IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

This Father's Day, Let’s Celebrate Fathers of Children with Disabilities

By Amy Sussman, NCSER Program Officer

When researchers study the impact of families on children, they usually investigate the role of mothers on their typically developing children. In an era when fathers are participating in child care responsibilities more than ever before, it should be no surprise that they also have a strong influence on their children’s education and development. Dr. Brent McBride of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been examining the role of fathers for over 30 years, carrying out both basic and applied research to inform and guide the development of initiatives aimed at supporting men in their efforts to parent young children. His more recent work on fathers investigates the impact of fathers of children with disabilities and/or developmental delays. Through a grant funded by the Institute's National Center for Special Education Research, Dr. McBride has been exploring data available from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study—Birth Cohort to investigate the roles fathers play in families of children with disabilities, a challenging parenting context. I recently asked him to describe how his interest in this subject emerged and to share some of his findings and their implications.

How did you become interested in studying fathers’ parenting of children with disabilities?

While working closely with one of my colleagues in special education, Rosa (Amy) Santos, we realized that we have several parallel and complementary research interests and began exploring ways in which our mutual interests could be merged. I was aware of the growing body of research that first emerged in the 1970s suggesting that active father involvement can lead to positive outcomes for both children and families. Although this literature is rich and diverse, the majority of the research has been with fathers in families of typically developing children. Little is known about father involvement in families of children with disabilities. Even less is known about the ways in which early intervention (EI) service providers and early childhood special educators reach out and support the unique needs of fathers. My work with Dr. Santos has been focused on using an interdisciplinary perspective to address this gap in the research.

What are some of your findings on how father involvement impacts children with disabilities?

Although we have had a number of encouraging and intriguing findings, I will describe just a few of them here. The first one is related to the impact of father involvement in routine caregiving, literacy, play, and responsive caregiving activities on maternal and family functioning. Our findings suggest that over time, when fathers are responsive to the needs of their children with autism spectrum disorder and related disabilities and engage in literacy activities with them, mothers experiences less stress and fewer depressive symptoms. This is important because maternal stress and depression have been found in previous research to be significant predicators of lower quality parenting by mothers of children with disabilities. We also examined the impact of early father involvement on children’s school readiness upon kindergarten entry for those who have disabilities or developmental delays but are not placed in self-contained special education classrooms. Results were mixed. For example, fathers’ play involvement at 9 months was negatively related to cognitive functioning but positively related to sociability and fewer behavior problems upon kindergarten entry. These analyses raised several intriguing questions that warrant further investigation. Another part of our investigation built upon previous research indicating that fathers are noticeably absent from EI services in spite of emerging evidence suggesting they can have a positive impact on child and family functioning. In an attempt to explore these barriers, our team analyzed data from EI service providers suggesting that inflexible schedules represent the most salient barrier, with expectations related to gender roles, father’s perceptions of EI services, and EI providers’ limited ability to adapt as additional barriers. Although EI providers believed that fathers could have a positive impact on their children’s development, they were less confident that efforts to target fathers would enhance EI services.

Do these results have any real-world implications for enhancing the development or school readiness of these children?

Most of the findings to emerge from our research program have clear implications for ways to enhance the school readiness of children with disabilities and/or developmental delays. For examples, findings have highlighted fathers’ engagement in early parenting activities such as responsive caregiving, play, reading to children, and routine caregiving has the potential to positively impact later child outcomes and family functioning. They also provide targets that EI service providers may want to focus on as they explore ways to help better prepare fathers to meet the needs of their children with disabilities. Findings on the disconnect between EI providers’ beliefs about father involvement and their actual practices when providing services suggest that they could benefit from training to more effectively include fathers in the services they provide to children and families.

Does your work have any implications for future research on this topic?

The next step in our program of research will be to use the lessons learned to date from our findings to guide the development, implementation and evaluation of an intervention program aimed at providing EI service providers with the basic foundation for developing the understanding, knowledge base and skill set needed to more fully engage fathers in the receipt of EI services, thus improving child functioning and outcomes. Doing so will be an important first step in moving EI from mother centered to truly “family centered.”

 

Questions? Comments? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov

Challenges in Transition to Adulthood for Individuals with Autism

An Interview with Researcher Leann Smith

Conducted by Kim Sprague, NCSER Program Officer

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 1 in 68 children have an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a group of developmental disabilities that can cause significant social, communication, and behavioral challenges. While the National Center of Special Education (NCSER) supports research on ASD through their grants program, few projects have focused on the needs of adolescents and young adults with ASD as they transition out of school. To address this pressing need, NCSER funded the Center on Secondary Education for Students with Autism Spectrum Disorder (CSESA) in 2012. The focus of this Center is to develop and evaluate the effectiveness of a comprehensive, school-based intervention for secondary students with ASD. The intervention, referred to as the CSESA model, builds on school and student strengths and incorporates evidence-based practices and strategies in order to help students succeed in high school and prepare them for life after high school.

