IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Spotlight on FY 2023 Early Career Grant Awardees: Self-Regulation for High School Students with Disabilities

This final post in our series of NCSER blogs highlighting the recently funded Early Career Development and Mentoring Grants Program principal investigators features an interview with Sara Estrapala, assistant research professor in special education at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Dr. Estrapala is conducting research aimed at improving self-regulation of high school students with disabilities and challenging behavior.

How did you become interested in research on self-regulation among high school students with disabilities? 

Headshot of Dr. Sara Estrapala

I worked in a high school as a special education paraeducator prior to my doctoral program and really enjoyed working with that student population. I was responsible for helping students manage themselves in their general education classes. This experience led me to wonder whether there were ways to teach students—particularly those with challenging behaviors— to be more self-sufficient. When I started my doctoral program, I worked on an IES-funded project to develop a self-monitoring app and witnessed the incredible impact that self-monitoring can have on student classroom behaviors. My classroom and research experiences merged into a line of research on self-regulation development for high school students with disabilities.

What is the broader challenge in education that you hope your study will address?

High schools are notoriously difficult settings in which to conduct behavior intervention research, due to increased demands on student and teacher time for academics, organizational complexity (for example, multiple teachers, classrooms, academic departments), and misconceptions about behavior supports for high school aged students. As such, there is a relatively limited literature base for researchers and practitioners related to behavior interventions or supports for high school students. I hope to develop an effective intervention specifically for this context and developmental level while also learning how to effectively conduct rigorous research in this complex and challenging environment. Ultimately, I aim to contribute to our collective knowledge about how to help support high school students with disabilities and challenging behavior. 

What sets apart your self-regulation intervention from other interventions that have been studied?

The most unique aspect of the self-regulation intervention that I am developing is that students have ownership over their self-regulation plan. Typically, students are provided with a self-regulation or self-management plan that is developed by an adult—such as their teacher, counselor, or behavior specialist—with very little opportunity for input. Because self-regulation interventions involve a lot of decisions (such as identifying target behaviors, goals, self-monitoring, and self-evaluation plans), there are numerous opportunities to ask students what they think will improve their classroom behavior. My goal is to develop a framework for teaching students how to identify and define their own behaviors that might be reducing their learning or classroom performance as well as replacement behaviors that will enable them to achieve greater academic success. I believe that including students in the decision-making process will help them better learn why self-regulation is important and how it can help them reach meaningful goals.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Network. Network. Network. Find a variety of colleagues to work with, including those with similar and advanced years of research and practice. I find working with other researchers helps prevent feeling isolated and increases my motivation to keep pushing forward. Joining professional organizations and attending their social events has helped me meet peers with similar research experience and create a network for collaboration. This process also created opportunities for me to meet the faculty mentors of my peers, which, in turn, has helped me establish a larger network of mid- and late-career researchers.

Sara Estrapala demonstrates passion and insight in her research promoting self-regulation among high school students with disabilities. NCSER looks forward to following her career trajectory and the development of this exciting project.

This blog was produced by Emilia Wenzel, NCSER intern and graduate student at University of Chicago. Katherine Taylor is the program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.

Improving Assessment Practices for Spanish-Speaking English Learners: An Interview with Dr. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez

In recognition of Hispanic Heritage Month, we interviewed Dr. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, associate professor at Vanderbilt University, who recently received a new NCSER grant to explore the associations among language comprehension skills in both Spanish and English, the processes involved in English reading comprehension, and special education placement decisions for elementary school students from Spanish-speaking homes. She believes the results of the study have the potential to mitigate English reading comprehension difficulties, improve school-based assessment practices to better inform special education decisions, and reduce disproportionate special education representation for students from Spanish-speaking homes.

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

Headshot of Dr. Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez

My experience as an elementary school teacher in Southern California is what motivated me to pursue graduate studies. I taught five grade levels within a 3-year span in two very different elementary school contexts. Most students in the school commonly labeled as “diverse”—the same school I attended as a student—were of Mexican origin and from Spanish-speaking, low-income homes, whereas students in the other school actually represented a wide range of linguistic, socioeconomic, and racial/ethnic backgrounds.

