Community Engagement for Families with Children Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Nov 5th, 2019 | Category: Columns, Parents/Family/Community, Research in Education
By Arthur Safer, Mary C. Zaharis, Denise S. Glasgow, Susan L. Mann, and Michele Gnan

The Every Family Program

The number of children diagnosed with autism has increased substantially. Educators need to understand how to meet the individual learning needs for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the school, home, and in the community. In order to better address their complex communication, social, and learning needs, school, family, and community members need to work together to create programs that can support specialized learning opportunities for students with ASD. The Audubon Nature Institute received grant funding for the Every Family Program to design and develop innovative programs in the New Orleans geographical area that supported families with children with autism spectrum disorders. 

Overview

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely-related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. People with ASD may not look different from other people, but may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. Individuals on the autism spectrum have problems to some degree with social skills, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior. However, the level of disability and the combination of symptoms varies tremendously from person to person. In fact, two children with the same diagnosis may look very different when it comes to their social, communication, and behavior abilities. 

The number of children diagnosed with special learning needs is increasing at a tremendous rate. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1:60,000 diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in 1972 versus 1:59 diagnosed with ASD in 2013. 

  • Approximately 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. 
  • ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. ASD is almost 4 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189). 
  • About 1 in 6 children in the United States had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html).

The autism spectrum disorders belong to an “umbrella” category of five childhood-onset conditions known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). Some autism specialists use the terms pervasive developmental disorder and autism spectrum disorder interchangeably. However, when most people talk about the autism spectrum disorders, they are referring to the three most common PDDs: 

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

Families with children that have special learning needs such as developmental disabilities, cognitive disabilities, or those on the autism spectrum are limited in the types of community “free choice” activities available to them. Free-choice learning activities may include museums, zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and parks. Often, these informal education centers are not equipped to provide programming for families because the education and guest-engagement teams lack the necessary experience, training, and/or resources to create meaningful programming for these learning-diverse audiences. 

Many families and professionals in the field of special education cite a fundamental lack of family-appropriate recreational and learning opportunities for this audience. Children with autism-spectrum disorder tend to have fewer recreation and leisure interests than others. A typical example of the lack of meaningful community programming available for families with children that have ASD is an anecdotal comment by a parent who reported that the educators asked if they should just bring coloring books for the participants.

A number of museums are beginning to provide creative programs for families facing these challenges. Some children’s museums open early to offer a quieter, less crowded experience for these children and their families, or offer a summer art camp for children with special needs. Others carefully monitor the building temperature or adjust the lighting in some areas to create a more sensory-friendly environment. Museums also utilize multiple learning styles, creating visual representations of what visitors can expect to see and do, in order to help parents prepare their child and to minimize unfamiliar and unexpected experiences. 

Access to museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers for individuals and families diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders not only fits the mission and philosophy of the organization but also meets the mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The informal setting and casual environment of these venues promotes a safe place for visual and interactive learning through hands-on learning experiences. Since the decision for including members of the ASD community in the activities of museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers is relatively new and unique, it requires that these organizations have in-house professionals who have the skills and knowledge to provide families with new learning avenues. Institutions that have been successful in welcoming the autistic community have an established a set of training protocols for its professional staff through added resource tools for working with this special population. It is incumbent upon each venue to acknowledge that programs and exhibits may need to be modified to create an autism-friendly environment. 

To engage and support through innovative educational programming for families whose children have been diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana received grant funding from a private foundation in 2016 to design and implement the Every Family Program. The Audubon Nature Institute is a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit entity that operates ten museums and parks dedicated to nature. The Audubon Nature Institute strives to reach all members of its community and inspire them to appreciate nature in a personalized way. The addition of the Every Family Program permitted the Audubon to be truly all-inclusive in providing additional free-choice activities for individuals with special learning needs through specialized educational programming with the Institute’s educational staff. 

Statistics noted that potentially one in every 15 families in the Greater New Orleans area could benefit from the Every Family Program. The Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Program was designed to pilot a project to create targeted, cutting-edge innovative programming for families whose members were diagnosed with ASD to participate in specialized recreation programs where they would feel comfortable and not be afraid of disrupting the general public. The Every Family Program established an advanced reality of engagement for families with ASD beyond the traditional free-choice activities. Additional innovations included a set of pilot training strategies linking nature-based programming with the extension to the special learning needs demographic. 

All selected Audubon education staff participated in workshops designed to introduce the various complex issues and considerations in working with people with special learning needs. The Audubon Nature Institute’s Education Department developed five programs at each public facility (Aquarium, Zoo, and Butterfly Garden & Insectarium) and offered free admission to families with members who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Best-practice models for recreation and leisure encouraged offering choices, limiting stimuli and creating the mastery of smaller skills. The innovative educational workshops funded by the Every Family Program grant to implement specialized, intensive training of the educational staff relative to ASD protocols was designed by the Audubon Nature Institute in collaboration with the Tulane Center for Autism and Related Disorders, predicated upon previous research relative to engaging families with members who have been diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum disorder.

Methodology

The Every Family Program grant funding required the Audubon Nature Institute during the time frame of the grant to contract with an external evaluator to assess the content and adaptability of the Every Family Program and to observe and participate in the training of the educational staff to determine its effectiveness for engaging all members of participant families. The external evaluation for Every Family Program funded grant required the administration of a pre/posttest instrument to the selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff to assess their understanding and perceptions of ASD. 

A pre/posttest evaluation instrument was developed with the external evaluator and education department directors. The questions examined education staff member’s knowledge of ASD relative to their understanding of the unique nature of ASD and how it is manifested in sensory processing, aggression, repetitive behavior, and behavior management. The first portion of the pre-test requested demographic information from the participants and the second half of the instrument was a series of multiple-choice questions that had a response option, which varied between Very Knowledgeable to Somewhat Knowledgeable to Not Knowledgeable. The Director of Education Programs, Audubon Nature Institute, facilitated the administration of the pre/posttest. All pre/posttests were completed anonymously, and no personal identification was requested. All participants were informed in writing that if they did not wish to participate in the pre/posttests or declined to answer any question that they were free to do so. 

