EPSY Professor Smita Mehta offers gift-buying tips for kids with special needs

Toys are always among the hottest-selling items of the holiday season, and this December marks Safe Toys and Gifts Month – a nationwide push to ensure presents match the abilities of the receiving child. Smita Mehta, a professor of special education in the Department of Educational Psychology in the UNT College of Education, offers tips for families to buy toys for children with special needs.

“Play is a tool to promote learning for all children, especially those with special needs,” says Mehta, adding the toys can serve a role in a child’s education. “Play serves very important functions in cognitive, language, social, communication and emotional development.”

Mehta says gift givers should look for toys that can help turn the child’s developmental challenges into strengths:

  • “When selecting toys or educational play materials, think from the perspective of the child,” says Mehta, a former preschool teacher who also used to assess babies ages 12 to 36 months for the presence of a disability.
  • “Individuals with disabilities and emotional behavior disorders often lack strong social interaction and communication skills, which are critical for success in life,” she continues. “Select toys such as talking books, stuffed animals or puppets to incorporate language learning and social interaction.”
  • “For children with visual impairment or weak eyesight, it’s important to incorporate things that activate other sensory elements – such as sounds, movements or textures,” she adds. “Try textures like soft versus hard toys. Something like Play-Doh can teach the child to manipulate texture. Also, let the child play with different shapes, like teddy bears or dolls that have different textured body parts.”
  • “For children lacking fine motor skills, puzzles that come with pegs are easy to use and help improve those skills,” says Mehta.
  • “Board games like ‘Chutes and Ladders’ and ‘Connect Four’ teach so many skills, such as taking turns with partners and eye-hand coordination,” she says.

Mehta says many everyday play items, sometimes with small modifications, can help also work well for kids with special needs:

  • “Balls are fun, but children may have difficulty with eye-hand coordination for catching and throwing,” she continues. “For that, start with a less complex skill. Sit on the floor with the child and roll the ball back and forth on the ground.”
  • “Books are a great way to learn, but some children may lack fine motor skills that makes it difficult to turn pages. However, the adult should not flip all the pages, which sends the communication to the child that the adult is in charge. Instead, use Post-it® flags or tape small strips of paper to create page turners,” Mehta says.

Mehta adds that what is done with gifts afterward can be just as important:

  • “Start by setting an environment that encourages children to explore and play,” she says. “Parents should resist the urge to teach or explain during play. For instance, if you have a toy school bus, try just pushing the bus around or turning the wheels instead of trying to explain the parts of the bus. Otherwise, for the child, all the charm is lost with the play itself. It’s important to ensure that play is play and that the adults follow the child’s lead instead of setting an agenda.”
  • “Work on the child’s weaknesses while he or she is young,” she says, adding that weaknesses can be more challenging to change when the child is older.
  • Mehta says children with special needs should receive similar opportunities as other children to learn different things through play. “Many people think that some kids will not benefit from play because they have a disability, and that’s simply not true,” she says.
  • “Be patient,” says Mehta. “Sometimes parents want the play to be perfect and will get anxious when their child struggles. Don’t worry about that; just focus on having a good time and ensuring the kid is actively engaged. The learning will come.”

David Wolf

Vice President for Advancement
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COE students win honors at national gifted education conference

Professionals and students from across the country gathered at the National Association for Gifted Children conference in Florida Nov. 5 to discuss new developments in gifted and talented education. And while there, three of the 16 UNT doctoral students attending received awards.

Dianna Mullet won the Doctoral Student Award, Kendal Smith won the Doctoral-Level In-Progress Research Award, and Janessa Bower won a second-place award in the non-doctoral division of the Graduate Student Research Gala.

“UNT students have won the NAGC doctoral-level in-progress research award three out of the last four years, which is a real testament to the excellent program Dr. Rinn and Dr. Kettler have developed,” Smith said in reference to Educational Psychology faculty members Anne Rinn and Todd Kettler, who work with doctoral students.

The NAGC conference is the largest conference devoted to gifted education research and teaching in the nation.

“I saw parents who were looking for answers for their children who are gifted, teachers seeking guidance for the classroom, and researchers who were eager to learn from each other in a collaborative community,” Bower said.

