Leading the Vanguard: Alexandra Da Fonte

Alexandra Da Fonte headshot with dark brown background

Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) member Alexandra Da Fonte, Ph.D., is associate professor of the Practice in the Peabody College Department of Special Education. Her research focuses on understanding the communication abilities of students with severe and multiple disabilities and evaluating augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) strategies to increase the communicative and participation opportunities of students with low-incidence disabilities.

In the interview below, Da Fonte shares what inspires her research in developmental disabilities, what she’s learned through her work, and how membership with the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center helps her achieve her goals.

Tell me about your attraction to developmental disabilities research. Do you have a personal connection to disability?

My personal connection to the world of developmental disabilities emerged during my undergraduate learning, when I completed a practicum experience in a special education school. At this school, I was exposed to children with significant needs who also had limited communication abilities. My experiences and the students in this school setting molded my interest in the field of special education, and more specifically, in augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). Post-completion of my undergraduate degree, I was fortunate enough to secure a position in this school which provided me rich opportunities to collaborate with special education teachers and related service providers, all of whom were interested in seeking the best outcomes for these students with significant needs. These experiences brought to life my desire to seek further training in this area, and work towards identifying ways to decrease some of the challenges faced in the field by special education teachers, students with disabilities, and their families.

What are your current research interests and what problem(s) or challenge(s) does it address?

My research is closely linked to my role as a teacher. My focus is on how to best equip special education teachers and related service providers to effectively implement evidence-based practices and support students with complex communication needs and their families through the use and implementation of AAC practices. My goal is to ensure that professionals are highly equipped with the knowledge and skills needed to ensure that all students with complex communication needs have an effective means to communicate, advocate for themselves, and be independent. Currently, my team is working on analyzing data from a national survey we conducted to gather self-reported information from special education teachers related to their knowledge, skill level, ability to effectively collaborate, and preparation in AAC.

Due to my close work with schools, this year I received a grant to help the Tennessee Department of Education on their Teaching all Students (TAS) initiative. The initiative focuses on training special education teachers from across the state on how to support students with complex needs, including how to implement and support the use of AAC practices across the school setting. Through this work, we will be providing coaching opportunities, training, and supports to high school special education teachers on how to effectively engage, support, and acknowledge each student’s communication needs. Through this work, we will be able determine the impact that coaching may have on teachers’ implementation of AAC practices, and ultimately the outcome of these students.

Do you have a story about a research participant or a breakthrough that illustrates the impact of your work?

The most rewarding moments for me occur when I visit a classroom and see how practices continue to change to better support students with complex needs. I am privileged that I get to observe this with my students as they enter the field and grow as professionals, as well as with special education teachers or related service providers whom I have helped learn how to implement AAC in their classroom or clinical settings.

What are your reasons for becoming a Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) Member? How does the VKC enhance the work you do?

The quality of work that is conducted by members of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center is innovative and critical to the field. The opportunities to be working alongside with and learning from leaders in the field is exciting, and I am honored to be part it. A reason why I decided to become a member was to continue to push myself to have higher standards in my work, to be able to collaborate with others, and to continue to grow as a teacher, mentor, advocate, and researcher.

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