An Inside Look at ABA Coaches, Members of the DCPS Autism Services Team 

April 12, 2011

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DCPS is in the process of building a district-wide suite of best-in-class autism services and supports to ensure that all students with autism can attend a school close to home, progress with their classmates from kindergarten through high school, graduate on time, and move onto a post-secondary pathway of their choosing.

The autism team at DCPS already has created a strong foundation of supports and services for students with Autism Spectrum Disorders and their families.

An ongoing goal for the team is for all autism teachers and staff to be trained in Applied Behavior Analysis, one of the most well documented and effective strategies for clearly defining and reinforcing expectations for students with autism.

To help accomplish this, the autism services team has hired ABA coaches to work closely with school staff and parents to teach them best practices in teaching students with autism and making sure they get the most out of their education.

The ABA coaches organize regularly scheduled school-based trainings and professional development days for staff. These trainings focus on topics such as communication, social skills, and applying ABA outside of the classroom.

Shanna Hirsch and Megan Gregory-Morley are two ABA coaches at DCPS. Shanna received her master of education in special education from Peabody College at Vanderbilt, and she is a board certified behavior analyst. Megan received her master of education from George-Mason University. They talked about their work both in and out of the classroom.

What’s the role of an ABA coach?
Shanna: We work closely with classroom teachers in self-contained settings and some inclusive settings. Our job is to provide best practices to teachers for students with autism. We have been doing some parent trainings, too, and we have offered in-home support to some parents.

Why ABA?

Shanna: ABA has proven to be the most effective intervention for children with autism. It essentially teaches an academic, behavior, social or communications skill by breaking it down into small steps and reinforcing the skill.

There are so many different facets of ABA that we use in the schools to replace challenging behaviors like tantrums or physical aggression with behaviors like asking for a break or using assistive technology devices to communicate.

The overall goal is to promote desirable behaviors and eliminate negative behaviors.

What is the best part of your job?

Megan: Hands-on training and getting to work with the students. Usually, I will model the strategies I want the teachers to use with their students, and when the teacher feels comfortable, he or she will try, and I will give feedback.

For example, if we are teaching a child how to sort colors, we give support up front, then systematically fade out the support. For the first trial, I would move the child’s hand to where the red needed to go, and when successful, I would fade my support and just point to the color. I would continue to fade out the prompts until the student was independent.

What do you do during home visits?

Shanna: We meet with the parents to hone in on the times or activities that they find to be the most challenging. This can be at dinnertime or out while they are in the community.

Then we brainstorm strategies that can be used at home. Often times, we work with students’ classroom teachers to bring the supports that are effective at school into the home. This also helps everyone stay on the same page and use the same language.

What is your day-to-day like?

Shanna: For the most part, my day is filled with classroom visits, IEP meetings and collaborative team meetings. During a typical classroom visit, I will meet with the teacher afterwards and brainstorm some ideas along with possible interventions to try.

What advice would you give parents who recently have learned they have a child with autism?

Megan: One of the things I have seen with the parent trainings, which are organized by the autism services team, is that parents find other parents who have already gone through the training, have older children with autism or have known longer that their child is on the autism spectrum. And these other parents often have the best support and advice because they have experienced something similar.

What strategies work best for teachers and parents?

Megan: What I have seen work best is when parents and teachers are on the same page, and they have really collaborated. It is so key that whatever strategies are used at home are followed through at school, and strategies used at school are followed through at home.

It is important that there is a routine for children with autism. It’s just easier for them to learn one set of rules so they aren’t going to school and having to learn something completely new and different from the rules they know at home. For some of our students, that might be like starting over every day.

Why is parent engagement so important in your work?

Shanna: Parents are the real key players – and I make that very clear at the IEP meeting. I think the autism team is a very unique team because we are on this middle ground where we can offer support to both sides – parents and teachers.

Megan: Students only spend a set amount of time in school, so a large portion of learning takes place at home. Parents know their children best, so they often have some great strategies that can be used at school.

Inside DCPS Highlights.


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