The Audubon Nature Institute education staff participants’ pre/posttest assessments were collected from two workshops: 

  • Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing (February 3, 2016) 
  • Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management (February 17, 2016)

The Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop 1 and the Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop 2 both focused upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (ASD) to enhance the knowledge base and skills of selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff in recognizing and learning the educational tools to engage with children who have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

Analysis of Data

Evidence based on the objective measures reported in the data analysis section has been collected to demonstrate how the Every Family Program related to best practices in ASD concepts and reached its stated goals and objectives related to the training of Audubon Nature Institute education staff relative to working with families whose members exhibit ASD.

Table 1 and Table 2 present a summary of the demographic data of the two (2) workshop participants 

Table 1:

Repetitive Behavior/Aggressions/Sensory Processing Workshop: Summary of Participants’ Demographic Data (N=20)

Characteristics      

Age Range (25-56)    

25        26        27        28        30        33        34        45        46        55        56

Respondents:   1            2          2          5          2          1          2         2          1          1          1                   

Gender

     Male:          2

     Female:       18

Education Degree Level

     Associate:     1

     B.A.:            7

     B.S.            :             6

     M.S. :           6

Ethnicity

     White, Non-Hispanic:        17

     African-American:             2

     Latino:                                1

Years of Service at Audubon Nature Institute

     Range:        1-20 years

     Median:      2 years

Table 2

Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop. 

Summary of Participants’ Demographic Data (N=16)                                                                                 

Characteristics      

Age Range (25-45)                

            25                    2

            26                    2

            28                    5

            30                    2

            34                    3

            45                    2

Gender

            Female             14

            Male                2

Education Degree Level

            Associate         1

            B.A.                4

            B.S.                 7

            M.S.                4

Ethnicity

            White, Non-Hispanic

                                    12

            African American

                                     2

            Latino

                                     2

Years of Service at Audubon Institute

            Range           1-7 years

            Median            2 years

The workshop pre/posttest instrument was designed to specifically assess the perceptions and opinions of the selected education staff participants at the conclusion of the two educational and interactive workshops. It was designed to collect data as to whether or not the Audubon Nature Center had met its expectations and to be utilized as a guide to determine particular aspects of the program that may need to be improved upon.

The collected responses clearly indicated a positive pattern of success for the project’s goals and objectives. There was a strong correlation relative to the design of the curriculum modules and how they were integrated into the learning process. The participants rated each area on the posttest from Very Knowledgeable to Somewhat Knowledgeable and there is direct evidence that the success of the project was the result of its design, presentation, workshop exercises, the inclusion of the Audubon Nature Center professional members and the Tulane Center for Autism and Related Disorders, as well as the desire of the participants to become involved in a new learning experience related to ASD. The data collected from these workshop pre/posttests instruments the results are found below in Tables 3 and 4.

Table 3

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop

Pre/Post Test Results (N=20)      
  1. Were the objectives of this Every Family Grant Workshop (Repetitive Behaviors/Aggression/Sensory Processing) clear to you?

Pre-Test                       Yes  90%  (18)            No 10% (2)

Post-Test                     Yes 100% (20)            No   0%

  • Prior to your participation in the Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism) were you knowledgeable about the Repetitive Behaviors associate with Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Very knowledgeable               0%

Somewhat knowledgeable.    90% (18)

Not Knowledgeable               10%   (2)

  • Now that you have completed this Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism), are you knowledgeable about the Repetitive Behaviors associated with Autism Spectrum?

Very knowledgeable               60% (12)

Somewhat knowledgeable.    40%    (8)

Not Knowledgeable                0%

______________________________________________________________________________

Table 4

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop

Pre/Post Test Results (N=16)      
  1. Were the objectives of this Every Family Grant Workshop (Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management/Behavior Management Techniques) clear to you?

Pre-Test           Yes                  75% (12)         No       25%   (4)

Post-Test         Yes             93.75% (15)         No.    6.25 % (1)

  • Prior to your participation in the Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism) were you knowledgeable about the seven (7) Sensory Systems and what role they play in the life of a child with Autism?

Very knowledgeable                 0%

Somewhat knowledgeable   87.5% (14)

Not Knowledgeable             12.5%   (2)

  • Now that you have participated in the Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism) were you knowledgeable about the seven (7) Sensory Systems and what role they play in the life of a child with Autism?

Very knowledgeable               56.2% (9)

Somewhat knowledgeable     43.75% (7)

Not Knowledgeable                      0%

______________________________________________________________________________

The assessment of the data collected represented a compendium of all the responses from the pre/posttest instrument as completed by the twenty (20) education staff participants in the Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop and a compilation of all the responses from the pre/posttest instrument as completed by the sixteen (16) education staff participants in the Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop.

The Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop 1 and the Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop 2 both focused upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (ASD) to enhance the knowledge-base and skills of selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff in recognizing and learning the educational tools to engage with children who have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. The subsets of both workshops included an intense and interactive learning process, which included modules on the attributes and characteristics of children with autism such as compulsive and ritualistic routines, insistence on sameness, verbal rituals, sensory system identifiers, common behavior problems, and behavior-management techniques. The workshop facilitator stressed how these characteristics and behaviors are manifested in children with ASD and what are the potential solutions available to the education staff as they engage actively within the Nature Institute’s clientele to provide a viable learning experience for families with children who present ASD. 

A review of the pre/posttest data from both workshops indicated that there was a distinctive variation from what the education staff knew about ASD prior to the workshop to an appreciable increase in their learning curve at the conclusion of each workshop. The data exhibit, in general, a significant range change from the indicators of Not Knowledgeable or Somewhat Knowledgeable in the pre-test to a range of Somewhat Knowledgeable to Very Knowledgeable in the posttest. 

