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Preschool Teachers Receive Awards

By Charlotte J. Muenzenberger
UW-RF News Bureau

FEB. 25, 2005--An excited group of preschoolers sit in a close circle, waiting for the arrival of the "music lady." Hilree Hamilton, a professor of music at UW-River Falls, bounds into the circle singing a melody. The music lady directly sings to each child inserting his or her name into the song.

When she sings the child's name, the child participates by beating on a large drum. When the song wraps up, Hamilton asks if they enjoyed the music. Wearing wide grins, each child politely answers "yes." One little boy answers "oui-oui." The music lady asks him if he knows what language he just spoke. He shakes his head, "no." "That is called French," she replies.

Meanwhile, a graduate student helps another child push a button, which gives him a voice to answer. He lays his hand upon the button, causing a voice to answer "yes." The voice is that of Sheila Behrendt, the early childhood education specialist with the University Preschool and a UW-RF instructor.

Along with University Preschool Director Angela Kaiser, Behrendt prepares programs such as the music lady's visit to encourage interaction between students of all learning abilities with various needs, such as the interaction between the little boy who speaks French and the child who uses a button to speak.

Working together for 15 years as co-teachers at the University Preschool's inclusive classroom, Behrendt and Kaiser are the foundation for the success of preschool. Each teacher recently received high honors for her work.

Behrendt received the Rose C. Engel Award at the International Division for Early Childhood Conference on Young Children with Special Needs and their Families, held in Chicago. This award is given to a DEC member who is a practicing professional and whose primary role is serving young children with special needs and their families.

Kaiser received the Wisconsin Division of Early Childhood and the Wisconsin Early Childhood Association Teacher of the Year Award at the 50th Annual Wisconsin Early Childhood Education and Care State Conference, "Children Connect Us," in La Crosse, Wis. Both WDEC and WECA are state chapters of national professional organizations.

Behrendt and Kaiser each contribute a unique perspective when working with children. Kaiser specializes in early childhood education, while Behrendt's expertise is in the field of special education. Together they work with inclusive groups to create hands-on experience that foster cooperation and understanding.

They offer the least restrictive environment, which allows children with all levels of needs to succeed. "Each child has differences and needs; some are more obvious than others," says Kaiser. "Not just the children with special needs and disabilities have needs. Some of the other children have needs as well."

The co-teachers strive to teach the preschoolers to accept differences at an early age. They have also set up a program for the children that includes parental input. This is essential to create goals for each child.

The preschool's combination of special education and early childhood education makes it stand out. By including children with special needs, Behrendt and Kaiser provide interaction between students with a variety of needs.

Inclusive teaching provides the key to the successful UW-RF Preschool, and this setting is important to apply to real-life situations. "Communities are inclusive, and the children won't be singled out specially in the real world," says Behrendt.

Although their main focus is the preschoolers, Behrendt and Kaiser extend their practice beyond their young students. In their university classrooms, Behrendt and Kaiser use the same principles to teach older students. In both cases, they focus primarily on goals and needs of each individual.

Both college students and preschoolers are given a pretest to assess their needs. Then goals are set, and the students work toward those goals. When their time of working with the students or preschoolers is up, Behrendt and Kaiser issue a post-test to conclude if the goals were reached.

"The nice thing about working with college students is they also are so willing to learn," says Kaiser. "It is refreshing for us as well, because each day we have a new story from the preschool to tell. It's not like we're always talking about what happened way back when; something new happens each day. The college students enjoy hearing these stories as much as we enjoy telling them. The children keep our lives exciting."

Kaiser said she currently looks forward to the UW-Eau Claire and UW-River Falls dual certification project, which is now in its first year. This program allows students from both universities to receive dual certification in early childhood education and special education. The student from Eau Claire do not need to travel to River Falls as the courses are taught using distance learning methods. Training in early childhood special education is a vital component for teachers who wish to enter this field. "It is a win-win situation for all involved--students, teachers, parents and especially the children," says Kaiser.

Both Behrendt and Kaiser are involved in the dual certification program.

Behrendt is a member of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, CEC and WDEC. She served as president of WDEC 2000-01 and received its teacher of the year award in 1998. She also received the Outstanding Cooperating Teacher in Early Childhood Education from UW-RF in 2000. A presenter at many conferences related to early childhood and special education, Behrendt has authored and facilitated Annual State Preschool Discretionary Grants and State Improvement Grants in 2003-04 and 2004-05. In addition, she has been a mentor or supervising teacher for dozens of graduate and undergraduate students.

Kaiser was instrumental in the development of an early childhood community task force through the Wisconsin chapter of NAEYC. She also helped develop Project Learning Tree curriculum, used to teach young children about nature. Her ideas on early childhood education have been used in a book by Judy Herr. She is also an avid presenter at conferences on early childhood education and a member of NAEYC, WDEC, and WECA. In addition, Kaiser has been a mentor and supervising teacher for numerous UW-RF early childhood education students.

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Last updated: Tuesday, 22-Jun-2010 16:21:20 Central Daylight Time

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