Tag: Toni Van Laarhoven

Community Learning Series sheds light on autism, transition

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Parents who attended the College of Education’s Spring 2018 Community Learning Series left with a loud-and-clear message.

They must advocate strongly and continuously for their children with autism, especially when those children are in high school or nearing the age of 22 as they move into adulthood.

Future teachers of Special Education heard the same call to action during the April 10 event.

“It behooves the educator to take it upon themselves to be a lifelong learner in the areas related to transition,” said Christine Putlak, assistant director of the A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative. “Transition is, without a doubt, the most complicated part of the field.”

Daunting as it might seem, however, the process is not impossible.

And, as moderator Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez told the crowd of nearly 200, “Tonight, we want to focus on practices that work.”

Johnston-Rodriguez, a professor in the NIU Department of Special and Early Education, began with statistics on young adults on the autism spectrum.

Nineteen percent of young adults with ASD between the ages of 20 and 25 have lived independently from their parents without supervision after graduation. Only 58 percent had ever worked during their early 20s.

Toni Van Laarhoven, Benji Rubin and Christine Putlak

Toni Van Laarhoven, Benji Rubin and Christine Putlak

Meanwhile, while 97 percent received transition service during high school, many are left without such supports and services afterward. Thirty-seven percent “disconnected,” neither continuing their education nor working outside the home; 28 percent were unemployed, not attending postsecondary school or training and without support or services.

Benji Rubin, an attorney with Rubin Law Offices whose practice is exclusively limited to special needs legal and future planning, told parents that they need to begin the work toward the age 22 cut-off as soon as possible. Age 21 is too late, he said.

High on the must-do list is the PUNS (Prioritization for Urgency of Need for Services), the statewide waiting list. Those without funding or services could find themselves simply “sitting at home” while they wait beyond their 22nd birthdays.

“It’s important that you push,” he said. “It’s important that you not accept them not receiving services at age 22.”

Siblings of young adults with ASD also must prepare, Rubin said.

“The sibling perspective is crucial. They’re the ones who are going to be carrying that torch when mom and dad no longer can,” he said. “Include the siblings as early as possible.”

Khushbu Dalvi, Kori Jung and Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers

Khushbu Dalvi, Kori Jung and Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers

NIU Presidential Teaching Professor Toni Van Laarhoven and her twin sister, Traci Van Laarhoven-Myers, vocational coordinator at Waubonsie Valley High School, spoke of the power of self-determination and self-advocacy.

Their Project My Voice enables students with intellectual disabilities to participate fully in their transition planning through expressing their preferences in such areas as education, employment, living arrangements, health, safety, community and more.

“Ask individuals what they want,” Van Laarhoven said. “It is important that they become empowered and self-advocate for their futures.”

“Authentic work experiences are important for individuals with disabilities to have prior to exiting the school system,” Van Laarhoven-Myers said. “Not only is it important to build on the students’ strengths, interests and preferences, it is also critical to expand and capitalize on natural supports within the environment while putting in place strategies that help students cope with changing circumstances in the work setting.”

Panelists also told the audience about Indicator 13 – it calls for annual updates of postsecondary goals of young adults ages 16 and older who have Individualized Education Plans – and its demand for evidence that the students are invited to their IEP meetings.

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

Kori Jung, teacher and case manager in the Arlington Heights District 214 Transition Program, advised future teachers in the audience to truly know their students as well as their families and to advocate for them.

“If we can focus on the strengths-based model, our students are going to be successful,” Jung said. “Everyone has the right to work, and everyone can work.”

Khushbu Dalvi, program coordinator for the Parents Alliance Employment Project, explained her role in Project Search, an internship-based program in local hospitals.

The initiative also helps students with their interview skills – “Even if you know how to do the job, you still have to get a foot in the door,” Dalvi said – as well as leadership development. Students who’ve already become integrated in the hospitals can then teach their peers about how to succeed at the internships.

Questions from the audience touched on such issues as customized jobs, how to find employers, equal wages, the most important government benefits, physical education and more.



Community Learning Series will explore ‘transitions’ to adulthood for students on autism spectrum

dotsDuring the first 21 years of their lives, individuals with autism are offered critical support services through their local public schools.