An analysis of the pre- and posttest instruments for both workshops Workshop 1(N=20) and Workshop 2 (N=16) to determine what type of learning was measured on a Likert scale ranging from “Very Knowledgeable ” to “Not Knowledgeable”) as a result of the participation in the Every Family project, the Audubon Nature Institute education staff indicated positive growth with becoming more familiar with new the ASD content materials as well as learning about innovative ways to use emergent research and strategies in working with children who exhibit ASD. 

The Every Family Program expanded their knowledge of how to integrate interactive new learning and teaching techniques for working with children with autism. There was a preponderance of agreement on the part of the respondents that it increased to a great extent. 

The data suggested that the level of satisfaction with the interactive workshops ranged from Excellent, to Very Good, to Good. Workshop 1 measured 45% (9) Excellent, 40% (8) Very Good, and 15% (3) Good, while Workshop 2 indicated a range of Excellent 62.5% (10), Very good 31.25% (5), and Good 6.25% (1). The agreement or disagreement of the orientation and learning modules conducted during the two workshops, the evaluation noted positive and strong agreement (90-100%). In terms of the experience of working with the workshop facilitator and the Audubon Nature Center education division team in answering questions and the opportunity to participate as a team member, agreement ranged from 37.5% Strongly Agree, to 62.5% Agree. Furthermore, they indicated a strong satisfaction response in having the opportunity to ask questions of the facilitator and the opportunity to interact and discuss issues with her. 

An assessment of the data presented examined a more finite distribution by collecting workshop statistical data and a comparison drawn from the two workshops, indicating similar results as evidenced from both the pre and posttest data. 

During April 2016 (April 4 & 7) twenty-eight (28) families from the New Orleans environs whose members exhibited autism spectrum disorders were invited to the Audubon Zoo to participate in a free Sensory Sunday event with the Audubon Zoo trained education staff. Utilizing an online survey instrument designed and administered by the Audubon Nature Institute Education Projects Department, a quantitative/qualitative measure of these families’ satisfaction/dissatisfaction was collected. The total N for the survey results was drawn from ten (10) families. The survey instrument assessed their opinions from seven (7) questions of which four (4) were quantifiable and two (2) were qualitative in nature. 

The overall satisfaction with the Sensory Sunday demonstrated a high percentage of Very Satisfied 70% (7) to Somewhat Satisfied 30% (3). Question 6 matched this in that 80% (8) would be Extremely Likely to attend future special needs programs to 20% (2) who indicated Very Likely to attend future programs. Variances were noted in Question 2 and Question 3 in those families’ opinions related to the zoo staff’s willingness to help and the appropriateness of the Sensory Sunday activities. In each case, One (1) family or 10% stated that the zoo staff was Somewhat Helpful to another family (1) who acknowledged that the activities were Neither Appropriate nor Inappropriate. Overall for these two queries the rate of favorability was 90% (9) from Extremely Well to Very Well and Very Appropriate to Somewhat Appropriate. These data are summarized in Table 5 while the qualitative data are summarized in Table 6.

Table 5

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop Survey

Total Number of Respondents (10)

Multiple Choice   n %

Q1    Overall, how satisfied/dissatisfied are you with the Sensory Sunday event?

Very Satisfied                                                       7                              70.0 %

Somewhat satisfied                                               3                              30.0 %

Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied                          0                                 0.0 %

Somewhat dissatisfied                                           0                                0.0 %

Very dissatisfied                                                   0                                0.0 %

Q2    Did you feel that the zoo staff was helpful and understood your needs?

Extremely Well                                                      5                              50.0 %

Very Well                                                              4                              40.0 %

Somewhat                                                             1                              10.0 %

Not so well                                                            0                                0.0 %

Q3    Did you feel that activities were appropriate for your family’s special needs and interests?

Very appropriate                                                   5                              50.0 %

Somewhat appropriate                               4                              40.0 %

Neither appropriate nor inappropriate                  1                                10.0 %

Somewhat inappropriate                                       0                                 0.0 %

Very inappropriate                                                0                                0.0 %

Q6    How likely are you to attend future special needs programs at the Audubon Zoo?

Extremely likely                                                    8                            80.0  %

Very likely                                                            2                            20.0  %

Somewhat likely                                                   0                                0.0  %

Not so likely                                                         0                                0.0  %

Not at all likely                                                      0                                0.0 %

______________________________________________________________________________

Table 6

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop Survey

Total Number of Respondents (10)

Qualitative Responses      

Q4. What did you like best about Sensory Sunday?

  • Treat other children in the family to be a part of the special activities
  • Entrance before zoo opened, fewer people, little noise. Our son has autism and he gets irritable and anxious in heat. It was the first time we have seen our son actually looked for animals and spent more time observing. The kids enjoyed watching the animals eat.
  • I felt more at ease as a parent without the crowds of people during regular zoo hours.  A big fear for me is getting separated from my special needs kids.  They don’t have the communication skills for an instance of separation
  • The lack of crowds
  • The touching of the items at the cart.
  • Very nice to be able to view animals without the crowds and for the children to be able to have the room and time to enjoy making crafts and touching and learning of animal details with the staff.
  • I like the fact that it was not over-crowded, my son was around peers
  • Just to be amongst families who understand the struggles we face and not feeling judged.
  • When we did talk to the staff they were friendly and knowledgeable.
  • Great for families with special needs…thank you.
  • It was a great experience. We are excited to come back next month. Thank you for giving our kids this time at the zoo.

Q5.  What did you like least about Sensory Sunday?

