Robyn Ridgley total funding: $8.4 million
Decades of research shows that children’s earliest experiences play a critical role in brain development.
According to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University, neural circuits, which create the foundation for learning, behavior, and health, are most flexible or “plastic” during the first three years of life. Over time, they become increasingly difficult to change.
Children with developmental delays or disabilities are particularly vulnerable if cognitive and language skills aren’t addressed early on. For them, high-quality early intervention services from seasoned education specialists boost their quality of life.
Robyn Ridgley, associate dean and professor in the MTSU College of Education, started her career as a special education teacher, working to manifest exactly those types of improved outcomes for such students.
“I was dual licensed in Kentucky to be a special education or elementary education teacher. So my first job out of school was in a rural elementary school in western Kentucky, and I worked primarily with children who had language delays,” she said.
Ridgley quickly learned that a good college program only prepares you so well for the obstacles you face on the job.
“That’s true for most teachers,” she said. “You learn pretty quickly that your training is good. It supports you. But there are so many other things you need to learn, and that’s how I felt after about a year and a half working in this elementary school, just trying to make my way.”
She decided to go back to school to get her master’s, attending Vanderbilt University, which offered an inclusive early childhood program for children and families in the community. With her special education bachelor’s degree already in hand, Ridgley was able to both work and study at Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.
“The combination of working with young elementary children with language delays and then working in this early childhood program—it really fueled my interest, and I learned very quickly that that’s what I enjoyed,” Ridgley said. “I enjoyed working with children in the context of their families and thinking about them in the broader sense, not just when they’re at school.”
Ridgley later added a doctorate from the University of Kentucky to her growing résumé. She joined the MTSU faculty in 2005 and soon found herself at the heart of an exciting new early childhood initiative.
In 2010, Lana Seivers, then dean of MTSU’s College of Education (and a former Tennessee commissioner of education), became aware that the state planned to rethink how it provided early intervention services. Seivers knew the state was looking for new entities to apply for funding to provide such services to children and families in Tennessee.
“Because of her connections to the state, we were made aware of it and got the opportunity to apply for that very first grant,” Ridgley explained. “She was the principal investigator at first. However, I was heavily involved because my background was in that work.”
The result of the grant was the formation of the MTSU Home and Community-Based Early Intervention (HCBEI) Program providing early intervention (sometimes identified as developmental therapy) to children from birth to 3 years old who have been diagnosed with a developmental delay or disability and qualify for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA). The program is free to children and families who qualify.
Through HCBEI, MTSU’s team of degreed and experienced early interventionists travel to homes or other sites in the community to work with infants and toddlers with special needs and their families, child care providers, and other therapists. They educate and support children and families so they can take advantage of each child’s critical period for learning, growth, and development. They provide support as outlined on the family’s Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP). They also participate in IFSP meetings, complete visits together, and exchange information about strategies for helping children.
This MTSU program provides developmental therapy services to children who reside in Rutherford, Williamson, and Maury counties.
MTSU’S TEAM OF DEGREED AND EXPERIENCED EARLY INTERVENTIONISTS TRAVEL TO HOMES OR OTHER SITES IN THE COMMUNITY TO WORK WITH INFANTS AND TODDLERS WITH SPECIAL NEEDS AND THEIR FAMILIES, CHILD CARE PROVIDERS, AND/OR OTHER THERAPISTS.
Ridgley fondly recalls the earliest days of the massive grant implementation, as she was responsible for all of the initial organization, preparation, planning, and hiring.
“It really connected me back to the work that attracted me to higher education to begin with,” she said.
“For me, I had always had this vision that I would be able to make the world a better place. That I would be able to help children and families. This gave me that opportunity to create a program. . . . and train people and support others.”