By law, those services must include “transition” planning that begins when the students turn 14½, providing nearly seven years of preparation for the next stage of their lives.

Yet when that assistance ends, many of those young adults and their parents are left with the same question.

Now what?

“It’s a very important topic right now because there have been some changes in the legislation,” says Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez, associate professor of Special Education. “One change goes back to 2004: the IDEA law on special education, which changed the language to really focus on transition and on meaningful outcomes in the three areas schools are accountable for: community living; careers and employment; and postsecondary education.”

Modifications to the Higher Education Act, meanwhile, require that access to postsecondary education is available to students with intellectual disabilities.

And, in 2017, Illinois become an “employment-first” state to promote “community-based, integrated employment as the first option for employment-related services for individuals with disabilities, physical, intellectual or behavioral.”

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez

The NIU College of Education’s upcoming Community Learning Series – “Transitioning to the Adult World: Connecting the Dots for Young Adults with Autism” – will help parents, students, teachers, employers and future educators make sense of it all.

Scheduled for 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 10, the event takes place at the Barsema Alumni and Visitors Center, 231 N. Annie Glidden Road. A reception begins at 5:30 p.m.

Free and open to the public, the event will feature six forward-thinking panelists who will share their innovative and exemplary approaches, supports and successes that have empowered their students to achieve productive lives.

  • Khushbu Davi, program coordinator, Parents Alliance Employment Project
  • Kori Jung, teacher/case manager, District 214 Transition Program, Arlington Heights
  • Christine Putlak, assistant director, A.E.R.O. Special Education Cooperative
  • Benji Rubin, attorney, Special Needs Legal and Future Planning, Rubin Law Offices
  • Toni Van Laarhoven, professor, NIU Department of Special and Early Education
  • Traci Van Laarhoven, vocational coordinator, Waubonsie Valley High School

“There are so many resources that teachers and parents need to plan ahead,” Toni Van Laarhoven says, “so we’re looking at what’s out there: What are some of the benefits available? What are some of the legal things people need to think about, such as guardianship? How do we prepare individuals if they choose to go the college route? These are things people really have to start thinking about.”

“We’re really focusing on services that are innovative and community-based,” adds Johnston-Rodriguez, who considers transition a matter of civil rights and social justice.

“Some states have done away with all of their ‘sheltered workshops,’ and the emphasis now for schools is to prepare these students for some kind of education, career or employment in the community.”

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

Van Laarhoven, a Presidential Teaching Professor at NIU, and her identical twin sister will talk about their Project MY VOICE – a person-centered planning tool that equips high school students with autism, and/or intellectual disabilities, to participate and have a voice in their own Individualized Education Programs via multimedia.

Johnston-Rodriguez, meanwhile, is also piloting a program that challenges students with disabilities to create their own PowerPoint presentations based on career exploration and creating a plan for where they want to go with their lives and how they plan to get there.

Lisle-based Parents Alliance Employment Project is partnering with Cadence Health in Project SEARCH, to offer internships at Central DuPage Hospital to young adults with developmental disabilities.

Many corporations “have gotten on board with employing people with special needs in meaningful kinds of jobs,” Johnston-Rodriguez says. “There’s also been a lot happening at the federal level with research and programs on customized employment. We’re seeing all of this come to fruition.”

Both professors say the evening will enlighten everyone, from those adolescents, parents, families, teachers, service providers and employers already engaged in transition to future teachers of individuals with special needs.

“Preparing for adulthood is extremely important, and has its challenges for people with autism as it does for any young adult, but it really does take a lot of planning, support and resources,” Johnston-Rodriguez says.

dots-2“As for any adolescent, these years are very formative. But for students with disabilities, they are even more so, because this is their last chance to get really intensive academic preparation and independent living skills and really focus on career and employment skills,” she adds. “In school, everyone gets a free education, but when you get into the adult world after 21, that all changes.”

Van Laarhoven especially wants teachers and future teachers to attend the Community Learning Series.

“Even though teachers of Special Education are aware of transition and what goes into it, that’s an area where they need much more support. There’s so much to think about, and there are so many moving parts,” she says. “I would like them to be able to think outside the box.”

For more information, call (815) 753-1619 or email seed@niu.edu.



