The Postdoctoral Research Training Program in Special Education and Early Intervention is designed to prepare scientists to conduct rigorous, practice-relevant research to advance the fields of special education and early intervention. Dr. Jun Ai recently completed an IES postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Kansas and is currently an assistant research professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her research focuses on the implementation of early childhood behavioral interventions, particularly for young learners with disabilities and those from minoritized communities. We recently caught up with Dr. Ai to learn more about her career, the experiences that have shaped it, and how her work addresses equity and inclusion in early intervention. This is what she shared with us.
How did you begin your career journey as an education researcher?
My research focuses on the equitable and sustainable implementation of early childhood positive behavioral interventions and supports (EC-PBIS) to promote the social-emotional and behavioral health of all children, especially those with disabilities and/or from minoritized groups. Before starting my PhD program, I was a special education teacher working with students with autism spectrum disorders in China. That’s when I learned about applied behavioral science and PBIS. I decided to become a board-certified behavior analyst (BCBA) during my doctoral studies at the University of Kansas. Through my BCBA practicum, I worked with young children with disabilities and challenging behaviors in self-contained settings.
Meanwhile, I was also supervising pre-service teachers and behavioral analysts working in inclusive early care and education settings where behavior issues were addressed through multi-tiered EC-PBIS. These experiences deepened my interest in EC-PBIS and led me to research how to prepare professionals to use multi-tiered EC-PBIS to promote foundational social-emotional competence and prevent challenging behaviors for all children, regardless of their abilities or forms of diversity. Most importantly, I study how equitable and sustainable implementation of EC-PBIS can reduce racial disciplinary disparities to eventually eliminate suspension and expulsion in early care and education. Through my dissertation and NCSER-funded postdoctoral fellowship at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the University of Kansas, I led multiple independent research projects in these areas. With the support from my mentors, Judith Carta, Kathryn Bigelow, and Jay Buzhardt, I also had the opportunity to work on several NCSER-funded projects that address issues in EC-PBIS and the implementation of evidence-based practices.
What is the most rewarding part of your research?
Currently, I serve on the Iowa state leadership team of EC-PBIS and continue to expand my scholarship on EC-PBIS implementation through my research and teaching capacities. The most rewarding part of my work has been gaining expertise in a variety of research methodologies, especially mixed-methods research. Mixed-methods research allows me to carry out rigorous quantitative intervention and test hypotheses while also hearing the voices of participants and various stakeholders using trustworthy qualitative methodology, with data from each method informing the other. As a result, I can tackle complex issues related to implementing interventions in real-world settings and improve the design of interventions.
In your area of research, what do you see as the most critical areas of need to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?
One of the greatest needs is around diversifying the researcher leadership workforce. Higher education institutions need to prioritize recruitment, retention, and tailored support for educational researchers from historically and currently marginalized groups based on their race, ethnicity, language, sexual orientation, disabilities, and more.
Equally important is the need to increase funding resources for minority researchers whose scholarship aims to dismantle systemic racism and racial inequities in our educational systems. Researchers of color need more seats at the table to disturb the power imbalance within the research community, advocate for students and families in their own communities, and improve the relevance of education research for diverse groups.
Last but not least, the education research community at large needs to question the status quo of how to conduct research for, with, and by diverse communities.
What advice would you give to emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that are pursuing a career in education research?
Find the research topic that gives you goosebumps. It might be hard at the beginning when research interests are highly directed by the existing research agenda of advisors or funding sources. But don’t let that feeling of butterflies go. Try to start small. It might mean stepping out of your normal circle to find mentors, allies, or funding agencies that are also excited about your mission and your research interests.
Remember that you need to be so good that nobody can ignore you. Researchers of color, especially minoritized early career scholars, still need to work multiple times harder to be seen and heard. Unfortunately, this will still be true in the foreseeable future. Find and join minority education researcher communities through professional organizations or organize your own. You are not in this alone.
While continuing to hone your craft, speak up for yourself and your community when you can. Recognize your own burdens and privileges and stand with the most oppressed. Learn about and practice how to have a voice at the table even though your culture or your lived experience told you otherwise. The work you care about can change students' and families’ lives. Your work matters. Your voice matters.
This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, here, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice.
This blog was produced by Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow, and Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), postdoctoral training program officer at the National Center for Special Education Research.