According to Smith, scholars were able to present their research directly to practitioners at the conference. The practitioners gave feedback about what is best to implement in classrooms and highlighted areas in the research that could be improved.  

“Participants at the NAGC conference discussed enhancing the growth and development of gifted and talented K-12 students through advocacy, community building and research,” Mullet said.

According to the NAGC website, each state has its own definitions of gifted and talented and therefore have different programs for students on a state and even district level. The NAGC conference is a time for professionals to gather and share their techniques and ideas for finding the best ways to educate gifted and talented children nationwide.

“NAGC is the major professional organization of the gifted and talented education community. Over 3,000 gifted education researchers and specialists attended this year's conference,” Mullet said. “I hope everyone gained a sense of community and cohesiveness, both among our UNT attendees and in the larger community. I also hope that everyone learned about the many new and innovative research approaches that are emerging in our field.”

Visit nagc.org for more information and a full list of award winners.

Faculty encouraged to enter student pieces in writing competition

Submissions are now being accepted for the 2017 University Writing Awards, sponsored by the UNT Faculty Senate. Faculty members may nominate pieces written by students in the 2016 calendar year in a variety of categories. The deadline is Feb. 17.

The categories are: 

  • Graduate Creative Writing: Fiction
  • Graduate Creative Writing: Nonfiction
  • Graduate Creative Writing: Poetry
  • Graduate Scholarly Writing: Argumentative or Expository
  • Undergraduate Creative Writing: Fiction
  • Undergraduate Creative Writing: Nonfiction
  • Undergraduate Creative Writing: Poetry
  • Undergraduate Scholarly Writing: Argumentative or Expository

Winners will be recognized at Honors Day on April 21 and will receive cash prizes ranging from $325 to $500.

Submissions must be 20 pages or less, typed (double-spaced), using 12-point Times New Roman font, 1-inch margins and page numbers in the upper right-hand corner. The student’s name and the title of each work must be submitted on a separate “Name and Title” page. Submissions will be accepted via email at FacultySenateAwards@unt.edu.

For full competition rules and additional information, visit facultysenate.unt.edu/university-writing-awards

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COE faculty member aids in rare study on terrorism

In the early hours of April 2, 2015, terrorists in Kenya launched an attack on a university full of students. Hours later, 147 people, mostly from Garissa University College, were dead. Traumatic incidents of this type and survivor resiliency have been widely studied in the West. However, in Africa, where such violence is a growing concern, research is scarce about how students who have experienced such violence can be helped in finishing their degrees.

In one of the first studies on the topic, University of North Texas researcher Marc Cutright joined James Oteni Jowi of Moi University, in a qualitative inquiry into what practices might best help those individuals heal and complete their academic goals.

"These are young people who had been shot multiple times, lost limbs or witnessed executions of their classmates," said Cutright, an associate professor of higher education and the director of the UNT Higher Education Development Initiative. "Sadly, we'll probably continue to see heinous attacks like this. We, as researchers, wanted to know if there were lessons that could be learned that could help these and any future students in their emotional recovery so that they can continue with and finish their education."

The study, "Recovery from terrorism: Testimony from survivors of Garissa and lessons learned for supporting resilience," will be presented at the Society for Research into Higher Education annual conference December 7–9 in Wales, and also at the Comparative International Education Society annual conference March 5–9 in Atlanta.

After the 2015 bloodshed, the roughly 450 surviving students were offered the opportunity to transfer to Moi University in Kenya or to sister campuses. Most declined. Of those who transferred to Moi University, 11 completed the research interviews.

For a few, it was the first time they had been allowed to speak at length about that day.

Among the findings that will be presented in December, the researchers noticed a few interesting takeaways:

  • Counseling should be long term. All 11 students initially received counseling, but free treatment in the following months was rare. The students wanted additional therapy so they could cope with unresolved and new issues that had developed. Students also wanted peer-to-peer counseling to provide help to students who declined support from authorities.
  • Faith-based counseling can be a part of, but may not be the sole, solution. Many of the Christian students were at the chapel reciting morning prayers when the attack began; afterward, they found comfort in God and their faith. However, others blamed God for the attack.
  • A financial advocate should ensure contributions and distributions are transparent and fair.Most of the students received nothing from the millions of shillings that had been donated on the students' behalf. Several survivors who asked about this were threatened, directly and indirectly, with expulsion from school. The students felt a representative in financial dealings would prevent misuse of funds.
  • Survivors need a sense of belonging and community. Some survivors kept friendships from their time at Garissa; however, few made new friends at the new school and several said they had withdrawn from the social world. Many felt the chance to tell their stories to others would help.