Getting to Know You: SEED finds creative way to engage freshmen, transfer students

Angie Lobdell

Angie Lobdell

Angie Lobdell knows her way around schools.

When her youngest child was born in 2001, she became a stay-at-home mom. And when that child began kindergarten, she maternally followed.

“I decided to work at the school. I got a job as a para,” Lobdell says. “Later I got a promotion to reading aide – or Title I aide – and I thought, ‘I’m already doing some lesson-planning, and I always wanted to finish college, so let’s just do it.’ ”

Heather Kerfoot found inspiration from one of her oldest son’s former teachers.

“Both of my sons, who are both teenagers, have special ed in their educational lives, and I have seen the great things it can do for students who really need it. I’ve seen it make a big change in their academic abilities and performance,” says Kerfoot, who lives in Naperville.

“There’s one great teacher who really made a difference for my 17-year-old when he was an eighth-grader,” she adds. “In fact, he still communicates with this teacher, and I can’t say enough about what he did for us.”

Roxanne Espinoza’s light bulb moment came long before adulthood.

“I got the wonderful opportunity to do a Partners Club in junior high,” Espinoza says. “They pair you up with a student with a disability, and you do fun activities after school. I just enjoyed the experience. I helped students with disabilities with their homework, and I just loved that.”

Lobdell, Kerfoot and Espinoza have plenty in common.

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

All are majoring in Special Education. All are transfer students, from Sauk Valley Community College, the College of DuPage and Harper College, respectively.

And all recently earned one credit each in a new course called “Exploring the Special Ed Major,” now required for all students who declare the major.

“For years, everyone has talked about the quality and importance of recruitment and retention,” says Toni Van Laarhoven, Presidential Teaching Professor in the Department of Special and Early Education.

“In our program – in Special Ed – we’d say the problem was that we never get to reach the freshmen and sophomores, and to pull them in to get to know our program, until they were in their junior year and in the professional block,” she adds.

Van Laarhoven noticed that her licensure candidates in Block 3 (the semester immediately before they begin to student-teach) were largely unaware of amazing resources and opportunities they had all through their NIU careers.

Student organizations. Student Services. The Educate and Engage Program. Undergraduate research. The Learning Center.

“But it was almost too late,” she says, “so we as a faculty started talking about, ‘What are the cool things we would like potential Special Ed majors to know?’ And we just developed this course.”

Coursework includes the making and keeping of one-on-one appointments with academic advisers and with Van Laarhoven herself, who taught the fall class one day a week in a blended face-to-face and online format.

Greg Conderman

Greg Conderman

Students learn about the structure of the program, including the professional blocks, as well as the requirements of getting in and staying in the major. They are told where to find more information on the Educator Licensure Test of Academic Proficiency (TAP) as well as tutoring, counseling and more.

They must complete “passport” activities such as locating faculty and departmental offices, meeting Department Chair Greg Conderman and conducting interviews with professors to learn about their academic backgrounds, their daily work and their research interests.

“We also do silly things,” Van Laarhoven says. “They have to go down to the Learning Center and take a selfie of themselves getting coffee. It’s like our best-kept secret: You don’t have to go to the library! There are a lot of things here that are fun.”

Beyond the basics, she says, the course offers comfort and early camaraderie.

“I tell students that we want them to feel like this is their home, and that they can come to any of us at any time,” she says. “They also have to write directions for how to go downstairs, how to find the advisers’ offices and all the way down to the little lounge in the basement of Graham Hall – ways to find all these places where they can belong.”

After piloting the program in Fall 2017, the professor believes the department has earned a gold medal for innovation.

“I could see the students’ eyes lighting up, like, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know this was possible,’ or, ‘I’m feeling like I’m so connected already. It makes me feel like I belong,’ ” she says. “For me, it’s just plain fun. I’m even learning about my own peers by hearing some of the interesting facts that the faculty are telling the students.”

Roxanne Espinoza

Roxanne Espinoza

Espinoza, Lobdell and Kerfoot agree.

