Rebecca McCathren is in her 11th year of teaching in the MU College of Education's Department of Special Education. When she’s not leading a classroom, she’s studying them.
“I love my teaching. I went into higher ed to prepare teachers who will be working in classrooms,” she says. “But I also like doing research and finding out how to most effectively teach.”
McCathren works mostly with young children, from birth to five years, and her research focuses on children’s language and communication skills.
“I’m fascinated with how young children make sense of their experiences,” she says. “They do or say things that we think are funny because they see the world differently than the way that adults do, yet they are really trying to understand how the world works.”
She and special education colleague Melissa Stormont were recently awarded a grant to target the areas of behavior, language and literacy in young children. The funding supports a program to prepare education master’s students to work with young children at risk for developmental delays due to disabilities or other factors.
She is also currently working with two doctoral students on a study of young children with autism. They are determining whether parents and behavioral interventionists can effectively implement a child-centered language intervention with young children with autism. The study also looks at the effects of those interventions on the children’s language.
McCathren explains: “If the adults were able to implement an intervention, did the children with autism initiate more frequently and expand the variety of words, which are challenges presented by autism?”
MotivationShe got her start as a teenager working with her mother, who was the director or a program for children with emotional or behavioral disorders, including children with autism. The hours spent as an extra classroom aide gave her an appreciation for the importance of early language and communication skills.
Now, she observes children and their families at home and in the classroom. She is looking at how children’s language is supported by the ways adults interact with them. The goal is to find methods of interaction that enhance children’s language and development.
“If you can’t communicate, you can’t control your environment,” McCathren says. “If you can’t communicate to get your needs met, you find other ways of doing that, which leads to kids with behavior problems.”
She’s also seeing a change in the way she interacts with her students. The biggest change in her 11 years of teaching, she says, is the increase in popularity of online courses.
“This semester, three of my classes have a big online component or even students who are online only,” she says. “My students are more diverse, which means there’s a wider range of experiences the students may have.”