  • The arrival was rushed. Did not have the opportunity to address/welcome the group as a whole but rather a few at a time then the group spread out while waiting and the children were antsy because some families already went to see animals and were waiting
  • The sensory activities were not much interest to our kids.
  • I thought that it wasn’t long enough. Once my daughter went through the sensory component she wasn’t that interested in the Zoo. Maybe have a designated area for 15 minutes of “sensory touch” would be great.
  • The walk from animal exhibit to the next was too fast. I brought my son to the rest room and when I got back they had already started and we were behind and I had to walk quickly with him to catch up and he doesn’t walk very fast and isn’t very stable on uneven ground. Wish we could have had more time in the zoo.
  • The waiting to start the tour. Patience is not something my child is blessed with.
  • It was extremely difficult for my son to participate in the art activity, as he was unable to reach. Although staff was polite and knowledgeable, few addressed the children.

______________________________________________________________________________

Conclusions

An examination of the data from the pre/posttest evaluation clearly substantiated that the goals, objectives and activities had been very successfully met by the grantee, the Audubon Nature Institute. The actual immersion into the interactive and information-driven workshops and the introduction of the ASD content modules as well as the opportunity to work with the workshop facilitator emerged as highly beneficial. The education-staff participants expressed a high comfort level with the focus of the ASD project agenda and acknowledged that their personal interests and expectations were piqued. An analysis of the data indicated that a positive and enriching learning experience relative to the ASD learning modules, the ASD research content, and the collaboration with their colleagues and team building was accomplished. 

The data collected from the online survey instrument distributed to families who participated in Sensory Sunday suggested that overall satisfaction was positive and that they would be extremely likely to attend future special-needs programs. The findings substantiated that the selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff’s expectations of the learning modules were met in the following ways:

  • Collected data indicated that there are beneficial outcomes for education staff in that the two ASD workshops provided not only a learning-based inquiry opportunity but a unique experience which resulted in motivation, excitement and team collaboration
  • The pre-test/posttest evaluation results exhibited the importance of the two workshops in creating both a goal-oriented activity which facilitated collaboration as well as an opportunity for new mastery experiences with immediate live feedback and discussion with the workshop facilitator
  • The workshops provided the opportunity for the selected education staff to become cognizant of cutting-edge knowledge for purposes of enhancing their content knowledge relative to Autistic Spectrum Disorders. 
  • The pilot program was of high quality and consistent with the goals and objectives stated in the grant 
  • The pedagogical and technical success of the Every Family Program workshops was directly attributed to the expertise and knowledge base of the facilitator and the Audubon Nature Institute’s professional educators.

Overall, it appeared that the immersion of the Audubon Nature Center’s education staff into the Sensory Sunday experience, as part of the Every Family Program, was not only beneficial to the students, family and community members but showed promise for more opportunities to enhance educational opportunities in the community for children with autism. Educators may find it beneficial to build school, family and community partnerships to understand the needs of students with ASD, capitalize on their strengths, provide supports to address their challenges, and facilitate positive social relationships. 

Developing programs and events in the community that are tailored to the needs of children with autism spectrum disorder can lead to an increase in learning for all members of the community. LEJ

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). What is autism spectrum disorder? Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Data & statistics on autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.

L. Arthur Safer, Ph.D., is Professor, Department of Leadership, College of Graduate Studies, Concordia University Chicago. Previously, Safer was Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies at Appalachian State University (UNC System) (Retired 2007). He is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University Chicago where he was Associate Dean of the School of Education and Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. 

Mary Zaharis, Ph.D., earned her M.S. Ed in Educational Leadership from the University of Georgia and her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Concordia University Chicago. Dr. Zaharis teaches in the Department of Educational Leadership in the principal preparation and superintendent program. In her current role at Concordia, she serves as a Program Leader for courses that include the supervision and evaluation of superintendents, principals and teachers. Dr. Zaharis serves on doctoral faculty at Concordia and is a chair and committee member for students in the educational leadership dissertation process. 

Denise S. Glasgow, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor, Department of Leadership, College of Graduate Studies, Concordia University Chicago. She serves as the program leader for the Teacher Leadership Program. Prior to joining Concordia in 2015, she was the Southern Illinois University Elementary Education Site Coordinator and Internship Supervisor. She has previously served as an assistant superintendent of curriculum, associate district administrator, principal, coach, teacher and school board member.

Susan L. Mann, M.S., is Adjunct Professor, Department of Leadership, College of Graduate Studies, Concordia University Chicago. Susan has served as Principal, Meridian Middle School, Aptakisic-Tripp School District 102, Buffalo Grove, IL. 1993-2007 (Retired); Principal, Aptakisic Junior High, Aptakisic-Tripp School District 102, Buffalo Grove, 1989-1993; and Assistant Principal, Aptakisic Junior High, Aptakisic-Tripp School District 102, Buffalo Grove, 1987-1989.

Michele Gnan, M.A., serves as the Executive Director of the Early Childhood Initiative and the Early Childhood Education Center at Concordia University Chicago. She also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in early childhood education at CUC as an adjunct professor. She brings with her over 20 years of experience as a Lutheran school teacher and director of early childhood centers. Her expertise includes mentoring, professional trainings and administrative support for schools and centers in the areas of best practices, curriculum, environments, assessment, and documentation. She is currently a doctoral student in the Early Childhood program at Concordia University Chicago. 

The number of children diagnosed with autism has increased substantially. Educators need to understand how to meet the individual learning needs for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in the school, home, and in the community. In order to better address their complex communication, social, and learning needs, school, family, and community members need to work together to create programs that can support specialized learning opportunities for students with ASD. The Audubon Nature Institute received grant funding for the Every Family Program to design and develop innovative programs in the New Orleans geographical area that supported families with children with autism spectrum disorders. 

