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Research To Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Grantee Spotlight Blog Series Featuring Dr. Brook Sawyer

Today, we would like to highlight the work of Dr. Brook Sawyer, associate professor at Lehigh University. Dr. Sawyer plans to adapt and test whether Parents Plus (P+), an online parent-implemented intervention, accelerates the language development of preschoolers with developmental language disorders. We hope you enjoy this interview! 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER): How would you describe your research project in a sentence?  

Headshot of Brook Sawyer

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Our goal is to empower parents with knowledge and skills to improve the language skills of their preschool children with developmental language disorders. 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research? 

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Language skills are imperative for healthy development, given that they are central to social relationships and academic learning. When children with developmental language disorders receive early-intervention services, such as speech-language services, their language skills improve. For preschool children, these early-intervention services are typically delivered in the preschool setting. Because speech-language pathologists have such large caseloads, they often are not able to effectively teach parents to facilitate their children’s language development. As such, we lose valuable opportunities to promote children’s language skills. By providing training to parents, we can provide children with many more high-quality opportunities to develop their language skills. 

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research? 

Dr. Brook Sawyer: We expect that parents will gain skills to facilitate their children’s language development. In turn, we expect that children’s language skills will improve. 

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education? 

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Children with disabilities require additional support to develop skills. Additionally, parents and teachers need the tools to engage with children in positive and supportive ways. As both a parent and teacher myself, I understand how challenging it can be to provide optimal learning environments for children. I want to do all that I can to support parents and teachers and the children that they care for.   

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Given the critical importance of language skills for social relationships and academic learning, we must provide children with developmental language disorders as many high-quality language-learning opportunities as possible to develop their language skills. Obviously, parents have an immensely important role in promoting their children’s development. Yet without education and support, parents can feel unempowered. We developed Parents Plus as a fully online program to provide a convenient way for parents to learn how to facilitate their children’s language skills.  

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?  

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Once children enter preschool, their special education services are typically delivered in schools, and it can be challenging to meaningfully involve parents. Given how important parents are in supporting their children’s development, we need to develop feasible and effective ways to empower parents with knowledge and skills. In this way, we can enhance the learning environments that children are receiving at home. 

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic?  

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Because children’s special education services were disrupted during the pandemic, critical learning opportunities were lost. By training and supporting parents, along with children receiving their typical speech-language services in preschool, children will experience increased opportunities to develop their language skills. As such, we expect that children’s language skills will improve more than if they only received language services in preschool. 

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today? 

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Overall, I think parents, teachers, and related personnel—like speech-language pathologists—are very overwhelmed. They have many demands on their time and understandably may not feel they have the bandwidth to engage in research to develop and test new programs. We have experienced challenges in finding the best ways to let parents know about our project. 

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?  

Dr. Brook Sawyer: I’ll frame this particularly around the population of children that we focus on—preschool children with developmental language disorders (DLD). Individuals, including parents and teachers, may not recognize that preschool children with DLD are constantly communicating, and want to communicate, because children are communicating differently. For instance, children may be primarily communicating through behavior, even challenging behavior, because they do not yet have the verbal skills to express their wants/needs. When adults do not understand children’s behaviors as communicative acts, parents and teachers may not respond to children appropriately. As such, bids for connections and learning opportunities are lost. It is our goal in Parents Plus to teach parents to recognize and capitalize on opportunities to build language skills. In our initial pilot test, parents were anecdotally reporting to the coach that they were finding much more enjoyment being with their child once they had the knowledge to understand their children’s communicative acts—and the skills to respond. 

Further, some individuals believe that young children with DLD may “grow out of it.” However, if intervention is not provided in a timely manner, children’s language delays typically become magnified. As such, we need to intervene early and provide support for children in their natural settings, including preschool and home contexts.  

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Brook Sawyer: Technology is making it easier for parents and educators to individualize support based on a particular child’s needs. For example, we use remote coaching, where parents send short videos to their coach and receive individualized suggestions on how they can provide optimal language-learning opportunities for their child. By doing this remotely, it is more convenient for the parent and coach and cuts down on logistical challenges, like travel and childcare.

NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team? 

Dr. Brook Sawyer: We hope to develop a culturally and linguistically adapted version of Parents Plus for Latine parents who speak Spanish in the home. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Brook Sawyer! Come back tomorrow for our next grantee spotlight!  

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