“You can have anxiety going from a community college straight into a four-year university, and especially into Special Ed, which is such a broad category,” says Espinoza, who is from Schaumburg. “This helps you to look at what’s ahead in the program in terms of, ‘This is what I need to do. This is what I need to prepare for my future.’ ”

With an hour-long commute between campus and her home in Sterling, Lobdell is grateful for being pointed to the free coffee and friendly study environment of the Learning Center. She also enjoyed meeting other transfer students.

“I was very nervous coming from my little community college to Northern; I was only doing that part time and working full time. I finally made the switch this fall,” she says, adding that most of her traditional-age classmates in other courses “weren’t really my peers. Having this class just made me more comfortable.”

Kerfoot, who formerly managed real estate for Hoffman Estates-based Sears Holdings Corp., calls Van Laarhoven “a great ambassador for the Special Education program.”

“Toni did a great job of getting us entwined in the department – who the professors are, who the head of the department is, meeting a professor and interviewing them, talking with Dr. Conderman,” she says.

Heather Kerfoot

Heather Kerfoot

“One thing I thought was really nice was that you get to meet people who also want to be in Special Ed,” she adds. “Special Ed is a lot more than helping out your kid at home, and if I can help somebody else’s kids the way my kids have been helped, I would love to be a part of that.”

Most of all, Kerfoot gained empowerment during her interview of Associate Professor Sarah Johnston-Rodriguez.

“She primarily works with transitional students between 18 and 21, and that’s something I’m possibly interested in but haven’t committed to yet,” Kerfoot says.

“And as a mom, and especially as a mom of kids who have special education and a disability, I’ve kind of struggled with the idea of, ‘I guess this is what I want to do, but how do I not want to take all these kids home with me?’ ” she adds. “Dr. Rodriguez told me, ‘You’re not there to feel sorry for them. You’re there to help them.’ That really spoke to me. That really made sense. That’s something I can take with me. And it kind of got me past that.”



Cream, sugar, skills: Café 432 coffee vendors strut their stuff for future special ed teachers

coffee-cart-1

Barista!

Every Monday and Wednesday, the crew of Somonauk Middle School’s Café 432 Coffee Cart makes the morning rounds, selling hot cups of joe to caffeine-craving faculty and staff.

Mondays are for James R. Wood Elementary School. Wednesdays are for their own school, home to fifth- through eighth-grades, and the nearby high school. The prices are unbeatable: 50 cents for black coffee, $1 for coffee with mix-ins, 75 cents for a plain hot chocolate and $1 for hot chocolate with marshmallows.

Sometimes, these students who are all in the Life Skills program don their blue aprons to serve coffee to local veterans. Sometimes, it’s to the village’s firefighters.

On Wednesday, Dec. 6, the cart came to Gabel Hall 100 in the NIU College of Education.

“The coffee cart is a great way to teach the kids to be employable,” says Amanda Jungels, a Special Education major from Sugar Grove who spent her fall clinical placement at Somonauk Middle School. “It’s life skills with academics mixed in.”

Her analysis is spot-on, confirms Tim Ulrich, director of special education in Somonauk Community Unit School District 432, who calls the initiative “academics masked as a coffee cart.”

coffee-cart-6

Greeter!

“We’re really focused on what our students are going to be able to do when they graduate, and we want to give them skills that will translate to the workplace,” Ulrich says. “We start them at an early age. The sooner we give these skills to kids, the more employable they’ll be.”

Jungels has been working with Somonauk Middle School special education teachers Kara Scott, an alumna of the NIU Department of Special and Early Education, and Jessica Plante. She will stay under their wings next semester during the first half of her student-teaching placement.

Bringing the coffee cart crew to NIU provided not only a stage to demonstrate “the different things they can do,” Jungels says, but also a good chance “to branch out and serve at a different place.”

“We’ve been talking about it for a while,” she says. “They seem really excited about college in general.”

NIU Presidential Teaching Professor Toni Van Laarhoven volunteered her classroom for the on-campus sale; she and her students became happy customers, as did Dean Laurie Elish-Piper and associate deans Bill Pitney and David Walker.

“Kara and Jessica made packets of information for our current Special Education majors that could assist them in developing a similar business in the future. They shared budgeting information and forms, gave a great presentation and shared a great video,” Van Laarhoven says.

“I love that Kara is an alum who was interested in giving back to NIU,” she adds, “and sharing wonderful strategies with our current and future special educators.”

