Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

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.

Supporting Bilingual Learners in Early Childhood

The Postdoctoral Research Training Program in Special Education and Early Intervention was designed to prepare scientists to conduct rigorous, practice-relevant research to advance the fields of special education and early intervention. Xigrid Soto-Boykin recently completed an IES postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Kansas and is currently an assistant research professor and senior scientist at Arizona State University. Her research focuses on early childhood education for bilingual learners, including those with communication impairments. We recently caught up with Dr. Soto-Boykin 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.

Photo of Xigrid Soto-Boykin

As a Puerto Rican who learned English at age 11 and who was the first person in my family to attend college, my passion for conducting research focused on high-quality early childhood education for Latinx preschoolers stems from my personal experiences.

During my postdoctoral fellowship at Juniper Gardens Children’s Project at the University of Kansas under Dr. Judith Carta, I had the opportunity to conduct community-based research in a local bilingual early childhood center in Kansas City. Initially, my goal was to expand my dissertation work, which focused on evaluating the effects of bilingual emergent literacy instruction for Latinx preschoolers. However, like all great stories go, my research agenda took some unexpected twists and turns. On the day my initial research study was approved, we were informed we needed to work remotely and that we could not go on-site to conduct our research due to the COVID-19 pandemic. What initially felt like a major setback became an opportunity to expand my research. While working remotely, I continued to collaborate with the administrators and teachers to determine their most pressing needs. We co-constructed a strategic plan for identifying the center’s strengths and areas for improvement. To address areas identified as major needs, we began initiatives to provide educators with ongoing professional development and families with engagement opportunities. Through this research-community partnership, we were awarded a Kauffman Quality Improvement Grant. This grant is funding our creation of the infrastructure necessary to apply data-based decision making to guide teacher professional development and monitor children’s school readiness and bilingual development.  

In 2020, as the nation was reeling from the COVID-19 pandemic and a reckoning of the structural racism impacting the lives of Black and Brown individuals, the work I was doing at the bilingual early childhood center became contextualized. I saw how teachers who earn minimal wages risked their lives to provide essential care for children and families. I saw how families struggled to make ends meet after losing their jobs. I began understanding how linguistic discrimination impacts the way researchers, educators, and policymakers address bilingualism. As I read outside my typical fields of speech-language therapy, bilingualism, and early childhood special education, I began to see how the interconnected systems in our society impact the lives of Latinx bilingual children.

This renewed understanding led me to where I am today. In 2020, I launched a website, habladll.org, containing free resources for parents, teachers, and therapists working with bilingual children. I am presently an assistant research professor and senior scientist of bilingual learning at The Children’s Equity Project (CEP) at Arizona State University. The CEP is a non-partisan center that seeks to inform research, policy, and practice to promote equitable access to early childhood education. In this role, I am applying what I learned during my postdoctoral fellowship to ensure young dual language learners with and without disabilities and their families receive the bilingual support they deserve.

My research and personal experiences are one and the same. I see myself as a scholar-activist with the goal of creating just educational experiences for Latinx children and their families. I am grateful for my training, mentors, colleagues, and community partners who continue to equip me with the tools to co-create a world where Latinx children receive high quality early childhood instruction centered on their unique linguistic and cultural assets.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, hereand 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.

Challenging Implicit Bias in Schools

School environments are places in which students, particularly students of color, are exposed to implicit bias and discrimination that can negatively impact their academic outcomes. In this interview blog, we asked prevention scientist Dr. Chynna McCall to discuss how her career journey and her experiences working with children and families from diverse populations inspired her research on creating equitable school environments.   

 

Chynna McCall PhotoHow did you begin your career journey as a prevention scientist?

Perhaps my most valued professional experience is serving as a licensed school psychologist in public schools in Colorado, working with children and families from racially, culturally, and linguistically diverse populations. This experience inspired me to join the Missouri Prevention Science Institute in 2018 as an Institute of Education Sciences postdoctoral fellow, where I studied how to use research to solve real-world problems. More specifically, I learned how to use prevention science to develop and evaluate evidence-based practices and interventions that prevent negative social and emotional impacts before they happen. After my fellowship, I was hired and promoted to a senior research associate position at the Missouri Prevention Science Institute. In this role, I have operational responsibilities for various federally funded grants and conduct my own grant-funded research. Presently, I am working on the development and testing of an equity-focused social-emotional learning curriculum for 3rd through 5th grade students.

What challenges did you observe as a school psychologist?

