IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Integrating Intervention Systems to Address Student Mental Health and Social-Emotional-Behavioral Functioning

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, NCSER is featuring an IES-funded study on student behavioral supports and interventions that best address the mental health needs of students. Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) and school mental health (SMH) are both evidence-based interventions that provide student mental health support independent of one another. For this blog, we interviewed Dr. Brandon Schultz, principal investigator of a current study investigating the integration of both PBIS and SMH into a comprehensive school intervention. In the interview below, he discusses the differences between PBIS and SMH, how this research contributes to equity and inclusion in the classroom, and his research journey.

Your study is comparing schools that integrate PBIS and SMH into the enhanced version of the Interconnected Systems Framework (ISF) to schools that implement these as separate, parallel systems. Can you describe PBIS and SMH, and explain the key differences between the integrated framework and parallel systems?

Headshot of Dr. Brandon Schultz

PBIS is a tiered prevention system that addresses student behavioral needs. It provides universal support (Tier 1) to all students, including clear schoolwide behavioral expectations and a rewards system for desired behaviors. For students who do not respond to these efforts, Tier 2 provides targeted help through classroom-level or small group interventions, such as teacher consultation or student mentoring/counseling. For students who need intensive support, Tier 3 provides specialized one-to-one behavioral services. SMH, in contrast, focuses specifically on mental illnesses (for example, anxiety, trauma, depression) and, in some cases, involves community-based therapists working contractually with schools. Typically, PBIS and SMH function separately as co-located services, but there is a growing recognition that student needs are best met when these efforts are meaningfully integrated. Integration, however, is challenging because it requires educators to rethink their teaming and progress monitoring practices and include different stakeholders in critical decision-making processes. This study tests innovations to the ISF model, designed by my co-PI, Dr. Mark Weist (University of South Carolina), to meet the challenges of integrating these systems in two diverse school districts.

How did you become interested in this area of research?

My previous research was mostly focused on school-based interventions for students with ADHD, but it became clear that without systems-level change, interventions meant to help students with ADHD are unlikely to be implemented or sustained effectively, no matter how well they are designed. So, I became interested in understanding school systems and identifying the elements, processes, and resources that are critical for student support services of all kinds. 

How does your research contribute to equity and inclusion in education?

Part of my current study is focused the degree to which innovations to the ISF model can reduce racial inequities in school disciplinary actions. Research shows that Black students receive higher rates of exclusionary punishments (for example, suspensions and expulsions) than their White counterparts, even after controlling for the type of infraction. The modified ISF model aims to reduce the overall need for exclusionary punishments, especially among students of color. By improving team functioning, ISF allows educators to identify systemic problems that lead to racial inequities in disciplinary referrals and to generate new strategies to address student needs in a fair and equitable manner. With this model, we anticipate increased support for students of color that obviates disciplinary referrals. We are working with school districts now to examine disciplinary data before, during, and after the implementation of the enhanced ISF. Our hope is to identify strategies that close race-related gaps and share the lessons learned broadly.

Have you encountered any challenges in studying this integrated framework in elementary schools?

Yes, absolutely. Systems-level change in general is difficult, as it requires change agents to overcome structural inertia rooted in local norms, routines, and expectations. Those challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic and preexisting trends in childhood mental illnesses. 

During the pandemic, student progress in mathematics and reading have dramatically declined. Meeting these academic needs, a priority for teachers, can divert attention away from student mental health needs. For example, all teachers in one of our states are required to take a year-long online course in reading instruction, partly to address student learning loss. Although commendable, this requirement creates a significant burden for teachers that can leave little room for other concerns. 

Preexisting mental health trends demonstrate that mental illness was increasing sharply among school-age children; by 2018, nearly 15% of all K-12 students experienced a psychiatric condition each year. Then, with the onset of the pandemic, indicators of childhood mental illness (for example, emergency room visits for suicidal behavior) spiked. Childhood anxiety and depression doubled worldwide from pre-pandemic estimates, and it is unclear whether those rates will return to baseline.