I soon noticed a common thread across the two school contexts. The students who were English learners (ELs) tended to struggle with English language and reading development more than their English-proficient peers. This is not surprising given that EL students, by definition, are effectively still in the process of developing English proficiency. What I found disturbing were the discussions about routing ELs to special education services under the assumption of learning disabilities (LDs), which occurred far too frequently given the expected prevalence of LDs in this community of learners. Although ELs may benefit from additional services, I repeatedly found that many educators (including EL specialists and special education teachers) did not know how to determine whether ELs needed more time to develop English language and reading skills or had, in fact, a language-based disability.

I needed to learn more about typical and atypical language and reading development to help students, regardless of their language background, acquire the language and reading skills to thrive academically. What was supposed to be a 1-year stay to get a master’s degree to become a reading specialist turned into a life-changing, 6-year stay to get my PhD.

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

Year after year, myths persist about linguistically diverse students in the United States. These include such misconceptions as assuming most linguistically diverse students are foreign-born or have limited English proficiency and, most troubling, that speaking a language other than English is a risk factor for low academic achievement. I have found that too many researchers, educators, and policymakers share these misconceptions about linguistically diverse learners.

This represents a significant challenge as the very people who have limited knowledge about linguistically diverse students are those in positions of power who can and do make high-stake decisions. These decisions influence the overall well-being and academic achievement of all students, including linguistically diverse students. I would love to say this challenge can be overcome, but I know that shifting away from the pervasive deficit mindset about this population will not be easy. For now, I continue to underscore the vast heterogeneity among linguistically diverse students in the United States, and I make clear in all my work that speaking a language other than English does not impede the ability to learn. This may sound obvious, but it is necessary for all to know.

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?

We have a long way to go to ensure educational equity for historically underserved students and families. One area in need of attention is the common inequitable process for identifying—and reclassifying—ELs in U.S. schools. Typically, parents are required to complete a home language survey when they enroll their child in school. If parents report that a language other than English is used at home, the student is immediately flagged as potentially not having the academic English language skills necessary to access the curriculum in English and must take an English language proficiency assessment. The intent is to identify students who need academic English language support services.

The problem is that many ELs who receive EL services tend to face a cycle of watered-down instruction and low academic expectations. In fact, many ELs are never reclassified as English-proficient despite years of EL support and English-only instruction. In sharp contrast, if parents report English as the only language used in the home, the student is automatically assumed to have adequate academic English language skills; their academic English language proficiency is never assessed. If we had universal academic English language proficiency screeners, I hypothesize that a sizable proportion of the “English-only” school-age population would show language profiles similar to that of ELs. It seems clear to me that there is inequity in the EL identification process and that ELs are arguably held to a higher academic standard, without the accompanying rigorous academic English language instructional support.

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

All emerging scholars must prioritize their research (from idea generation to grant writing to manuscript development) over other pulls on their time. However, emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups must be extra cautious to avoid overcommitting their time. It is almost a given that, precisely because they are from underrepresented, minoritized groups, there will be more service requests of all sorts for this subset of emerging scholars. Here is a typical example: A faculty member from an underrepresented, minoritized group tends to lead equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts at the department, college, and/or university level. Yet, being a scholar from a historically underrepresented and minoritized background is not synonymous with being an EDI expert. I think people don’t quite understand that these unspoken expectations can create a real time and ethical dilemma for emerging scholars from underrepresented, minoritized groups that their peers from majority groups do not encounter.

This  interview blog was produced by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), a program officer for the reading, writing, and language portfolio in the National Center for Special Education Research.

