- Dr. Jodi M. Duke, Associate Professor and Academic Program Coordinator for the Autism Spectrum Disorders Graduate Program, George Mason University
- Dr. Grace L. Francis, Associate Professor of Special Education, George Mason University
George Mason University’s fully online 30-credit MEd in Special Education program prepares future educators to apply learning methods and techniques designed for children with disabilities to foster growth and improve learning outcomes among this vulnerable student population.
In addition to earning their MEd in Special Education, students have the opportunity to earn a unique graduate certificate: Autism Spectrum Disorders.
In this track, students working toward careers both in and out of school settings engage in a curriculum that focuses on autism across the lifespan.
Although Mason offers a proprietary licensing tool, check with the licensure board in the state where you plan to teach to confirm requirements for professional licensure and certification.
Dr. Jodi M. Duke is an associate professor of special education and the academic program coordinator for the Autism Spectrum Disorders Graduate Program at George Mason University. With an M.S. in Special Education from Johns Hopkins University, and an Ed.D. in Special Education from Johns Hopkins University, Dr. Duke’s research focuses on postsecondary transition, well-being, and mental health supports for neurodiverse college students, including those with autism spectrum disorders and other disabilities.
Dr. Grace L. Francis, associate professor of special education at George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development, is a leading researcher in the field of transitions and family/professional partnership. She holds a master’s degree in severe developmental disabilities from Webster University and a Ph.D. in Family Support Policy and Practice; Family-Professional Partnerships, Transition and Adulthood from the University of Kansas. Her research interests include family-professional partnership policies and practices.
Be Ready, Be Well Framework
In addition to covering the core competencies for the foundational mastery of special education concepts and offering students the option to complete a research capstone project, Mason offers a a unique approach to mental wellness that focuses on students with autism or other disabilities as well as the families of these students.
This framework is called Be Ready, Be Well (BRBW), and it was developed by Dr. Jodi M. Duke and Dr. Grace L. Francis, colleagues whose combined research interests include transition, well-being, and mental health supports for neurodiverse college students and family/professional partnership.
According to Dr. Francis, she and Dr. Duke were aware of the lack of a mental health support program for Autistic individuals with co-occurring mental health needs.
“Both Jodi and I are committed to mental health and well-being and see it as the foundation for the program,” says Dr. Francis. “You have to be in an emotionally safe place to learn [as a person with autism]. Like Maslow’s hierarchy, you have to have a sense of security and have your basic human needs met.”
These needs were not being considered in education or in the community, and the consequences were far-reaching. As Dr. Francis explains, “Certainly when students with autism and students with other disabilities graduate and move out of the school system, it’s a whole different eligibility-based world.”
Dr. Francis has first-hand knowledge of the detrimental effects of ignoring the mental health and well-being of students with disabilities. Her brother had multiple disabilities, including bipolar disorder, which had the most significant negative impact on his life and their family.
“Just seeing how challenging and stigmatizing it was and how different our lives could have turned out if my brother and my family had even an acknowledgement of those needs … So, breaking that kind of status quo, that generational acceptance of a broken system, ignited Be Ready, Be Well.”
Dr. Duke had her own experiences with a traditionally marginalized population. Struggling to successfully transition to Mason as undergraduates, students on campus would seek her and her colleagues out and ask for help.
“A lot of them told us that they wished we could have this summer camp — where we brought in students ahead of time and taught them all these different skills in the actual environment — all in order to be ready when school started,” Dr. Duke says. “I just remember talking with Grace, and she told me, ‘I literally wrote a grant proposal on this.’ Before we even met, we had both been thinking of the same thing.”
From that very first moment, says Dr. Duke, they had the same idea of what they wanted to work on. Although it started from that point, it has been very much grounded in lived experiences of students with autism or other disabilities.
According to Dr. Duke, the duo has reviewed literature, conducted surveys, and done a lot of detailed interviewing and focus groups to ensure that they’re targeting the skills and the strategies that are useful to this population.
“We did a lot of work with interviewing students, focus groups, families, professionals — really trying to learn from multiple perspectives about what was happening in this transition to post-secondary school. Be Ready, Be Well is the product of all of that work,” she says.
Defining the Be Ready, Be Well Curriculum
“The Be Ready, Be Well curriculum is a mental wellness curriculum designed with two parallel paths,” explains Dr. Duke. “One is for the students with autism or other disabilities who also have co-occurring mental health needs, and the other path is for their families — not just their parents, but whoever their people are. Whoever serves as their main support, we want those folks to come in.”
Dr. Duke and Dr. Francis are currently analyzing the data and redesigning some aspects of the curriculum based on data from a pilot the program ran in the spring, consisting of three sessions over three separate weekends, each with a slightly different focus.
Dr. Duke says the curriculum for the students covers everything from the very basics of transition — including exploring students’ identity, their disability, and their mental health needs — to thinking about what they want for the future.
“The family does a similar study on how they perceive the future goals and what they would like for their loved one,” says Dr. Duke. “And then we move into specific instructions, like teaching the family and the young adults some communication strategies to use in times of stress or difficulty and showing them how to practice those skills.”
Then when the student reaches postsecondary, they can employ stress management skills. As Dr. Duke explains, the student is empowered by these very specific strategies. They are not being forced on them, so the young adult can choose which strategies work for them, and the family can do the same. So, when they’re in that moment of difficulty or stress, they have a tool.
“We always talk about putting tools in people’s toolboxes, with the idea being that if we front load this content and we get families and young adults practicing these skills in high school when they’re in the same home or in the same environment, they can really support each other and work through how it goes,” says Dr. Duke. “Then when you get to that postsecondary transition, when you encounter a time of stress, which we know will come, you have these well-developed skills and strategies that you can utilize.”
As Dr. Francis and Dr. Duke explain in their paper “Be Ready, Be Well: A Conceptual Framework for Supporting Well-being Among College Students with Disabilities,” the framework “cogs” — well-being, students with disabilities, and family — reflect the interdependence of well-being among families and students with disabilities.
In order for the framework to result in improved support of student well-being, family professional partnerships are crucial.
The Importance of Family Professional Partnerships in Special Education
Family support and family professional partnerships in education are mandated by federal, general, and special education law. Despite this, not all special education teacher preparation programs adequately cover FPP-related content.
In fact, a 2019 online survey of 113 special education faculty members from 52 institutions revealed a gap between the value of knowledge and skills related to family professional partnerships among program faculty and their implementation.
“In understanding our students and to really effectively teach, we — and this is the fun part — need to understand students’ identities and microcultures beyond just their disability, beyond their reading score and math score,” says Dr. Francis.
“Like, who is Matthew? Who is this person at their core? A big part of getting to know them is also getting to know their families. In doing that, you can understand how the student learns best, what motivates them, what brings them joy, and most importantly, what you can learn from them. I’ve learned more from families than I have from higher education.”
“I have far extended my learning on the job, or unlearned things, from working with families. And when I say families, I mean chosen families — anyone a student with a disability who is in my classroom identifies as family,” Dr. Francis says.
Dr. Francis articulates the impact of Mason’s online special education master’s degree program beautifully:
“We have such a powerful, amazing, but sometimes overwhelming job. We’re teaching these doctors and lawyers and astronauts. It’s such a powerful responsibility. You want to work smarter, and you want to be most effective and efficient. This happens in education when teachers work with students’ families.”