As a school psychologist, I worked in two vastly different school districts. In one, most students came from low-income families, spoke English as a second language, and the school's performance on standardized tests was significantly below average. Most of the challenges I tackled during my time there could be categorized as social-emotional; most students had unbalanced home lives, and many suffered emotional or physical trauma. Because the school district pressured teachers to improve test scores, focus on behavior and classroom management unilaterally shifted towards scholastics. The unfortunate outcome was neglecting to acknowledge the role that student behavior and the root causes of those behaviors play in affecting academic outcomes. While the second district I worked for was a high-performing one with generally high socioeconomic status, I chose to work for the school designated for those children in the district who have serious emotional disabilities.

Even though there are stark differences between the two districts, I consistently encountered a need for students to develop better relationships with their teachers, peers, and parents, develop a better sense of self, and for teachers, other school personnel, students, and parents to have a better understanding of how their practices and interactions are impacting student social-emotional and academic outcomes.

How does your background as a school psychologist influence your research?

My experience as a school psychologist has reinforced my understanding of what is needed to improve public education and what research questions are of utmost importance. Through my time as a school psychologist, it helped me define the goals of my research, which include 1) understanding the influence of prejudice and discrimination on student internal and external behaviors and outcomes, 2) understanding how school personnel expression of prejudice and discrimination influence student internal and external behaviors and outcomes, and 3) determining how to most effectively develop an equitable school environment that positively influences marginalized and minoritized youth outcomes.

My research examines how school environment—including the prejudicial and discriminatory thoughts and behaviors of school staff, students, and guardians—influences identity development, identity expression (for example, racial identity, gender identity, sexuality, and intersectionality) and internal and external behaviors. The objective is to use this knowledge to create a school environment that facilitates prosocial student identity development. My research hinges on my observations and experiences as a practicing school psychologist to focus on how to shift differential outcomes observed in public education due to experiences of discrimination both in and out of the school setting.

In your area of research, what do you see as the greatest research needs or recommendations to address diversity and equity and improve the relevance of education research for diverse communities of students and families?

I believe schools at every level of education are microcosms for the greater society. How students traverse through the school system dictates how they will navigate through the macrocosm of society. How students navigate the school system can be improved if school systems are equipped with the tools that allow staff to prepare the students better academically, socially, and emotionally. These tools are essential for students who are having a difficult time because of cultural, linguistic, psychological, or physical differences from their peers. It is crucial for the research community to continually advocate for positive change in our education system, work towards better understanding student needs, and develop effective and efficient tools that better promote student growth and outcomes.

I also believe that researchers who study school environments must explicitly study bias. We have to look at whether and how school professionals are becoming aware of and challenging their implicit biases, as well as how students are becoming aware of bias and how they deal with it—either by internalizing it or challenging it. We also must look into how challenging or accepting bias affects students emotionally, behaviorally, and academically.

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

See your perspective and experience as assets. Your perspective is underrepresented and is needed in making necessary changes to education and education outcomes. When you view your perspective as something of value, you are better able to determine what unaddressed research questions need to be asked and to move education research in a direction that is more inclusive of every student.


This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here, here, and here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Black History Month blog series, we are focusing on African American/Black researchers and fellows as well as researchers who focus on the education of Black students.

Dr. Chynna McCall is a Senior Research Associate with the Missouri Prevention Science Institute at the University of Missouri. Prior to this position, she was an IES postdoctoral fellow in the Missouri Interdisciplinary Postdoctoral Research and Training Program training program.

Produced by Corinne Alfeld (Corinne.Alfeld@ed.gov), postdoctoral training program officer, and Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council and predoctoral training program officer.

 

Supporting Native Students and Conducting Research with Tribal Communities: An Interview with Nia Gregory, Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe

The Pathways to the Education Sciences Program was designed to inspire students from groups that have been historically underrepresented in doctoral study to pursue careers in education research. Pathways Alumna, Nia Gregory, is currently the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe. In honor of Native American Heritage Month, we asked Director Gregory, who is of Cherokee and Yuchi descent, to discuss her career journey. This is what she shared with us.

How did you become interested in a career in education?

Honestly, it was a long journey to where I am. I changed my major three times in undergrad from nursing to microbiology and then finishing with my bachelor’s degree in ethnic studies with a concentration in Native American studies. I was so disappointed with the lack of access to nursing programs and the increase of unhealthy competition; I had a perfect GPA and TEAS test scores, but I was denied for 3 years! That’s a long time for someone without many resources to stay in school. I switched to microbiology with the intent to teach. However, this was the first time I experienced how chilly the climate can be for women in the science fields. I felt that no matter how great I did, my professors gave credit to my male counterparts. Then, I took an elective class with the Department of Ethnic Studies, and I fell in love with the inclusion, transparency, and truth of it all. Never had I experienced the privilege of being taught my own history by people who represented my culture. I realized that I wanted to be that representation for others; I wanted to work towards correcting the narrative for Native peoples.