Innovating Math Education: Highlights from IES Learning Acceleration Challenges

A teacher and students work on math problems on a white board

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) held two Learning Acceleration Challenges during the 2022–23 school year, designed to incentivize innovation in math and science. The Math Prize sought school-based, digital interventions to significantly improve math outcomes, specifically in fractions, for upper elementary school students with or at risk for a disability that affects math performance. An unprecedented number of students are performing below grade level in core academic subjects according to the most recent data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. In response to this problem, the grand prize required interventions to reach an effect size equal to or exceeding 0.77 on a broad measure of math achievement, the NWEA® MAP™ Growth math assessment. The challenge included two phases: In Phase 1, intervention providers submitted information on their interventions and research plans for implementing and testing their interventions under routine conditions. In Phase 2, selected research teams (finalists) were given $25,000 to implement and test their interventions with a shot at receiving the grand prize.

There were four submissions scored by a panel of judges during Phase 1. Two teams were selected to proceed to Phase 2 of the challenge to implement their intervention in schools: The DRUM (Digital Rational Number) Intervention and the ExploreLearning’s Reflex + Frax intervention. These two interventions were implemented in schools between November 2022 and April 2023 and participating students completed the NWEA MAP Growth math assessment before and after implementation. At the completion of Phase 2, the judging panel scored the Phase 2 submissions according to a rigorous set of criteria that included impact (as evaluated by a randomized controlled trial), cost effectiveness, scalability, and sustainability. Based on the scores received by the finalists, the panel did not recommend awarding any Phase 2 Prizes.

We recognize this challenge was an ambitious and rapid effort to improve math achievement. With the knowledge gained from this challenge, we hope to continue to design opportunities that encourage transformative, innovative change within education. While disappointing, these results shed light on some of the challenges of targeting ambitious improvements in student math achievement:

  • The implementation hurdles experienced by both teams reinforce the difficulties of conducting research in schools, especially in the current post-pandemic era climate. In the present circumstances, many schools face extra strains that may make it challenging to implement new interventions, as is required during an RCT.
  • It has historically been, and continues to be, difficult to create accelerated growth in math achievement for students who are with or at risk for disabilities that affect math performance. An improvement in line with the challenge’s 0.77 effect size criterion for the grand prize would substantially lessen the average achievement gap between students with disabilities and their nondisabled peers—and would be no small feat!
  • Barriers still exist to implementation of a technology-based intervention. For intervention developers, the cost and time required to create a digital intervention can be very large. For schools, the necessary infrastructure and acceptance of digital interventions is not always present.
  • Researching interventions within schools takes a lot of time and resources. Sometimes getting answers to our most pressing educational problems takes time, despite the best efforts of those involved to accelerate this process. The results of this competition underscore the continued need for research to support the significant difficulties of this population of learners.

Thank you to all who participated. We would also like to thank Luminary Labs, the contractor providing support for the IES Learning Acceleration Challenges and the two strong partners they included in the work: NWEA and Abt Associates. We appreciate NWEA’s support in conducting the evaluation of the effects of the intervention on the MAP Growth assessment and Abt Associates for their technical assistance during the Phase 2 implementation. We also appreciate all their work to collect and summarize data to understand what we can learn from the challenges and recommendations from other open innovation initiatives to inform future similar work at IES.

If you have an intervention or an idea for an intervention that could accelerate math achievement for students with or at risk for disabilities, you are encouraged to learn more about additional funding opportunities at IES, and contact Sarah Brasiel, program officer for NCSER’s STEM topic area.

This blog was written by Britta Bresina, NCSER program officer.

Behavior and School Discipline for Students with Disabilities

Schoolwide discipline policies are meant to reduce disruptions to student learning. However, research reveals that the use of exclusionary discipline policies and practices, involving in- and out-of-school suspension and expulsion, could lead to long-term harmful outcomes for students who are frequently excluded from learning environments. Exclusionary discipline increases the risk of academic failure, school dropout, and socioemotional and mental health problems. Importantly, research also indicates that students with disabilities are disproportionately likely to be subject to exclusionary policies. According to 2017-18 data from the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, students with disabilities comprised approximately 13% of total school K-12 enrollment, yet receive about 25% of one or more out-of-school suspensions and 23% of all school expulsions. This pattern of school discipline demonstrates a pressing concern in modern education, requiring educators to explore systematic changes in current practice.

