects of schooling and for all students. This calls for special educators to become content experts as well, just as general educators should increase their skills in differentiation of instruction for all learners.” 

“Despite the importance of collaboration among stakeholders for promoting inclusive practices, it is noteworthy that focus on collaboration with others was the theme least often mentioned. This finding lends itself to the question of who is ‘in charge’ of collaboration? This highlights the importance of administrators taking a stronger lead in facilitating crucial conversations between general and special educators to promote inclusive practices at their school sites.”

“Our schools are in urgent need of transformational leadership approaches that bring all adults in a school building together to seek solutions to barriers to teaching and learning for all students, regardless of ability.”

Personal Takeaway

As a special educator, collaboration is a key part of providing effective support for my learners. Working in partnership with administrators, general educators, educational professionals, students, and their families, creates the strong foundation needed to support positive learning outcomes. Therefore, as the article suggests, providing increased professional development opportunities for various stakeholders to exchange ideas and practices regarding inclusion will likely strengthen the overall inclusivity of the school community, positively impacting student performance and wellbeing. As special educators, we must advocate for inclusion and help to create a space for members of our school communities to embark on this professional learning journey alongside us — a point strongly emphasized in Ricci et al’s. article.

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Taryn McBrayne

Summarized Article:

Ricci, L., Scheier-Dolberg, S., & Perkins, B. (2022). Transforming triads for inclusion: understanding frames of reference of special educators, general educators, and administrators engaging in collaboration for inclusion of all learners, International Journal of Inclusive Education, 26(5), 526-539, DOI: 10.1080/13603116.2019.1699609.

Key Takeaway:

The spread of misinformation about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has rapidly increased amongst the general public in recent years. Special education professionals are expected to have expertise in the use of evidence-based practices (EBPs) to best meet the needs of students with autism and are trusted by caregivers to provide this support. By preparing professionals to be critical of information about ASD and effective practices, we can address and mitigate the spread of misinformation. —Taryn McBrayne

Evidence-Based Practices and Autism in the Classroom

With an increase in public awareness campaigns hitting social media platforms, misinformation about Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) has largely increased over the past decade. In fact, research suggests that “the general public is more familiar with unsubstantiated practices for ASD than with evidence-based practices (EBPs).” The psychological phenomenon, “the mere-exposure effect,” proposes that even reading one inaccurate headline can have a long-lasting impact on the way that one thinks about certain topics, including Autism.4 Thus, authors Fleury & Kemper seek to examine education professionals’ knowledge about ASD and treatment options to assess how the dissemination of misinformation may have influenced ASD practices. 

As with all educators, special educators have a responsibility to make instructional decisions that will best serve the needs of their students. The use of EBPs is often  “emphasized in most states’ teaching licensure standards.” However, recent research has shown that only “12% to 55% of education professionals serving students with ASD were directly taught how to use EBPs for students with ASD during their preservice training.”2 Therefore, educators may resort to alternative forms of information, increasing the chance that non-EBPs will be used in the classroom given that “autism remains a ‘fad magnet,’”3 potentially causing harm to the individual with ASD as well as the organizations that do promote EBPs. 

Fleury & Kemper also emphasize that “the public’s general misunderstanding of correlation versus causation”1 combined with difficulties distinguishing between credible and non-credible sources, creates an environment where misinformation can be easily spread and given credence. 

In their study, the authors surveyed 72 education professionals from a 2-day professional development seminar. The results are as follows: 

Beliefs about Causal Attributes of ASD

  • “Education professionals were most confident that neurobiological factors were a causal attribute of ASD.”

Familiarity with Practices 

  • “Participants were more familiar with EBP compared with unsubstantiated practices for individuals with ASD.”

Likelihood to Use or Recommend Practices 

  • Educational professionals reported that “they are more likely to use or recommend EBPs than non-EBPs.” According to the authors, “this contrasted with [our] previous research with members of the general public, who proved to be more familiar with unsubstantiated practices compared with EBPs.” However, the survey results did reveal that “special education professionals did not engage in sourcing as would be expected of experts.” 

The authors acknowledge that ​​the participants in this study were already “attending a professional development training and, as such, represent a biased sample of professionals who are interested in expanding their knowledge and expertise about EBPs for this population.” Therefore, a wider research sample is needed in order to apply these findings to the general special educator population. 

Overall, Fleury & Kemper note that while the results of this survey are encouraging, it is important to continue efforts to combat the spread of misinformation about ASD and EBPs by cross-checking information with reputable sources, addressing deficits in knowledge, and working towards publishing research in a manner that is easily accessible for a general population. Ultimately, “by preparing professionals to be critical consumers of information, we may be able to mitigate the spread of misinformation about autism and limit widespread use of non-EBPs.”

Summarized Article:

Fleury, V. P., & Kemper, T. (2022). An Examination of Education Professionals’ Beliefs About Causes of Autism and Their Perceptions of Practices. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities. https://doi.org/10.1177/10883576211073685

Summary by: Taryn McBrayne — Taryn believes in the power of student voice and, through the MARIO Framework, strives to create more opportunities for both educators and students to regularly make use of this power.

