Inside IES Research

Notes from NCER & NCSER

The Impact of Parent-Mediated Early Intervention on Social Communication for Children with Autism

A key challenge for children with autism is the need to strengthen social communication, something that can be supported early in a child’s development. Dr. Hannah Schertz, professor at Indiana University Bloomington’s School of Education, has conducted a series of IES-funded projects to develop and evaluate the impact of early intervention, mediated through parents, for improving social communication in toddlers with or at risk for autism. We recently interviewed Dr. Schertz to learn more about the importance of guiding parents in the use of mediated learning practices to promote social communication, how her current research connects with her prior research, and what she hopes to accomplish.

Why is parental mediation in early intervention important for very young children with autism? How does it work and why do you focus this approach on improving children’s social communication development?

Headshot of Hannah Schertz

The intervention targets social communication because it is the core autism challenge and it’s important to address concerns early, as signs of autism emerge. Research has found that preverbal social communication is related to later language competency. Our premise is that this foundation will give toddlers a reason to communicate and set the stage for verbal communication. More specifically, joint attention—one preverbal form of social communication—is the key intervention target in our research. It is distinct from requesting/directing or following requests, which are instrumental communications used to accomplish one’s own ends. Joint attention, which takes the partner’s interests and perspectives into account, is an autism-specific challenge whereas more instrumental communication skills are not.

Our research team incorporates a mediated learning approach at two levels—early intervention providers supporting parents and then parents supporting their toddlers. The approach is designed to promote active engagement in the learning process and leverage the parent’s privileged relationship with the child as the venue for social learning. Early intervention providers help parents understand both the targeted social communication outcomes for their children (intervention content) and the mediated learning practices (intervention process) used to promote these child outcomes. As parents master these concepts, they can translate them flexibly into a variety of daily parent-child interactions. This understanding allows parents to naturally integrate learning opportunities with child interests and family cultural/language priorities and preferences. Over time, their accrued knowledge, experience, and increased self-efficacy should prepare them to continually support the child’s social learning even after their participation in the project ends.

How does your more recent work, developing and testing Building Interactive Social Communication (BISC), extend your prior research examining Joint Attention Mediated Learning (JAML)?

Both JAML and BISC address the same goal—supporting social communication as early signs of autism emerge. In JAML, researchers guided parent learning directly while parents incorporated social communication into interaction with their toddlers. BISC extends the intervention by supporting community-based practitioners in facilitating parent learning rather than parents learning directly from the research team. BISC also added a component to address cases in which parents identify child behaviors that substantially interfere with the child’s social engagement.

You recently completed a pilot study to test a new professional development framework for supporting early intervention providers in implementing BISC. Please tell us about the findings of this study. What were the impacts on the early intervention providers, parents, and toddlers?

We tested an early version of BISC to study its preliminary effects on early intervention provider, parent, and child outcomes for 12 provider/parent/child triads. In effect size estimates derived from single-case design data, we found large effects for early intervention provider fidelity (for example, mediating parent learning, guiding parents’ reflection on video-recorded interaction with their toddlers, and supporting active parent engagement) and parent application of mediated learning practices to promote toddler social communication. We also found large effects on child outcomes (social reciprocity, child behavior, and social play) and a small effect on joint attention.

As you begin your larger-scale trial to examine the efficacy of BISC on provider, parent, and child outcomes, what impact do you hope your work will have on the field of early intervention generally and the development of social communication in children with autism more specifically? 

Approximately 165 community-based early intervention practitioners will have learned to support parent learning through direct participation or as control group participants who receive self-study materials. These providers will be equipped to bring this knowledge to their future work. We anticipate that practitioners will experience their implementation role as feasible and effective. Ultimately, toddlers with early signs of autism will have greater access to early, developmentally appropriate, and family-empowering early intervention that directly addresses the core social difficulty of autism. Forthcoming published materials will extend access to other providers, offering an intervention that is more specifically tailored to the needs of very young children with social communication challenges than other approaches.

Is there anything else you would like to share/add regarding your projects? 

I would like to thank my colleagues and project co-principal investigators (Co-PIs) for their expertise and contributions to this work. For our current BISC efficacy project, Co-PI Dr. Patricia Muller (Director of the Center for Evaluation, Policy, and Research) is leading the randomized controlled trial and cost-effectiveness study, and Co-PI Dr. Jessica Lester (professor of Counseling and Educational Psychology) is overseeing the qualitative investigation of parent-child interactions using conversation analysis to explore potential influences on child outcomes. Kathryn Horn coordinates intervention activities, Lucia Zook oversees operational and assessment activities, and Addison McGeary supports recruitment and logistical activities.

This blog was authored by Skyler Fesagaiga, a Virtual Student Federal Service intern for NCSER and graduate student at the University of California, San Diego. The grants in this connected line of research have been managed by Amy Sussman (PO for NCSER’s early intervention portfolio) and Emily Weaver (PO for NCSER’s autism research portfolio).

ED/IES SBIR Special Education Technology is Showcased at the White House Demo Day

On Tuesday, November 7, 2023, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy hosted a Demo Day of American Possibilities at the Showroom in Washington, DC.  The event featured 45 emerging technologies created by innovators through federal research and development programs across areas such as health, national security, AI, robotics, climate, microelectronics, and education. President Biden attended the event and met with several developers to learn about and see demonstrations of the innovations.

An IES-supported project by a Michigan-based Alchemie, the KASI Learning System (KASI), was invited to represent the U.S. Department of Education and its Small Business Innovation Research program, which IES administers.

KASI is an inclusive assistive technology that employs computer vision and multi-sensory augmented reality to support blind and low vision learners in using hand-held physical manipulatives to practice chemistry. A machine learning engine in KASI generates audio feedback and prompts to personalize the experience as learners progress. At the event, the project’s principal investigator and former high school chemistry educator, Julia Winter, demonstrated KASI to leaders in government and to attendees from the assistive technology field.

