Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Interventions for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Early Childhood: Preliminary and Long-Term Impacts

The prevalence of children identified as having autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has increased steadily in the last 20 years. Early identification and intervention is important, a point that is underscored by the CDC’s campaign Learn the Signs. Act Early. To recognize April’s Autism Awareness Month, NCSER is highlighting two projects supporting the capacity of parents and educators to intervene in children’s early development.

Assisting Early Interventionists in Facilitating Parent Mediation of Learning

Photo of Hannah SchertzPhoto of Kathleen Baggett

Researchers Hannah Schertz (left, Indiana University) and Kathleen Baggett (right, Georgia State University) have developed a framework to improve the social communication skills of toddlers showing signs of ASD with a system that guides early interventionists (EIs) to support parents. The program, Supporting Early Interventionists of Toddlers with Autism to Build Family Capacity (SEITA), aims to help EIs to work with parents as they integrate interventions into natural interactions with their children. EIs learn to guide parents in understanding when their child is engaging in social communication and in implementing learning strategies to enhance these competencies during parent-child interactions. More specifically, EIs guide parents in applying four mediated strategies to promote engagement in learning: focusing, giving meaning, encouraging, and expanding. For example, one strategy they use is to facilitate guided reflection on a just-recorded video of parent-child interactions.

As the researchers test the promise of the intervention, they report that EIs have conducted the intervention with fidelity in both home-based and telehealth contexts. They have found that parents in the study demonstrated clear improvements in their use of at least two mediated learning strategies and have been able to implement intervention practices with fidelity when working with their children. The researchers also track the children’s progress on social reciprocity, joint attention, positive social behavior, and social play, and results will be analyzed when data collection is complete.

Investigating the Long-Term Benefits of an Elementary Intervention

Photo of James P. Donnelly, Marcus L. Thomeer, Christopher Lopata, and Jonathan D. Rodgers
The IAR team (from left to right): James P. Donnelly, Marcus L. Thomeer, Christopher Lopata, and Jonathan D. Rodgers

As children age into elementary grades, their primary site of intervention becomes the school. In 2008, NCSER funded the development of the comprehensive school-based intervention (CSBI) to support the social competencies of children with high functioning autism spectrum disorder (HFASD). This multi-prong approach includes interactive computer instruction to teach children to recognize emotions, social skills groups, therapeutic peer group activities to practice social skills, daily behavioral notes, and monthly parent training. A 2013 NCSER-funded randomized controlled trial of CSBI found that students with HFASD who participated in CSBI improved significantly in measures of social cognition, social-communication skills, and ASD symptoms compared to students with HFASD who received typical instruction.

To assess the intervention’s ability to impact long-term student development, Christopher Lopata and his colleagues James Donnelly, Marcus Thomeer, and Jonathan Rodgers (Canisius College) are following up on the initial efficacy trial to study the middle and high school students who participated in CSBI in elementary school. They are measuring student social cognition, social communication skills, ASD symptoms, and academic achievement at the beginning and end of two consecutive school years to examine lasting impacts of the CSBI program. Although data are still being analyzed from this project, it is notable that because data collection occurred as the COVID-19 pandemic caused school shutdowns, the PIs were able to examine the potential effects of stay-at-home restrictions on these students. There have been widespread concerns that disruptions to routines, curtailed social opportunities, and removal of support services associated with shutdowns could have deleterious effects on children with ASD. However, Lopata and colleagues found no significant differences between data collected before stay-at-home restrictions and data collected 4 months after the restrictions on ASD symptoms, adaptive behaviors, or social communication.

NCSER will continue to share the final results of these studies, as well as additional research focused on supporting children with ASD, in the future.

Written by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University, and by Emily Weaver (Emily.Weaver@ed.gov), NCSER program officer who oversees ASD grants.

Assessing Social Emotional Strengths in Schools to Protect Youth Mental Health

The transition into high school is characterized by growing academic demands, more diverse and complex social interactions, and increasing pressure associated with the looming transition into adult life and responsibilities. As part of an IES-funded measurement project, Drs. Michael Furlong, Erin Dowdy, and Karen Nylund-Gibson refined and validated the Social Emotional Health Survey-Secondary (SEHS-S-2020). The SEHS-S-2020 assesses the social-emotional assets of high school students and fits within multi-tiered systems of support and response-to-intervention frameworks schools regularly employ for the identification and care of students with learning or social-emotional needs. We asked the research team that developed the SEHS-S-2020 to tell us more about the development of the measure and how it is being used in schools.

