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UW-Eau Claire's virtual reading intervention program supports area youth

| Judy Berthiaume

Mackenzie Bauer

Mackenzie Bauer had to think creatively to find ways to keep kids engaged during a virtual reading intervention program.

Mackenzie Bauer knew moving an in-person summer reading intervention program for elementary-age kids to a virtual format was going to take some outside-the-box thinking.

So, when she realized that some of the kids she’d be working with were animal lovers, the UW-Eau Claire school psychology graduate student began weaving appearances by feline and other furry friends into her planning for the three-times-per-week virtual reading sessions.

“We have one child who is super motivated by cats,” says Bauer, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2019 with a psychology major and a minor in family studies. “My research assistant has three cats, so if our student performs well, he gets to see the cats.”

Melissa Coolong-Chaffin

Dr. Melissa Coolong-Chaffin

In a summer like no other, that kind of creative thinking by UW-Eau Claire students is why some Eau Claire area kids who struggle with reading are strengthening their skills despite COVID-19 disrupting the last months of their school year and canceling many summer programs, says Dr. Melissa Coolong-Chaffin, an associate professor of psychology who helps oversee the reading intervention initiative.

“I’ve been blown away by the success the students have had this summer,” Coolong-Chaffin says of students leading the virtual program. “Once they believed they could do it, they found ways to build rapport with the kids and they made it fun. All around, it has been successful in ways I didn’t anticipate. It’s been rewarding for our students and for the kids.”

UW-Eau Claire’s reading intervention program — offered through the Human Development Center — pairs teams of graduate and undergraduate students who plan to be school psychologists with elementary students who struggle with reading.

The Blugolds use evidence-based reading interventions to help the kids build their reading fluency and comprehension.

MaKenna Kruschke — a soon-to-be third-grader from Eau Claire — is among the young readers who worked with Blugolds virtually, first in the spring when school moved online and then throughout the summer.

“It’s fun because I get to work with the college students,” MaKenna says. “I love the college students.”

Niki Kruschke, MaKenna’s mother, says the reading program was a great experience for her family.

“The students are wonderful,” Kruschke says. “They are great at keeping Makenna engaged. I love that they want to learn about Makenna’s interests and built the reading program around that. She loves animals and nature, so they read a lot of stories about those topics.

“Her favorite part of the session is at the end when they share their pets with each other. Makenna has three birds, three cats and a dog and loves showing them off. It is wonderful how the students interact and engage with their clients based off their interests.”

Meeting community needs

In the reading intervention program, graduate students take the lead on planning each session, working closely with undergraduate students to implement specific interventions and to assess the outcomes.

In the past, the kids came to the university to work one-on-one with students in the summer, and the Blugolds traveled to area elementary schools to provide reading services during the academic year.

This spring, when K-12 schools moved classes online, the in-school intervention services ended as well.

Mary Tusing

Dr. Mary Beth Tusing

Faculty and graduate students immediately began brainstorming ways to move the reading services online, knowing that kids already struggling with their reading would need even more support given the disruptions caused by the pandemic, says Dr. Mary Beth Tusing, an associate professor of psychology and director of UW-Eau Claire’s school psychology graduate program.

“The graduate students took the lead,” Tusing says of transitioning to a virtual format. “It was fun to problem-solve how to make the activities exciting for kids online. As soon as our classes began online, we were offering our reading program online. In the end, it was a great experience for all.”

From March-June, the program served two clients, including MaKenna Kruschke.

“It helped my daughter tremendously because she couldn’t get the one-on-one reading interventions that she normally would have gotten at school,” Niki Kruschke says. “We worried about her academics, especially her reading, and that she would fall far behind. This program allowed her to grow as a reader and to be more confident as a reader.”

Given the success of the spring session, the university team decided to develop a virtual summer program, increasing the number of clients they would serve from two to 20.

Coolong-Chaffin was not sure how families would react to a virtual format in the summer, worrying that they already were tired of online learning after the chaotic spring.

“We thought we’d give it a go and see who was interested,” Coolong-Chaffin says. “We reached out to families we’d worked with before and all 20 spots were filled within 24 hours.”

The graduate students used lessons learned in the spring to build an even stronger program in the summer, says Bauer, a native of Farmington, Minnesota. For example, they found it was helpful to always have two student interventionists online with a child.

“So, my research assistant and I always double-team during a session,” Bauer says. “It’s helpful because if one of our Wi-Fi connections isn’t working, the other person can jump right into the intervention. The kids also really like talking to both of us and we each bring different energies into the session.”

Noelle Wozniak

Noelle Wozniak was surprised by the strong connections she made with young readers during a virtual program this summer.

The most rewarding parts of the program are seeing the kids progress in their reading, while also getting to know them, says Noelle Wozniak, a school psychology graduate student from Downers Grove, Illinois.

“It is a great feeling when you can provide an effective intervention while also building a relationship with them,” Wozniak says.