Overview

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a developmental disability that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. Autism is not a single disorder, but a spectrum of closely-related disorders with a shared core of symptoms. People with ASD may not look different from other people, but may communicate, interact, behave, and learn in ways that are different from most other people. Individuals on the autism spectrum have problems to some degree with social skills, empathy, communication, and flexible behavior. However, the level of disability and the combination of symptoms varies tremendously from person to person. In fact, two children with the same diagnosis may look very different when it comes to their social, communication, and behavior abilities. 

The number of children diagnosed with special learning needs is increasing at a tremendous rate. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1:60,000 diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in 1972 versus 1:59 diagnosed with ASD in 2013. 

  • Approximately 1 in 59 children has been identified with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) according to estimates from CDC’s Autism and Developmental Disabilities Monitoring (ADDM) Network. 
  • ASD is reported to occur in all racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups. ASD is almost 4 times more common among boys (1 in 42) than among girls (1 in 189). 
  • About 1 in 6 children in the United States had a developmental disability in 2006-2008, ranging from mild disabilities such as speech and language impairments to serious developmental disabilities, such as intellectual disabilities, cerebral palsy, and autism (http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html).

The autism spectrum disorders belong to an “umbrella” category of five childhood-onset conditions known as pervasive developmental disorders (PDD). Some autism specialists use the terms pervasive developmental disorder and autism spectrum disorder interchangeably. However, when most people talk about the autism spectrum disorders, they are referring to the three most common PDDs: 

  • Autism
  • Asperger’s Syndrome
  • Pervasive Developmental Disorder – Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS)

Families with children that have special learning needs such as developmental disabilities, cognitive disabilities, or those on the autism spectrum are limited in the types of community “free choice” activities available to them. Free-choice learning activities may include museums, zoos, aquariums, nature centers, and parks. Often, these informal education centers are not equipped to provide programming for families because the education and guest-engagement teams lack the necessary experience, training, and/or resources to create meaningful programming for these learning-diverse audiences. 

Many families and professionals in the field of special education cite a fundamental lack of family-appropriate recreational and learning opportunities for this audience. Children with autism-spectrum disorder tend to have fewer recreation and leisure interests than others. A typical example of the lack of meaningful community programming available for families with children that have ASD is an anecdotal comment by a parent who reported that the educators asked if they should just bring coloring books for the participants.

A number of museums are beginning to provide creative programs for families facing these challenges. Some children’s museums open early to offer a quieter, less crowded experience for these children and their families, or offer a summer art camp for children with special needs. Others carefully monitor the building temperature or adjust the lighting in some areas to create a more sensory-friendly environment. Museums also utilize multiple learning styles, creating visual representations of what visitors can expect to see and do, in order to help parents prepare their child and to minimize unfamiliar and unexpected experiences. 

Access to museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers for individuals and families diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders not only fits the mission and philosophy of the organization but also meets the mandate of the Americans with Disabilities Act. The informal setting and casual environment of these venues promotes a safe place for visual and interactive learning through hands-on learning experiences. Since the decision for including members of the ASD community in the activities of museums, zoos, aquariums, and nature centers is relatively new and unique, it requires that these organizations have in-house professionals who have the skills and knowledge to provide families with new learning avenues. Institutions that have been successful in welcoming the autistic community have an established a set of training protocols for its professional staff through added resource tools for working with this special population. It is incumbent upon each venue to acknowledge that programs and exhibits may need to be modified to create an autism-friendly environment. 

To engage and support through innovative educational programming for families whose children have been diagnosed with autism-spectrum disorders, the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, Louisiana received grant funding from a private foundation in 2016 to design and implement the Every Family Program. The Audubon Nature Institute is a 501(c) 3 not-for-profit entity that operates ten museums and parks dedicated to nature. The Audubon Nature Institute strives to reach all members of its community and inspire them to appreciate nature in a personalized way. The addition of the Every Family Program permitted the Audubon to be truly all-inclusive in providing additional free-choice activities for individuals with special learning needs through specialized educational programming with the Institute’s educational staff. 

Statistics noted that potentially one in every 15 families in the Greater New Orleans area could benefit from the Every Family Program. The Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Program was designed to pilot a project to create targeted, cutting-edge innovative programming for families whose members were diagnosed with ASD to participate in specialized recreation programs where they would feel comfortable and not be afraid of disrupting the general public. The Every Family Program established an advanced reality of engagement for families with ASD beyond the traditional free-choice activities. Additional innovations included a set of pilot training strategies linking nature-based programming with the extension to the special learning needs demographic. 

All selected Audubon education staff participated in workshops designed to introduce the various complex issues and considerations in working with people with special learning needs. The Audubon Nature Institute’s Education Department developed five programs at each public facility (Aquarium, Zoo, and Butterfly Garden & Insectarium) and offered free admission to families with members who had been diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. Best-practice models for recreation and leisure encouraged offering choices, limiting stimuli and creating the mastery of smaller skills. The innovative educational workshops funded by the Every Family Program grant to implement specialized, intensive training of the educational staff relative to ASD protocols was designed by the Audubon Nature Institute in collaboration with the Tulane Center for Autism and Related Disorders, predicated upon previous research relative to engaging families with members who have been diagnosed as on the autistic spectrum disorder.

Methodology

The Every Family Program grant funding required the Audubon Nature Institute during the time frame of the grant to contract with an external evaluator to assess the content and adaptability of the Every Family Program and to observe and participate in the training of the educational staff to determine its effectiveness for engaging all members of participant families. The external evaluation for Every Family Program funded grant required the administration of a pre/posttest instrument to the selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff to assess their understanding and perceptions of ASD. 

A pre/posttest evaluation instrument was developed with the external evaluator and education department directors. The questions examined education staff member’s knowledge of ASD relative to their understanding of the unique nature of ASD and how it is manifested in sensory processing, aggression, repetitive behavior, and behavior management. The first portion of the pre-test requested demographic information from the participants and the second half of the instrument was a series of multiple-choice questions that had a response option, which varied between Very Knowledgeable to Somewhat Knowledgeable to Not Knowledgeable. The Director of Education Programs, Audubon Nature Institute, facilitated the administration of the pre/posttest. All pre/posttests were completed anonymously, and no personal identification was requested. All participants were informed in writing that if they did not wish to participate in the pre/posttests or declined to answer any question that they were free to do so. 