Ridgley continued in the role as principal investigator (PI) of the grant for 10 years. She has since changed her role at the University, and now Connie Casha, director of Early Learning programs in the College of Education, serves as PI of the service grant. What remains the same is that the funding goes directly to providing services to support young children and their families in the area.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Programs like MTSU’s have dramatically improved the lives of developmentally disabled children and their families in Murfreesboro and the surrounding area. Ridgley is proud of the work occurring at MTSU and across the nation in special education but said there is always room for improvement.
Early intervention for young children with developmental delays “varies depending on where you live,” Ridgley said, “and what kind of services and supports are available to children and families in the community. We’ve made so many strides over the years. . . . We have funding that supports so many programs that are guaranteed for families if their children are eligible. . . . But we also know there are families and young children who still aren’t getting adequate support.”
What would Ridgley do if she could wave a magic wand to improve conditions in the field?
“I think, in the field, generally, we are slow to adopt practices that are research-based and evidence-based. There’s this research-to-practice gap, and it’s been in existence for a long time.”
Take literacy and reading, for example. It’s taken a while for professionals in the field to start implementing what academia now knows are high-quality, evidence-based literacy practices.
“That’s true in all fields, including early childhood education,” Ridgley said. “There are old practices that we hang on to, because we think they are good, but they may not be tied to what has been proven to work.
“If I could do anything, I think changing that mind-set would have the largest impact on outcomes for children. . . . Moving from what we know will be effective to actually implementing effective practice I think would be helpful to the field.”
CREDIT WHERE CREDIT IS DUE
Ridgley deflects efforts to hoist too much credit on her shoulders for the exponential impact the MTSU grant has had on children and families.
“I think the people who deserve the credit are the folks out there every single day doing the work. They produce the greatest impact. They see the progress that happens over time. They see how families eventually don’t need their services anymore, and that’s huge.
Speaking of those people doing the day-to-day work, Ridgley forcefully defends educators and the teaching profession, which have come under attack in the past year.
IF WE WERE TO QUIT FIGHTING, WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO OUR COMMUNITIES? IF WE DON’T HAVE PEOPLE WHO ARE TRAINED TO BE TEACHERS, IF WE AREN’T INVESTING IN THE TIME TO RECRUIT AND TO TRAIN THEM WELL, WHAT WILL HAPPEN TO OUR COMMUNITIES?
“Teachers are working harder now than they’ve ever worked. . . . This is evident when I spend time in schools. Go and see what’s happening, and if you do that, you start to see all of the things that teachers do every day.
“That’s not to say there aren’t teachers that could do better. It’s not to say that there aren’t schools that could improve. We know that’s forever going to be the case. It is a human profession in which professionals must always learn and grow.
“We just have to figure out how to share the message of what the reality is. Tell what’s really happening with children and families and teachers. Celebrate the work they’re doing. . . . It’s important that when we get the opportunity to highlight positive things that are happening and the meaningful work that’s going on, we need to tell it.”
Such a strong belief in teaching and teachers is what Ridgley said keeps her motivated to continue working hard, raising grant dollars, and implement-ing new best practices.
“If we were to quit fighting, what would happen to our communities? If we don’t have people who are trained to be teachers, if we aren’t investing in the time to recruit and to train them well, what will happen to our communities? We’ve got to keep fighting.”
A COMPELLING NARRATIVE
Considering the gravity of Ridgley’s work, it’s no wonder she makes time to decompress, set aside her work, and focus on refilling her tank.
“I’m a reader,” Ridgley said. “I read all the time. That’s what I choose to do if I’m not working or busy.”
When interviewed, Ridgley said she was reading The Lincoln Highway, a novel by Amor Towles about two brothers who set off from their failed family farm in Nebraska intending to start a new life in California.
“It’s just easy fiction,” Ridgley said. “A good story.”
Ridgley’s own journey as a special education teacher who has had a huge impact on young children and families in our community through her grant activities makes for a pretty good story as well.
I HAD ALWAYS HAD THIS VISION THAT I WOULD BE ABLE TO MAKE THE WORLD A BETTER PLACE. THAT I WOULD BE ABLE TO HELP CHILDREN AND FAMILIES.