Tara McLaughlin arrived at the University of Florida eager to continue growing as an educator. With a background in psychology, primary education and special education, she pursued her master’s in Special Education and upon completion in 2003, moved to New Zealand to continue her career in teaching.

By 2006 however, Tara felt compelled to return to UF and pursue her doctorate to uncover strategies and structures she could bring back to better support children and their families.

“Though I had a pretty good skill set, I felt like there was more I could be doing, and going back to do my doctorate seemed like a pathway to getting more information and knowledge so I could affect change,” she said.

Tara initially approached her doctorate in Early Childhood Education and Special Education from a knowledge and advocacy perspective. “At the time, I didn’t really know much about research or have any involvement in research projects,” she said.

But in 2007, she met the newly appointed David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies and Director of the Anita Zucker Center, Patricia Snyder, and her approach changed. Connecting with Snyder marked the start of a transformation in Tara’s academic and professional trajectory toward one rooted in research as a pathway for supporting improvements in practice and policy.

We reached out Tara to learn more about her experiences with the Anita Zucker Center and how they have shaped her professional career and journey thus far.

Tara McLaughlin

Tara McLaughlin
Master’s in Special Education, 2003
Doctorate of Early Childhood and Special Education, 2010

“I will forever be thankful to Pat and the Center for helping me really understand how important research can be in affecting change in practice.”

 In 2007, Snyder had just arrived at the UF College of Education to serve as the first David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, a professor of Special Education and Early Childhood Studies. In 2010, Snyder became the Anita Zucker Center’s inaugural director. Tara felt an immediate connection with Snyder’s research and sought to become a part of her team.

“I was really just fortunate to connect with her and get the opportunity to work on some of those early projects,” she said.

 Snyder became Tara’s doctoral advisor and, naturally, Tara also joined the Anita Zucker Center. She served as a research assistant, research coordinator and lab coordinator through the course of her doctoral experience. After obtaining her doctorate, Tara continued on at the Center as its first research scientist and the site coordinator for the Head Start National Center for Quality Teaching and Learning project.

Tara shared working with the Center exposed her to a wide range of experiences with research and thus gave her the opportunity to develop the knowledge and skills needed to engage in research that can truly transform practice.

“I will forever be thankful to Pat and the Center for helping me really understand how important research can be in affecting change in practice.”

One project in particular, made a significant impact on her – Embedded Instruction for Early Learning, which now includes Embedded Instruction California (EI CA).

EI introduces preschool teachers to embedded instruction practices that foster inclusion to better support children with or at risk for disabilities in their classrooms. For Tara, this directly related to the challenges she, herself, faced while teaching in New Zealand.

“It helps break down or demystify what good instruction can look like for children who need more individualized planning and sometimes you need to be more creative for,” she said.

Tara shared that EI empowers teachers by making instruction that seems daunting more manageable.

“There’s a lot that teachers can do every day that can make a big difference,” she said.

In 2013, Tara left the Center and returned to New Zealand. Today, she is a Senior Lecturer in Early Years at Massey University, where she teaches and conducts research.

When asked about her greatest “professional win” thus far, Tara shared one of her recent research proposals was one of only six proposals funded in 2018 by the Teaching and Learning Research Initiative (TLRI) provided by the New Zealand Council for Educational Research.

TLRI is the primary education research fund available in the country with only five to seven proposals funded each year. Whether you are studying early childhood education or higher education, you compete for the same funding.

The research project, titled “Data, knowledge, action: Exploring sustained shared thinking to deepen young children’s learning, will be conducted over two years and work to offer new insights into the teaching and learning experiences of children. As New Zealand utilizes a play-based approach to early childhood education, children can have unique, diverse experiences within the same setting.

“We’re really introducing new and different types of data tools that teachers can use to gain information about children and about their experiences in learning,” Tara said.

Tara shared she reflected on many of the experiences she had at the Center to create and implement the project. Though it’s only “peanuts” compared to the funding available in the United States, she shared she is very proud of her “peanuts.”

“I think the project exemplifies the skillset that I gained at the Center, and being able to apply it in a new context is really exciting,” she said.

In addition to the influence on her own work, Tara has also shared the knowledge she gained at the Center with her master’s and doctoral students, several of whom are using key ideas from embedded instruction or practice-based coaching to extend their own research projects in new directions.

“The innovations from the Center are spreading far and wide,” Tara said.

Looking forward, Tara hopes to continue to conduct and promote research that affects change for young children in New Zealand. While she began in special education, she hopes to continue her work focusing on early childhood, early childhood special education and early intervention.

“It’s really where all learning and development starts, and so for children to have the best life outcomes they can have, they need the best start in life,” she said. “And the more supports we’re putting into the children, the families, and the teachers who support them, the stronger their opportunities will be for a great start.”

 Tara is still collaborating with the Anita Zucker Center on EI CA, and she is collaborating with Snyder on a new initiative to introduce and implement some of its strategies and models into the early intervention practices used locally.

“Many of the EI concepts are applicable to New Zealand teachers’ and children’s daily lives and could make a big difference here,” she said.