Personal experience and an unforeseen opportunity pointed Jennifer Kilgo, Ed.D., toward a career in higher education, where she has trained tomorrow’s early-childhood special educators for 25 years.

Jennifer Kilgo is collaborating with faculty from the UAB departments of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy, and speech-language pathology from the University of Montevallo to create the Project TransTeam – Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education (EI/ECSE) program.
As a young girl, Jennifer had a brother born with multiple medical complications who died shortly after birth – an event that immediately piqued an interest in childhood disabilities and catalyzed her career in early-childhood special education. While she was an undergraduate at Auburn, Congress passed Public Law 94-142 to provide more and better services for children with special needs and their families. It opened a new avenue for Kilgo, who was studying psychology at the time.

Today, Kilgo is a leader in the field of early-childhood special education. Her mission received a boost recently when the U.S. Department of Education awarded UAB an $800,000 grant to develop a graduate program to attract and train these specialists in critical areas of need.

Kilgo is collaborating with faculty from the UAB departments of Physical Therapy and Occupational Therapy, and speech-language pathology from the University of Montevallo, to create the Project TransTeam – Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education (EI/ECSE) program.

High attrition rates are a continuing problem for special education despite the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics says employment in the field is expected to increase by 17 percent through 2018, which is faster than the average for all occupations.

“The need for qualified, well prepared early-interventionists is there,” Kilgo states, “but the way to cut into the attrition rate and sustain success in early intervention and education is to train transdisciplinary teams to address the issues of children and their families.”

Children with cerebral palsy, for example, have multiple areas of need that must be addressed, requiring early-intervention specialists to work with a team of professionals. Kilgo says a physical therapist likely will be needed to aid with walking and an occupational therapist will be needed to assist in feeding. A speech-language pathologist to help with talking and communicating also is a likely area of need for the child and their family.

“Previously, higher education prepared all of these disciplines and specialists separately,” Kilgo says. “But unless people are prepared to work as a team together with this population, how are they supposed to do it? You don’t just say, ‘Go ye therefore and be a team.’ You must provide proper preparation to learn to work as a member of a trans-disciplinary team.”

The Project TransTeam EI/ECSE grant interfaces with an earlier TransTeam grant received by

Kilgo and is designed to address four critical areas:
• The need for highly qualified EI/ECSE teachers, who are beginning special educators.
• The need for EI/ECSE teachers who are knowledgeable and skilled in working as members of trans-disciplinary teams.
• The need for diverse teachers who are knowledgeable and skilled in working with young children with disabilities and families from culturally diverse backgrounds.
• The need for teachers who are skilled in working with young children with disabilities and families.

Trainees will gain knowledge, skills and experience through a graduate program that includes coursework, seminars and fieldwork with 60 students prepared in four years. Kilgo says the program will lead to improved services for young children with disabilities and their families, including those who are culturally diverse and from high-poverty environments.

Teamwork, collaboration are key components
Early-intervention and early-childhood special education comprises birth through age 8, and it encompasses all that takes place with children and their families.

“It’s not your typical education period,” Kilgo says. “It’s bringing all of the pieces together, whether it is medical, physical or education, and supporting the family as they navigate the system. That’s why teamwork and collaboration are such key components to the program. The educators come together and bring the expertise of their field with them to help families get essential information — from the services their children are eligible to enroll in to positioning their child during mealtime or bathtime.”

Kilgo says students in the program are trained to work with families on their typical daily routines. 

“Are there difficulties at mealtime? Are there difficulties bathing? Who watches them while you’re in the shower if they are prone to seizures? What kind of foods can they eat? How are we going to transport the child if they don’t meet their developmental milestones of walking? How are they going to communicate if they don’t verbally communicate?” Kilgo says.

“There are many, many issues that come into play, and that is why it’s so important that professionals aren’t trained separately. It has to be a coordinated, team effort so parents aren’t bombarded by the different disciplines.”

Students also learn how to support the child and family when both parents have jobs and their children are placed in center-based child-care environments. They can provide therapy, services and support to child-care workers in those settings.

High success rate
Many of Kilgo’s students are hired by birth to age 3 programs. These workers primarily go into the homes to support families. Others are hired by community agencies or public schools.

Kilgo says the program has an extremely high success rate with students. “I don’t know of anyone that has gone through our program who hasn’t gotten a job,” she says. “They are hired in early-intervention and early-childhood special education settings throughout the state.”

Mitchell’s Place, the Rise Program and the Bell Center are some of the programs that often send their staff to the program for their master’s degree. Kilgo says local school systems also refer people here.

She says her faculty team, which includes Laura Vogtle in Occupational Therapy and Betty Denton in Physical Therapy, are a primary reason the program is successful.

Kilgo says the growing awareness of early intervention and more families engaging these services has created more need.

“Still,” she says, “there’s not enough information readily available for those who need it. This has been my field for many years, but the word still is not out there. When people have a child or grandchild born with a disability, they don’t know what to do. There is a lot of public awareness that still needs to take place.”