Photos of the authors of the blog (Top to Bottom: Karen Nylund-Gibson; Michael Furlong; Erin Dowdy)What inspired you to develop the Social Emotional Health Survey-Secondary?

We were motivated by two events between 2008 and 2013. First, while we were serving as local evaluators of two Safe Schools/Healthy Students (SSHS) projects in Santa Barbara County, our project school administrators and mental health professionals challenged us to consider alternative ways to assess social-emotional health and the impacts of these projects. Second, around the same time, Michael Furlong was editing the first edition of the Handbook of Positive Psychology in Schools. Examining various positive psychological mindsets for the SSHS projects, we recognized that many of these constructs—such as hope, self-efficacy, and grit—had overlapping content. Based on this, we wanted to see if we could develop an efficient measure of positive psychology mindsets in adolescents.

The traditional mental health disorder literature uses comorbidity to describe the poor psychosocial outcomes for individuals experiencing more than one psychological disorder. We wondered whether students who report multiple social and psychological assets have enhanced developmental outcomes. The term we use for this "whole is greater than the sum of its parts" construct is covitality. Building on this concept, a significant effort of our work at the University of California, Santa Barbara has been to develop measures for schools to monitor social-emotional wellness. We created measures for primary and secondary schools and higher education institutions because fostering social-emotional health is ongoing and responsive to emerging developmental tasks.

How does the Social Emotional Health Survey-Secondary measure covitality?

Through an IES Measurement grant, we refined and validated the SEHS-Secondary form, which measures psychosocial strengths derived from the social emotional learning (SEL) and positive youth development (PYD) literature. SEHS-S-2020 assesses four related general positive social and emotional health domains that contribute to covitality. 

  • Belief in Self consists of three subscales grounded in constructs from self-determination theory literature: self-efficacy, self-awareness, and persistence. 
  • Belief in Others comprises three subscales derived from constructs found in childhood resilience literature: school support, peer support, and family support. 
  • Emotional Competence consists of three subscales: emotion regulation, empathy, and behavioral self-control. 
  • Engaged Living comprises three subscales grounded in constructs derived from the positive youth psychology literature: gratitude, zest, and optimism.

What did you find during the validation study?

The validation project involved a cross-sectional sample of more than 100,000 California secondary school students in partnership with the California State Department of Education and WestEd. We also collected three years of longitudinal data with two collaborating school districts. Our goal was to develop a valid measure to support educator efforts to foster positive development. We wanted to document how the number of developmental assets was associated with mental well-being. This chart shows that students reporting many SEHS-S-2020 assets were substantially more likely to report flourishing well-being. Adolescents with more SEHS-S-2020 assets were less likely to report chronic sadness or past-year suicidal ideation (see the covitality advantage).

Bar chart showing associations between student reports on the SEHS-S-2020 and their mental wellness

Did you have any unanticipated project outcomes?

Data collection immediately predated the COVID-19 pandemic. It provided a baseline to assess the effects of the pandemic and broader social divisiveness in the United States on student well-being. An important unanticipated outcome is that pre-pandemic social well-being declined substantially during and after remote learning.

Our project began collecting longitudinal data from middle and high school students in October 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic. One participating school district asked us to administer the survey in October 2020 during remote learning and in October 2021 after the students returned to school, in order to understand remote learning's impacts on students' well-being. They also provided support for specific students who were not coping well. Our preliminary findings (paper in progress) showed that the students reported some diminished emotional well-being and global life satisfaction, but their social well-being decreased substantially from 2019 to 2021, about one-half of a standard deviation. Two macro-social items in particular declined markedly. One asks the students to express how often (in the past month) "they felt that society was a good place or becoming a better place for all people." A second asks them, "if the way that society works makes sense." Students reporting the steepest social well-being declines also reported substantial increases in chronic sadness and diminished global life satisfaction. These declines suggest that the broader impacts of the pandemic took a toll on the students.

How are schools using the resources your project developed?

There is a greater emphasis on evaluating social and emotional health and well-being than before. The SEHS-S-2020 is now a core component of the California Healthy Kids Survey (CHKS), a biennial survey used by most California schools. It provides information about student wellness and risk-related behaviors. In addition, several California school districts have adopted the SEHS-S-2020 and other project-developed measures for their Tier 1 universal wellness screening, following up and providing counseling services and supports.