Together, these events have created real challenges, not just for our research, but for student support services in general.

What is currently the greatest area of need in studying school-based systems that support student mental health, particularly for those students with or at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders?

Perhaps the greatest area of need for supporting students with emotional and behavioral disorders is understaffing in critical school mental health positions. There is a significant shortage of school psychologists, counselors, social workers, and nurses nationwide. In North Carolina, the current ratio of school psychologists to students is 1:2,527, five times higher than recommended. This understaffing hinders schools’ ability to provide high-quality services and complicates efforts to test and refine innovative practices because field-based practitioners are unable to collaborate on research efforts. Researchers have had to hire individuals to fulfill critical roles, such as behavioral consultants, that might otherwise have been assigned to district-employed staff. Trained personnel then exit the school district when the research project ends and that skillset is lost. We hope that states prioritize the hiring of school mental health practitioners in the coming years to ensure optimal student support services and that university-school research collaborations can reliably lead to sustainable innovations.

NCSER looks forward to seeing the results of this efficacy trial and will continue to fund research aimed at supporting the mental health and social-emotional-behavioral needs of students with or at risk for disabilities.

This blog was authored by Isabelle Saillard, student volunteer for NCSER and undergraduate at the University of Virginia.

Exploring the Intersection of Special Education, Learning Analytics, and Psychometrics: A Journey in Education Research

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. In recognition of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in this interview blog we asked Dr. Xin Wei, a senior quantitative researcher at Digital Promise to discuss her career journey. Dr. Wei’s current IES-funded study uses statistical and machine-learning techniques to understand the test-taking behavior of National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) grade 8 learners with and without disabilities.

How did you become interested in a career in education research?

As a child, I aspired to become a teacher, and in college I decided to pursue a degree in child development. During my senior year of college, I worked as a research assistant on a project studying statistical and psychometric methods used to analyze learning differences among children. This experience sparked my interest in education research and revealed the potential for statistical analysis to inform and enhance teaching practices.

Graduate studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Stanford University helped me gain a deeper understanding of quantitative methods in education research. Through applying and improving quantitative methods, I discovered how national and state longitudinal datasets can help us understand the learning, social, and emotional needs of students with disabilities and which policy interventions can help us achieve better outcomes. This opportunity helped me understand the challenges students with disabilities face in the education system and deepened my appreciation for secondary data analysis and its power to inform intervention research.

Currently, my research focuses on analyzing log/process data to understand how digital learning and assessments can facilitate student learning, accurately measure progress, and improve outcomes for students with disabilities. Through this work, I am committed to advancing the education research field at the intersection of special education, learning analytics, and psychometrics.

What has been the biggest challenge you have encountered, and how did you overcome the challenge?

When I came to the United States to pursue a graduate degree at the age of 23, I faced a host of challenges that forced me out of my comfort zone. Navigating a new culture and adapting to academic expectations and research demands was overwhelming. Additionally, understanding U.S. K-12 education policies and practices was no easy feat. However, I was fortunate enough to have incredible mentors, professors, peers, and colleagues who provided me with guidance, support, and patience when I needed it most. These individuals played a crucial role in helping me grow as a researcher.

The most important lesson I learned from the challenges I faced was the value of continuous learning and growth in my career. These experiences have strengthened my commitment to making a positive impact in education and helping others who may be facing similar obstacles.

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups?

The student population in the United States is diverse, and it is essential that the education research community reflects that diversity by including scholars who bring unique perspectives and experiences.

One way to do this is by actively seeking out and valuing diverse voices in research, teaching, and leadership positions. This includes promoting diversity in conference panels, as well as actively recruiting and hiring researchers from underrepresented groups. By creating a culture of inclusivity, the education research community can better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups.

Another way to better support the careers and scholarship of researchers from underrepresented groups is through mentoring programs, summer internships, and postdoc positions. These opportunities can provide valuable professional development and collaboration opportunities. In addition, research grants specifically targeted toward underrepresented groups can also help support their work and advance their careers. It is essential to widely advertise these opportunities and make them accessible to ensure that all researchers have an equal chance to participate.

