For Kayla Butler, early childhood education is as personal as it gets.
As an early childhood interventionist at her family owned private preschool in Avondale, Arizona, Kayla is focused on identifying early childhood needs — specifically autism spectrum disorder, as well as other cognitive and physical delays. When identified early, she explains, there is greater opportunity to provide children with disabilities the education and services they need in order to avoid falling drastically behind their peers.
Kayla says she understands firsthand the impact early intervention can have on a child’s education.
“I am an autistic adult with an autistic child, so I use my life experience with my disability as motivation and inspiration to help those who are navigating a similar diagnosis, whether it is themselves or their child,” she explains.
Unlike the kids she helps early in life, Kayla was diagnosed with autism as an adult in her early 30s. The experience, she says, put a lot of things into perspective, and motivated her to take her career to the next level. Getting there would require a combination of education and ingenuity.
“When you’re autistic, you get overwhelmed and overstimulated very easily,” the 2021 University of Arizona Global Campus (UAGC) graduate says. “So my goal is to get these kids into kindergarten with a plan in place so they’re set up for success.”
An early childhood interventionist is a trained professional who helps to identify children from birth to kindergarten who could benefit from additional support, therapy, and education.
A Passion for Helping Children
Working with children is in Kayla’s DNA. Her mother opened Cornerstone Kidz preschool in Avondale in the 1990s, and Kayla began working there when she was a teenager. Her passion was obvious from the start. She knew she wanted to advance and make a bigger difference in the lives of babies and toddlers.
That passion led Kayla to earn a Bachelor of Arts in Early Childhood Development with Differentiated Instruction at UAGC. As she was working on her degree program, she realized there was a gap that needed to be filled at her preschool and in her community in order to help students better learn, grow, and develop. Kayla decided to create a position that would allow her to develop training tools for teachers, provide real-time coaching and education to parents, and help children reach their developmental milestones.
“That degree gave me the information I needed to do this job with fidelity and actually have substance behind what I was doing,” Kayla says. “It wasn’t until I finished the current degree that I was able to come to our director and propose my position.”
Creating Her Own Role
Arizona’s public schools have a program dubbed Child Find that locates, identifies, and evaluates children with disabilities, but Kayla says the role of an early childhood interventionist is not commonly found in private preschools. The need exists, however, as the Arizona Charter Schools Association reports slightly more than 11% of Maricopa County students require special education services.
Though Cornerstone Kidz is the family business she’s been a part of for years, it was Kayla’s education at UAGC that allowed her to bring a unique outside perspective and advanced skills to the preschool program. By combining the lessons learned while earning her degree with elements of her state’s Child Find program, she was able to create her position at Cornerstone Kidz, diversifying the school’s offerings and adding a new dimension to its curriculum. Having an early childhood interventionist on staff, Kayla explains, allows kids with developmental delays to remain at the school and receive an early childhood education.
“We had kids that were showing signs of autism and other delays, and all we could do is just push them through,” Kayla says. “I did my research, and public schools have [Child Find], but all we could do is refer our kids to them. “I said, ‘Why can’t we just do this here?’”
Kayla started her interventionist position in mid-2022, and within nine months she was able to help 20 families. She describes the program she’s created to train teachers and educate parents as a multi-tiered support system that represents “leveled intervention strategies that grow more targeted with each tier.”
Tier 1 is a universal classroom management strategy implemented in each classroom and includes a clear communication of expectations, job charts, preferential seating, and physical supports such as fidget bands on chairs for restless or fidgety legs.
Tier 2 includes strategies such as sign language, visual schedules, sensory toys, weighted vests and blankets, and noise-cancelling headphones – all implemented after parental approval.
Tier 3 includes more intensive targeted approaches such as additional IEP meetings, therapeutic holds, removal of the student from the classroom, and one-on-one social-emotional interventions.
“It has become a really great platform and it’s very much like a first step for these parents, as well as our teachers,” Kayla says. “The teachers feel like they actually have some support, and I’ve received incredible feedback from the parents.
“They say, ‘I’ve kind of known, but I don’t know where to start with this,’ and with the more severe cases, I still refer those children out [to specialists], but the purpose of my position is to do what we can here.”
In the past nine months, Kayla has noticed an influx of families coming to her school because of the program she’s created, and she anticipates many more to come. Just as her responsibilities continue to grow, so too does her desire to anticipate and meet the needs of more children.
The Next Piece of the Puzzle
Kayla’s bachelor’s degree helped her master the child development aspects of her job, but she wanted to learn more about brain processes, personalities, and behaviors. That’s when she returned to UAGC for her Master of Arts in Psychology,* which she expects to finish this year.
“With my master’s, I’ve been able to hit my job from both angles — the child and the brain — and it gives me a holistic perspective,” Kayla says. “It’s really brought me balance, and I noticed that the trainings I give to teachers have become much more in-depth.
“Going through your master’s, you get a deeper level of learning. I feel like I’ve been able to expand a lot more on why the child is doing what they’re doing, rather than just saying, ‘This is what children do.’”
Kayla’s lifelong learning journey will continue after she completes her master’s degree. She’s already planning to start her PhD with the goal of specializing in child and adolescent therapy and becoming a licensed therapist.*
“I’ll have the childhood aspect from my bachelor’s – ‘This is what kids do’ – along with the psychology aspect – ‘This is why they do it’ – and eventually the licensed aspect so that I can help and make a difference,” she says.
An Education in the Classroom and at Home
One of the most important roles in Kayla’s life is that of a single mother, and the education she’s received — coupled with the day-to-day experiences she has with children, parents, and teachers — has helped improve her life at home with her young son.
“Doing my degrees in the subjects I’ve chosen has given me new insight into how to manage my own emotions and give myself coping skills,” she says. “So, the things that I’ve learned, I’ve been able to practice on myself.”
Her home life, she explains, is all about creating a flow and a routine. Just as she’s done with school, having a plan at home allows her to navigate the challenges a little easier.
“This is who I am, and this is the way my brain is wired,” she says. “I’ve learned to embrace it more, rather than fight it.”
* The UAGC Master of Arts in Psychology program does not lead to certification or licensure and does not prepare an individual to become a licensed psychology professional.
An online degree from the University of Arizona Global Campus does not lead to immediate teacher licensure in any state. If you want to become a classroom teacher, contact your state’s education authorities prior to enrolling at the University of Arizona Global Campus to determine what state-specific requirements you must complete before obtaining your teacher’s license.