Bernie Tarré and Meredith O’Malley always wanted to be teachers.
Both volunteered in classrooms during high school and felt a special connection to children with special needs.
Now sophomores at Loyola, they are two of the 28 students in Loyola’s unique Early Childhood Special Education (ECSE) program, which teaches students to meet the specific challenges of educating children with special needs from birth to third grade.
Students start working in real classrooms their first semester, which sets Loyola’s program apart from many others that wait to start field work until students’ second or even third years in college. They study eight areas of teaching or “sequences” — one each semester — which cover a range of age groups and children with a wide array of special needs, and culminates in a semester of student teaching.
In addition to providing more hands-on experience than many comparable programs, Loyola’s ECSE major combines several special certifications, which are not offered through the Illinois State Board of Education and have to be obtained through the Illinois Department of Human Services, according to professor Adam Kennedy, who helped overhaul the ECSE program in 2014.
“This is the only program in Illinois that has a built-in English as a second language endorsement, as well as a built-in special education endorsement, and what’s called an early intervention credential, sort of like a special education credential for birth-three years old,” Kennedy said.
As a result, Loyola’s ECSE majors are some of the most sought-after in Illinois, according to Kennedy.
“CPS is always begging us to send candidates, and principals are always writing letters asking if we have people to fill various positions,” Kennedy said.
In fact, every single early childhood special education graduate from Loyola has found a job in their field, according to Kennedy. Last year, seven of the nine graduates had jobs before graduation, and the other two had been hired within two months of graduation.
“The teachers learn to teach through teaching,” Kennedy said. “It’s not just that they need to demonstrate all of their competencies as a beginning teacher in classrooms, but they get to learn them there too.”
As they enter their fourth semester, students like O’Malley and Tarré work at schools such as nearby Kilmer elementary school in Rogers Park, and Christopher House in Uptown. They plan activities for the children, all younger than three years old, and teach them for about 12 hours per week.
“Last week we worked with applesauce — the kids got to play with the applesauce, it was safe because they could eat it. We had different colors and they could put it into cups and drink it,” said Tarré, 20. “Today we did body painting, so they were in their diapers and we had this big sheet of paper on the floor and they were walking around and painting their feet and hands.”
Activities like these are referred to as “active learning,” and teach very young children basic concepts. By pouring multicolored applesauce, for example, they learn about motion and color.
The youngest children learn basic vocabulary and concepts such as color and light and in and out. They also learn early social skills such as sharing space, relationships and how to interact with adults and people around them, according to Kennedy.
Students learn to constantly talk, referred to as a “communication loop.” O’Malley said consistent exposure to language helps children develop early vocabulary and social skills.
“We have to narrate what we’re doing and give them language,” O’Malley said. “We have to constantly be interacting with them. For example, I would say ‘Oh, I see that Harmony has some meat on her plate and she’s using her fork. Everyone look at Harmony use her fork,’ or ‘Oh guys, I’m going to try some of this fruit, let’s all try this fruit.’”
Language is crucial, even for children as young as 18 months old, according to Tarré.
“I’m working with infants who don’t talk yet, so it’s so hard to interact and expect a response from them,” Tarré said. “We have to make these big facial expressions and change our voice tone and intonation. It’s so difficult to do.”
About 61 percent of adults think children with special needs develop slower, and more than one quarter of adults think parents of children with special needs should lower expectations for their children, according to a 2015 report.
“I really do think every child can learn, regardless of their ability,” Tarré said. “I really want to put that belief into practice. Research shows how important those early years are, not only for children with special needs, but for everyone.”
Early childhood education is like every other type of education, but is more family-oriented and
intimate, Kennedy said.
“The key role of the early childhood educator is that we must work collaboratively with families,” Kennedy said. “There is such potential for impact on students and families in this role. I think for students who want to really make a significant impact on others’ lives, it can be an incredibly rewarding career path.”
The ECSE major is demanding, Tarré and O’Malley said. On top of to the hours they spend in the classroom each week, the students make lesson plans, review and critique videos of their activities and volunteer with play groups for children with special needs on weekends — in addition to the program’s rigorous curriculum.
“I try and warn [students] that it really is the most difficult major,” Kennedy said. “It’s not only difficult from the standpoint that they have a lot of work to do. They have to prepare themselves to work to help understand what the job of early childhood educator is.”