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Behavioral expert hired as Neag chair in special ed

by Janice Palmer - September 26, 2005

One of the foremost authorities on emotional and behavioral disorders and positive behavior supports has been hired for the Neag School of Education’s newly established Carole J. Neag Chair in Special Education.

George Sugai, who is passionate about his work with “kids on the edge,” will help the Neag School develop its plan for the Center for Behavior Education and Research. His move from the University of Oregon also establishes UConn as Oregon’s primary partner in the widely respected national Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) center.

“We are extremely pleased and honored that a scholar of George Sugai’s caliber has chosen the Neag School to expand his vital work in helping schools become positive, safer environments so that learning improves for all students,” says Richard Schwab, dean of education.

Sugai’s is the fourth endowed position at the Neag School made possible by Ray Neag, a UConn alumnus whose $21 million gift in 1999 helped fuel a transformation within the school.

For the past 20 years, Sugai had been a faculty member of Oregon’s special education program, recently ranked third in the country by U.S. News & World Report. He has received more than $25 million in research and training grants and has authored more than 75 peer-reviewed journal articles, two college textbooks, and many other publications.

His arrival at the Neag School came as a national survey, released in August, indicated that nearly 50 percent of U.S. high school students say they do not feel safe in school. The survey underscores just how critical Sugai’s area of expertise has become, says Schwab, and why the Neag School is investing in it with the hope of making it a signature program.

“We had decided it was imperative that the next endowed chair be the leader in both research and outreach in this field, because every teacher in America is facing behavioral challenges in the classroom every day,” he says.

At a time when schools are under mounting pressure to increase test scores, research – including Sugai’s – shows a definitive link between academic achievement and school environment.

“The tendency is to ‘get tough’ when problem behaviors occur, rather than investing in the prevention of problem behaviors.”

Although much of his early work has emphasized improving individual student behavior, during the last decade he shifted his attention toward understanding and affecting behavioral systems at the whole-school, district, and state levels.

Sugai, who believes in “labeling the behavior, not the kid,” began his career as a special education teacher. He developed a particular affinity for educating students with severely challenging behaviors and those at risk of developing them.

“The behaviors of these students tend to be the most intrusive and least tolerated by teachers and other students,” he says. “Because of their behaviors, they are most likely to be excluded from the classroom and school.” But in his work, Sugai has found that these kids can succeed in school.

“We fail with these students because their academic potential, creative talents, and individual strengths are often overshadowed by their social behavior challenges,” he explains.

Sugai’s decision to relocate to the Neag School was based, in part, on opportunities made possible by the endowed chair. “The Neag endowment offers us a wonderful opportunity to continue our research, support the start-up of the new center, build upon our national team of collaborators, work with some of the nation’s brightest graduate students, and expand the reach of the national PBIS center,” he says.

PBIS is funded by the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs. Sugai remains its co-director with Rob Horner, a professor at the University of Oregon.

The center provides 30 states and 4,000 schools with technical assistance and information for identifying, adapting, and sustaining effective schoolwide disciplinary practices. Sugai hopes to increase its efforts in the Northeast.

The Neag School’s planned Center on Behavior Education and Research will expand the mission of the national center and serve as an umbrella for research, outreach, grant writing, doctoral training and, eventually, a master’s teacher education program. Sugai hopes to establish a 15-member research team that will be directly linked to the center.

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