By Michelle F. Solomon
A pioneer in childhood education, Marilyn Mailman Segal always had a love for children. She also had an inherent intuitiveness as a childhood education specialist: For a child to develop educationally, there should be a component of learning and teaching behaviorally—and this holistic approach should begin in the early stages of life. She had this viewpoint in the early 1970s, when education began with the alphabet in kindergarten and the idea of learning had not yet been integrated with development.
The roots of Nova Southeastern University’s Mailman Segal Center for Human Development (MSC) began in 1972 with a Public Broadcasting Station’s film series. Segal had an idea to produce a series of parenting films and applied for a four-year, $500,000 grant. She was awarded the grant from the United States Federal Office of Human Development, and she began to produce her series, To Reach a Child.
“The value of play is really what my mother introduced, as well as the value of emotional development along with providing education,” said Wendy Masi, Ph.D., who worked with her mother, Marilyn Segal, and served as dean of what was then the Mailman Segal Institute of Childhood Studies. “My mother had already been doing community outreach as part of her research and teaching. The series of films led her to realize that instead of watching the films with parents, she could use them as learning and teaching tools.”
Segal established a school for parents as part of the series, which later grew into the center’s Early Learning Programs. “It just came from the wonderful feelings I had about children. The idea was that this would be a premier demonstration center that would make a statement about what is the best way to educate children, parents, and families—and how important it is for everyone to be involved. It’s not just enough to have great programs, but what’s really important is to show people that this is what can be done, this is what children and families deserve,” said Segal.
“Of course, we were always learning and changing. The foundation always considered how the parent, teacher, doctor, psychologist, and speech or occupational therapist could work together as a team, so that the child had the chance to meet his or her highest potential,” said Segal.
Today, the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development is located in the Jim & Jan Moran Family Center Village, a state-of-the-art training and demonstration facility. Programs at the center include the Parenting Place™, the Family Center Infant & Toddler Program, and the Family Center Preschool. The Baudhuin Preschool and Starting Right programs offer classes for children and families dealing with autism and related disorders. The Autism Consortium, the Interdisciplinary Council for the Study of Autism, and The Early Childhood Initiative also are housed there.
When it comes to external funding, Mailman Segal received many multiyear funding projects, according to Nurit Sheinberg, Ed.D., director of research and evaluation at MSC. Some of the grants are from private foundations (A.D. Henderson), organizations (Autism Speaks, the Organization of Autism Research, KaBOOM), South Florida agencies (Early Learning Coalition of Broward County), NSU-sponsored competitions (Quality of Life and President’s Faculty Research Development Grants), state contracts (Florida Department of Children and Families), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Mailman Segal is a teaching and professional development model for promoting evidence-based practices. This is achieved through collaborative interdisciplinary activities via hands-on research. It affords Nova Southeastern University students and faculty members the chance to apply what they learn in the classroom through experiences with children and families.
The center serves as an observation/training/practicum site for many NSU colleges. These include the Health Professions Division (Occupational Therapy, Nursing, Dentistry, and Pediatric Medicine); Center for Psychological Studies; Graduate School of Humanities and Social Sciences; Institute for the Study of Human Service, Health, and Justice; Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences; and Abraham S. Fischler School of Education (including Speech-Language Pathology).
“We are able to provide unique opportunities—where undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students participate in hands-on experiences working directly with children and families,” said Roni Cohen Leiderman, Ph.D., dean of the Mailman Segal Center for Human Development. Because of this training, NSU students are sought after in their professions. “Our students have the important aspect of the didactic plus the experiential, and it makes them highly desirable in their fields,” added Leiderman.
At Mailman Segal’s Baudhuin Preschool, students from the Center for Psychological Studies and the College of Health Care Sciences Occupational Therapy Program are supervised by their professors and the center’s staff members as they work with children with autism spectrum disorder.
Leticia Perez, a second-year, doctoral student at the Center for Psychological Studies, is doing her first practicum at Mailman Segal and has been working at the center since August 2013.
“We have great classes and teachers, but being here allows us to apply everything we learn,” said Perez. “We can experience in real life what we read. I knew I wanted to work with children and families, but this has really solidified my dedication. It is so important when you are going into a profession where you have to work with people. Not only is it challenging for you, but you realize how challenging bringing up a child with autism spectrum disorder is for families. To see these families interact is one of the best learning experiences. Plus, we get to work with teachers, supervisors, and specialists. It is truly an interdisciplinary team.”
Perez and her colleagues also receive training in the assessment and diagnosis of autism and related disorders in young children at the center’s Unicorn Children’s Foundation Clinic.
“Here, students work under the supervision of a licensed psychologist to provide comprehensive psychodevelopmental evaluations for diagnosis and assessment. It is extremely valuable training,” said Leiderman.
Perez also runs a parent support group. “This gives parents a place to get advice from professionals and speak with other parents of children who have developmental delays. Plus, it gives me a chance to work on something now that I will be doing in my own practice in the future,” she said.
Sonia Kay, Ph.D., registered and licensed occupational therapist and assistant professor, works with her graduate students in one of the classrooms at the Baudhuin Preschool. “The experience here is that our students are working with children on every continuum, from low-functioning to higher-functioning,” said Kay.
In the class, Kay said, there are several children who receive occupational therapy services. “So we can match our students with those children. Our occupational therapy students learn about the kinds of services that they may have to provide as professionals in a school setting.”
Kay said the experience is invaluable. “NSU graduate students learn techniques in class, and they can immediately take that learning and apply the concepts and the intervention techniques in a real-world setting at Mailman Segal.”
Chris Pruitt, a second-year graduate student in occupational therapy, placed a salad bowl, some straw grass, and utensils on a table. Pruitt’s assignment was to develop an occupational therapy exercise that will implement play with motor skills development.
“This gets us ready and prepared to work in the field. It’s one thing to be in a class, but actually being able to see how things apply is amazingly valuable. Today we’re working on fine motor skills—every child with autism spectrum disorder is different,” said Pruitt.
Students from the College of Dental Medicine also get training by working with special needs children at a dental clinic at Baudhuin.
“This is another example of how Mailman Segal sets the future, not only for young children who are in need of these services, but to train professionals who can take this work out into the communities,” said Leiderman.
This story was originally published in the Spring 2014 issue of Horizons Magazine.