Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

Graduate Student Reflections on Engaging Research Opportunities

Engaging students in research can enrich their knowledge and support their future confidence to pursue research careers. In this interview blog, Dr. Allen Ruby, Associate Commissioner for the Policy and Systems Division at NCER, asked four doctoral graduate students at Montclair State University, Melissa Escobar, Taylor Walls, Hannah Thomas, and Marline Francois, to reflect on what attracted them to an IES-funded research project led by Dr. Carrie Masia. The project aims to improve education outcomes for Black American high students with anxiety attending urban public schools through the development of culturally-responsive interventions.

What are your research interests, and how does this project align with your interests?

Melissa Escobar (ME): My research interests focus on optimizing access to evidence-based treatments for racial minority youth by training frontline providers in community and primary care settings to deliver them. I distinctly remember when I decided to pursue a career in psychology. I was working at a community youth center when the struggles of a Latinx mother deeply impacted me. Her husband's deportation to Mexico significantly altered her son's mood and schoolwork. She tearfully confided in me about her difficulties accessing mental health services for her son. She struggled to find a qualified provider who she believed understood their family's concerns, and the high cost of services and transportation prevented her from seeking care. Seeing the combination of cultural and structural barriers that influence mental health disparities within marginalized groups, I now align myself with research that advocates for high-quality depression and anxiety treatments in accessible locations for minority youth. This is why I found Dr. Masia's project a perfect fit for me. The project links the behavioral health and education sector to improve the mental health and academic achievement of historically marginalized youth with impairing anxiety.

Taylor Walls (TW): My research interests center around developing, implementing, and evaluating culturally sensitive interventions for children and adolescents with internalizing disorders in schools. A primary goal of this project is to use a school-based group intervention that has been shown to be effective in reducing social anxiety and revise it to address the unique needs of Black American students. It aims to consider the context of urban public schools and the culture of Black American adolescents. I have read about the importance of cultural adaptations to improve the quality and availability of these interventions for racial and ethnic minorities, and I welcome the opportunity to work closely on a project like this firsthand.

 

Hannah Thomas (HT): My research interests include optimizing evidence-based interventions for children and adolescents and the role of risk and protective factors in the development of internalizing disorders. My interest in these areas began when I worked at a summer program focused on bringing high school-aged student athletes, often from underserved communities, to learn leadership and sport psychology skills. This was a transformative experience, ultimately solidifying my interest to work with youth and interventions that teach skills to handle adversity. I was drawn to this IES project because it provides the opportunity to work with youth in a meaningful and impactful way.

 

Marline Francois (MF): My research interest is in exploring the psychological well-being of adolescent Black girls that experience racial and gender discrimination in education spaces. Furthermore, I am interested in creating gender and race-specific interventions for Black adolescent girls. My interest began after spending 15 years working as a therapist and recognizing the lack of interventions specifically for Black youth. I was also affected by the lack of adequate mental health services for Black youth coupled with their alarming increase in suicide rates. What I love about this project is that it aligns with my research interests and directly involves adolescents, which provides opportunities to learn from them and have them share their lived experiences.

 

What has been the most exciting aspect of this project for you?

ME: The most attractive part has been the opportunity to hear directly from students and parents on how to best address the needs of racial-ethnic minority families and develop culturally sensitive assessments and treatment strategies. Fully engaging with the community makes the work more meaningful to me. Also, the chance to have a hands-on approach in the research process from collecting qualitative data to developing interview guides and coding schemes makes me feel like my contributions are making a difference.

TW: As a fourth-year graduate student, this project is particularly exciting for me because I will be analyzing a portion of the data for my dissertation. It has expanded my research skills to formulate my own research questions to contribute information that is novel and of interest to my field. Furthermore, I enjoyed the aspects of this project that mirror my work as a clinician — speaking with children and their parents in one-on-one and small group settings to hear about their experiences and their feedback on how this program may be better tailored to their community. Having conversations with the individuals we want to impact makes this work particularly meaningful.

HT: The most exciting aspect of this project is the ability to be involved in multiple roles. I started at the beginning of the summer, and so far, I have been involved in conducting focus groups and developing a coding scheme for interview transcriptions. This excites me because I am able to diversify my skills as a researcher and gain experience in various research methods that may be useful for my dissertation.