We are eager to see more schools using the resources from our project. For example, researchers in more than 20 countries have adapted the SEHS-S-2020 to explore cross-cultural aspects of well-being. An app to administer, score, report, and track  social and emotional wellness with the SEHS-S-2020 now supports Tier 1 wellness monitoring.


Michael Furlong, Ph.D., is a Distinguished Professor Emeritus of School Psychology and holds a 2021-2022 Edward A. Dickson Emeritus Professorship at the University of California Santa Barbara.

Erin Dowdy, PhD., is a Professor in the Department of Counseling, Clinical, and School Psychology at the University of California Santa Barbara. She is a licensed psychologist and a nationally certified school psychologist.

Karen Nylund-Gibson, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Quantitative Methods in the Department of Education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

This blog was produced by NCER Program Officer, Corinne Alfeld. Please contact Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov for more information.

Powering Our Future: How Service-Learning Aligned with Next Generation Science Standards Can Promote Science Learning, Social and Emotional Skills, and Civic Engagement

Each generation faces its own societal challenges. Two prominent issues—the climate crisis and America’s political divide—are heavy burdens for today’s youth. Without explicit focus in schools, it is hard to imagine how children will learn to work across differences and collaborate with others to solve complex environmental problems. Youth are very capable people, and school comes alive when they feel agency and see how their efforts matter in the community. Service-learning can help teachers make instruction feel relevant and teach skills that lead to civic engagement as youth learn to design, implement, and evaluate solutions to problems that are important to them. In this interview blog, the Connect Science project team explains how they developed curriculum and professional development to support teachers to engage their students in service-learning experiences.

Can you tell us about Connect Science and what it looks like in action?

Fueled by an IES Development and Innovation grant, our team developed and evaluated a science-based service-learning approach for the upper-elementary school years. In doing so, we answered a need that teachers and schools face as they strive to create engaging experiences aligned with the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Connect Science is a 12-week project-based learning unit for upper elementary students. Early on, teachers and students explore topics of energy and natural resources using lessons aligned with the NGSS. Teachers guide student learning on what it means to be an engaged citizen and on the social and collaborative skills needed to take action in the community. To prepare, teachers receive five days of professional development and follow-up coaching. Teachers also receive a Connect Science manual, related books, and science materials.

But what does Connect Science actually look like in action? Imagine fourth graders engaged in a science unit on renewable and non-renewable resources. The students learn about different energy sources and then discuss pros and cons of each source. They become aware that non-renewable energy resources are rapidly diminishing and would not always be available to generate electricity. The awareness of this problem energizes them to promote energy conservation. Toward that goal, the students decide to educate other students and families at their school about energy use. At the next open house night, they turn their cafeteria into an energy fair where they share important information. For example, one group of students teaches about what types of energy sources were used in their state to produce electricity and another group teaches ways that people can save energy in their home. Before and after the energy fair, the students administer a pre- and post-survey on energy facts to size up what their visitors learned.

How did the IES grant support the development and pilot testing of Connect Science?

In the first two years of this grant, we developed and tested materials with teachers. In the third year, we conducted a randomized controlled trial of Connect Science involving 41 classrooms with 20 in Connect Science and 21 in a waitlist comparison group, resulting in a student sample of 868 students (423 students participated in the intervention).

We found that Connect Science impacted teacher practices and student outcomes. Teachers in the Connect Science group were more effective at engaging in the two NGSS practices that we measured: eliciting and building on prior knowledge and creating opportunities for student critique, explanation, and argument. Further, we saw higher science achievement and energy attitudes and behaviors in the intervention than control condition. The social skill results hinged on the fidelity of implementation. When teachers used more Connect Science practices, students showed improved communication and social competence. As a result of these findings, Connect Science is designated as a Promising Program by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL).

What are the implications of your findings?

Too few projects integrate academic and social learning in schools. Often, high-quality NGSS materials are developed with little thought about the social skills students need to engage in that instruction. Likewise, social and emotional learning is often taught separately from academic content. Service-learning is a framework that bridges these two areas and allows students to engage in authentic, science-based work. Given our experiences, we have a few recommendations for educators eager to use service-learning.

