When Class Content Reflects Reality, Students Respond to Genuine Community Needs

When Class Content Reflects Reality, Students Respond to Genuine Community Needs

James M. Loy, Miami University 

It’s rare that within a single college class, students will reach out across the community, to address a wide variety of critical issues, independently, with little oversight from a professor, and not just because they hope to get a good grade.

But because their work is important. Because it matters.

“The topic my group chose was restraint and seclusion,” says Paige Prass, a Miami University special education major. “Restraining and secluding students can cause students to be severely hurt and even killed. The majority of U.S. schools have not reported using restraint and seclusion. However, we know that it is very likely that they have.”

Prass was part of a senior seminar designed to encourage students to think deeply about longstanding issues facing special education professionals today.

Alongside restraint and seclusion, other projects focused on autism sensory overload, assistive classroom technology, adult transition planning, and more.

To maximize their reach and impact across the community, each group also proactively pursued outside partnerships with local organizations.

“The students did everything,” says Leah Wasburn-Moses, Miami University professor of educational psychology. “I talked to them about maybe how to communicate with the partner, what they should say. But it was really up to the partner to respond. Because we wanted to make sure that it was actually a genuine need.”

Restraint and seclusion: Recommendations

Prass says students with disabilities are 20 times more likely than their peers to be restrained and secluded, typically when behaviors threaten to harm themselves or others. So her group contacted the Montgomery County Education Service Center, which has experience dealing with similar situations.

They met with the center’s Director of Student Services to present their research findings and to receive feedback. Afterwards, they offered two primary recommendations.

Since this controversial practice is not currently governed by federal law, the group recommended that educators receive more training on how and when to properly perform safe and effective restraint-based techniques.

“Schools should also be collecting data, and they should be reporting the use of restraint and seclusion practices,” says Miami student Kayla Malaney. “We found that not all schools are reporting their restraint and seclusion practices, which is really concerning because we don't know how often it's happening.”

“That was another recommendation we gave,” Malaney says.

Autism and sensory overload

Another project focused on the sensory overstimulation that can affect children with autism.

A hyper-sensitivity to bright lights, loud sounds, strongly scented products, and more can be a common, yet debilitating issue. It can prohibit children with autism from enjoying the simple pleasures of dining out or visiting a theme park. This can leave children, and their families, feeling isolated and alone.

Awareness of this issue is growing. Many barriers, however, still remain.

“Many organizations and attractions have discovered the need for sensory-friendly options, but haven't quite discovered how to get the word out about what they offer,” says Miami student Maddie Hawley.  

So Hawley and her group engaged families seeking these resources by producing a comprehensive community information guide, which was then distributed by the Regional Autism Advisory Council of Southwest Ohio.

“The council felt this was a large area of need, and something that hadn't been created yet,” Hawley says. “So we immediately jumped on the opportunity.”

Special education transition planning

For many students with disabilities, transitioning from high school to adulthood is challenging issue they must all eventually navigate. 

“In special education, something we see a lot out in the field, in secondary schools, is parents and families that panic when they get closer to graduation,” says Miami student Lily Hackney. “They're not really sure what the options are for students with disabilities after high school.”

There are some organizations, such as Project Search and Project Life, that provide assistance in this area. However, these programs are highly competitive, and early awareness is vital. Because if students don’t start building the prerequisite skills soon enough, opportunities to participate are quickly lost.

“We all agreed that transition information for parents was something that is lacking,” Hackney says. “So we chose to [work with] the Butler County Board of Developmental Disabilities.”

The group created a transition resource brochure, and distributed it at a monthly Butler County adult life transition series, where they also interacted with parents and children.

“It was really cool to meet with parents, and hear what they have to say about what transition services are like in schools,” says Hackney. “It definitely didn't feel like I was doing it just to get a grade, and get it completed. We were doing something more for parents of students, our future students, something that really will help them have a better quality of life.”

Which, after all, is exactly what these students are preparing for as future professionals themselves.

“It's about being of service to the community,” Wasburn-Moses says. “When they're practicing teachers, that's what they’ll do.”