Additional References:

  1. Bergstrom, C. T., & West, J. D. (2020). Calling bullshit: The art of skepticism in a data driven world. Random House.
  2. Hsiao, Y. J., & Petersen, S. (2018). Evidence-based practices provided in teacher education and in-service training programs for special education teachers of students with autism spectrum disorders. Teacher Education and Special Education, 42, 193–208. https://doi.org/10.1177/0888406418758464
  3. Metz, B., Mulik, J. A., & Butter, E. M. (2016). Autism: A twenty-first century fad magnet. In R. M. Foxx & J. A. Mulick (Eds.), Controversial therapies for autism and intellectual disabilities: Fad, fashion, and science in professional practice (pp. 169–195). Routledge.
  4. Pennycook, G., Cannon, T. D., & Rand, D. G. (2018). Prior exposure increases perceived accuracy of fake news. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 147(12), 1865–1880. https://doi.org/10.1037/xge0000465

Key Takeaway:

As special educators, we likely spend a lot of energy seeking the best inclusive practices within the school setting, but what happens after our students transition to other educational or work settings? Young people face significant barriers when attempting to transition from school due to low expectations, employer discrimination, and a lack of opportunities and support to develop key skills. In order to address this issue, the development of an inclusive alumni network could enhance social inclusion of people with learning disabilities and guide current students with disabilities the right path to their future. —Michael Ho

Blake, Hanson, and Clark (2021) examined the effectiveness of including young people with learning disabilities as alumni, with reference to Law’s (1981) community interaction theory,1 and considered how educational settings could create alumni networks that are socially inclusive of people with learning disabilities.

The Challenge

Blake et al. (2021) quotes Martin et al. (2011),2 “Young people with learning disabilities face complex barriers when attempting to transition from school which include low expectations, a lack of opportunities and support to develop key skills, and employer discrimination.” Currently, there is a lack of evidence showing alumni networks include young people with learning disabilities.

The Potential Solution

Blake et al. (2021) refer to Simplican et al. (2015)3 that social inclusion consists of two domains—interpersonal relationships and community participation. It is hypothesized that having an inclusive alumni network will boost both interpersonal relationships and community participation.

The rationale for the awareness of an inclusive alumni network is based on the community interaction theory, which states that “communities do not just mediate or moderate structural influences on individuals, they also directly influence them through five different modes: expectations, feedback, support, modeling, and information.”1 Engaging alumni with current students with disabilities will enhance each mode.

Focus Group Study

Six focus groups were used to generate discussion between participants around the topic of alumni networks. Staff from a mixture of mainstream and Special Educational Needs and Disabilities secondary schools and colleges that were members of the Leeds City Region SEND Careers Hub participated in the focus groups. Each focus group lasted for approximately 30 to 45 minutes.

The following research questions were addressed: 

  1. What would be the value and nature of an alumni network for young people with learning disabilities? 
  2. How viable is such a network; what might the enablers and barriers be? 
  3. How might alumni networks be established and made purposeful?

What would be the value and nature of such a network?

In response to the first research question, the value and nature of an alumni network for young people with learning disabilities are as follows:

  • The focus groups identified increased confidence in young people with disabilities, as well as for them to recognise their own abilities.
  • A value could be to explain to both students with learning disabilities and their parents who gives them support should they need it and where it can be accessed.
  • “The young people with learning disabilities were also aware of how they could be helped by alumni visiting their setting.”
  • Participants understood how an alumni network could improve self-confidence by giving them the courage to acknowledge they can explore employment, training, or further education.

Is this viable?

In response to the second research question, the enablers and barriers of setting up an alumni network of young people with disabilities are as follows:

  • The two main enablers include the enthusiasm and engagement from the staff participants and the availability of the resources to develop an alumni network.
  • The main barriers include the alumni’s relationship with family members; sensitivity issues around singling out alumni with learning disabilities; and the lack of knowledge, time, and organizational culture among support staff.

How might this be established?

In response to the third research question, alumni networks can be established and made purposeful by the following:

  • Engagement with businesses should focus on “realizing the worth in the young people.”
  • Educators should not be the only ones making the push for inclusive alumni networks, but so should the wider community, including businesses, workplaces, and colleges.
  • “The most important thing that needs to take place is raising expectations of the young people with learning disabilities by their community, including their parents, peers, teachers and businesses.”

The Limitations

The sample in this study was limited to the research for Leeds City Region Enterprise Partnership. Additionally, a sample of only six educational institutions was due to the restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic and to the feasibility of schools/colleges accessing the relevant technology in order to take part in the research.

Summarized Article:

Blake, H., Hanson, J., & Clark, L. (2021). The importance of an inclusive alumni network for ensuring effective transitions into employment and future destinations for people with learning disabilities. British Journal of Learning Disabilities, 49, 445–455. https://doi.org/10.1111/bld.12429

Summary by: Michael Ho—Michael supports the MARIO Framework because it empowers learners to take full control of their personalized learning journey, ensuring an impactful and meaningful experience.

Additional References:

  1. Law, B. (1981). Community interaction: A ‘mid-range’ focus for theories of career development in young adults. British Journal of Guidance & Counselling, 9(2), 142–158.
  2. Martin, K., Hart, R., White, R., & Sharp, C. (2011). Young people with special educational needs/learning difficulties and disabilities: Research into planning for adult life and services. (LG Group Research Report). NFER.
  3. Simplican, S. C., Leader, G., Kosciulek, J., & Leahy, M. (2015). Defining social inclusion of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities: An ecological model of social networks and community participation. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 38, 18–29. https:// doi.org/10.1016/j.ridd.2014.10.008