Rider education professor: To reach special-needs students, curricula must be 'barrier-free'

Dr. Lauren Delisio’s research focuses on how those with special needs can be taught more effectively
Keith Fernbach

Lauren Delisio was at a professional crossroads.

After graduating from Rider with a bachelor's in communications and working for three years as a producer for an international news agency, she knew life in the news media wasn’t for her.

On the advice of her future sister-in-law, who is herself a teacher, she decided to give teaching a try. One of her first jobs was with ASD Nest, a program administered by the New York City Department of Education that integrates children with high-functioning autism into small classes with general education students.

“It was the best experience of my life,” Delisio says. “That was where I really fell in love with working with students with autism.”

After spending the next few years working as both a general education and special education teacher, she decided to focus the next phase of her career on how she could best serve children with autism. “I loved working with this population of students, but I also saw a lot of the challenges. When I started my doctoral program I knew this is the population I wanted to help from both the student side as well as the teacher side.”

After earning her doctorate in exceptional student education from the University of Central Florida, Delisio returned to Rider in 2015 as an assistant professor of special education in the College of Education and Human Services.

Delisio’s research focuses on how children with special needs can be taught more effectively. One of the ways she does this is by adopting the principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), an educational framework grounded in an architectural concept of “Universal Design” that all buildings should be barrier-free for people with physical challenges. For example, they should have wheelchair ramps at the entrances and ADA–compliant restrooms. The idea behind UDL is that, like buildings, all curricula should be barrier-free.

“What we’ve done historically in special education is we’ve looked at an already-written lesson plan and just said, ‘OK, I have this kid with a disability, this kid with autism, this kid with a behavioral issue…how am I going to adapt or modify my lesson so that it meets their needs?’’ Delisio says. “What UDL says is that from the very beginning, every lesson should be designed to meet the needs of all learners.“

She structures her lessons to incorporate three key elements. The first is Multiple Means of Representation, which is how content is presented. Examples can include reading text aloud, providing students a visual copy of the text or showing a video.

Next is Multiple Means of Engagement: how the teacher gets students motivated to learn about the content. This can include hands-on activities or education-based games.

Finally, there is Multiple Means of Action/Expression, which is how students demonstrate their understanding of the subject matter. This can be done through methods like writing song lyrics, creating and editing a video, or acting out a scene. The key is that all three elements are incorporated into each lesson in multiple ways.

Looking ahead, Delisio hopes to create a tool that can measure the effectiveness of teachers’ impact on students with autism. To that end, she has designed a new course called Assessment and Instructions for Students with Autism, which will be taught in the fall for the first time.

She’s also going to look closely at her own performance. “I’m going to start by assessing my own teaching, using course evaluations and seeing what I can be doing better in the actual instruction of the course,” she says. “Once we have students who have graduated and are teaching in the field, I’ll be going out and observing to figure out what attributes they need to have in order to be more successful. What do they need to know? What personality traits do they need to have? What are other things that we want to look to measure?”

Finding new and more effective ways to assist autistic students is becoming increasingly important, especially right here in New Jersey, which has the highest rate of autism in the country (1 in 41, as compared to 1 in 68 nationwide).

“We need to continue to prepare our teachers to best work with students with autism, help them to become successful adults and be an independent part of the community, and keep adding to our research-based and evidence-based practice,” she says. “There’s a lot out there that hasn’t been explored enough.”

Q&A with Dr. Lauren Delisio

What professional achievement are you most proud of?

I earned a summer internship at the U.S. Department of Education when I was in my Ph.D. program. I interned in the Research to Practice Division of the Office of Special Education Programs, and I was able to get a global view of the Federal government's role in education, and how policy affects education at every level, especially special education.

What is something about you that would surprise people?

I love fitness and I’m very involved in CrossFit. I have a CrossFit Level 1 Certificate and have coached classes in the past. In fact, until very recently, my husband and I were part owners of a CrossFit gym.

What’s your advice for people interested in a career in education?

It’s actually two things. One is be flexible. Things are always changing in the field of education in terms of what’s expected of you, and every day in your classroom you have to be flexible because a million things happen that are beyond your control. And the other is build strong relationships with your students. Those two things will make you an effective teacher.

If you didn’t do this for a living, what would you do?

I think I would have gone into psychology. Psychology is very closely related to special education. I’m fascinated by the human brain and how it works — how people think and why they behave the way they do — so I think psychology would have been my other field.

What about Rider sets it apart from other universities?

We have a very strong teacher prep program. It’s because of the personal relationships we build with our students, but also because we get them out in the field early. Their sophomore year they’re out in the field working with kids. Even if they’re just observing, they’re getting those experiences in the classroom from a very early stage in their college career. That’s how you become a good teacher, by learning about a theory and then putting it into practice.