Van Laarhoven also was impressed by the coffee cart initiative: “This is a great example of embedding all kinds of life skills in a functional activity.”

coffee-cart-575

Café 432 workers rotate between four jobs – cart operator, greeter, barista and cashier – in which they interact with customers, take orders, measure and pour coffee, make change and clean up.

Job expectations are clearly defined. For example, the greeter will “smile and make eye contact with the customer, start with a form of greet statement, end with a departing statement and will keep a positive attitude.”

During their shifts, they develop independence while focusing on their math, language arts and social skills. Afterward, they discuss how each morning went.

“We started this at the beginning of the year,” Scott says. “We’re making a budget. We’re learning how to greet. We’re taking time to reflect on the different stages.”

Meanwhile, Ulrich says, the coffee crew has made many friends inside and outside the school walls. “Our students are members of the community,” he says. “Everyone knows our students.”

Laurie Elish-Piper, Toni Van Laarhoven and Kara Scott

Laurie Elish-Piper, Toni Van Laarhoven and Kara Scott

“These guys know more of the people in the district than any other of the kids,” Plante adds. “They know their names. They know their coffee orders.”

Justin Snider, principal of Somonauk Middle School and a double-alum of the NIU College of Education, is proud of the Café 432 students.

“I like to see them out and interacting with new people and new spaces,” Snider says. “It’s a way to enhance their skills. They practice those skills every day, but usually with students and teachers they’re already comfortable with.”

Laura Hedin, an associate professor of Special Education at NIU, calls the coffee cart “a tremendous opportunity” for the Somonauk students.

“Students with disabilities need to understand appropriate social communications, whether it’s just with people they meet out at the mall or in a job setting,” Hedin says. “We need to provide a context in which students can learn what is appropriate. They really need opportunities to go out with new people and to practice those skills.”

coffee-cart-4

Ah, coffee!

Visiting NIU could prove aspirational for the middle-schoolers.

“Everybody has to kind of see themselves in that setting and decide, ‘Is this something I want to have in my future? How do I get there?’ ” Hedin says.

“Some of these student may come to community colleges if appropriate for their own goals and ideas about what they want their future to be,” she adds. “There are also an increasing number of opportunities at four-year colleges as well – specialized programs so persons with disabilities can have undergraduate experiences. Those are expanding all over the country.”

Future teachers like Jungels, who Hedin believes is more than “just a buddy” to the middle-schoolers, can help to make those dreams come true.

“Amanda is an outstanding student, and she’s going to be a wonderful teacher. She already is a wonderful teacher. Kara Scott told us that it hasn’t been like having a clinical student; it’s like having a co-teacher who’s already licensed,” Hedin says.

“Amanda is very creative and a wonderful problem-solver with a heart for working with students with significant disabilities,” she adds. “She has this ability to make these really strong connections with her students but at the same time working toward the academic or social goals they need to be working on. She’s not setting the bar low.”

coffee-cart-575-2

NIU teacher-licensure candidate Amanda Jungels (right) joins
the Somonauk Middle School coffee cart crew for a group photo.



The postcards are in the mail

mailboxEven though technology has changed the game in college admissions, that doesn’t mean we’ve abandoned the time-honored method of communicating with future undergraduate students through the U.S. Postal Service.

The College of Education’s Student Services embarked on a marketing project this spring that featured postcards with photos and personal messages from students and faculty about the excellent programs at NIU.

Kristin Rinehart, coordinator of recruitment in Student Services, says the postcards help to “convince students that the NIU College of Education is definitely the place to be.”

“Our postcard project is a great way to create excitement about the College of Education among newly admitted students who are considering us as a possible college choice,” Rinehart says.

“Research shows that new students want to feel excited about the colleges that they are considering,” she adds. “In addition, research shows that they value the opinion of other students in the college selection process, want to feel connected to their program of study and desire personalized attention from faculty and staff.”

Each of the seven undergraduate programs was featured in both rounds.

Taylor Aasen

Taylor Aasen

January’s first batch of postcards focused on peer-to-peer communications: notes from current students who are recipients of various scholarships to freshman and transfer admits for this summer and fall.