Megan Monette, a graduate student from Hudson, says the clinic helped her see how eager the students are to read with someone and how much they enjoy connecting with the college students.

“It was extremely helpful to all of the students,” Monette says. “The best part of being an interventionist was getting to work with kids again and see their improvements throughout the intervention.”

Finding new opportunities

Since most children will begin the school year with at least part of their learning online, the HDC is looking into whether it can continue to offer its reading intervention program virtually this fall, says Tusing, noting that many families are looking for ways to support their kids as schools move to online and hybrid models.

Continuing the virtual programs also means that the HDC could work with children who live farther away, or in areas where resources are scarce and distance to services make access difficult, Tusing says.

“Our efforts to provide academic intervention services online is helping us realize new and creative ways we can reach kids who might not be able participate in our services in person,” Tusing says. “This opens up new opportunities for our students and for more families.”

While distance learning poses many challenges, they are seeing a lot of success with kids engaged in the activities and making gains in their skills, Coolong-Chaffin says.

“It is exciting to be able to provide the service to kids and the experience to future educators for whom this type of service delivery is likely part of the new reality in schools,” Coolong-Chaffin says. "Our undergrad and grad students are doing a fantastic job.”

Preparing future school psychologists

While the program meets a community need, it also gives future school psychologists real-world experiences that help them develop critical skills, including problem solving, communication and leadership skills, Tusing says.

In the program, each of the five graduate students work with undergraduates to plan and implement specific interventions that will best meet the needs of their clients. The graduate students direct all aspects of the sessions, from planning to assessment, Coolong-Chaffin says, adding that the program also creates research opportunities for the graduate students.

While the spring and summer have been challenging, overall, it’s been a great experience for the university students to find ways to engage the kids in the new virtual format, Coolong-Chaffin says. That’s especially true given the current uncertainty around in-person schools, she says.

“Our students gained experience with the telehealth model of providing services,” Tusing says. “It’s likely that at some point in their careers they are going to have to work in that capacity; they will have to motivate and engage kids in an online format.”

Experience with the telehealth model is not typically part of school psychology graduate programs so this will set these students apart as they begin their careers, Coolong-Chaffin says.

An understanding of and experiences with telehealth is important as school districts consider new ways to meet student needs, especially in more rural areas, Coolong-Chaffin says.

“There are opportunities to use technologies in situations where it’s hard for collaboration with parents to occur,” Coolong-Chaffin says. “The biggest impacts may be in smaller, more rural areas. Our students will have experience and confidence in creating these kinds of virtual programs.”

The challenge of providing the reading program virtually made her experience this summer even more valuable, Wozniak says.

“For me, it was a bonus that the program was online, creating a new learning experience of virtual formats,” says Wozniak, who graduated from UW-Eau Claire in 2019 with a degree in psychology and a certificate in organizational communication. “Given the world we live in, we will see more need for online services. I will begin my career already having experience providing online reading interventions. I’m more confident with the online format, and I am more confident in my problem-solving skills.”

Bauer says she found it reassuring to see how effective reading interventions can be online.

“We are seeing amazing results,” Bauer says. “Now, in my future job, I will be more confident advocating for online interventions. I also learned how quickly I can problem-solve if something goes wrong.”

Marissa Warren, a graduate student from Litchfield, Minnesota, also says being part of the virtual program has her thinking differently about her future work as a school psychologist.

“We’re in uncharted territory, and this experience allows for an incredible opportunity to broaden our skill set,” Warren says of running a virtual program during a pandemic. “Working with the summer reading clinic has helped me feel more confident walking into the new school year.”

In addition to working directly with students, the clinic also gave her experience collaborating virtually with parents, which will be helpful as she begins a yearlong internship this fall, Warren says.

“With so many uncertainties with the coming school year, this experience has been invaluable,” Warren says. “It has taught me to be flexible, a better problem-solver and a better communicator with families.”

Hanna Wulff, a senior psychology major with a behavior analysis emphasis and Spanish minor, was involved in the in-school reading program this spring and wanted to continue her work in the summer.

“My experience has been amazing,” says Wulff, a Gilmanton native who plans to go to graduate school for school psychology. “It was so rewarding seeing the kids make improvements every single day.

Initially, Lauren Steinhoff, a graduate student in the school psychology program, says she was a bit apprehensive about the reading clinic transitioning from in-person to an online format.

“However, I wanted experience with reading interventions and decided this would be great experience and knowledge if I needed to complete reading interventions online in the future,” says Steinhoff, a native of River Falls. “I was impressed with my students’ engagement, attention and focus. They were prepared to read every day and had a positive attitude.”

Kassie Kellerman, a senior business administration major with minors in psychology and French, says being part of the innovative virtual program is rewarding because of the young readers it helps.

“I love helping kids boost their confidence,” says Kellerman, a Wisconsin Rapids native who plans to go to graduate school for school psychology. “Seeing my students smile knowing they did a great job reading is what inspires me.”