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity, equity, and inclusion and to improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

To address diversity, equity, and inclusion in education research, it is crucial to adopt an asset-based approach when working with neurodiverse students. By shifting the focus from deficits to strengths, we can recognize and leverage their unique abilities, promoting more equitable educational practices. Additionally, targeted support should be provided to address the specific challenges underserved students face, ensuring inclusive learning environments. For instance, my research findings indicate that students with autism exhibit strengths in visuospatial reasoning and are drawn to STEM fields. However, autistic students may benefit from extra support to develop perseverance and improve their weaker areas (such as word problems) in math.

Furthermore, there is a need for more research focusing on understanding how students with disabilities or other underserved groups engage with and benefit from digital learning and assessment systems. This entails investigating their cognitive processes, level of engagement, needs, and barriers within these contexts.

To address this gap, I am currently analyzing the NAEP process/log, performance, and survey data to study the impact of digital tools (such as text-to-speech) on student performance. This line of research is crucial and should be expanded to gather new insights on inclusive and accessible learning possibilities as technologies continue to develop.

In addition, research efforts should extend beyond traditional methods and incorporate the analysis of multimodal data. By considering a range of data sources, including behavior log/process data, speech, facial expressions, and eye-tracking data, we can gain deeper insights into how students interact with digital learning and assessments. This comprehensive approach enables us to capture nuanced aspects of their experiences and informs the design and implementation of effective educational interventions and digital learning platforms.

What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?

First and foremost, seek out a great mentor and research team. Having someone to guide and support you in the field can be tremendously beneficial to your career. Look for someone who shares your research interests, is supportive of your goals, and is committed to helping you succeed. Learning from others in your team is a great way to improve your skills and knowledge.

Second, don’t be afraid of change. The greatest opportunities often require stepping out of your comfort zone and exploring new research areas or methodologies. Be open to feedback and new perspectives that can help you grow as a researcher.

Third, be brave! It is important to recognize that your unique experiences and perspectives are valuable assets to the research community. Do not be afraid to share your ideas and contributions with others. Being proactive about your work can be a great way to build your network and collaborate with other researchers in the field.

Lastly, know that you have the potential to lead a research team yourself. Keep working hard, stay focused on your goals, and do not be afraid to take on leadership roles when the opportunities arise. Pursuing this career as an emerging scholar from an underrepresented or minoritized group can be challenging but also incredibly rewarding, and you can make a meaningful impact in the field and inspire others to follow in your footsteps.


Dr. Xin Wei is currently a senior quantitative researcher at Digital Promise. Prior to joining Digital Promise, she held the position of principal research scientist at SRI International for a duration of 15 years. She specializes in using applied experimental design, statistical and machine-learning techniques to evaluate and improve instruction, interventions, assessments, and policies. In addition to her current IES study, Dr. Wei has designed and directed statistical analysis of more than 26 grants funded by federal agencies.

Produced by NCER program officer Wai Chow (Wai-Ying.Chow@ed.gov) and Virtual Student Federal Service intern Audrey Im.

Special Educator Shortage: Examining Teacher Burnout and Mental Health

A teacher writes at her desk with her head in her hand

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month, NCSER would like to discuss special education teacher burnout and its connection to America’s teacher shortage crisis. Special education teachers are essential to our nation’s ability to provide a free and appropriate public education to the 7.3 million students with disabilities that attend our public schools. But significant shortages in qualified special educators affect the ability of our public schools to provide equal educational opportunities for all students.

A nationwide survey of schools in 2022 reported that vacancies in special education were nearly double that of other subject areas. This survey also found that 65% of public schools in the United States reported being understaffed in special education. Even prior to the pandemic, there was a downward trend in the number of special education teachers. One study found the numbers decreased by 17% between the years 2005-12. Research has also shown that the number of teachers leaving the field of special education is among the largest contributors to the growing shortage. High job demands without adequate support and resources may lead to teacher burnout, which may, in turn, lead to teachers leaving the profession. Because teacher burnout and general working conditions are real concerns, NCSER has funded projects to take a closer look at this problem and find potential solutions. This blog highlights a few of these projects below.

