Learning Independent Living Skills

Michelle Breckel, a senior majoring in special education, explains to Kyle about circles of companionship, a life skills game that demonstrates the often shifting boundaries that exist between people, ranging from the distance one keeps from strangers to the affection between a couple in a relationship. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli
Michelle Breckel, a senior majoring in special education, explains to Kyle about circles of companionship, a life skills game that demonstrates the often shifting boundaries that exist between people, ranging from the distance one keeps from strangers to the affection between a couple in a relationship. Photo by Jessica Tommaselli

By the time they’re young adults, most people have learned not to barge into an ongoing conversation with a totally unrelated comment. But for some, knowing how to connect appropriately with others is confusing.

UConn students are now reaching out to developmentally challenged 18- to 21-year-olds, demonstrating socially acceptable behavior as part of an innovative program that connects college students with high school students in special education.

Students Transitioning to Age Appropriate Routes (STAAR) is a partnership between UConn and Regional School District 19’s E.O. Smith High School in Mansfield. It brings students with learning and physical disabilities into a college setting so they can interact with students their own age. The UConn students are primarily interns in the advanced years of the Neag School of Education’s Integrated Bachelor’s/Master’s Teacher Education program (IB/M), who help the STAAR students learn independent living skills. These include finance, organization, health and wellness, safety and socialization.

Federal and state laws require public schools to provide services to special education students until they are 21, which means they may be attending school with 14-year-old high school freshmen. And STAAR students may have been micromanaged while in high school, moving as a distinct clique with an instructional assistant at their elbow all day.

“College students move in groups of two to four. You rarely see 10-15 college students walking together, so even getting places as part of a more natural group has to be learned,” says Christine Lee, the Region 19 special education teacher who leads STAAR. “Part of this program is practicing social skills; we want our students to learn what’s cool, like that you don’t just grab pretty girls or call someone 20 times in a day on their cell phone.”

High schools are required to provide leading edge, research-based instruction for young people with developmental disabilities or autism. Associate Professor Dr. Joe Madaus leads UConn’s Center on Postsecondary Education and Disability, a program in the Neag School that conducts research on the transition to postsecondary programs for students with disabilities, and works with STAAR.

“He’s an expert on transition services, and that’s what our program is all about,” says Lee.

At STAAR, Neag students can conduct their own research. For example, Michelle Breckel, a fourth-year Neag special education major and this past semester’s STAAR intern, did a case study of a STAAR student for a class. “I assessed her reading skills and comprehension and researched how her disorder affects her learning and how her scores go along with that,” Breckel says.

“Michelle was a wonderful teacher,” notes the student, known as Clarissa E, “and she taught me a lot about vocabulary. I like when our UConn interns come.”

Jessica Parlin, last year’s fifth-year Neag STAAR intern, found her calling as a teacher providing STAAR students with transitional services. “Just recently one of my former students approached me at a local store and had an amazingly appropriate conversation with me,” says Parlin. “It was really rewarding to know that when she’s not at school, she’s carrying those skills over.”

The Neag School’s distinctive teaching methods include placing aspiring teachers in classrooms that don’t match their ambitions, which sometimes leads to unexpected career shifts. Parlin, for example, had planned on teaching elementary school, and was delighted that UConn afforded her the flexibility to change her major to special education.

“Jessica was the best fifth-year intern I ever worked with,” Lee says. “She is an outstanding teacher, thanks to her UConn education. In fact, I’ve never had a less than phenomenal experience with UConn interns.”

Besides the Neag interns, other students volunteer to partner with STAAR students for fun and friendship as part of the UConn Best Buddies Association. Joanna Sajdlowska, who is majoring in communication disorders, says, “People my age, 20somethings, especially at UConn, are very accepting. We may have grown up in homes with two mothers, or just a dad, or with siblings adopted from all over the world. Because of mainstreaming, my generation has been exposed to people with disabilities from a young age.”

Sajdlowska nods emphatically as Lee comments, “We know that everyone wants to connect, wants to get married, wants a job to love and be passionate about – STAAR students have the same hopes and dreams that we have.”

Since many local parents are educators who value education, Lee says, “Moms and dads [of students at E.O. Smith High School] are very eager to enroll their children. UConn is the major draw … it’s a winner in so many ways, from sports, to research, to providing positive behavior examples for our students.”

The STAAR partnership began as a pilot program with one student when Debra Hultgren, director of special services for E.O. Smith High School, suggested it to Donna Korbel, director of UConn’s Center for Students with Disabilities. Along with the center’s Christine Wenzel, Korbel has been STAAR’s main liaison, helping the program grow.

“This amazing program has become so successful in a short amount of time because of immediate and continuing support by UConn’s offices of residential life and student affairs,” says Korbel. The program operates in the basement of Sprague Hall, which Korbel describes as, “an exceptional space. There’s a kitchen, a game room and a vocational component for the STAAR students because of the laundry located there. Even with space at such a premium, Residential Life was able to find an area that wasn’t being utilized by UConn students – it’s a credit to the university that we’ve been able to support this community-based opportunity for Region 19 students.”

Three students participated in the program’s second year, and the program has nearly doubled each year thereafter, going from three, to six, to 12, to its current enrollment of 22. STAAR students come from Killingly, Danielson, Scotland, Willimantic, Coventry and Storrs. And the program continues to grow: This semester, STAAR students will be teamed up with 20 students from a class on autism spectrum disorder taught by UConn psychology assistant professor Inge-Marie Eigsti.

Source: UConn Today. Reprinted with permission.