“Operating on expectations, not hope”

M. Jeanne Wilcox says the philosophy underlying her work in communications science, through nearly four decades of research and clinical interventions with a diverse client base, has been to expect results, not hope for desired outcomes. A certified speech language pathologist and the Nadine Basha Professor of Early Childhood at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, Wilcox has designed, conducted and implemented research “from birth to old age” — young children, older adults, teens and college students.

Wilcox recently received the 2015 Honors of the Association Award from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. This is ASHA’s highest award, recognizing distinguished contributions to the discipline of communication sciences and disorders.

Wilcox’s work with people of all ages has led to practices and policies that now reach around the globe. Speech therapy in schools was once primarily conducted as a pull-out program. Children with language or communication disorders were removed from classrooms, playgrounds and natural environments to rehearse pronunciation, interaction and behaviors. Wilcox recommended interventions that occur in the classroom. “Children need to learn to communicate with their peers and teachers in the natural settings where these communications will continue to take place," she says. "This intervention allows for that and has proven to be very successful.”

Noting that 18 percent of children have a communication disorder significant enough to warrant some kind of intervention, Wilcox said, “We need to intervene early for success and that is what my work is centered around.”

Wilcox has developed language interventions for use with children under age 3, with the focus on enhancing parent-child interaction; a context that has come to be standard practice in early intervention. Her research with children in the 3- to 5-year age range has led to the development of Teaching Early Literacy and Language, a preschool curriculum containing protocols for families with preschoolers who are at risk for poor educational schooling outcomes. TELL has been implemented and tested in more than 35 school districts in Arizona.

“Research shows that kids in classrooms where TELL is being utilized experience a big jump in their vocabulary and other early literacy skills,” Wilcox explains. “We’re talking about what we call Tier II vocabulary words like ‘autumn’ or ‘engine’ rather than simpler words like ‘ball’ or ‘truck.’ Their frequent and accurate use of more sophisticated words really helps in the long run.” She says further research shows the more words kids know by age 3, the better they do in school by the third grade. Additionally, students learning in the TELL model also have shown growth in their listening and comprehension skills and their ability to retell a story, which is another indicator of academic success.

She says this curriculum was developed in collaboration with Shelley Gray, a professor from the department of Speech and Hearing Science in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. It can be embedded into every classroom activity. Early language skills develop while children are doing math or science and while they are working on social skills like sharing.

Wilcox views herself as an applied researcher, developing and testing interventions for those struggling to overcome communication and language issues on a broad spectrum and at many stages in life.

She co-authored a book on interventions and therapy for stroke patients, which shifted the emphasis in treatment from language to successful communication. This work was based on the idea that people who struggle with communicating need practical ways to do so, as opposed to traditional speech interventions that involve merely naming objects and recognizing and pronouncing words. Wilcox developed a game for patients in which pictures were drawn and used to communicate ideas and concepts. These exercises eventually led stroke patients to communicate needs and ideas with their families in household settings. “I admit, in retrospect, it seems so simple," she says. "But at the time, this was very new, and families were excited to see their loved ones learning to actually communicate and not just speak words.

“Many patients were eventually able to connect a series of sentences and interact in a way similar to how they had before their strokes," Wilcox said. "We expected the patients to be able to communicate, and we moved forward with activities leading them to do so. Sometimes we had to adjust expectations in accordance with progress, but we didn’t always adjust expectations down. Sometimes we increased our expectations as patients met milestones and continued to progress.”

Wilcox came to ASU in 1990 from Kent State University in Ohio. She joined the Speech and Hearing Department at ASU as a professor and chaired that program from 1992–1998, then joined Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College in 2012. “This is a perfect fit,” she says, “because my current research is actually more education-related than medical-oriented.”

When asked what she’s most proud of in her career, Wilcox points out her treatment for aging adults who’ve had strokes. “That work was very innovative for its time. I am very often still asked to come and speak about that treatment approach and protocol.”

When asked what’s next, Wilcox mentions a new project.

“I have been increasingly interested in college success among at-risk students, first-generation college students and those from under-represented groups. In collaboration with my ASU colleague Elizabeth Capaldi Phillips [in the Department of Psychology], we were successful in obtaining a ‘first-in-the-world’ grant for the university called ProMod (Project plus Modules). I serve as the principal investigator for the grant, which includes implementation of project-based teaching at ASU and with the Phoenix Union High School District.”

ASU’s ProMod program allows students to work closely with faculty and peers by engaging in projects that apply learning to real-world situations. This model helps students acquire and master crucial skills such as critical thinking, collaboration and effective communication.

“It’s really fun to extend myself to a variety of disciplines at ASU. I’ve always had a foot in education, so it’s great to experience it from different angles," Wilcox says. "I’ve been focused on language learning, and language skills lead to academic success. I enjoy making those connections and seeing how we can positively impact students at many levels. I keep my expectations high for myself and for the various people I have the privilege to work with, and I keep operating on expectations, not hope.”