The special education/elementary education major worked this year with two children with autism to help develop math skills using an innovative approach.
There was never any doubt for Kelsey Haines ’13. From the moment in seventh grade when she first volunteered to work with special needs children, the Cincinnati native knew she’d found her calling.
“It’s always been something I loved,” Haines said. “Working with students with autism.”
When the special education/elementary education major found an opportunity to conduct undergraduate research at Elon University, she jumped at the chance. After three months of working with two students with autism at a Piedmont elementary school, Haines this week shared her research, “Teaching Single Digit Addition to Students with Autism: A Kinesthetic Intervention,” at the Spring Undergraduate Research Forum.
Her work is the latest to be profiled on E-Net during CELEBRATE! Week 2013.
Haines said a misconception about children with autism fueled her research choice. Some people assume children with autism are mathematics savants, she said, but that is often not the case. “There’s a portion of students with autism – especially moderate to lower-functioning students – who struggle with math,” Haines said. “And there’s not a lot of research out there to help them.”
Haines said she’d seen how kinesthetics, which she defined as “moving one’s whole body through space,” had helped improve literacy for students with autism. Why not apply the same concept to those students who struggled with math?
“I didn’t know it was going to work,” she said. “[But] that’s why we do research, right? I wanted it to, really badly.”
So Haines created a special carpet for the two elementary-aged children she worked with – a so-called kinesthetic intervention. The mat had two footprints at its base. Blocks numbered one to 10 extended from the footprints, and the blocks got continually larger as the numbers ascended. Think hopscotch with a twist.
Because early elementary lessons focus on the numbers one through 10, Haines focused on helping the students improve their single digit addition.
“They would start on these little feet that I drew,” she said. “And if the problem was ‘2 + 6,’ they would jump forward two times. Then plus six. So they have to count out loud, ‘one, two, three, four, five, six’ more. Then they look down and they’re standing on ‘8’ and that’s your answer!”
Both students showed improvement in their math skills, Haines said. The results weren’t identical for each student – no two children with autism are the same, Haines points out – but they were significant enough for her to feel she made a difference.
“That’s why we teach,” she said. “That’s why I want to do this – to help them grow as people and students. To be able to do that through teaching and research has been awesome.”
But Associate Professor Stephen Byrd, coordinator for the special education program in the School of Education, said the elementary students weren’t the only ones who showed great development during Haines’ research.
“Over time, I could see the confidence and tenacity in Kelsey build,” said Byrd, who served as her research mentor. “There were challenges getting participants, there were changes that needed to be made in the intervention, there were school professionals to contact and set up meetings with, there were papers to write and rewrite and lots of research to be studied.”
None of that slowed down Haines. “Kelsey is always a cheerful and positive person,” Byrd said. “She does not quit and [she] goes beyond expectations. She is a person you can count on.”
Haines said she hopes her experience as an undergraduate research fellow will help her earn a job close to home working in special education.
“[Undergraduate research at Elon] gives me a leg up because as a first-year teacher, you’re automatically compared to teachers who have 30 years of experience,” she said. “It’s one of the only careers that you don’t have an entry-level position. You’re just automatically right there with everybody else. So I have that extra experience, that extra knowledge base.”