Higher Education Faculty Scholarship

Purpose: A fund in honor of the Higher Education faculty to provide scholarships for doctoral students majoring in Higher Education. 


  1. Be a Higher Education doctoral student with continuous enrollment in fall and spring semesters;
  2. Be in good standing;
  3. Have a GPA of at least 3.5;
  4. Meet the minimum entrance and continuing academic performance standards of the College of Education Department of Counseling and Higher Education in effect at the time of any award;
  5. Enroll as a doctoral student in Higher Education with at least 6 semester hours.

Curriculum & Instruction master's student ready for second career in the classroom

Sue Dinaro always loved being an elementary school teacher, and after four years, she was on her way to becoming a master teacher. But when she moved from New Mexico to Texas when her husband’s job wasSusan Dinaro relocated, she had trouble finding a teaching position and knew she’d have to look for something else. Wanting to stay in education, she came across an opportunity at the University of North Texas that tapped into her first career in law enforcement.

Little did she know that accepting the position five years ago at UNT – plus a special scholarship for faculty and staff members – would put her one step closer to going back to the classroom.

In the meantime, her UNT job seemed a perfect match.

“This was coming back home for me,” says Dinaro, who landed in the UNT Police Department as a support specialist in charge of property and evidence. “Everything fit.”

Dinaro thrived in her role at UNT, and this year, she was named “Property Technician of the Year” for the entire state by the Texas Association of Property and Evidence Inventory Technicians.

Still, that itch for teaching kids never left. Dinaro decided to get recertified in Texas – unsure whether she’d ever have the chance to teach again.

“There are so many kids out there who struggle,” Dinaro says. “You have to learn to read before you can get anywhere. So many kids, and even adults, don’t have that love of reading, but a good teacher can inspire them and create in them a fire and interest to want to read.”

After learning about her past in teaching, several of Dinaro’s police colleagues, as well as her family, encouraged her to enroll in the Master of Education in Curriculum and Instruction degree program through the UNT College of Education. Then, co-workers informed her about UNT’s Faculty/Staff/Retiree/Dependent Educational Scholarship – which pays the UNT Board of Regents-designated tuition and mandatory fees for qualifying individuals who are pursuing secondary degrees. 

“There is nothing holding you back if you apply yourself,” says Dinaro, noting that the excuses she had for not getting her master’s degree were gone. “It’s an excellent scholarship.”

Now in her first year as a UNT student, the former teacher is going back to school – for the third time – to pursue a teaching career.

Dinaro first started her bachelor’s degree in the 1980s. However, she chose work over school after receiving a job offer from a police station. The first of her four children came along shortly thereafter, and school was put on the back burner. She finally completed her bachelor’s degree in 2004 and taught until her family moved to Texas seven years ago.

Now, Dinaro, 53, says the curriculum and instruction program has been a perfect fit for her post-retirement career plans, giving her the ability to eventually return to teaching in a new, expanded role.

“This isn’t the typical college path people choose to take,” she admits. “It’s not the easiest thing, but you have to think that ‘maybe I can do it.’”

Working with her supervisors in the police department, she has been able to adjust her schedule to fit in classes and coursework. The ability to take online courses will help, too.

“I see the future of UNT involving online courses,” Dinaro says. “UNT has come full circle from a small teachers college to now offering classes in education that are fully online. It meets the needs of today’s students.”

She’s not entirely sure where the degree will take her, but she hopes to eventually pursue an instructional post that allows her to lead the charge for curriculum decision-making and mapping for a team of teachers.

“Someone needs to give you a push sometimes,” she says. “My co-workers at UNT kept me encouraged in my pursuit of an excellent education.”