I spoke with Leann Smith, an investigator at the Waisman Center at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, whose research focuses on adolescents and adults with autism spectrum disorder and their families. She is also a researcher on the CSESA project.

What are the key challenges for individuals with autism as they transition into adulthood?

As individuals with ASD transition into adulthood, they face many challenges. Importantly, ASD is a spectrum disorder, meaning that the behavioral profile is highly variable and includes a range of severity across multiple dimensions. Research shows that even though there is some abatement of symptoms as children grow into adults, significant limitations still persist and impact a range of outcomes.

After exiting high school, there is often a significant loss of services for these individuals, including access to insurance. Many families describe the experience of leaving high school as “falling off a cliff.” In the absence of appropriate services and supports, young adults with ASD may struggle in finding employment and maintaining social connections after they leave high school. Research shows that, compared to individuals with other disabilities, individuals with ASD are more likely to be unemployed or underemployed. This is true for those with and without an intellectual disability in addition to ASD. Given the increasing number of individuals with ASD who are moving into adulthood, we know we will need new, research-based interventions to better serve individuals on the spectrum during this transitional period and beyond.

What is your role in the CSESA development and research project? 

Currently we are implementing a randomized control trial of the comprehensive CSESA model in 60 high schools across the country. As an investigator on the project, I am leading CSESA efforts with the 20 Wisconsin schools that are participating in the study. The goal of the CSESA model is to provide high quality professional development and evidence-based interventions to support educators, families, and students during the high school years. Our role has focused on adapting a school-based version of an education and support program for families called Transitioning Together for inclusion as a component of the CSESA model. We originally developed the 8-week Transitioning Together curriculum for implementation in clinical settings but adapted it so it can be used in high school settings.

What can be done to promote successful transition into adulthood?

When you look at early intervention for autism, there are a lot of different models, and we have a pretty good sense of evidence-based practices for young children with autism. There isn’t anything analogous to that for youth and adults. In supporting individuals with ASD, we need services to start as early as possible, and provide more intensive services than what is currently offered in many middle and high schools. Ideally, we would sequence the appropriate support over time and at each developmental phase, starting with early intervention, moving into school, and then meeting the needs of adolescents and adults in school and community settings. However, there is a definite lack of support for individuals with ASD who are facing the challenges of adulthood at this time. The CSESA model provides support that is needed earlier, prior to their transition to promote successful outcomes. For those who are interested in learning more, we currently have multiple resources for professionals and families available on the CSESA website including free professional development curriculum created in collaboration with the Organization for Autism Research as well as guides about evidence-based practices. There is also an “Autism At A Glance” series which highlights strategies for supporting high schools students on a wide range of topics such as functional communication and exercise.   

We are now recruiting participants to test an intervention focused on reducing stress for young adults with autism and their families. The hope is that stress reduction will help the young people take on adult roles. Reducing stress and emotional intensity has a stabilizing effect, which can help people be more empowered and able to maintain a job. Among other things, participants will rehearse problem-solving steps and learn a coping strategy that can help reduce stress: reinterpreting challenges or difficult events as opportunities for growth. Even if you can’t change the stressor, you can change how you think about it.

Interested in learning more about this topic? Leann Smith and other researchers were interviewed in this recent Washington Post article on supporting adults with ASD.

Comments or questions for IES? Please send them to IESResearch@ed.gov.  

Welcome to Inside IES Research!

By Tom Brock, Commissioner, NCER and 
Joan McLaughlin, Commissioner, NCSER

 

Welcome to Inside IES Research, the official blog for the Institute’s two research centers: the National Center for Education Research (NCER) and the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER)!

We are launching the blog to open up a less formal means of communication with the education researcher, policymaker, and practitioner communities.  All NCER and NCSER employees will contribute to the blog, and we will have new postings every week.  Our goals are to share new research findings, explain our programs and services, and offer researcher perspectives on issues of importance to the education sciences.  Among the topics we will address in the near future are the following:

  • What we are learning from some of our major research investments on supporting youth with autism, and on improving reading comprehension among students in elementary, middle, and high school.

  • Profiles of early career researchers supported by NCER and NCSER, and the contributions they are making to the education sciences.

  • How the application review process works and how funding decisions are made.

  • What we learned from surveys of NCER and NCSER applicants and grantees, and how we are using this information to make improvements.

We are introducing the blog at a time of peak activity for NCER and NCSER.  We are in the final stages of making grant awards from the FY 2015 research and training grants competitions – roughly 150 grants in total – and recently announced our FY 2016 competitions. Future blogs will spotlight some of these new awards and highlight current funding opportunities.

We invite you to check in regularly, and to send your comments to IESResearch@ed.gov.