How did participation in the Pathways to the Education Sciences training program at California State University, Sacramento (Sacramento State) shape your career journey?

The mentors in the program and the work experience gave me a clearer vision of how I could support Native students in the future. It also helped me prepare for graduate school and keep me on track. My mentor, Heidi Sarabia, made sure I was passionate about my research, which I carry with me today. She also taught me different aspects of the research process, including the IRB process, which gave me the confidence to conduct research during my graduate studies. As part of the Pathways program, we also had internship opportunities, where I was able to see the wonderful work that the College of Education at Sacramento State was doing. I learned many skills with this internship with the Capitol Education Institute under the amazing leadership of Pia Wong. I was also able to pick up an exceptionally valuable skill through Pathways Director Jana Noel’s grant writing workshop. However, I couldn’t help the Native community directly in that position. I decided I wanted to work closer with Native youth, so I applied for a position at Wilton Rancheria’s Department of Education.

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

Geez, it’s hard to pick just one! For a long time, it felt like every challenge was piling up, and barriers were getting higher. I was overwhelmed having to navigate college alone with limited resources. I dropped out of college and felt so defeated. I have always struggled with my mental health; regulating medications for bipolar disorder is exceptionally tiring. It wasn’t necessarily a specific tangible thing rather than a long slump. I wasn’t medically regulated, and I wasn’t treating myself or those around me well. In 2016, I took care of my father and watched him quickly decline and slip away from me. When he passed, it hit me hard, and I felt lost and knew I needed to make some moves. I decided to go back to school. Returning to college a bit older and more mature was a great experience. All in all, it took me 9 years to finish my undergraduate degree, but I’m grateful I was able to experience college in a healthier mindset with a wider worldview.

As the Executive Director of Education for the Wilton Rancheria Tribe, what advice would you give education researchers who wish to work with tribal communities?

The Native community is reasonably wary of researchers, especially research coming from outside of the community. So being transparent about your intention with data collection and interest in our community is key. Recognize that the community is not a subject of study, and it is not the community’s responsibility to aid in their research. As an educator, I feel it’s important to correct the erasure narrative of indigenous peoples in this country. However, I also feel it is not Tribal communities’ responsibility to catch people up to speed on the Native American experience. If somebody wishes to work with a Tribal community, they should take the time to learn about that community before reaching out to Tribes. I would also recommend going through a Tribal government or Tribal sponsored program. Recognize that you may be turned down, and the correct response is to graciously accept that. Be patient because forming this connection and trust takes time. Like my momma says, “your urgency is not my emergency.” I would also like to leave readers with a resource, a book by Devon A Mihesuah, So You Want to Write About American Indians?

How can the broader education research community better support the careers and scholarship of Native American students and researchers?

I know it sounds very simple, but by making space. Not just for the individual but for the worldview of Native people. When I was in graduate school, I struggled with getting books and literature from Native authors in our university library. I was advocating for a Native student space on top of correcting professors when they were blatantly continuing the erasure narrative of Native peoples. Sometimes, good intentions aren’t enough. Educators of all stages of learning need cultural competency training. We are often an asterisk or marked as “other” or often “too few to include” in data and graphs. Even well-intentioned research on race and ethnicity is exclusive and doesn’t make space for the Native community.

What advice would you give Native American students and scholars who wish to pursue a career in education research?

That it’s okay to be mad but use that to turn it into passion. I was frustrated for so long with trying to find information or fighting a system that only values certain sources. Also, know that there are people out there that know the barriers you are facing. I have reached out to Native authors and researchers, and of all the people I have contacted responded with empathy and provided me with resources. Don’t feel like you need to reinvent the wheel; reach out to Native educators and fellow students. Take Native studies courses. Get involved in a Native club for support. Talk to your professors. I cannot stress that enough!

Remember that your work will help the next generation, and then work for seven generations ahead. You are a living embodiment of what it means to resist and be resilient. You are your ancestors’ dreams come true.

All my relations


Nia Gregory is the Executive Director of Education of the Wilton Rancheria Tribe and focuses on the promotion of academic excellence of the Tribe.

This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of interviews (see here) showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. As part of our Native American Heritage Month blog series, we are focusing on Native American researchers and fellows, as well as researchers that focus on the education of Native American students.

This guest blog was produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program.

Developing Research Training Programs (Part 2): Advice from IES-funded Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Their Partners

This blog post featuring advice from IES-funded historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partners on developing research training programs is part of an ongoing series featuring IES training programs as well as our blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) within IES grant programs.