MF: As a 3rd-year doctoral candidate, it has been exciting to see the process of this project from the beginning and being able to interview and interact with students and parents. I enjoyed the recruitment process and conducting focus groups and individual interviews. As a qualitative researcher, I appreciate the hands-on experience of learning how to conduct and the in-depth experiences shared by the students and parents, which will aid us in creating a more culturally sensitive intervention for Black youth.

What do you look for in a research supervisor or mentor?

ME: In addition to similar research interests, I look for a mentor who is respectful of personal boundaries. As graduate students, we have a lot of different responsibilities and having a mentor that shows you how to balance those roles is vital in keeping students engaged and successful. I have been fortunate to have a mentor who ensures that all work is evenly spread across all research team members. I also appreciate mentors who considers their students' personal goals and finds opportunities that align with them. For example, at the beginning of my graduate program, my mentor asked me what my goals were for the year, the program, and what type of work setting I saw myself in after graduation. This conversation has been beneficial in finding research opportunities, grants/scholarships, and clinical experiences that will help me meet my goals outside of working on research. Lastly, I take into consideration how available the mentor is. It is essential to maintain good communication through regular meetings and/or emails. This way, regular communication and feedback can happen in appropriate time frames, and any issues that arise are resolved quickly.

TW: It's important to me that a mentor has both interest in and time to support me in fostering my competence as a research professional and advancing my short- and long-term goals. This can be demonstrated in a number of ways, including recommending academic and professional development activities that will build my skills, providing constructive feedback in a respectful and supportive manner, and helping me manage challenges as they arise. I also prefer that my mentor shares in my passion for child-focused research and is eager to connect me with collaborators for projects or networking. Over the years, I've learned that I work best with mentors who grant me autonomy in my work, but I also benefit from frequent check-ins and strict deadlines. Finally, I appreciate a research mentor that provides encouragement and flexibility and acknowledges the importance of self-care and well-being.

HT: I looked for a research supervisor/mentor whose research interests aligned with mine. I found this to be important because not only are they knowledgeable in the area of research that I am interested in, but they also provide the right research opportunities to develop me on the road to an independent career.

MF: It was important for me to find a mentor with a research background that aligns to my research interests. I wanted to have someone that cared about my research interests and professional growth. Furthermore, it was important for me to find someone who was not afraid to give me constructive criticism on my ideas but also assist me with strategically planning for my future. As someone who values balance, it is also important for me to have a mentor who values my well-being.

What challenges have you faced when trying to find research projects that appeal to you, and what feedback would you give to graduate programs or faculty to better engage students in research? 

ME:  As a first-generation student, I did not know how to navigate finding research opportunities or emailing professors about potential opportunities. I quickly learned that most research opportunities aren't advertised and finding a role on a research team usually comes from word of mouth. I would encourage programs and faculty to do more to advertise research opportunities. I would also recommend that faculty welcome the involvement of undergraduate students in their labs. My research career began during the sophomore year of my undergraduate education. I would not have the experience I have today if that professor had not given me a chance. Even if the roles are small like doing audio transcription or data entry, all experience is valuable. Another suggestion would be to create a mentorship model within the lab with more senior students mentoring newer students. When relationships like this are built, students may feel more comfortable to try out new roles in the lab.

TW: In order to find research projects that appeal to me, I am diligent about seeking out faculty who are already doing work that interests me and are open to bringing on a collaborator. I appreciated that my graduate master's program hosted an open house at the beginning of each semester where students could meet faculty and be oriented to the research labs that were available to them. What helped me first want to get engaged in research was meeting faculty who were outwardly passionate about their work and created unique avenues for their students to get involved.

HT: I feel that I have been fortunate in obtaining research projects that appeal to me, and I attribute that to aligning myself with the right mentors. My past and current mentors are collaborative with other faculty and labs, which have allowed me to participate in a variety of research opportunities, further refining my research interests.  My suggestion for graduate programs and faculty to better engage students in research is to encourage collaboration across faculty and labs. 

MF: When I initially started my doctoral program, it was challenging to find the right research project that aligned with my interests. However, I believe it is important as a doctoral student to be flexible and adaptable to learning from other mentors. Furthermore, I found myself connecting with scholars and students from other disciplines and universities that had similar interests as myself. This has allowed me to learn to properly advocate for my needs and find a research lab that was more suitable for me. The advice I would give to graduate programs is to create more opportunities for graduate students across departments and disciplines tailored to various research needs. I also believe that universities can create more professional development training opportunities to better engage students in research, such as how to apply for competitive fellowships and grant opportunities during their studies.  


