Ciara Ousley returns to SECD as assistant professor

Ciara Ousley headshot overlaid on image of Barkley Memorial Center

Ciara Ousley returns to SECD as assistant professor

27 Sep 2022     By Kelcey Buck

“Once a Husker, always a Husker” is more than a saying for Ciara Ousley, an assistant professor who joined the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders last month. 

Ousley, a native of Mesa, Arizona, was a member of the Husker swim team and graduated from Nebraska with a dual bachelor’s degree in elementary education and special education (K-6) in 2015. Now she’s back at her alma mater hoping to positively impact students the way she was impacted as an undergraduate. 

She began her career as a special educator at schools in Nebraska and Ohio, but soon knew she wanted to do more to impact the field of special education. She remembered how her professors during her undergraduate programs had been able to answer many of her questions. 

“This continued into my time as an educator where I had so many questions on how I could best reach/support the students I was working with,” Ousley said. “I quickly realized I wanted to get into research to help advance the field and hopefully be a mentor to future educators and scholars like John Maag and Sue Kemp were to me. It is amazing being able to now call them my colleagues!” 

During her three years of teaching, Ousley worked with several children with autism spectrum disorder. She learned how to help them focus on their communication, which in turn helped the children in other areas as well. 

“I found that they were extremely capable of having all their educational needs supported in the general education classroom – I just had to figure out how to best adapt the material and assignments so that they could accurately express that knowledge,” Ousley said. “I focused on teaching my students how to communicate their emotions, feelings and needs, and quickly saw a decrease in challenging behavior. From there, I became a huge advocate for independent communication as it is the gatekeeper to all areas of life: academics, friendships, emotional regulation, personal life, etc.” 

After earning a master’s degree in special education from Saint Joseph’s University in 2017, Ousley went on to pursue her doctorate in special education at Pennsylvania State University. During her doctorate program, she studied augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) and applied behavior analysis (ABA). 

Her research and publications have focused on supporting the social communication skills of young children with autism and other developmental disabilities who have limited to no vocal speech. Ousley trains and coaches families and practitioners, including educators, speech-language pathologists, and behavior analysts, in the use of naturalistic developmental behavioral interventions (NDBIs), which blends ABA with child development approaches. At Nebraska, she plans to continue to build on the research foundation she established at Penn State.

“This year, I am hoping to get a lab up and running so that I can have parents and children come to the Barkley Center for trainings and coaching sessions,” Ousley said. “I would also love to be able to involve undergraduate and graduate students from various disciplines to have a collaborative approach within the lab for supporting parents and practitioners.” 

Through it all, this Husker and her husband, who is also a former Husker student-athlete, are thrilled to be calling Lincoln home again. 

“Our end goal was to be at UNL to be able to give back to the place we love most,” Ousley said. “Once the pandemic hit, we realized how much we missed Lincoln and wanted to get back as soon as it was possible for us to both get positions. Miraculously, our ideal jobs opened around the same time. We are so grateful to be back in Lincoln and giving back to our alma mater.”

Special Education and Communication Disorders