Special Education Doctoral Scholar Wins National Research Award

Kaitlin O’Neill
Kaitlin O’Neill

LEXINGTON, Ky. (June 13, 2022) — Kaitlin O’Neill hopes earning a doctoral degree in special education at the University of Kentucky will help amplify her voice as an advocate for people with disabilities. She also hopes to reach others interested in becoming special education teachers, helping fill a national shortage. 

Already, O’Neill is making her mark in the field, earning a top honor for graduate-level special education research — the Kaleidoscope Award for Outstanding Single Case Research by a graduate student from the Council for Exceptional Children’s Teacher Education Division. She has received research mentorship from Department of Early Childhood, Special Education and Counselor Education faculty Melinda Ault, Ph.D.; Justin Lane, Ph.D.; Collin Shepley, Ph.D.; Amy Spriggs, Ph.D.; and Sally Shepley, Ph.D. 

“Since Kaitlin was an undergraduate student, faculty have noted her outstanding academic ability. It is a pleasure to watch her develop her research skills as a doctoral student and see her efforts recognized in this national poster competition,” said Ault, who is chair of O’Neill’s doctoral committee. 

O’Neill, a second-year doctoral scholar in the UK College of Education, is a strong believer in viewing all students as capable. 

“Even though individuals with disabilities may not always be able to articulate their thoughts and feelings, it is important to remember they each have a voice that deserves to be heard. As a professor of future educators of students with moderate to severe disabilities, I intend to ensure the education system does not fail to hear those whose voices are too often overlooked,” she said. 

Without a strong workforce of special education faculty preparing the next generation of teachers with skills to instruct students with disabilities, special education teacher shortages will be exacerbated, Ault said. 

“I initially considered teaching, but thought one additional teacher would not fix this shortage and would not address the fact that the people being hired to address the shortage are not all trained in the specialized teaching methods required to maximize the potential of this population of students. So, I want to use my skills to teach other people how to be effective teachers for this population,” O’Neill said. 

Special education teachers are responsible for meeting the educational needs of a wide range of students who often require extensive direct, systematic and intensive instruction to learn new skills and behaviors. To maximize the efficiency of their limited instructional time, teachers need to utilize efficient, evidence-based instructional practices, O’Neill said. 

Her research award from the Council for Exceptional Children was for her work focused on progressive time delay, an evidence-based instructional strategy. Using this strategy, a student has a given number of seconds to respond before the teacher assists with a prompt. The amount of time the teacher waits before assisting the student becomes longer as learning progresses. 

“There is not currently a set ‘rule’ for teachers to know when they should increase to a longer number of seconds. Research demonstrates that there are many different rules that all work effectively. Examples of effective rules include increasing the wait time by another second every session or every few sessions. Other effective rules include increasing the wait time only after students are able to provide a certain percentage of correct responses, with or without help. My research involves comparing these rules and criteria for increasing the delay intervals to determine which variations lead to more efficient student learning,” O’Neill said. 

O’Neill is pursuing her doctoral degree as part of Project PURPLE (Preparing Urban and Rural Personnel as Leaders in Education). The project is made possible by a $2.4 million grant awarded to the UK College of Education and University of Louisville College of Education and Human Development Institute to help ease the growing shortage of special education faculty at institutions of higher education. Funded by the U.S. Department of Education Office of Special Education Programs, the grant funds the preparation of 10 doctoral level scholars in special education, five at UK and five at UofL. 

Doctoral students in the grant-supported program participate in shared coursework and research opportunities at both UK and UofL and are mentored by nationally-recognized faculty from both institutions. O’Neill credits Project PURPLE faculty for enabling her to attend the conference where she received the Kaleidoscope research award.  

O’Neill is also working toward completing the requirements to obtain certification as a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA). This year, she is also a trainee in the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities (LEND) program. She has a master’s degree in special education for moderate and severe disabilities from UK and holds a Rank 2 Kentucky Educator License Teaching Certification for Teaching Exceptional Children, Moderate and Severe Disabilities, grades primary through 12. She also has experience providing community-living support services to adolescents with autism and their families.  

During her studies, O’Neill is working as the project manager for Shepley and Spriggs’ research team focusing on improving methods for teaching adolescents with moderate intellectual disabilities how to self-instruct using mobile technology, such as smart phones, instead of relying on adult prompts when faced with unknown tasks. 

O’Neill was inspired to work in the special education field when she saw how a person’s general intelligence is often perceived by others to correlate with their ability to communicate. Individuals with disabilities and complex communication needs are sometimes subjected to being infantilized and treated as a young child. She wants to provide them with supports to approach communication in a way that works for them. 

“Taking advantage of opportunities to develop my skills in this area can make a world of difference for students with disabilities,” she said. “I want to learn to teach future educators and future service providers how to provide access to or lay a foundation for communication that was once beyond the grasp of students with the most significant disabilities so that these students can exercise their right to have autonomy over their own lives.” 

To learn more about degrees in special education, visit

This project is supported by the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs as part of an award H325D190030 totaling $2,394,183 with 100% funded by the Department of Education. 

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