This blog was produced by Allen Ruby (Allen.Ruby@ed.gov), Associate Commissioner for Policy and Systems Division, NCER. 

 

Investing in Next Generation Technologies for Education and Special Education

The Department of Education’s (ED) Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program, administered by the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), funds entrepreneurial developers to create the next generation of technology products for students, teachers, and administrators in education and special education. The program, known as ED/IES SBIR, emphasizes an iterative design and development process and pilot research to test the feasibility, usability, and promise of new products to improve outcomes. The program also focuses on planning for commercialization so that the products can reach schools and end-users and be sustained over time.

In recent years, millions of students in tens of thousands of schools around the country have used technologies developed through ED/IES SBIR, including more than million students and teachers who used products for remote teaching and learning during the COVID-19 pandemic.

ED/IES SBIR Announces 2022 Awards

IES has made 10 2022 Phase I awards for $250,000*. During these 8 month projects, teams will develop and refine prototypes of new products and test their usability and initial feasibility. All awardees who complete a Phase I project will be eligible to apply for a Phase II award in 2023.

IES has made nine 2022 Phase II awards, which support further research and development of prototypes of education technology products that were developed under 2021 ED/IES SBIR Phase I awards. In these Phase II projects, teams will complete product development and conduct pilot studies in schools to demonstrate the usability and feasibility, fidelity of implementation, and the promise of the products to improve the intended outcomes.

IES also made one Direct to Phase II award to support the research, development, and evaluation of a new education technology product to ready an existing researcher-developed evidence-based intervention for use at scale and to plan for commercialization. The Direct to Phase II project is awarded without a prior Phase I award. All Phase II and the Direct to Phase II awards are for $1,000,000 for two-years. Across all awards, projects address different ages of students and content areas.

The list of all 2022 awards is posted here. This page will be updated with the two additional Phase I awards after the contracts are finalized.

 

 

The 2022 ED/IES SBIR awards highlight three trends that continue to emerge in the field of education technology.

Trend 1: Projects Are Employing Advanced Technologies to Personalize Learning and Generate Insights to Inform Tailored Instruction

About two-thirds of the new projects are developing software components that personalize teaching and learning, whether through artificial intelligence, machine learning, natural language processing, automated speech recognition, or algorithms. All these projects will include functionalities afforded by modern technology to personalize learning by adjusting content to the level of the individual learner, offer feedback and prompts to scaffold learning as students progress through the systems, and generate real-time actionable information for educators to track and understand student progress and adjust instruction accordingly. For example:

  • Charmtech Labs and Literably are fully developing reading assessments that provide feedback to inform instruction.
  • Sirius Thinking and studio:Sckaal are developing prototypes to formatively assess early grade school students in reading.
  • Sown To Grow and xSEL Labs are fully developing platforms to facilitate student social and emotional assessments and provide insights to educators.
  • Future Engineers is fully developing a platform for judges to provide feedback to students who enter STEM and educational challenges and contests.
  • Querium and 2Sigma School are developing prototypes to support math and computer science learning respectively.
  • ,Soterix is fully developing a smart walking cane and app for children with visual impairments to learn to navigate.
  • Alchemie is fully developing a product to provide audio cues to blind or visually impaired students learning science.
  • Star Autism Support is developing a prototype to support practitioners and parents of children with autism spectrum disorder.

Trend 2: Projects Focusing on Experiential and Hands-On Learning
Several new projects are combining hardware and software solutions to engage students through pedagogies employing game-based, hands-on, collaborative, or immersive learning:

  • Pocketlab is fully developing a matchbox-sized car with a sensor to collect physical science data as middle school students play.
  • GaiaXus is developing a prototype sensor used for environmental science field experiments.
  • Mind Trust is a developing a virtual reality escape room for biology learning.
  • Smart Girls is developing a prototype science game and accompanying real-world hands-on physical activity kits.
  • Indelible Learning is developing a prototype online multi-player game about the electoral college.
  • Edify is fully developing a school-based program for students to learn about, create, and play music.

Trend 3: Projects to Advance Research to Practice at Scale

Several new awards will advance existing education research-based practices into new technology products that are ready to be delivered at scale:

  • INSIGHTS is fully developing a new technology-delivered version to ready an NIH- and IES-supported social and emotional intervention for use at scale.
  • xSEL Laband Charmtech Labs (noted above) are building on prior IES-funded research-based interventions to create scalable products.
  • Scrible is developing an online writing platform in partnership with the National Writers Project based on prior Department of Education-funded research. 