  • Teach social, emotional, and collaborative skills with intention before launching into group work. In the elementary schools, children thrive from being in supportive caring classrooms and they respond well to lessons on active listening, respectful communication, and understanding people with multiple perspectives.
  • Leverage the existing curriculum and build in service-learning experiences. Rather than adding one more new topic, look at existing curricular topics and use service-learning to facilitate deep learning on content areas that already part of the curriculum.
  • Amplify youth voice. Teachers need to work with students to identify a relevant community problem and generate solutions to that problem. We carefully developed the Connect Science materials to be more teacher-directed toward the beginning of the unit and more student-directed toward the end. This approach was based both on theoretical and empirical work supporting the importance of student autonomy.

 


Sara Rimm-Kaufman is the Commonwealth Professor of Education at the University of Virginia School of Education and Human Development. Her recent book for teachers, SEL from the Start, is based on the Connect Science work.

Eileen Merritt is a Research Scientist in the College of Natural Resources and the Environment at Virginia Tech. Her research and teaching focus on environmental and sustainability education.

Tracy Harkins is the owner of Harkins Consulting, LLC in Maine. Her focus is providing professional development and resources to engage and motivate student learners through service-learning. She will be offering an upcoming Connect Science Institute in Summer 2022.

For questions about this project, please contact Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov, NCER program officer.

The 2022 IES PI Meeting: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in the Education Sciences

On January 25-27, 2022, NCER and NCSER hosted  our first Principal Investigators (PI) Meeting since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world as we know it. Even though we were hopeful and eager to connect with our grantees in person, given the continuing uncertainties due to COVID-19, we opted for our very first fully virtual PI meeting, and we are pleased to say it was a success on many fronts!

Our co-chairs, Brian Boyd (University of Kansas), and Doré LaForett (Child Trends and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) were instrumental in the success of this meeting. They helped identify the meeting theme: Advancing Equity & Inclusion in the Education Sciences, suggested sessions (including the plenaries) that addressed the theme,  recommended strategies to encourage networking and engagement, and participated in two great sessions focused on Engaging in Anti-racist, Culturally Responsive Research Practices and the Importance of Identifying English Learners in Education Research Studies.

Here are a few highlights:

The meeting kicked off with a welcome from the Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, followed by IES Director Mark Schneider’s opening remarks. Secretary Cardona reaffirmed the importance and need for high-quality education research to identify, measure, and address disparities in education opportunities and outcomes. Director Schneider spoke about improving the infrastructure of the education sciences and ways that IES will continue to encourage investigators to incorporate the SEER principles going forward. He also revealed a ninth SEER principle focused on equity, calling on researchers to “address inequities in societal resources and outcomes.” See a recap of his talk here.

This year’s theme was threaded throughout the meeting, emphasizing the importance and complexity of advancing equity and inclusion in the education sciences. The opening plenary speakers began the meeting with advice on how to center equity and inclusion in education research; the Commissioners provided updates on how NCER and NCSER are working to address diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility; sessions focused on challenges and potential solutions for doing research with an equity lens; and the closing plenary discussed how to plan for diversity in education research.   

Deep conversations occurred around meaningful and relevant topic areas. Over three days, we had nearly 900 attendees going in and out of virtual rooms (with very few technology glitches—no small feat!) participating in discussions around four main topic areas:

  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility (DEIA)—Sessions included discussions of centering equity in education research
  • COVID-19 Pandemic—Sessions included lessons learned from COVID-19 research pivots and considerations for research during COVID-19 and recovery
  • Methods & Measurement—Sessions included information on innovations in statistical methods, data collection tools, and scaling evidence-based practices
  • Results from IES Research—Sessions included highlights of findings from several IES-funded grants and Research and Development centers

See the agenda for a complete list of this year’s sessions.

Finally, although we weren’t able to be in the same physical room, one of the real benefits of this virtual meeting was the ability to record the sessions. IES continues to encourage the dissemination of IES-supported research to a wider audience, and we want to do our part by making the recordings from the sessions publicly available. We hope you enjoy watching the incredibly valuable and thought-provoking presentations and discussions and share widely with your networks.

 

 

Thanks to our attendees for their participation. Your engagement made this year’s meeting a true success. We are already looking forward to next year’s meeting!

If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for how to continue the conversation around DEIA, please do not hesitate to contact NCER Commissioner Liz Albro (Elizabeth.Albro@ed.gov) or NCSER Commissioner Joan McLaughlin (Joan.McLauglin@ed.gov). We look forward to hearing from you.

Promoting Equitable and Sustainable Behavioral Interventions in Early Childhood

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 herehere, 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.