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New Grant to Fund Autism Studies and Special Education Master’s Students

Psychology Prof. Rocio Rosales Leads Joint Effort Between UML and Lasell

Psychology Assoc. Prof. Rocio Rosales is leading a $914,000 grant for master's students in applied behavior analysis and autism studies. Photo by Adrien Bisson
Psychology Assoc. Prof. Rocio Rosales is leading a $914,000 grant to cross-train master's students in applied behavior analysis and autism studies and special education.

02/25/2022
By Katharine Webster

Psychology Assoc. Prof. Rocio Rosales is leading a five-year, $914,000 U.S. Department of Education grant that will teach UML master’s students in applied behavior analysis and autism studies how to collaborate with school special education teams by cross-training them with master’s students in special education at Lasell University in Newton, Massachusetts.

The idea is to better integrate the work of UML’s graduates, who are trained in applied behavior analysis to help children on the autism spectrum gain important life skills, and the school professionals who create and implement individualized education plans so that autistic children will thrive in school, Rosales says.

Rosales hopes that the program will lead future professionals in both groups to feel more comfortable collaborating with each other and with parents, as well as more satisfied with their jobs. She also hopes that more UML applied behavior analysis and autism studies graduates who become Board Certified Behavior Analysts (BCBAs) will enjoy working in school systems.

“In both the fields of applied behavior analysis and special education, there’s poor retention of clinicians and teachers. There are high levels of burnout,” she says. “There’s isolation – people not knowing how to work together to make the most gains for the students.”

More than 75% of the grant money will go toward tuition, health insurance and book vouchers for 24 scholars over the next three years, Rosales says – four each at UML and Lasell in each cohort, starting this fall. 

The scholars will take an interdisciplinary seminar where they learn together and collaborate on projects. In addition to earning degrees at their respective institutions, UML’s students will complete a Lasell graduate certificate in Teaching Bilingual Learners with Disabilities, and Lasell’s students will earn nine credits toward a UML graduate certificate in applied behavior analysis
Education Asst. Prof. Robai Werunga researches education for multilingual children with disabilities.
Education Asst. Prof. Robai Werunga, who does research on teaching multilingual children with disabilities, is a key researcher.

The program will include mentoring of first-year students by second-year students and mentoring by professionals in each field. In addition, the UML applied behavior analysis and autism studies students will have the opportunity to do field placements in schools.

Currently, most students do field placements with nonprofits that serve children and adults in their homes or in an agency setting. Beatriz Querol ’14, who is serving as UML’s program manager on the grant and who has worked in both school systems and agencies, says school-based field experiences are invaluable for all BCBAs, especially for those working with younger children.

In her school placements, Querol says she learned how to collaborate with special education teachers, school social workers or psychologists, speech and occupational therapists, school administrators and parents, as well as how to do a school-based functional behavior assessment. 

“Not a lot of BCBAs go through school-based training. They don’t get to see the development of these kids with autism from a 3-year-old to a 21-year-old,” she says. “And the behaviors that students need to learn in a school setting can be different than the ones they need at home,” both to learn effectively and to socialize with other children.

Rosales, who works extensively with Spanish-speaking parents of children with autism, is the principal investigator on the grant, while Lasell Education Prof. Claudia Rinaldi is co-principal investigator. 

UML Education Asst. Prof. Robai Werunga, who does research on the education of multilingual children with mild to moderate disabilities, is a senior researcher on the grant, and she connected Rosales and Rinaldi, both of whom she has worked with previously.

Also on the UMass Lowell team is Robin Toof, co-director of UML’s Center for Community Research and Engagement, who will help evaluate the students as they move through the program and then start their careers. 
Beatriz Querol '14 has worked as a BCBA for schools and agencies. Photo by Beatriz Querol
Beatriz Querol '14 says field placements in schools will make future BCBAs well-rounded.

Rosales and Rinaldi plan to recruit students from underrepresented groups, including veterans, people with disabilities, multilingual people and students of color. That’s because the overwhelming majority of teachers and BCBAs are white and female.

Werunga says the need for teachers and BCBAs who know how to work with multilingual children and families is urgent, because the number of multilingual children in the school population is growing in Massachusetts and nationwide – and because without that training, educators can mistake language acquisition problems for learning disabilities, and vice versa. 

Werunga is leading research in the Lowell public schools on immigrant parents with children who need special education services, working with Rosales and Education Assoc. Prof. MinJeong Kim. They have found that immigrant parents generally do not understand the special education procedures and services their children need, and some do not a have a clear understanding of their child’s diagnosis, even though translators are provided at team meetings. 

That means the parents can’t advocate for needed services or participate effectively, and schools may then perceive the parents as uncaring or uninvolved, Werunga and Rosales say.

“When you have professionals who can identify with the families that they’re serving, they’re both a professional and a liaison to families and parents,” Rosales says.

The Lasell students also will benefit from learning the basics of applied behavior analysis (ABA), which has applications beyond helping students with autism, Werunga says. 

“For any student who is displaying behavioral issues, the principles of ABA are helpful,” she says. “They are good for any teacher; they can be used for classroom management. So having special educators who have training in ABA is a win-win situation.”