NCSER has been funding research projects that address school discipline for students with or at risk for disability, either directly or indirectly through interventions aimed at improving behavior. This blog features some examples of this work in elementary school, ranging from more focused student-level interventions to schoolwide efforts.

Headshot of Timothy Lewis

Timothy Lewis (University of Missouri, Columbia) and his colleagues are currently conducting a study aimed at evaluating the effectiveness of a behavioral intervention program called Check-in/Check-out. This intervention works to improve the social, emotional, and academic behavior of students at risk for emotional behavior disorder (EBD). Previous studies on Check-in/Check-out evaluated the intervention using single-case design research and small n group designs. This study expands the evidence base on Check-in/Check-out by employing a randomized controlled trial and assessing cost-effectiveness. Taking place in midwestern elementary schools, selected students at risk of EBD “check-in” with an intervention facilitator about daily behavioral goals. Students receive feedback and points (derived from a preestablished point system) from their teachers throughout the day about the extent to which they are meeting these goals. “Check-out” occurs at the end of the day, when points are recorded and the student takes this information home in a daily progress report. Results from this research project may offer insight on ways Check-in/Check-out can redirect student behavior at early stages, thus harboring the potential to decrease discipline rates among students with disabilities.

Headshot of Carl Sumi

Carl Sumi at SRI International and his colleagues at the University of Florida evaluated the effectiveness of the Tools for Getting Along intervention, which focuses on educators rather than on individual students. Tools for Getting Along is designed to help teachers enhance social problem solving in their classrooms so that students and teachers can work together to improve behavior and decrease disciplinary action. Prior research revealed that among this intervention’s positive effects, some of the strongest impacts were on behavior regulation and problem-solving knowledge for students with or at risk for disabilities, specifically those with behavioral needs. This effectiveness study expanded upon this research by incorporating more locations with more diversity and using an independent evaluation team to conduct the randomized controlled trial within the context of a routine school environment. The research team recently concluded the study, reporting preliminary findings of significant positive impact of the intervention on teacher report of student social skills, behavioral regulation, emotional regulation, cognitive regulation, and executive functions, as well as student self-report of problem-solving knowledge. Ultimately, these changes in student behavior can lead to decreases in referrals for student discipline.

Headshot of Jeong Hoon Choi

On broader, systems-level, Jeong Hoon Choi (University of Kansas) is testing a program, Resources Aligned and Integrated for Student Equity, that may help combat disproportionate exclusionary disciplinary practices. This intervention helps educator teams use data to better align and integrate general and special education resources to help students whose needs are not met through the universally and additionally provided instruction of the school. Embedded within a multi-tiered system of supports model, the intervention helps systematize team processes and decisions for those students with the most complex needs. Grade-level educator teams will participate in training, practice, and coaching to implement the practices, and the school district will receive technical assistance to help them sustain the intervention in their schools. The randomized controlled trial aims to determine whether schools receiving this intervention have better student academic and well-being outcomes, including reduced office discipline referrals and suspensions.

Headshot of Kent McIntosh

Kent McIntosh and Erik Girvan (University of Oregon) are addressing disproportionate disciplinary practices through more of a racial equity lens with a training targeting implicit bias among teachers. Project ReACT is a professional development program in which teachers are trained and coached over time to (a) identify specific situations where implicit bias likely occurred in discipline decisions by examining their own school discipline data with school leadership, (b) revise current discipline processes to better meet the needs of students from underserved and over-excluded groups, and (c) design strategies for teachers to minimize implicit bias in school discipline decisions. The research team assessed how exclusionary discipline rates changed in racially and ethnically diverse urban and rural elementary schools in several districts across the country. Using a randomized controlled trial, matching schools based on existing levels of inequities, the research team found that schools receiving the intervention experienced significant decreases in racial disparities in school discipline and office referrals for Black students.

NCSER investments in these projects demonstrate the commitment to finding effective, evidence-based solutions for improving behavior problems, and therefore reducing school discipline rates, for students with disabilities. While research continues to strive toward improving equity in this area, school leaders can also follow the guidelines issued by the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights and Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services to ensure fair treatment and access to services for students with disabilities regarding disciplinary measures.