NCSER-Funded Studies on Special Educator Burnout

Elizabeth Bettini at Boston University led a research project exploring special educator working conditions. The research aimed to provide an understanding of how instructional resources, planning time, and support from colleagues affect teacher instruction and student outcomes, as well as explore how administrators view their role in providing supportive working conditions for special educators. They found that teachers who provided high-quality instruction had a trusted co-teacher, consistent paraprofessionals with time and support for training, and protected time for instruction.

To help prevent burnout among special education teachers, Lisa Ruble at Ball State University has been developing and testing an intervention called BREATHE (Burnout Reduction: Enhanced Awareness, Tools, Handouts, and Education). As part of the larger project, the research team explored the longitudinal trajectory of burnout. The first wave of data collection occurred in Fall 2020 during the pandemic and analyses from that particular wave of data collection demonstrated that out of the 468 participating special educators from across the United States, approximately 38% met clinical criteria for generalized anxiety disorder and 38% for major depressive disorder—rates that are several times greater than those in the general U.S. population. Additionally, teachers indicated that the pandemic had a moderate to extreme impact on stress (91%), depression (58%), anxiety (76%), and emotional exhaustion (83%). The research team is still analyzing all the data from the pilot study.

At Pennsylvania State University, Jennifer Frank is leading a research project examining the efficacy of Cultivating Awareness and Resilience in Education (CARE). In prior research, the CARE program was shown to improve teacher outcomes (such as improving emotion regulation and reducing distress) and enhance classroom interactions in general education settings, but it had not been studied in a special education context. The current project is examining whether there are similar positive impacts of the intervention on outcomes for special education teachers and students with disabilities.

Justin Garwood at the University of Vermont is leading a research project aimed at understanding risk factors related to special education teacher burnout, such as role stressors, relationships with colleagues, and behavior management abilities. Ultimately, this project aims to collect data that could help target interventions for preventing or reducing special education teacher burnout and improving educator and student outcomes.

NCSER would like to thank all our researchers for their dedication and continued efforts to find solutions that support educators and students. We look forward to seeing the final results of the projects described here. We would also like to extend our deepest gratitude to the special education teachers and support staff in our nation’s schools.

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University. Katie Taylor is the NCSER program officer for the Educators and School-Based Service Providers portfolio and the other programs that support the projects presented in this blog.

Supporting Strategic Writers: The Use of Strategy Instruction and Genre Pedagogy in the Basic Writing Classroom

NCER student volunteer, Rachael Higham, has long been interested in writing instruction. She currently works as a remedial language tutor for high school students with disabilities, and she began her graduate studies with a focus on postsecondary writing instruction. To learn more about the current science and research on writing, Rachael interviewed Dr. Charles MacArthur about his research-based postsecondary writing curriculum, Supporting Strategic Writers (SSW), which he and his team developed and evaluated through IES grants. The goal of SSW is to foster metacognitive self-evaluation through the use of strategic learning and genre-based pedagogy to help improve writing skills and self-confidence.


Take a minute to answer this question: Do you remember how you were taught to write a paper in high school or in college?

Maybe you remember the five-paragraph essay, MLA formatting, or the RACE strategy, but were you ever taught specific strategies for planning and evaluating your papers?

While I was interviewing Dr. MacArthur about his recently completed IES project, he posed a similar question to me. He asked me how I navigated writing in college and if a teacher had ever explicitly taught me how to write. I realized that while I had some explicit teaching in text structure in high school, by the time I reached college, I relied heavily on feedback to inform my future writing. The idea that students learn from revising is a common view in writing education. However, this view does not always consider students who struggle with writing and who may need more explicit instruction, even in college.