Participants were Taylor Aasen (Elementary Education), Alfredo Cervantes (Athletic Training), Courtney Christin (Physical Education), Abbey Gorham (Special Education), Tabbi Grosch (Early Childhood Studies), Tyler Hayes (Kinesiology) and Hannah Schlecht (Middle Level Teaching and Learning).

June’s second round of mailings connected faculty – all of whom were nominated by their department chairs – with those freshman and transfer admits.

Peter J. Chomentowski III (Exercise Physiology), Myoung Jung (Early Childhood), Jessica Martinez (Athletic Training), James Cohen (Curriculum and Instruction), Toni Van Laarhoven (Special Education), Zachary Wahl-Alexander (Physical Education) and Donna Werderich (Literacy Education) represented their programs.

Kristin Rinehart

Kristin Rinehart

Students wrote about why they made the right choice in coming to NIU while faculty wrote of why they love teaching here. All included messages of what students learn in their courses and the hands-on learning opportunities available.

“I’m learning to have patience with children,” Christin wrote, “and about the power of ‘yet’ — just because one child doesn’t understand at first doesn’t mean they never will. It only means they do not understand yet.”

“Teaching middle school is an adventure, not a job,” Werderich wrote. “It requires teachers who understand and appreciate the diversity and unique complexity of young adolescents who are constantly changing mentally, physically, socially and emotionally.”

Dropping postcards in the mail reaches another important audience, Rinehart says.

“Being paper mail with eye-catching visibility, they also bring these messages to parents and other important adults in the students’ households,” she says. “We are thrilled with how the postcards turned out, and we will continue to build on them in a variety of ways for future recruitment ventures.”

postcards-james



Presidential Teaching Professor Toni Van Laarhoven imparts lessons from her life, heart

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven

Toni Van Laarhoven became a teacher before she became a student.

Van Laarhoven and her twin sister, Traci, often accompanied their mother and their sister, Steffanie, to the parent-run school their sibling attended. Toni and Traci – only preschoolers then – often were asked to teach their sister’s classmates and to lead small-group activities.

Years later, Van Laarhoven would realize the roles were switched.

“My older sister, who has severe intellectual disabilities, is nonverbal and engages in some challenging behavior, is one of the coolest people you could ever meet – and is also one of my most influential teachers,” says NIU’s Presidential Teaching Professor for 2016.

“She has taught me that teaching-and-learning is a reciprocal process,” she adds, “and that it is critical to listen and learn from all people, regardless of their mode of communication.”

Her mother also inspired her work but in a different way.

Elaine Leslie Baker joined other parents in lobbying for educational opportunities for individuals with disabilities; their efforts resulted in the 1975 legislation known as the Education for All Handicapped Children Act that guarantees a free, appropriate education for that population.

“From her, I learned the power of advocacy,” says Van Laarhoven, a professor in the College of Education’s Department of Special and Early Education, “and to treat all people with respect and dignity.”

van-laarhoven-toni-3During her two decades at NIU – the two-time alumna joined the College of Education as in instructor in 1995 and became an assistant professor in 2001 – she has perpetuated the mission of her big sister and their late mother.

Project MY VOICE, which Van Laarhoven and Traci created and successfully directed from 2007 to 2011, continues to empower high school students with intellectual disabilities to participate in their own Individualized Education Programs via technology.

Last year, Van Laarhoven harnessed the potential of Google Glass to teach vocational skills to teens with special needs.

Weaving those projects and their capacity for experiential learning into her curriculum assures her that each next generation of special education teachers will treat their students in exactly the way they deserve.

“I think students recognize my passion for the field and my commitment to making sure they become the best special educators they can be,” she says. “They also recognize that as a family member of an individual with a disability, I am truly invested in their success and want nothing more for them than to change lives and become strong advocates for all of the students they encounter.”

Jennifer Horst, a kindergarten and first-grade teacher at Westmore Elementary School in suburban Lombard, confirms her former professor’s aspiration to “shape us as the powerful and efficacious educators she envisioned.”

“As someone who cares so deeply about the population she was training us to teach, the academic rigor that she challenged us with was understood as a sort of ‘future advocacy’ for individuals with disabilities,” Horst says. “There was no way she would let anything go partially mastered in her classes.”