Vanderbilt’s IRIS Center provides broad access to educational resources, support during pandemic

By Jane Sevier

With schools across the country facing personnel shortages and COVID-19 continuing to affect education, people again turned to the IRIS Center at Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development for free resources and support. In 2021, the center’s website hosted roughly 4 million visits from 223 countries. 

Among the most frequently accessed resources were both traditional- and alternative-certification educator preparation programs. As districts struggled to handle shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, these resources provided information to educators teaching out of their area of endorsement, to those who had been issued emergency certificates and to long-term substitute teachers. IRIS resources align with professional standards, as well as with evidence-based and high-leverage practices. Although the center’s resources have a particular focus on practices for struggling learners and those with disabilities, educators use them to expand or enhance their own skills, improving learning and behavioral outcomes for all students.  

“We know that many districts are dealing with staffing shortages and use IRIS materials to efficiently get high-quality information into the hands of people filling in for the classroom teachers,” said IRIS Center Project Director Naomi Tyler, associate professor of the practice in the Department of Special Education.

Though the center developed some resources that were specific to schools’ circumstances in 2020, these resources were updated continually as these situations continued to evolve. In fall 2021, for example, many students who were returning to school had spent more than a year in virtual or hybrid learning and needed refreshers in common classroom routines. Anticipating that teachers might need additional tools, especially for issues of classroom behavior management and support, the IRIS Center posted new case studies, skill sheets and interactive learning units known as IRIS Modules on managing classroom behavior for both in-person and virtual learning. Existing modules were enhanced with information and resources to address student grief, trauma and anxiety. The center also added tip sheets to help parents support their children while they studied online. 

“Another trend that we’ve noted is increased use by … education personnel other than teachers—paraeducators, substitute teachers, bus drivers, school resource officers—and many of the resources they access are behavior-related,” Tyler said. “We are hearing a lot about the effects of the pandemic on student behavior, what stress or anxiety look like in students’ daily actions or interactions, and the need for information for school staff to help them support students who are exhibiting these signs.” 

The center, whose name originally was an acronym for “Innovative Resources for Instructional Success,” has data showing that hospitals, doctors’ offices, museums and even sheriff’s departments have accessed IRIS resources. College students in disciplines from business management to human services to health administration also use IRIS, expanding the center’s outreach. 

Funded by the U.S. Department of Special Education’s Office of Special Education Programs, the IRIS Center is a national center dedicated to improving education outcomes for all children, especially those with disabilities, from birth through age 21. IRIS Center, founded more than 20 years ago, offers resources that encompass a full range of effective evidence-based practices and interventions. 

IRIS resources are embedded in the national educator preparation infrastructure—including undergraduate and graduate courses, field placements and student teaching. More than 1,500 colleges and universities accessed center information last year, including 56 historically Black institutions and six tribal colleges. 

IRIS also supports professional development and personalized learning for educators across the career span, from first-year and early-career teachers to master educators. Educators can earn IRIS professional development certificates for completing IRIS Modules. In 2021, they accessed 98,858 certificates—worth over $4.9 million in free professional development. 

An undergraduate student using the site remarked, “IRIS has done a very good job of laying out the details to creating quality IEPs [Individualized Education Programs]. It will be one of the most important aspects of my career and will affect every child I work with, so this module is extremely relevant.” 

“I was a bit intimidated by the amount of work in this module,” a special education teacher said, “but I have to say that when you are done with it, you really know the content.” 

The IRIS Center’s 2021 report is available at this link.