As a teacher of high school students with learning disabilities, I often find that by the time many of my students reach my classroom, they feel defeated by the writing process. Writing is something that has become a source of fear and dread for them. My goal with each student is to find and develop strategies that bolster their writing skills and change writing from something that seems unattainable to something that they can do independently. I was excited to talk to Dr. MacArthur and learn more about the research that he and his have been doing. Below are his responses to the questions I posed.

What are the key components of the SSW curriculum?

The emphasis of SSW is to enable students to take control of their own learning through rhetorical analysis of genre. To do that, students are taught explicit strategies and cognitive procedures based on what good writers do. This is reinforced with metacognitive strategies that help students become aware of why they are using specific writing strategies and procedures and recognize how and when to transfer them to other classes. SSW places emphasis on genre-based strategies not only in the text but also in the planning and evaluation phases.

The heart of strategy instruction in SSW is the “think-aloud,” which is when instructors share, in real time, the thoughts that they are experiencing as they’re writing or editing a text to show how they are figuring things out. Instructors need to show—not just explain—how to write. What we writing instructors are teaching is invisible, so the think aloud makes the process visible to students. It also lets students see that writing is hard even for their teacher. Teachers can get stuck and need to work through it based on the strategies that are being taught.

What is the number one thing that you would tell a developmental or first-year writing teacher?

Teaching strategies to students on planning and evaluating their work helps improve writing. There have been hundreds of studies from K-12 (see these meta-analyses as examples 1, 2, 3) that show how strategy instruction works to improve writing. This experimental study of SSW adds to that literature and shows that strategic instruction with genre pedagogy can work in the postsecondary developmental writing environment.

What type of future research would you like to see done with the SSW curriculum?

There is a wealth of valuable research that could be done in the future. Future research could delve into how to build on the developmental course’s gain in subsequent courses. For example, it would be interesting to look at the transition between developmental writing courses and first-year composition in terms of pedagogical integration.

Another area of transfer is between compositions courses and disciplinary writing in postsecondary settings. For example, how could postsecondary institutions improve writing across the curriculum? How could strategy instruction similar to SSW work in this setting?

Additionally, strategy instruction started in special education, but it was found to be useful throughout the entire K-12 population. Similarly, SSW was found to be successful in developmental writing classrooms. It would be great to see the effects of SSW in first year composition classes.

You can find publications from this project and the earlier SSW project in ERIC here and here respectively. The What Works Clearinghouse also reviewed an earlier evaluation of the SSW here.


This blog was written by Rachael Higham, a graduate intern through the Virtual Student Federal Service Internships program, and facilitated by Dr. Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a research analyst and program officer at NCER.

 

Studying Child Welfare and Foster Care Policy in the Context of Education Research

In honor of National Foster Care Awareness Month, we asked economist Dr. Max Gross, researcher at Mathematica and former IES Predoctoral Fellow at University of Michigan, to discuss how his career journey and experiences inspired his research on children and youth who encounter the child welfare system.

What inspired you to become an education researcher?

My goal as a researcher is to promote the well-being of children, youth, and families, particularly those who have been historically underserved or marginalized. I became an education researcher specifically because going to school is one of the few experiences almost everyone shares in the United States. This means schools are a place where policy can have a significant influence.

I think of my work on child welfare and foster care as education research because students bring their whole selves to school. Students who have not had enough to eat or who experience housing instability and homelessness are unlikely to reach their full academic potential. In this way, nutrition policy is education policy; housing policy is education policy; and for my research, child welfare and foster care policy are education policy.

How have your background and experiences shaped your scholarship and career in studying children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?

I recognized a crucial gap in education research early into graduate school. There was an enormous amount of information available to researchers on what happens in schools but far less on the factors outside of school that influence student trajectories. Education data systems include how often students show up to school, who their teachers are, and how well they do in their classes. Coming from a family with three generations of social workers, I knew that what happens outside of school hours—which education data lack—also contributes to success, particularly for students with adverse childhood experiences.