The Audubon Nature Institute education staff participants’ pre/posttest assessments were collected from two workshops: 

  • Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing (February 3, 2016) 
  • Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management (February 17, 2016)

The Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop 1 and the Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop 2 both focused upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (ASD) to enhance the knowledge base and skills of selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff in recognizing and learning the educational tools to engage with children who have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorders.

Analysis of Data

Evidence based on the objective measures reported in the data analysis section has been collected to demonstrate how the Every Family Program related to best practices in ASD concepts and reached its stated goals and objectives related to the training of Audubon Nature Institute education staff relative to working with families whose members exhibit ASD.

Table 1 and Table 2 present a summary of the demographic data of the two (2) workshop participants 

Table 1:

Repetitive Behavior/Aggressions/Sensory Processing Workshop: Summary of Participants’ Demographic Data (N=20)

Characteristics      

Age Range (25-56)    

25        26        27        28        30        33        34        45        46        55        56

Respondents:   1            2          2          5          2          1          2         2          1          1          1                   

Gender

     Male:          2

     Female:       18

Education Degree Level

     Associate:     1

     B.A.:            7

     B.S.            :             6

     M.S. :           6

Ethnicity

     White, Non-Hispanic:        17

     African-American:             2

     Latino:                                1

Years of Service at Audubon Nature Institute

     Range:        1-20 years

     Median:      2 years

Table 2

Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop. 

Summary of Participants’ Demographic Data (N=16)                                                                                 

Characteristics      

Age Range (25-45)                

            25                    2

            26                    2

            28                    5

            30                    2

            34                    3

            45                    2

Gender

            Female             14

            Male                2

Education Degree Level

            Associate         1

            B.A.                4

            B.S.                 7

            M.S.                4

Ethnicity

            White, Non-Hispanic

                                    12

            African American

                                     2

            Latino

                                     2

Years of Service at Audubon Institute

            Range           1-7 years

            Median            2 years

The workshop pre/posttest instrument was designed to specifically assess the perceptions and opinions of the selected education staff participants at the conclusion of the two educational and interactive workshops. It was designed to collect data as to whether or not the Audubon Nature Center had met its expectations and to be utilized as a guide to determine particular aspects of the program that may need to be improved upon.

The collected responses clearly indicated a positive pattern of success for the project’s goals and objectives. There was a strong correlation relative to the design of the curriculum modules and how they were integrated into the learning process. The participants rated each area on the posttest from Very Knowledgeable to Somewhat Knowledgeable and there is direct evidence that the success of the project was the result of its design, presentation, workshop exercises, the inclusion of the Audubon Nature Center professional members and the Tulane Center for Autism and Related Disorders, as well as the desire of the participants to become involved in a new learning experience related to ASD. The data collected from these workshop pre/posttests instruments the results are found below in Tables 3 and 4.

Table 3

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop

Pre/Post Test Results (N=20)      
  1. Were the objectives of this Every Family Grant Workshop (Repetitive Behaviors/Aggression/Sensory Processing) clear to you?

Pre-Test                       Yes  90%  (18)            No 10% (2)

Post-Test                     Yes 100% (20)            No   0%

  • Prior to your participation in the Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism) were you knowledgeable about the Repetitive Behaviors associate with Autism Spectrum Disorders?

Very knowledgeable               0%

Somewhat knowledgeable.    90% (18)

Not Knowledgeable               10%   (2)

  • Now that you have completed this Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism), are you knowledgeable about the Repetitive Behaviors associated with Autism Spectrum?

Very knowledgeable               60% (12)

Somewhat knowledgeable.    40%    (8)

Not Knowledgeable                0%

______________________________________________________________________________

Table 4

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop

Pre/Post Test Results (N=16)      
  1. Were the objectives of this Every Family Grant Workshop (Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management/Behavior Management Techniques) clear to you?

Pre-Test           Yes                  75% (12)         No       25%   (4)

Post-Test         Yes             93.75% (15)         No.    6.25 % (1)

  • Prior to your participation in the Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism) were you knowledgeable about the seven (7) Sensory Systems and what role they play in the life of a child with Autism?

Very knowledgeable                 0%

Somewhat knowledgeable   87.5% (14)

Not Knowledgeable             12.5%   (2)

  • Now that you have participated in the Every Family Grant Workshop, which focuses upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (Autism) were you knowledgeable about the seven (7) Sensory Systems and what role they play in the life of a child with Autism?

Very knowledgeable               56.2% (9)

Somewhat knowledgeable     43.75% (7)

Not Knowledgeable                      0%

______________________________________________________________________________

The assessment of the data collected represented a compendium of all the responses from the pre/posttest instrument as completed by the twenty (20) education staff participants in the Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop and a compilation of all the responses from the pre/posttest instrument as completed by the sixteen (16) education staff participants in the Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop.

The Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop 1 and the Problems with Sensory Systems/Behavior Management Workshop 2 both focused upon the complex issues and considerations in working with families with special learning needs (ASD) to enhance the knowledge-base and skills of selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff in recognizing and learning the educational tools to engage with children who have been diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorders. The subsets of both workshops included an intense and interactive learning process, which included modules on the attributes and characteristics of children with autism such as compulsive and ritualistic routines, insistence on sameness, verbal rituals, sensory system identifiers, common behavior problems, and behavior-management techniques. The workshop facilitator stressed how these characteristics and behaviors are manifested in children with ASD and what are the potential solutions available to the education staff as they engage actively within the Nature Institute’s clientele to provide a viable learning experience for families with children who present ASD. 