 


*Note: Two additional 2022 Phase I awards are forthcoming in 2022. The contracts for these awards are delayed due to a back-up in the SAM registration process.

Stay tuned for updates on Twitter and Facebook as IES continues to support innovative forms of technology.

Edward Metz (Edward.Metz@ed.gov) is the Program Manager of the ED/IES SBIR program.

Michael Leonard (Michael.Leonard@ed.gov) is the Program Analyst of the ED/IES SBIR program.

 

Checking Up: School Transition Support for Students at Risk for Behavioral Problems and Their Families

In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Stormshak (University of Oregon) about her intervention, the Family Check-Up (FCU), which addresses emotional and behavioral challenges during times of transition for students with or at risk for disability. Dr. Stormshak has been testing the efficacy of FCU during different student transitions, from its initial iteration focused on the middle to high school transition, to implementation during the transition to kindergarten, to a “booster” intervention to support in the transition to middle school. The FCU intervention now includes an online version for middle school students, which is especially suited to the transition from virtual to in-person learning.

Let’s start off with the transition for young children. What are some challenges facing children at risk for behavioral problems and their families as children transition into kindergarten?

Photo of Elizabeth Stormshak

Our work has focused on family challenges and contextual stressors that impact the successful transition to schools, such as parent mental health, stress, and parenting skills. Our approach to intervention has focused on providing support to families as they transition with their children to elementary school through brief, strength-based, adaptive interventions to reduce problem behavior and enhance academic outcomes.

How does Family Check-Up address these challenges?

First, the FCU helps parents assess their own strengths and their child’s strengths, building on “what is going well” as they consider ways to focus on areas that need support. This strength-based approach to intervention helps motivate caretakers to consider different ways to manage child behavior and emotional problems in the home, which has implications for the transition to school.

Second, the FCU is a brief intervention that is adapted to the needs of families. No family receives the exact same intervention content because the focus is always derived from an individualized assessment that is norm-referenced and guides intervention delivery.

Why was it important to build the FCU to support the transition to middle school?

Middle school is a difficult time for youth and families. Caretakers tend to “disengage” during this time, which can lead to mental health and behavioral problems for youth. The FCU focuses on “re-engaging” parents during this critical transition. The intervention was originally focused on reducing risk during the transition from middle to high school. Interestingly, the FCU is an ideal intervention for all transitions that a child and family might experience (school entry, middle school, and high school). Therefore, extending FCU to help families with the transition from elementary to middle school seemed like a natural and critical extension of our work using FCU to support school adjustment during the other periods of transition. 

What have you found so far? Has FCU been found to improve student outcomes?

Our work at kindergarten entry has clearly linked the FCU intervention with a variety of important school-based outcomes, including reduced problem behavior and enhanced parenting skills and home–school engagement. In our primary outcome paper from this research, we found that engagement in the intervention led to improvements in parenting skills—including limit setting, parent self-efficacy, and parental warmth—which then led to reductions in child behavior problems from kindergarten to second grade.

Our work supports the FCU model as an effective intervention for children and families during the transition to school. We continue to follow this sample of children and families into the middle school years. Our data collection for this project will end during the 2022-2023 school year. At that time, we will be able to examine the impact of the kindergarten and middle school intervention combined and compare this group of children to a control condition with no FCU as well as groups that received intervention only during kindergarten entry and only during middle school entry.

Your latest project is part of a new competition, Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education. How has the FCU been adapted to address the needs of students following the disruptions of COVID-19?

I am excited to pursue this work and apply my interest in child and family mental health to the pandemic recovery. My whole career has been focused on the mental and behavioral health of children and families, and I hope to make a difference during this stressful time in society where mental health challenges for youth and their families have escalated.

We are eager to provide the FCU Online to schools in our area (Portland, Oregon) to address the recovery of students and families after the pandemic. Our work on the FCU Online began in 2015, well before the pandemic. Initial results of a randomized trial (supported by postdoctoral fellows funded through a postdoctoral training grant) supported the online approach for reduction of child emotional problems and improvement of parenting skills, especially for at-risk youth and parents. We expanded the model during COVID-19 in multiple ways, including adaptations that make the online model more accessible to families from a variety of backgrounds. The FCU Online can be delivered in both Spanish and English, is available on smartphones, and is easily delivered by schools because it can be supported by a range of providers, such as school counselors or behavioral health specialists.

