Joint effort supports children with language-related disabilities

Stephanie Koons
July 06, 2020

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For children with severe speech or language impairments, not being able to fully communicate their thoughts and feelings often leads to significant challenges in the classroom. A $1.25 million grant by the U.S. Department of Education, that was awarded to Penn State, addresses the urgent need for fully credentialed special education teachers and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) who are prepared to provide outstanding services for children who have complex communication needs.

David McNaughton

David McNaughton

IMAGE: Penn State

“Across the entire country, there are shortages of special education teachers and SLPs who are prepared to work with students with the most severe disabilities, including those who have difficulty with speech,” said David McNaughton, professor in the Department of Educational Psychology, Counseling, and Special Education (EPCSE) in the College of Education.

Funds from the grant support the AAC Collaboration Project at Penn State, which prepares master’s-level students as either speech-language pathologists or special education teachers with the skills needed to provide high-level services to children who have difficulty with speech, and who require augmentative and alternative communication (AAC).

Jessica Caron

Jessica Caron

IMAGE: Penn State

The grant was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs in fall 2017 to Jessica Caron, assistant professor in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders in the College of Health and Human Development, and McNaughton, who serve as co-directors on the project.

More than 3.5 million Americans experience speech disability to the extent that they have significant difficulty being understood by others. For these individuals, the use of AAC, including communication devices, systems, strategies and tools, can replace or support natural speech. As noted by the American Speech and Hearing Association, AAC can take the form of unaided tools and strategies such as facial expressions, body language and gestures; or aided methods including symbol boards, speech-generating devices and AAC apps on mobile devices.

In many ways, McNaughton said, the AAC Collaboration Project grant is recognition of the past and recent work of the Penn State AAC community. As described on the group’s website, Penn State faculty, graduate students and undergraduate students in both the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders and the Special Education program have worked to “enhance communication and improve the overall quality of life for individuals who have complex communication needs and their families” for over 30 years. The goal of AAC intervention, said McNaughton, is to assist individuals who experience difficulties with speech in communicating in the full range of activities that are important to individuals in their daily lives.

According to McNaughton, each year the U.S. Department of Education targets areas of need, such as providing services for students with severe disabilities, for which special education teachers and speech-language pathologists are in high demand. The federal government sponsors a competition in which universities are challenged to design and propose the best possible program to train the needed education and communication professionals. From the proposals that are submitted, the Department of Education selects a small number to receive a personnel preparation grant. The AAC Collaboration Project at Penn State, according to its website, “addresses the urgent need for fully credentialed speech-language pathologists and special education teachers who are prepared to provide evidence-based services to improve results for high need children who have complex communication needs (e.g., children of all ages with autism, CP, TBI, multiple disabilities, etc.).”

“This is one way the federal government tries to address the national need for special education teachers and speech-language pathologists,” McNaughton said.

Students who are funded by the AAC Collaboration Project will complete a two-year program at Penn State’s University Park campus in either communication sciences and disorders, or special education. Student fellowships awarded under the grant will cover tuition and provide a stipend to support living expenses. By accepting the grant support, students commit to work as an SLP or as a special education teacher, in a school program in the U.S., with children or adolescents with disabilities who require AAC, for a period of at least two years for every academic year of funding support.

The personnel preparation grant is funded for five years with a series of cohorts moving through the program. The first class entered in 2017 and the final cohort will start in fall 2020.

As part of the terms of the grant, McNaughton said, there is an expectation that the beneficiaries will provide multidisciplinary training activities to prepare AAC personnel. In addition to funding special education master’s students, the grant funds students in the Master of Science in Communication Science and Disorders program in the College of Health and Human Development. This collaboration allows students from both programs to do coursework and practicums together, which enables them to pool their knowledge and resources to more effectively address the needs of students with complex communication needs who would benefit from AAC intervention.

“The students’ pre-service training will prepare them for when they’re actually working in schools, which always involves an enormous amount of collaboration between the special education teacher, the speech-language pathologist, the general education teacher and the children’s families, as well,” McNaughton said.

An advantage for special education master’s students enrolled in the AAC Collaboration Project, he added, is that they have the opportunity to take more in-depth coursework in the area of AAC; as well as opportunities to do collaborative practicums with speech-language pathology students. In fact, the students have participated in practicums in the State College Area School District that have generated positive feedback from teachers and school administrators.

“The area schools have been very positive about how helpful it is for them to have pre-service teachers and pre-service speech-language pathologists who are able to provide support in the classroom,” he said.

While the in-class practicums have been paused temporarily due to schools operating remotely during the coronavirus pandemic, they are expected to resume in the fall.

Training special education teachers to work effectively with students who require AAC, McNaughton said, is vitally important due to the students’ unique communication needs. Students who require the use of AAC, whether they have no speech whatsoever or limited speech, often cannot rely on speech as an “accurate reflection of the thoughts and the language they have in their heads.”

“The field of AAC is dedicated towards finding ways to help people interact with others when their speech abilities are not supporting their full participation and communication,” he said.

An additional advantage of the AAC Collaboration Project, McNaughton said, is that “students and faculty have an opportunity to think about developing content and curriculum that will continue to be useful across time.” His classes have been involved in developing online materials to support students with severe disabilities in general education classrooms, and the materials will continue to be accessible after the grant comes to an end.

Kate Elken and Clare Hankins, who are both pursuing master’s degrees in special education in the College of Education, are among the participants in the AAC Collaboration Project and said they are benefiting from a well-rounded education.

“I feel like we have two sets of professors instead of one, and we’re gaining more access to different areas of expertise,” said Elken, who started the program in August 2019.

Hankins, who received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Penn State with a special education minor, said that in her undergraduate classes, she got a “touch of AAC but not enough to fully develop AAC intervention programs.”

“I honestly don’t know how I would go about it without this (program),” she said. “I’m going to feel so much more prepared, so much more comfortable.”

McNaughton said his interest in the AAC field goes beyond academia and is rooted in his practical real-world experience as a special education teacher.

“Prior to coming to Penn State, I was a special education teacher who was involved in doing assessments of students with severe disabilities and developing AAC intervention programs,” he said. “Those experiences helped me to understand that very positive outcomes are possible when professionals work together with families to develop and implement comprehensive communication intervention programs.”

McNaughton worked for five years at a children’s center that specialized in AAC assessment and intervention, then earned his doctorate at Penn State in 1995. Since taking a faculty position in the College of Education, he has continued to work in the AAC area in both teaching and research. One of the major challenges of the field, he said, is that AAC users are what is described as a “low incidence population” — a relatively small number of people with acute needs, who are spread out across the country. One of McNaughton’s areas of interest is how educators can provide online educational supports for teachers, students who use AAC and the students’ family members.

“We need to be able to reach out and support them wherever they are,” he said. “What kinds of information should we be sharing? What are the most effective and efficient ways of learning about and working to meet their information needs? The AAC Collaboration Project is one way that Penn State faculty are preparing Penn State students to support the communication of children with severe disabilities who require AAC.”

For more information about the AAC Collaboration Project, visit



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Last Updated April 15, 2021