Nationwide, there is a decrease in individuals pursuing special education as a career, says Tamara Marder, PhD, BCBA-D, an associate professor for the School of Education’s applied behavior analysis (ABA), autism, and severe disabilities programs.
“We do have a serious teacher shortage for special education,” says Marder, a licensed psychologist and board-certified behavior analyst. “We need a lot of support meeting the needs of students with autism, and that disability category is not going away anytime soon. In fact, it’s growing.”
Marder is a key faculty member for the school’s two programs focused on autism—an online graduate certificate program in autism, and a master’s degree program in severe disabilities, with an emphasis in autism spectrum disorders. These largely attract special education teachers placed in classrooms serving students with autism, as well as some paraprofessionals, school psychologists and administrators, and parents seeking to further their knowledge in the field.
She also is the faculty lead for the school’s post-master’s certificate program in ABA, a methodological science focused on understanding the principles of learning and behavior to meet the growing needs of children who receive special education services. Johns Hopkins is one of the only Maryland universities offering the certificate program, which focuses on applying the science of ABA to educational settings.
Marder brings her years of experience working with children, families, and teachers in school settings to her own teaching. “The major learning outcome graduates take away from our programs is that they recognize evidence-based practices and evidence-based strategies,” she says, “not only how to find strategies backed by evidence, but also how to read and evaluate the research and to evaluate their own teaching practice through data collection and evaluation to improve learning outcomes for students.” In 2015, Marder received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the Johns Hopkins University Alumni Association.
On the research side, Marder is co-investigator on a new Launchpad Grant from the JHU Alliance for a Healthier World to explore the quality of training among paraprofessionals and aides who work with students with autism.
“A lot of times in school settings, paraprofessionals working with students don’t have adequate training,” says Marder. “We want to know what types of training they have had, their thoughts about that training, and if that has worked for them. Then, we can move to the next step: creating a model for school systems to use to better train their paraprofessionals.”
The work is essential in a teacher shortage, she adds, because paraprofessionals could be the future educators who further their education and become certified teachers. “But if they’re not being trained well, their self-efficacy in working with these students with autism may be low, and they may burn out easily. We want to make sure we’re providing adequate training at the paraprofessional level to help with our teacher shortages and get more people interested in continuing in the field and working with this population.”
Special education teachers and paraprofessionals will play an even more significant role this year, when COVID-19 restrictions lift and students are allowed to return to schools, Marder says. Transitions are difficult for many students with autism and other special needs, and there may be some regression in skills as a result of being off-schedule for weeks to months. Educators who understand and can plan for the transition challenges for students with autism will help ease the return to school and daily schedules for both students and their families.