The FCU Online has also been adapted with new content since the COVID-19 pandemic, including a module on Healthy Behaviors for Stressful Times that provides support to caretakers focused on healthy routines, coping, listening skills with youth, and management of depression and anxiety. We are excited to partner with schools in Oregon to implement this online approach to service delivery.

What are the next steps for your research?

The next steps in our work involve a focus on implementation and dissemination of the FCU Online model in schools. We have conducted focus groups and data collection with school providers over multiple grants and projects and have integrated this feedback into the FCU Online content and process. We look forward to continuing to build on this work in our new grant and to adapt the FCU Online to our changing times. We know that mental health and behavioral problems are going to persist for children and families, and evidence-based solutions that can be disseminated widely are going to be critical for helping us recover from the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic. 

Dr. Elizabeth Stormshak is the Knight Chair and Professor of Counseling Psychology and Human Services at the College of Education at the University of Oregon, 

This interview was produced and edited by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University.

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.

From Disproportionate Discipline to Thriving Students: An IES Postdoc’s Mission

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. This week, Dr. Courtney Zulauf-McCurdy, an IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training (SMART) Center, shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.

 

My interests in child development began early on. I moved frequently for my parents’ work, so I was often seen as an outsider by the other children at the schools I attended. One school in particular had a group of “popular students” who bullied others and were particularly aggressive to peers. Often, teachers and parents would turn a blind eye to this behavior, and I became curious about how parents and educators respond to and shape child behavior.

Understanding Disparities in Early Childhood

I pursued a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago out of a desire to advocate for children in both research and clinical practice. As a graduate student in the Social Emotional Teaching and Learning (SETL) Lab, I worked directly with parents, educators, and young children to understand how the school and home environment shape child behavior. Much of our research aimed to support teachers in improving children’s social-emotional development, but what I learned was that teachers weren’t providing equal opportunities and experiences to all children.

In particular, I became focused on an alarming disparity: disproportionate discipline. Not only are preschoolers being expelled at rates three times higher than students in K-12, but there are large discipline disparities by gender and race. In AY 2013-14, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Black children composed 19% of enrollment but 47% of those expelled. A report citing data from the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau found that children with social emotional difficulties are 14.5 times more likely to be expelled.

During graduate school, I explored the reasons why Black boys are being disproportionately expelled and found that it was at least in part related to teachers’ biased perceptions of parents. Because of this, I became interested in developing evidenced-based interventions for parents and educators to protect children from being expelled.

For my clinical internship, I specialized in integrated behavioral health at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I provided evidenced-based practices to children and families in underserved community settings. Here, I learned about behavioral interventions that improve child behavior, which work best when parents and teachers work together across home and school. However, I noticed that children of color were less likely to receive evidenced-based interventions (such as classroom-based behavioral interventions or parent management training), and even when they do, parents and teachers experience barriers to working together to implement these interventions. As a result, I shifted my focus from designing new interventions to understanding how to improve the implementation of interventions in community settings that serve young children from under-represented backgrounds.

Moving from Intervention Development to Implementation Science

As a second year IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington (UW) SMART Center, I am combining my research interests with implementation science. I am partnering with educators and parents to understand how teacher perceptions of parents and parent engagement is an implementation determinant—that is, a barrier or facilitator. Together, we are learning how to reduce disparities in preschool by improving the implementation of interventions that allow for early, easy, and acceptable access to families who face the highest levels of barriers. 

I have been using stakeholder-engaged processes consisting of focus groups, community advisory boards, and rapid try outs of strategies to ensure equity by engaging the perspectives of families from under-represented minority backgrounds. Such community engagement aims to ensure that our interventions are culturally responsive and unimpeded by bias.

Through my work, I have learned that educators and parents want the best outcomes for their children but face a multitude of barriers that hinder their ability to engage. For example, preschool teachers have limited resources, face stress and burnout, are under-prepared and underpaid, leading to considerable barriers in addressing the mental health needs of young children. Likewise, parents face obstacles such as perceived bias from their child’s school and logistical barriers such as time and childcare.

Moving Forward

I will continue working directly with parents and educators to understand how we can place all young children (and their families) in the best position to thrive. I will continue to use research methods, such as community advisory boards and qualitative methods, that seek to elevate the voices of parents and educators to promote equitable child outcomes. Through continued collaboration with community partners, disseminating my findings to parents, educators, and practitioners and connecting research with culturally responsive early childhood practice and policies, I hope to dismantle disparities in preschool outcomes.


Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.