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Early childhood educators get schooled in working with ‘exceptional’ kids

KPCC, By Priska Neely

When federal data in 2014 revealed that thousands of students were being suspended in preschool, officials at Los Angeles Universal Preschool were shocked. In response, they created a program for educators who work with the students at greatest risk for suspension.

The first cohort of early childhood educators graduated Friday from the Exceptional Populations Certificate program, which was designed to help teachers and aides who work with children with developmental delays, physical and medical disabilities and emotional and behavioral issues.

“The idea is really [to help] children who may have a difficulty adjusting at an early age to their school environment because of everything they’ve been facing at home,” said Eli Pessar, LAUP’s program manager for the pilot program. “The program was really designed about how to make it an inclusive environment for those children.”

During the 16-week training administered at Los Angeles City College (LACC), early childhood educators learned about trauma-informed care, laws and services pertaining to children with special needs and data collection tools, which they applied first-hand in preschools.

The teachers and aides were assigned to work in a preschool with a struggling student, and used observation skills to collect data on triggers undesirable behavior and develop intervention plans.

“These observational tools just give you resources as a teacher to just better meet the developmental needs of the children you’re serving, all children,” said Michelle Semrad Barrera, who just completed the certificate program.

Gabriela Arroyo and Michelle Semrad Barrera pose next to a poster they presented to leaders of LAUP and L.A. City College before graduation. They worked together to develop an intervention plan for a preschooler with developmental delays.

Semrad Barrera has worked in primary education for years and earned a Masters in Education, but says most of the material she learned in the program was new. And she said it’s solidified her desire to start working in early childhood education.

“You’re going to have those children, they’re going to be in every classroom,” she added, “and if you don’t know what the laws and the rights, or what these tools are, it’s like how can you meet their needs?”

The U.S. Department of Education released statistics in 2014 showing that 5,000 preschoolers nationwide were suspended at least once during the 2011-12 school year.

The pilot program is a partnership with LACC and Los Angeles City Workforce Development Board. LAUP hopes to offer it to educators across the metro area again next step.

“What I noticed most from the recruitment process to the end, was the amount of clarity students had with respect to their future aspirations,” said Pessar.

He said when the educators applied, they were excited to get the training, but weren’t sure how they wanted to apply it. At the graduation on Friday, students shared very concrete career goals.

“That was the most meaningful component of the program to me,” said Pessar, “because at the heart of it, it’s a workforce development initiative.”

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