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IES Grant

Title: Betty's Mind: A Theory of Mind and Social Reasoning Intervention for Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders Based on a Learning by Teaching Approach
Center: NCSER Year: 2018
Principal Investigator: Kunda, Maithilee Awardee: Vanderbilt University
Program: Technology for Special Education      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (07/01/2018-06/30/2021) Award Amount: $1,399,955
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R324A180171

Co-Principal Investigator: Biswas, Gautam; Juarez, Adam; Warren, Zachary

Purpose: The purpose of the project is to develop a technology-based intervention to improve theory of mind (ToM) reasoning among adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ToM refers to the ability to ascribe mental states, such as beliefs, desires, goals, and emotions to other people and to understand that these mental states can be different from one's own. Many students with ASD have difficulty with ToM reasoning, especially in the context of social situations. However, there are limited research-based interventions for teaching these skills to students with ASD. The current study will address this limitation by adapting an existing technology-based intervention (Betty's Brain) to support middle school students with ASD in using ToM skills in social situations. The adapted intervention, Betty's Mind, will provide an interactive learning environment in which students with ASD teach a virtual agent about ToM in social scenarios.

Project Activities: During the first two years of the project, the research team will modify Betty's Brain by adding new content, features, and resources for students to learn about ToM and social scenarios. A series of feasibility studies will be conducted with students with ASD and their teachers to inform revisions to Betty's Mind. In Year 3, the research team will conduct a pilot study to determine whether Betty's Mind demonstrates promise for improving social skills and ToM reasoning.

Products: The products of this project will include a fully developed version of Betty's Mind, professional development materials for teachers, as well as peer-reviewed publications and presentations.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The research will take place in middle schools in Tennessee.

Sample: During the first two years, about 20 adolescents diagnosed with ASD and 20 special education teachers will participate in the iterative development and testing of Betty's Mind. For the pilot study, approximately 30 students diagnosed with ASD, ages 10 to 14, with difficulties in ToM and social functioning will participate in the research. Their special education teachers will also be included as participants.

Intervention: Betty's Mind will be developed based on an existing computer-based educational technology system called Betty's Brain, which was designed to help middle school students without disabilities learn how to reason about complex systems in science using a learning-by-teaching approach. Betty's Mind will use a similar learning-by-teaching approach wherein students teach a virtual agent, Betty, but with content that is modified to help students use ToM in social scenarios. At the start of the curriculum, students can customize the characteristics and name of their agent (i.e., Betty is just an example name). Students will then teach their agent about a social scenario by creating concept maps, or visual models of people's mental states in a social situation. More specifically, the student will read a story or watch a video about a social scenario and then construct a concept map to represent their understanding of the situation so that they can explain the situation to others. The concept map will include people, objects, and specific relationships between people and objects (e.g., a belief that a person in the scenario has about an object). Students will have access to text-based resources and an agent called Mr. Davis that answers questions and provides advice. To assess how well students teach their agent, their agent will complete quizzes to assess their knowledge of the scenario.

Research Design and Methods: During the first two years of the project, the investigators will engage in iterative development and refinement of the intervention. First, the research team will develop content, features, and resources that are related to ToM in social situations. Then, a series of three feasibility studies will be conducted. In the first study, the research team will conduct interviews with teachers and administrators to gather data on their perceptions of the feasibility of implementing Betty's Mind in an authentic education setting. The second study will involve collecting survey data from teachers who have had experience using Betty's Mind. In the third feasibility study, Betty's Mind will be implemented for 16 weeks with 5-8 students with ASD. Data on student outcomes, fidelity of implementation, feasibility and usability will be collected. The intervention will be refined based on results from the feasibility studies. In Year 3, the investigators will conduct an underpowered randomized controlled trial to test the promise of the revised version of Betty's Mind for improving social skills and ToM reasoning for adolescents with ASD.

Control Condition: For the pilot study, students in the control condition will be provided instruction in science topics using the existing Betty's Brain system. The format and intensity of activities will be identical across the two study conditions, with the key difference being the content that is delivered to students (i.e., science concepts in the control vs. ToM and social concepts in the Betty's Mind intervention).

Key Measures: Student outcomes will be measured by the Social Skills Improvement System (parent and teacher report of social skills), Theory of Mind Inventory (parent and teacher report of ToM), and Direct Behavior Ratings (direct observation of classroom behaviors such as social interactions and engagement in classroom activities). The following measures will be used for capturing data on fidelity of implementation: Levels of Use (teacher interview protocol to understand how teaches are using the technology), Innovation Curriculum Map (classroom observation and teacher interview protocol related to using technology), and Stages of Concern (questionnaire to understand challenges with implementing technology). To evaluate the feasibility of Betty's Mind open-ended interviews with teachers and administrators will be conducted. Usability will be assessed through researcher-developed surveys for teachers and students. Screen audio and video capture software will be used to collect information regarding the parts of the system that are difficult to use and interpret.

Data Analytic Strategy: The research team will conduct qualitative analyses of interviews to determine whether Betty's Mind is feasible, usable, and engaging. These analyses and other descriptive analyses of feasibility, fidelity of implementation, and usability will be done on an ongoing basis throughout the intervention development process. For the pilot study data, analyses of variance will be used to examine whether Betty's Mind demonstrates promise for improving ToM and social functioning.