This blog was authored by Isabelle Saillard, student volunteer for NCSER and undergraduate at the University of Virginia. Jackie Buckley is the program officer for NCSER’s Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Competence portfolio.

Spotlight on FY 2023 Early Career Development Grant Awardees: Supporting Latine Transborder Caregivers and Their Young Children with or at Risk for Autism

NCSER continues its series spotlighting the recently funded Early Career Development and Mentoring Grants Program principal investigators with an interview with Ana Dueñas, assistant professor in special education at San Diego State University. Dr. Dueñas is conducting research aimed at improving outcomes for Latine transborder caregivers and their young children with or at risk for autism. We are pleased that this blog also honors Hispanic Heritage Month

How did you become interested in studying early intervention for Latine children on the autism spectrum?

Headshot of Ana Dueñas

As a first-generation Mexican cis-gender woman who was raised in a bicultural transborder community alongside the San Diego/Tijuana border, I learned to navigate a shifting identity—speaking English and Spanish fluently to feel accepted by both communities and managing schooling and housing across borders. Like many other children of Mexican immigrants, I served as a translator, social worker, and advocate for my parents. These experiences, along with my sensitivity to the unique needs of this population, inform how I approach community-engaged research. I am also very aware of how the biases that my education and training in special education and applied behavior analysis influence my approach to intervention research, particularly in light of the history of deficit-driven rhetoric and a medical model of disability in these fields. I aim to be mindful of the power differential that is often associated with higher education, social class, and researcher institutions in my interactions with the families I support.

My interest in building partnerships with Latine caregivers of children with autism began 10 years ago. Earlier in my career, I was a social worker for the California Regional Centers, a non-profit organization that provides services, advocacy, and support to individuals with developmental disabilities and their families. There I gained firsthand awareness of the behavioral health disparities faced by historically minoritized families (delayed diagnosis and access to culturally relevant services). Now, as a junior faculty member and researcher, I bring these experiences to my work and hope to form genuine relationships with the Latine community to better inform autism intervention research.

What are some of the unique challenges and needs of your study population?

I hope to understand these issues in depth more throughout this project. What we know from the literature about the Latine community more broadly is that they face significant disparities in access to timely diagnosis and treatment for their autistic children. This racial disparity is exacerbated in rural communities, or “service deserts” like the Imperial Valley of California, where this project is situated. The transborder community as a subgroup of the larger Latine community has very specific needs that may create a mismatch in evidence-based practices. Some points of mismatch are logistical and environmental—living and working across borders—which may lead to limited compliance, attendance, or engagement in intervention. Other points of mismatch may occur because Latine families may have a history of working with staff that lack cultural competence and therefore have few positive experiences receiving early intervention services. Further, though my project doesn’t focus on families who are undocumented, transborder families may be dealing with unique issues related to immigration status—threats of deportation, housing insecurity, and limited access to physical and mental healthcare. 

What broader impact are you hoping to achieve with your research?

Through my research, I hope to address the behavioral education disparities among marginalized populations, as they undermine the quality of life and opportunities for autistic children and their families, particularly among families exposed to vulnerable circumstances. My study addresses one small component of the many disparities that occur across a continuum from identification to treatment to improve the match between evidence-based interventions and the specific needs of marginalized individuals. Many interventions were developed with minimal input from ethnic and/or racially marginalized communities. Though there continues to be an implementation fidelity versus cultural adaptation debate, without sensitivity and responsiveness to the unique needs of communities, interventions may fail to be adopted. In my work, I begin with an assessment to ensure that the intervention is relevant to community needs and desires.

What advice do you have for other early career researchers?

Don’t give up. Understand and harness your value. Follow your instinct. Seek mentorship.

Ana Dueñas demonstrates passion and meaningful personal connection to her research. We are excited to follow her work and see what lies ahead in her academic career trajectory in special education.

This blog was produced by Emilia Wenzel, NCSER intern and graduate student at University of Chicago. Katherine Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov) is the program officer for NCSER’s Early Career Development and Mentoring program.