A review of the pre/posttest data from both workshops indicated that there was a distinctive variation from what the education staff knew about ASD prior to the workshop to an appreciable increase in their learning curve at the conclusion of each workshop. The data exhibit, in general, a significant range change from the indicators of Not Knowledgeable or Somewhat Knowledgeable in the pre-test to a range of Somewhat Knowledgeable to Very Knowledgeable in the posttest. 

An analysis of the pre- and posttest instruments for both workshops Workshop 1(N=20) and Workshop 2 (N=16) to determine what type of learning was measured on a Likert scale ranging from “Very Knowledgeable ” to “Not Knowledgeable”) as a result of the participation in the Every Family project, the Audubon Nature Institute education staff indicated positive growth with becoming more familiar with new the ASD content materials as well as learning about innovative ways to use emergent research and strategies in working with children who exhibit ASD. 

The Every Family Program expanded their knowledge of how to integrate interactive new learning and teaching techniques for working with children with autism. There was a preponderance of agreement on the part of the respondents that it increased to a great extent. 

The data suggested that the level of satisfaction with the interactive workshops ranged from Excellent, to Very Good, to Good. Workshop 1 measured 45% (9) Excellent, 40% (8) Very Good, and 15% (3) Good, while Workshop 2 indicated a range of Excellent 62.5% (10), Very good 31.25% (5), and Good 6.25% (1). The agreement or disagreement of the orientation and learning modules conducted during the two workshops, the evaluation noted positive and strong agreement (90-100%). In terms of the experience of working with the workshop facilitator and the Audubon Nature Center education division team in answering questions and the opportunity to participate as a team member, agreement ranged from 37.5% Strongly Agree, to 62.5% Agree. Furthermore, they indicated a strong satisfaction response in having the opportunity to ask questions of the facilitator and the opportunity to interact and discuss issues with her. 

An assessment of the data presented examined a more finite distribution by collecting workshop statistical data and a comparison drawn from the two workshops, indicating similar results as evidenced from both the pre and posttest data. 

During April 2016 (April 4 & 7) twenty-eight (28) families from the New Orleans environs whose members exhibited autism spectrum disorders were invited to the Audubon Zoo to participate in a free Sensory Sunday event with the Audubon Zoo trained education staff. Utilizing an online survey instrument designed and administered by the Audubon Nature Institute Education Projects Department, a quantitative/qualitative measure of these families’ satisfaction/dissatisfaction was collected. The total N for the survey results was drawn from ten (10) families. The survey instrument assessed their opinions from seven (7) questions of which four (4) were quantifiable and two (2) were qualitative in nature. 

The overall satisfaction with the Sensory Sunday demonstrated a high percentage of Very Satisfied 70% (7) to Somewhat Satisfied 30% (3). Question 6 matched this in that 80% (8) would be Extremely Likely to attend future special needs programs to 20% (2) who indicated Very Likely to attend future programs. Variances were noted in Question 2 and Question 3 in those families’ opinions related to the zoo staff’s willingness to help and the appropriateness of the Sensory Sunday activities. In each case, One (1) family or 10% stated that the zoo staff was Somewhat Helpful to another family (1) who acknowledged that the activities were Neither Appropriate nor Inappropriate. Overall for these two queries the rate of favorability was 90% (9) from Extremely Well to Very Well and Very Appropriate to Somewhat Appropriate. These data are summarized in Table 5 while the qualitative data are summarized in Table 6.

Table 5

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop Survey

Total Number of Respondents (10)

Multiple Choice   n %

Q1    Overall, how satisfied/dissatisfied are you with the Sensory Sunday event?

Very Satisfied                                                       7                              70.0 %

Somewhat satisfied                                               3                              30.0 %

Neither satisfied nor dissatisfied                          0                                 0.0 %

Somewhat dissatisfied                                           0                                0.0 %

Very dissatisfied                                                   0                                0.0 %

Q2    Did you feel that the zoo staff was helpful and understood your needs?

Extremely Well                                                      5                              50.0 %

Very Well                                                              4                              40.0 %

Somewhat                                                             1                              10.0 %

Not so well                                                            0                                0.0 %

Q3    Did you feel that activities were appropriate for your family’s special needs and interests?

Very appropriate                                                   5                              50.0 %

Somewhat appropriate                               4                              40.0 %

Neither appropriate nor inappropriate                  1                                10.0 %

Somewhat inappropriate                                       0                                 0.0 %

Very inappropriate                                                0                                0.0 %

Q6    How likely are you to attend future special needs programs at the Audubon Zoo?

Extremely likely                                                    8                            80.0  %

Very likely                                                            2                            20.0  %

Somewhat likely                                                   0                                0.0  %

Not so likely                                                         0                                0.0  %

Not at all likely                                                      0                                0.0 %

______________________________________________________________________________

Table 6

Audubon Nature Institute Every Family Foundation Grant Repetitive Behavior/Aggression/Sensory Processing Workshop Survey

Total Number of Respondents (10)

Qualitative Responses      

Q4. What did you like best about Sensory Sunday?

  • Treat other children in the family to be a part of the special activities
  • Entrance before zoo opened, fewer people, little noise. Our son has autism and he gets irritable and anxious in heat. It was the first time we have seen our son actually looked for animals and spent more time observing. The kids enjoyed watching the animals eat.
  • I felt more at ease as a parent without the crowds of people during regular zoo hours.  A big fear for me is getting separated from my special needs kids.  They don’t have the communication skills for an instance of separation
  • The lack of crowds
  • The touching of the items at the cart.
  • Very nice to be able to view animals without the crowds and for the children to be able to have the room and time to enjoy making crafts and touching and learning of animal details with the staff.
  • I like the fact that it was not over-crowded, my son was around peers
  • Just to be amongst families who understand the struggles we face and not feeling judged.
  • When we did talk to the staff they were friendly and knowledgeable.
  • Great for families with special needs…thank you.
  • It was a great experience. We are excited to come back next month. Thank you for giving our kids this time at the zoo.