I had the privilege to join an interdisciplinary team of researchers working to integrate data from the education and child welfare systems through the IES Predoctoral Training Program at the University of Michigan. As part of my fellowship, I partnered with University of Michigan colleagues from the Education Policy Initiative, Youth Policy Lab, and Child and Adolescent Data Lab to link information from the Michigan Department of Education and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. This opened the door to exploring previously unanswerable questions about the reach of child welfare systems and the effects of education and child welfare policies.

We discovered that children’s encounters with the child welfare system were shockingly common. One out of every five public school students in Michigan—in some school districts, more than half of all students—had been subject to a formal investigation into child abuse or neglect by the time they reached grade 3. These statistics were even higher for Black students and students from low-income households. We also found a strong association between contact with the child welfare system and experiences in school. These students were more likely to receive special education services, be held back a grade, and score lower on math and reading tests.

My training as an applied economist pushed me to critically examine the relationship between child welfare interventions and experiences in school. Did child welfare interventions themselves cause students to fare worse in school? Or were broader circumstances responsible, such as the reasons that triggered involvement with the child welfare system in the first place? My dissertation focused on how the most far-reaching child welfare intervention—removing a child from their home and placing them in foster care—influences their educational outcomes.

What are you researching now?

I partner with child welfare and education agencies to study how their policies and programs influence the lives of children, youth, and families. For example, I recently led an evaluation of a parent education program in Arizona that sought to prevent child maltreatment and foster care placements. I also contribute to a study of a coach-like case management program in Colorado to prevent homelessness among youth and young adults with child welfare histories and an evaluation of a training and coaching program to help preschool teachers support children with diverse needs. In addition, I enjoy working with agencies to strengthen their research and evaluation capacity, harnessing the power of the data they already collect to better understand the effectiveness of their programs.

What do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to improve the relevance of education research for children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?

Critical education issues that affect children and youth who encounter the child welfare system are understudied. At the front end of the child welfare system, the law requires teachers and education personnel to report suspected child abuse and neglect. School staff are consistently among the most frequent reporters of maltreatment. Child welfare agencies are sometimes less likely to substantiate reports from education personnel compared to other mandatory reporters, however. Researchers should examine the training that school staff receive in identifying abuse and neglect and whether they overreport maltreatment. At the back end, education policies can support or inhibit the well-being of students who have experienced abuse and neglect and students in foster care. Researchers should explore trauma-informed teaching practices and school-based behavioral health services. Efforts to promote stability for students in foster care, who might transfer schools when their placements change, also deserve more research attention. Education and child welfare policymakers must work together to securely share data for researchers to study these topics.

Education researchers should also make their research more relevant for children and youth who encounter the child welfare system. Just like we seek feedback from subject matter and methodological experts to increase rigor, partnering with experts with lived experience throughout the research process will strengthen our work. As another example, we must make our research accessible for diverse audiences, including those who are involved with the systems that we study.

What advice would you give education researchers who wish to study children and youth who encounter the child welfare system?

Education researchers should first recognize that they have already been studying children and youth who encounter the child welfare system even if they have not realized it. More than one-third of children nationwide are subject to a formal child welfare investigation before their 18th birthday, and 5 percent are placed in foster care. How might the prevalence of these adverse childhood experiences shape your findings?

I would also encourage education researchers to engage with many disciplines. Read studies published in journals outside of your field. Discuss your research with experts who use different tools and approaches to address similar questions. Present your findings to interdisciplinary audiences. Promoting the well-being of children and youth who encounter the child welfare system requires bringing together diverse perspectives.


Max Gross is a researcher at Mathematica where he specializes in quantitative evaluation design and analysis, particularly of programs and policies geared toward historically underserved children and families. Currently, he supports the city of Philadelphia’s child welfare agency to strengthen its evaluation capacity and contributes to the design of the Youth At-Risk of Homelessness evaluation of a coach-like case management system for youth and young adults in foster care.

This blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), program officer for IES predoctoral training program.