By Meredith McGroarty
In the past few decades, terms like autism and dyslexia have become part of our everyday vocabulary.
But even as public awareness grows about these and other learning disorders, questions about how best to identify and treat them remain.
UT recently opened a center designed not only to conduct research on learning disorders and their remedies, but also to treat students affected with these disorders and find ways to help them learn more successfully. The Korn Learning Assessment and Social Skills Center, or the KLASS Center, is part of the Department of Educational Psychology and Counseling in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.
“KLASS provides services to clients who have problems with learning, offers outreach to the community, and conducts research in some areas of learning skills and assessment,” says Director Brian Wilhoit.
The center, which opened in 2009, is the result of a $2 million donation by East Tennessee couple Tom and Pam Korn, who have an adult son who has struggled with learning disorders. After some deliberation, they decided to establish a center that carries personal significance to them.
The term learning disability has become a catchall phrase used by the general public that comprises a wide range of mental conditions, from mild dyslexia to autism spectrum disorders. The center focuses on difficulties that, according to Wilhoit, “interfere with or have an impact on a student’s learning.” The treatment of mental illnesses like depression or schizophrenia is not part of its scope, though staff will refer clients to other professionals who can treat those conditions. The center can, however, help address learning difficulties that might result from a condition like depression.
The KLASS Center offers a variety of clinical services directly to individuals, including assessment and diagnostic testing of cognitive abilities, interventions to address learning problems, academic tutoring, some counseling services, and training and consultation for parents, teachers, and other professionals. Students at all educational stages, from pre-K to postsecondary, are welcome; the center’s clients have ranged in age from 2 to 55 years.
“As part of the clinical services we provide, the fourth-year doctoral students spend a year of practicum in the clinic part of the center providing evaluations and other services for kids and college students who have learning disorders,” Wilhoit says. “We also have a few predoctoral interns who have a year of internship after completing their doctoral program, so there’s a significant amount of training conducted here through the program.”
In addition to these direct services, the KLASS Center also partners with schools in the area to conduct research-based work. Wilhoit explains that the center will typically receive a call from a teacher or administrator looking for help with a particular difficulty, either in the classroom in general or with certain students.
A graduate student will usually go to the school and speak with the teacher or administrator to assess the situation and then develop and implement an intervention for that difficulty. In the process, the student collects research data about the project that can be used in other research work.
Wilhoit says faculty and students at the center also conduct general research on various technology-based interventions; for example, using a cell phone timer to cue students back on task or using a software program to increase reading and writing skills for children with difficulties.
Dennis Ciancio, a research assistant professor at the center, is one of the faculty members looking at early intervention and treatment methods. He is currently working on a project to develop a vocabulary comprehension writing intervention for children in kindergarten and primary grades.
“We’re looking at instructional strategies that benefit all kids, but primarily kids that are coming from language-impoverished environments—that is, children who don’t spend a lot of time with adults in a high-language environment and who come to kindergarten with some delays in language and vocabulary skills,” Ciancio says.
As research into learning disorders has flourished in the past decade, the importance of early intervention has emerged as a key point for professionals in the field.
“There has been some increase in earlier identification of kids who have particular difficulties,” Wilhoit says. “From my standpoint, there’s been more research that looks at the base development of skills, catching kids earlier and remediating them if needed. Hopefully, we could find ways to circumvent a certain disability; an early intervention might help prevent it from developing.”
Ciancio says that one of the biggest challenges in the field of learning disorders is the fact that interventions need to be individualized; children with the same issues may respond differently to different treatments.
“We’re getting away from the idea that one model will fit everyone,” Ciancio says. “We are getting more nuanced diagnoses that help people target interventions more specifically to the individual. That’s been a big push in the last decade—the ability to diagnose kids earlier and do some prevention work and remediation work and just to be able to hit their needs more specifically.”Tags: Brian Wilhoit • Education • Educational Psychology and Counseling • KLASS Center