Q5.  What did you like least about Sensory Sunday?

  • The arrival was rushed. Did not have the opportunity to address/welcome the group as a whole but rather a few at a time then the group spread out while waiting and the children were antsy because some families already went to see animals and were waiting
  • The sensory activities were not much interest to our kids.
  • I thought that it wasn’t long enough. Once my daughter went through the sensory component she wasn’t that interested in the Zoo. Maybe have a designated area for 15 minutes of “sensory touch” would be great.
  • The walk from animal exhibit to the next was too fast. I brought my son to the rest room and when I got back they had already started and we were behind and I had to walk quickly with him to catch up and he doesn’t walk very fast and isn’t very stable on uneven ground. Wish we could have had more time in the zoo.
  • The waiting to start the tour. Patience is not something my child is blessed with.
  • It was extremely difficult for my son to participate in the art activity, as he was unable to reach. Although staff was polite and knowledgeable, few addressed the children.

______________________________________________________________________________

Conclusions

An examination of the data from the pre/posttest evaluation clearly substantiated that the goals, objectives and activities had been very successfully met by the grantee, the Audubon Nature Institute. The actual immersion into the interactive and information-driven workshops and the introduction of the ASD content modules as well as the opportunity to work with the workshop facilitator emerged as highly beneficial. The education-staff participants expressed a high comfort level with the focus of the ASD project agenda and acknowledged that their personal interests and expectations were piqued. An analysis of the data indicated that a positive and enriching learning experience relative to the ASD learning modules, the ASD research content, and the collaboration with their colleagues and team building was accomplished. 

The data collected from the online survey instrument distributed to families who participated in Sensory Sunday suggested that overall satisfaction was positive and that they would be extremely likely to attend future special-needs programs. The findings substantiated that the selected Audubon Nature Institute education staff’s expectations of the learning modules were met in the following ways:

  • Collected data indicated that there are beneficial outcomes for education staff in that the two ASD workshops provided not only a learning-based inquiry opportunity but a unique experience which resulted in motivation, excitement and team collaboration
  • The pre-test/posttest evaluation results exhibited the importance of the two workshops in creating both a goal-oriented activity which facilitated collaboration as well as an opportunity for new mastery experiences with immediate live feedback and discussion with the workshop facilitator
  • The workshops provided the opportunity for the selected education staff to become cognizant of cutting-edge knowledge for purposes of enhancing their content knowledge relative to Autistic Spectrum Disorders. 
  • The pilot program was of high quality and consistent with the goals and objectives stated in the grant 
  • The pedagogical and technical success of the Every Family Program workshops was directly attributed to the expertise and knowledge base of the facilitator and the Audubon Nature Institute’s professional educators.

Overall, it appeared that the immersion of the Audubon Nature Center’s education staff into the Sensory Sunday experience, as part of the Every Family Program, was not only beneficial to the students, family and community members but showed promise for more opportunities to enhance educational opportunities in the community for children with autism. Educators may find it beneficial to build school, family and community partnerships to understand the needs of students with ASD, capitalize on their strengths, provide supports to address their challenges, and facilitate positive social relationships. 

Developing programs and events in the community that are tailored to the needs of children with autism spectrum disorder can lead to an increase in learning for all members of the community. LEJ

References

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). What is autism spectrum disorder? Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/facts.html.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Data & statistics on autism spectrum disorder. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/data.html.

L. Arthur Safer, Ph.D., is Professor, Department of Leadership, College of Graduate Studies, Concordia University Chicago. Previously, Safer was Professor and Chair of the Department of Leadership and Educational Studies at Appalachian State University (UNC System) (Retired 2007). He is Professor Emeritus at Loyola University Chicago where he was Associate Dean of the School of Education and Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. 

Mary Zaharis, Ph.D., earned her M.S. Ed in Educational Leadership from the University of Georgia and her Ph.D. in Educational Leadership from Concordia University Chicago. Dr. Zaharis teaches in the Department of Educational Leadership in the principal preparation and superintendent program. In her current role at Concordia, she serves as a Program Leader for courses that include the supervision and evaluation of superintendents, principals and teachers. Dr. Zaharis serves on doctoral faculty at Concordia and is a chair and committee member for students in the educational leadership dissertation process. 

Denise S. Glasgow, Ed.D., is Assistant Professor, Department of Leadership, College of Graduate Studies, Concordia University Chicago. She serves as the program leader for the Teacher Leadership Program. Prior to joining Concordia in 2015, she was the Southern Illinois University Elementary Education Site Coordinator and Internship Supervisor. She has previously served as an assistant superintendent of curriculum, associate district administrator, principal, coach, teacher and school board member.

Susan L. Mann, M.S., is Adjunct Professor, Department of Leadership, College of Graduate Studies, Concordia University Chicago. Susan has served as Principal, Meridian Middle School, Aptakisic-Tripp School District 102, Buffalo Grove, IL. 1993-2007 (Retired); Principal, Aptakisic Junior High, Aptakisic-Tripp School District 102, Buffalo Grove, 1989-1993; and Assistant Principal, Aptakisic Junior High, Aptakisic-Tripp School District 102, Buffalo Grove, 1987-1989.

Michele Gnan, M.A., serves as the Executive Director of the Early Childhood Initiative and the Early Childhood Education Center at Concordia University Chicago. She also teaches undergraduate and graduate courses in early childhood education at CUC as an adjunct professor. She brings with her over 20 years of experience as a Lutheran school teacher and director of early childhood centers. Her expertise includes mentoring, professional trainings and administrative support for schools and centers in the areas of best practices, curriculum, environments, assessment, and documentation. She is currently a doctoral student in the Early Childhood program at Concordia University Chicago. 

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