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Student Spotlights 2019

Lauren Weiss

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Lauren Weiss is a Ph.D. Candidate in Special Education at the University of New Mexico (UNM). She is currently a teaching assistant working as the instructor of record for an introductory course in Special Education while working on her dissertation examining the effects of an inclusive intervention on social play skills for young children with autism spectrum disorder. Her research agenda focuses on empirical educational and behavioral practices that increase access to an effective and inclusive education for diverse students of underserved and misunderstood populations.

Lauren has provided educational and behavioral services to students with learning differences and behavioral challenges across the continent of North America for over 15 years. After obtaining her master’s degree in Special Education from UNM in 2015, where she was awarded Outstanding Student in Special Education, she continued doctoral studies to reach her goal of teaching higher education and engaging in empirical research that will improve the lives of diverse students, leading to a more inclusive society. Her current research focuses on empirical educational and behavioral practices that increase access to an effective and inclusive education for diverse students of underserved and misunderstood populations.

Lauren had the honor of being a 2017-2018 fellow at the New Mexico Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities, serving as a representative at the National 2018 Disability Policy Seminar in Washington, DC, and is a member of the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society since 2016. She has been the recipient of the following selected awards: 2019 recipient of the Graduate Studies Doctoral Conference Presentation Award, 2018-2019 William B. and Roberta V. Castetter Scholarship, 2017-2018 Carl & Emma Dunifon Endowed Scholarship, 2016-2017 Graduate Student Success Scholarship, and 2016-2017 American GI Forum of Albuquerque Endowed Scholarship in Education.

We recently asked Lauren about her graduate work and what’s inspired it, her UNM experience, and how she’d like to change the world. Read her answers below!

Graduate Studies (GS): What is your dissertation titled, and what is it about?

Lauren Weiss (LW): My dissertation is titled Effects of Classwide Behavioral Skills Training on Social Play Skills for Prekindergartners with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Inclusive education consists of students with disabilities educated alongside peers of typical development, both in academic and social conditions. A particular group of students with disabilities, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), frequently have deficits in social skills and difficulty generalizing learned skills to different contexts—yet they are often taught social skills in noncontextual environments and/or while isolated from peers of typical development. My research looks at how an inclusive intervention package (i.e., behavioral skills training, a brief intervention including direct instruction, modeling, practicing, and feedback provided to the entire class) benefits prekindergartners with and without disabilities; specifically focusing on young children with ASD and social play skills outcomes.

GS: What sparked your interest in this topic?

LW: I have worked with children with disabilities throughout North America in various clinical and educational roles for over 15 years and observed that in practice … children with ASD were taught social and play skills in a contrived setting with an adult. Children with ASD frequently have difficulty learning skills in one context, then using those skills in another context. Therefore, teaching social play skills to children with ASD in a nonsocial environment (e.g., therapy room) with adults (instead of typically developing peers) could make it challenging for the child to transition those skills to peers in the classroom or during scheduled free play periods. Besides the practicality in teaching prekindergartners with ASD social play skills within their classroom, I think this intervention will set up all prekindergartners for successful play interactions with each other.

GS: Do you think it has a greater application?

LW: I suspect this research will have greater application to New Mexico and nationally. In New Mexico, young students (ages 3-5 years) with disabilities are placed in segregated settings more than the national average with the greatest disparity among children with ASD … These statistics demonstrate the relevance of my dissertation topic, as well as the positive impact it can have in providing New Mexican educators with a practical intervention that can be applied classwide to include children with and without disabilities. Potential implications from my research regard: (a) the benefits of applying behavioral skills training in an inclusive manner (i.e., classwide); (b) how educators can incorporate multitiered systems and supports in preschools for young children with ASD to increase learning social play skills in a natural environment among typically developing peers; and (c) ways for public schools to comply with the inclusive portion (i.e., least restrictive environment) of the federal legislation governing special education services and supports (i.e., Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act, 2004). My goal is to disseminate this research and expand it to discover efficient and effective inclusive practices for children with disabilities that general and special educators are comfortable implementing, thereby increasing the opportunities and time children with disabilities have in an inclusive setting.

GS: Why did you choose to go to UNM for graduate work?

LW: I was attracted to the Department of Special Education at UNM for the individualized approach to doctoral studies according to what the student wants to do with her/his doctorate. In addition, assistantship opportunities are crafted to provide extensive experiences to doctoral students. I knew I wanted to get more involved in single case research design and have a more intimate experience on a research team, which was offered to me at the time of admittance to the doctoral program. I was able to build upon a prior project assistantship by working as a research assistant helping to design and implement self-management strategies with children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder. Also, I gained quality experience teaching in higher education as a teaching assistant for a graduate course on advanced applied behavior analysis, and have been the instructor of record for an undergraduate course on the education of the exceptional person. These experiences have provided me with the essential skills necessary to reach my goal of becoming a professor at an R1 institution.

GS: What are your plans after graduate school?

LW:It is likely that my initial 2-3 years after earning a Ph.D. will be committed to conducting additional research in a postdoctoral research fellowship and publishing that research in peer-refereed journals before applying to assistant professorships. My ultimate goal is to become a tenured professor at an R1 institution so I can continue my research agenda and teach preservice educators.

GS: What has been your best experience here so far? What has been the most challenging?

LW: I have had several amazing experiences while at UNM, especially with my advisor and dissertation committee members who were willing to support me in applying for scholarships and guiding my scholarly activities, such as mentoring me on how to turn my research papers into published work. In addition, I had remarkable experiences presenting research posters locally and nationally. For example, presenting at the 2018 Shared Knowledge Conference led to the opportunity to represent UNM at the state capitol for Graduate Education Day. Another example was when I presented my poster, Social interventions for young children with autism spectrum disorder: A review of research, at the ABAI 2019 Autism Conference where I gained insight and advice from researchers from around the world, like Norway. It is vital to hear encouragement from other researchers, as it provides a sense of social validity to my research.

It is challenging to be a full-time doctoral student in general. Besides the obvious anxieties of living without financial security, sacrificing common employment benefits, and transitioning from a practitioner/student to a scholar, the stress to avoid failure during my dissertation at times feels insurmountable. As a Ph.D. Candidate, it has been quite a nerve-racking predicament to take on the responsibility of conducting an intervention study for the first time, yet feel like there is no room for failure or else my academic career will end before it begins. I appreciate lessons learned through mistakes and do not shy away from taking risks if I believe there are innovative advances to be gained. At times throughout this process, I have relied on the support of family and friends to keep me motivated and to reaffirm my curiosity and tenacity for research.

GS: If you could change the world in some way, what would you do?

LW: If I could change the world in some way, I would increase equity across humankind. We are all individuals who have unique histories and characteristic differences that often get washed out when we exclusively focus on what is best for the majority of people. It is important to celebrate differences and provide the supports and opportunities that offer each individual success.