 

In 2015, IES launched the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program to encourage undergraduate, postbaccalaureate, and master’s students from diverse backgrounds to pursue careers in education research. The Pathways program grants were made to minority-serving institutions (MSIs) and their partners to provide one year of mentored research training. We asked the leadership teams from our six initial Pathways Programs to share their lessons learned on establishing research training programs. In this post (part two), we share lessons learned from Pathways Programs based at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and their partner institutions. In part one, we shared the lessons learned from the Pathways programs based at Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs).

 

RISE Training Program 

University of Maryland, College Park/Bowie State University (HBCU)

Leadership: Shenika Hankerson, William Drakeford, Sean Coleman, Megan Stump, Debbie O’Banion (not pictured)

 

Establishing cross-campus partnerships is important. Students in the RISE Program have benefited from interacting with individuals in a variety of formats and from a variety of backgrounds. Students meet with faculty mentors, graduate students, and administrators and faculty to discuss research, participate in professional development, and learn about graduate school. Similar to the mantra of “it takes a village,” no training program will be as beneficial as it could be without larger campus support. Make sure to establish your program, know its goals and aims, and share this information widely with the campus community to create buy-in and generate support for the program. The more that students from underrepresented populations are able to interact with individuals who look like them from a variety of academic and administrative contexts, the more these students will be able to visualize themselves in various roles and develop plans to reach these future academic and career goals.

 

RISE Training Program

North Carolina Central University (HBCU)/University of North Carolina Wilmington

Leadership: Wynetta Lee, Marta Sanchez, Nina Smith, Rene Johnson

 

Overall, our experience implementing RISE has been positive and rewarding. We would absolutely do it again if given the chance to do so. We have learned many lessons along the way that other institutions (especially MSIs) should consider when developing undergraduate research training programs:

  • University support, beyond project funding, is crucial for the full development of students (academically, emotionally, financially, etc.) as their needs are manifested.
  • Unlimited access to the PI/Co-PI is very important as a means of fostering students’ sense of belonging. It is important to reassign duties for those who take this on as it will morph into full-time work.
  • Personnel selection is very important. It is a long-term commitment that requires considerable time. Post-tenure personnel are best as the key personnel for the project.
  • It is important to be flexible and able to pivot, without losing the purpose of the program. The unexpected is inevitable.
  • Institutions must be willing to be an authentic partner with the project, ready to stand in the gap for essential needs that are not covered with external funding.
  • Many students are first-generation college and are unaware of the higher education landscape, especially when it comes to credentialing beyond the undergraduate program. It takes time for the idea of graduate education to take root as a possibility for them.
  • Fellows are vulnerable yet resilient—their research capacity should not be underestimated.
  • Continual reinforcement of their sense of belonging in education and social science research is critical for success.
  • Cognitive lessons will sometimes be on hold to address “life happens” situations. As it is with students, “life happens” with mentors and instructors, too.

 

PURPOSE Program

Florida State University/Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (HBCU)

Leadership: Jeannine E. Turner, Peggy P. Auman, Alysia D. Roehrig, Tamara Bertrand Jones, Novel Tani, Erik Rawls, Steven Williams (not pictured)

 

Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) typically provide support for developing student cultural and social identities. We recommend tapping into this aspect and supporting student development of researcher-identities by focusing on social justice research. We created an interdisciplinary research network by inviting scholars with existing projects to partner with us, thereby expanding our capacity. Before partnering with community organizations, we recommend assessing your institution's existing research capacity and assets that are available to support student research development. If your project is a collaboration between two universities—as ours is between a predominantly White institution and historically Black university—you can share resources and build upon opportunities on both campuses. We believe that research opportunities are shaped by institutional cultures, and cross-cultural collaborations can raise awareness about structural inequities and the benefits of cross-cultural research experiences. It is important to promote diversity, equity, and inclusion across the schools and pool resources to provide professional development and research experiences that broaden and build on student knowledge and interests. Furthermore, we have found over the years that past fellows have a commitment to future fellows. Past fellows want to contribute to the development of current fellows as scholars and are willing to serve as peer mentors and presenters at seminars where they share their knowledge, skills, and research passions. Linking past and future fellows allows us to build and sustain a communal network. Such communal networks help us to provide not only research support but also nurture research trainees as whole people who are able to sustain work-life balance. Thus, personal and research identities positively reinforce one another and may buffer the stress from demanding academic environments.  


Produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov), co-Chair of the IES Diversity and Inclusion Council. She is also the program officer for the Pathways to the Education Sciences Research Training Program and the new Early Career Mentoring Program for Faculty at Minority Serving Institutions, the two IES training programs for minority serving institutions.