The Department of Special Education at Gonzaga University recently refreshed its curriculum and program offerings to meet the field’s changing needs.
This year, the Special Education minor has been revised and a new major called Board-Certified assistant Behavior Analyst (BCaBA) and will become available to undergraduate students.
Traditionally, a behavior analyst completes a master’s program to become a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA), but offering a four-year program is something department chair Kimberly Weber finds exceedingly necessary.
“Agencies around (the Spokane area)all have waiting lists and there is especially a scarcity for qualified behavior analysts among the western states,” said Weber, who is also a professor of special education and director of special education.
When proposing the new major, Weber and her colleagues were forced to consider the availability of programs in neighboring states, the number of additional faculty needed and what curriculum might overlap with other areas in the education department.
Despite a high demand for qualified analysts, Weber notes that there are only three to six comparable programs in the greater Northwest. The major, as well as others in the education department, include job-specific curriculum and hands-on experience in the classroom.
The newly revised special education minor is less narrow in focus and can supplement any major.
The decision to revise the special education minor was the result of rapid changes within the field during the past decade.
According to Weber, the new program makes classes more accessible in terms of personal knowledge and knowing appropriate ways to act.
There is also more familiarity and knowledge, Weber notes, surrounding autism spectrum disorder than there was when the previous minor curriculum was introduced.
“The largest group that does the special education minor is psychology students,” Weber said.
A cross-credited course in both departments allows psychology majors to complete the program with 20 credits, rather than the usual 23.
Besides the benefit of non-Education majors learning how to best interact with and learn from those with special needs, Weber said there are also the benefits of critical thinking skills embedded in the special education programs.
“One really key component in our program is that the program is research-based and evidence-based,” Weber said.
In the classroom, students collect data and later analyze results to determine the most effective learning approaches.
The research-based, evidence-based approach helps to minimize bias, challenge assumptions and ultimately to meet the needs of as many children as possible.
“We can’t make decisions based on just anecdotes, they are helpful for nuance but they do not provide a broad answer which can be applied to every situation,” Weber said.
An element of compassion and understanding is also central to special education at GU.
One former advisee of Weber’s graduated with a degree in special education and now hopes to go into nursing. The student expressed that the experience she has from being out in the field will make her a much better nurse because she has the ability to approach people from where they are.
Gaining understanding is a leading reason why students enroll in special education. One such student is junior Rachel Halbo, a special education major with a secondary social studies certification and a religious studies minor. Formative leadership experiences are what guided Halbo toward special education.
“My senior year of high school I served on my school district’s board of education and that really opened my eyes to education policy,” Halbo said. “Special education at Gonzaga has the most policy-based classes, which I wanted to be as exposed to as much as possible.”
Halbo’s long-term goal is to work in education policy. For her, a degree in special education means she will have a thorough understanding of the unique challenges and interests of developmentally challenged students.
Halbo’s time serving on the board of education also showed her the importance of being in a classroom before creating policy.
Halbo said having firsthand and personal experiences are critical before changing the classroom environments of other educators, especially since making assumptions about educational environments can cause inadvertent damage.
“I really wanted the experience that I do end up having in a classroom to happen with populations that are super vulnerable to the harms of the school system and populations that I think policymakers should be paying the most attention to,” Halbo said.
In regards to GU’s new program offerings, Halbo finds them especially beneficial for exploring opportunities to work with special needs children and adults beyond the education sector.
Some of GU’s special education majors graduate without a teaching certification, such as a friend of Halbo’s who had a goal of working for the Special Olympics. The revised minor and new Board Certified Assistant BehaviorAnalyst program allow more students to take a similar route, said Halbo.
Program changes such as these not only allow for increased variety and opportunity, but they also address employment demands across education.
“The demand for teachers is real across the nation everywhere,” Halbo said.
This increases the strain on students who require increased personal attention and more time to learn curriculum.
“I think that the special ed population is one of the populations that is often left behind in our school system because it wasn’t built for them and so of course it’s not going to help them succeed,” Halbo said. “That’s something that we have to continually challenge and change.”
For more information about changes in the department of special education, students can contact Weber or visit the department website via the school of education.