In the United States alone, more than 2 million students struggle with a specific learning disability (SLD), representing roughly 35% of all students who receive special education services. And yet coordination is often lacking between the experts working with these students, including classroom teachers, doctors, and policymakers.
But students in a pair of new HGSE modules are combining their special education expertise with entrepreneurship to invent new interventions to make care a more collaborative effort.
Created by Associate Professor Nadine Gaab, the two courses, Serving Children with Learning & Developmental Differences: Policymaking & Systems-Level Translation & Coordination and Children with Learning and Developmental Differences: A Vision for Community Supports and Service Implementation, were designed to give students an opportunity to challenge and redesign the current special educational landscape.
“I created these two new modules to fill a gap looking at policymaking and system system-level translation in the educational learning disabilities setting as well as in the community setting,” Gaab says. “The goal was for students to become change makers on the micro and macro levels and to walk out feeling empowered.
In the first module, students looked at why individuals who work with SLD students, from special educators to speech and language pathologists to pediatricians, are often siloed in their approach to care and devised practical solutions for more coordinated efforts. In the second module, students created ways to support SLD students outside the classroom through community-level interventions and solutions.
In addition to her academic research, Gaab is also an entrepreneur, developing new EdTech tools for screening reading difficulties like dyslexia through her company EarlyBird Education. Gaab says she wanted students to step out of their comfort zone and think about applying their learning in practical ways that could lead to real world solutions.
“In the first part of the module, I wanted them to walk away with a pitch they could apply for all these challenges they were learning about. For the other module, targeted for community stakeholders, I wanted them to think about how they could present their ideas on the local level, presenting to mayors or school committees,” Gaab says.
Working in small teams, students developed an innovative project outline to address a specific challenge through the use of a variety of interventions, from an app connecting volunteer special education advocates with families to help navigate the IEP process to an outreach campaign to increase awareness of learning differences in rural China.
Lexi Iverson, Ed.M.’21, created an app to close the gap between general educators and special educators. As a former special educator and department lead in the middle and high school setting, Iverson knew the challenges that existed firsthand.
“Currently in many schools, information is siloed, which means that students are not being successfully accommodated in many of their classes,” Iverson says. “Our app provides foundational knowledge, assessments to collect data, and the opportunity to earn continuing learning credits, often required for renewing teacher licenses.”
Growing up with a learning disability herself, Giulia Travostino, Ed.M. ’21, saw how frustrating it could be navigating diagnoses from the student perspective. Travostino and her project partner came up with the idea for a web-based communications platform to provide resources directly to children with disabilities.
“When it comes to disability, children deserve to be informed and know about their brains — after all, their disability will impact them the most,” Travostino says. “Websites and books that are for caretakers tend to speak over children and ignore the fact that they are the person living with this disability.”
Gaab says she was impressed by all the pitches and could see many of them being implemented and making an immediate impact. Students say they left the class not only with fully formed pitches and an understanding of how to access potential funders but also the feeling of being empowered to make system level change.
“I was inspired by the support I received from Dr. Gaab,” Travostino says. “Having a faculty member go out of their way to assure you that your idea could live outside of class was incredibly validating. I also have more confidence in my voice, and I learned that my lived experience carries weight and is valuable.”