University of Vermont

Faculty Research feature - Jennifer Jo Hurley

Dr. Jennifer Hurley

No one could ever charge Jennifer Jo Hurley with being timid.  Dr. Hurley, CESS Associate Professor of Education, and program coordinator for the Early Childhood Special Education Undergraduate and Graduate Programs at UVM, is a firm believer in pushing beyond proscribed research boundaries, and into frontier areas where research is thin or non-existent.  Echoing words repeated at the beginning of each episode of Star Trek, she advocates in her own work, “Boldly going where no person [sic] has gone before.”  The Star Trek reference is apt, for like those aboard the starship Enterprise, Dr. Hurley’s mission is to explore new worlds of research, particularly in the areas of Disability and Inclusion; Early Intervention and Homelessness; English Language Learners, and Special Education.

But if bold characterizes her efforts, her modus operandi as a researcher is marked as much by caution and professional care for the concerns of subjects.  “It’s true,” she says, “While I explore new ideas, I’m also a believer that when you go into places about which we have little research, we don’t go storm-trooping in as a researcher, inflicting everyone with our interventions and our ideas, and collecting a lot of invasive data.”  Instead, she says, “We first tip-toe into the particular context we want to explore, collect some information, and then, as is the case in one of our projects, by interviewing service providers, we develop a study from the data we collect that will inform the research we do later on.” 

“I have three interrelated research interests,” she said, in a recent interview.  In each, her concern is with children from birth to age six, and their families.  The first is with children and families who are experiencing the disability of a young child.  Second, with children and families who are experiencing homelessness.  And third, with recently resettled refugee families with children, who are learning English and adjusting to the new culture.  More specifically, she said, “In my research, I focus on when these interests overlap.  So my attention is upon families with young children who are experiencing disability, who are also experiencing crushing poverty and homelessness, and who are also recently resettled refugees, who may be in the process of learning English, and are certainly in the process of adjusting to a new culture.”  

When asked about the importance of her work, she spoke about the typical path taken in teacher education programs.  “We prepare future teachers,” she said, “to work with children either with disabilities, or who qualify for head start, or who are English language learners.  Children,” she continued, “don’t fit discreetly into one of these three categories.  There’s often overlap, and in my research I look at how we can prepare teachers to address children’s and families needs when those categories overlap.” 

One study that Dr. Hurley has recently undertaken with her students is in early intervention services.  “When I say ‘early intervention,’” she explained, “I mean the services available for children, birth to age three, and their families who are experiencing disability, and who are homeless.”  Prompted to begin this project by feedback she received from her student teachers in the field, who were coming to her, saying, “We’re serving families who live in a garage, we’re serving families who live in homeless shelters, and it’s better than where they were before.” She realized that she’d been doing teacher preparation for homebound services that was not addressing the current needs of the community and nation. “The fastest growing segment of the homeless community is families with young children,” she said.  “And many of these children have disabilities, and almost a quarter of all homeless people are under the age of six.  So that gives you an idea why this research is important.” 

To underscore her point, she stressed the connection of her work to a real on-the-ground need in many local Vermont communities.  “Burlington,” she said, “has the highest rate of homelessness in all of New England.  The reasons are many,” she said, without speculating more than to say that Vermont is an expensive state in which to live, and given the current economic downturn, homelessness has increased significantly.  One reason for the high levels of homelessness may be that according to the Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS), the largest homeless service organization in Vermont, as high as 66% of Vermont households do not earn enough to afford the average fair-market rent. “If you think about families with young children who are homeless,” Dr. Hurley said, “The majority of them are single-mother households with young children.  And so, given that fact, combined with the lack of affordable housing in this community,” she said, “we begin to understand why the community has seen the rise in homelessness among its citizens.”   

The purpose of her study, Dr. Hurley explained, is to collect qualitative interview data from early intervention (EI) service providers in the area who are currently supporting homeless families, infants, and toddlers receiving EI services.  The interviews are semi-structured and conducted by her students, who are using a guided interview protocol.  She and her students hope to acquire a significant amount of data on what is or isn’t working in the field, what the needs are of homeless families and children, and also how families living in such stressful circumstances affect assessments by service providers.  The collected data is analyzed using the constant-comparative method to identify recurring themes and discover common patterns while preserving individual contextual information.  The study’s outcome is to make the results available to pre and in-service providers and policy makers regarding barriers to and promising practices for providing EI services to families who are homeless.

Dr. Hurley is quick to point out that she and her students do not interact with the families or children who are homeless as part of this research project.  She mentions that many of her students are doing volunteer work at family shelters, with COTS, but do so as part of a personnel preparation grant and not as part of this particular research project.  Dr. Hurley explained that she has positive working relationships with many of the service providers, and hopes that the results of this study will contribute to the development of Individualized Family Service Plans when they are drawn up for families and the young children who qualify for services who are also homeless.  For those early interventionists who work with the families, she says, it’s not just about the special educator going in and working directly with the child, but the focus is on supporting the whole family.  “So whether we hook families up with things like social workers, access to transportation, furthering their education, helping them access information about their child’s disability, we don’t just go in and work directly with the child, we literally work with the entire family.”

[This is the first of two articles featuring the research of Dr. Hurley.  The second article will focus on the important research she is doing in the refugee community, on families and children who are English language learners, as well as that in preparing special educators to meet the complex needs of their students, for which she has received two major grants.  The first of $1,250,000 for the Preparation of Undergraduate Level Early Interventionists and Early Childhood Special Educators Program from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs Preparation Combined Priority for Personnel.  The second of $800,000 for the Preparation of Master's Level Early Interventionists and Early Childhood Special Educators Program, also from the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs Preparation Combined Priority for Personnel.]