ED/IES SBIR supported the initial development for KASI through three awards. Based on these awards, Alchemie received funding from angel investors in Michigan, won a commercialization grant from the Michigan Emerging Technology Fund, and is establishing partnerships with publishers in K-12 and higher education. To extend KASI to more topics, Alchemie has won additional SBIR awards from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the National Institute of Disability, Independent Living, and Rehabilitation Research, and is currently a finalist in the 2024 Vital Prize Challenge competition. KASI has also recently been highlighted in Forbes and Crain’s Detroit Business.

 

 

Stay tuned for updates on KASI and other education technology projects through the ED/IES SBIR program on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.


About ED/IES SBIR: 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 learners, educators, and administrators. 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. Millions of students in thousands of schools around the country use technologies developed through ED/IES SBIR.

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

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

Designing Culturally Responsive and Accessible Assessments for All Adult Learners

Dr. Meredith Larson, program officer for adult education at NCER, interviewed Dr. Javier Suárez-Álvarez, associate professor and associate director at the Center for Educational Assessment, University of Massachusetts Amherst. Dr. Suárez-Álvarez has served as the project director for the Adult Skills Assessment Project: Actionable Assessments for Adult Learners (ASAP) grant and was previously an education policy analyst in France for the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), where he was the lead author of the PISA report 21st-Century Readers: Developing Literacy Skills in a Digital World. He and the ASAP team are working on an assessment system to meet the needs of adult education learners, educators, and employers that leverages online validated and culturally responsive banks of literacy and numeracy tasks. In this interview, Dr. Suárez-Álvarez discusses the importance of attending to learners’ goals and cultural diversity in assessment.

How would you describe the current context of assessment for adult education, and how does ASAP fit in it?

In general, the adult education field lacks assessments that meet the—sometimes competing—needs and goals of educators and employers and that attend to and embrace learner characteristics, goals, and cultural diversity. There is often a disconnect where different stakeholders want different things from the same assessments. Educators ask for curriculum-aligned assessments, learners want assessments to help them determine whether they have job-related skills for employment or promotion, and employers want to determine whether job candidates are trained in high-demand skills within their industries.

Despite these differing needs and interests, everyone involved needs assessment resources for lower skilled and culturally diverse learners that are easy to use, affordable or free, and provide actionable information for progress toward personal or occupational goals. ASAP is one of the first attempts to respond to these needs by developing an assessment system that delivers real-time customizable assessments to measure and improve literacy and numeracy skills. ASAP incorporates socioculturally responsive assessment principles to serve the needs of all learners by embracing the uniqueness of their characteristics. These principles involve ensuring that stakeholders from diverse socioeconomic, cultural, linguistic, racial, and ethnic groups are represented in our test design and development activities.

Why is attending to cultural diversity important to ASAP and assessment, and how are you incorporating this into your work?

U.S. Census projections for 2045 predict a shift in the demographic composition of the population from a White majority to a racially mixed majority. This suggests that we should prepare for cultural shifts and ensure our assessments fully embrace socioculturally responsive assessment practices. Without these practices, assessments limit the ability of adults from varied demographic backgrounds to demonstrate their capabilities adequately. Socioculturally responsive assessments are pivotal for representing the growing diversity in the learner population and for uncovering undetected workforce potential.

In ASAP, we are conducting focus groups, interviews, and listening sessions with learners, educators, and employers to understand their needs. We are also co-designing items in collaboration with key stakeholders and building consensus across adult education, workforce, and policy experts. We are developing use cases to understand hypothetical product users and conducting case studies to establish linkages between instruction and assessment as well as across classroom and workplace settings.

How has your background informed your interest in and contributions to ASAP?

As a teenager growing up in Spain, I saw first-hand the possible negative impact assessments could have when they don’t attend to learner goals and circumstances. When I was 15, my English teacher, based on narrow assessments, told my parents I was incapable of learning English, doubted my academic potential, and suggested I forego higher education for immediate employment. Defying this with the support of other teachers and my family, I pursued my passion. I became proficient in English at the age of 25 when I needed it to be a researcher, and I completed my PhD in psychology (psychometrics) at the age of 28.

Many adult students may have heard similar messages from prior teachers based on assessment results. And even now, many of the assessments the adult education field currently uses for these learners are designed by and for a population that no longer represents most learners. These adult learners may be getting advice or feedback that does not actually reflect their abilities or doesn’t provide useful guidance. Unfortunately, not all students are as lucky as I was. They may not have the support of others to counterbalance narrow assessments, and that shouldn’t be the expectation.

What are your hopes for the future of assessments for this adult population and the programs and employers that support them?

I hope we switch from measuring what we know generally how to measure (such as math and reading knowledge on a multiple-choice test) to measuring what matters to test takers and those using assessment results so that they can all accomplish goals in ways that honor individuals’ circumstances. Knowledge and skills—like the real world—are much more than right and wrong responses on a multiple-choice item. I also hope that as we embrace the latest developments in technology, such as AI, we can use them to deliver more flexible and personalized assessments.

In addition, I hope we stop assuming every learner has the same opportunities to learn or the same goals for their learning and that we start using assessments to empower learners rather than just as a measure of learning. In ASAP, for example, the adult learner will decide the type of test they want to take when to take it, the context within which the assessment will be framed, and when, where, and to whom the assessment result will be delivered.


This blog was produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), program officer for adult education at NCER.

 

Creating a Community of Writers

The Predoctoral Interdisciplinary Research Training Program in the Education Sciences was established by IES to increase the number of well-trained PhD students who are prepared to conduct rigorous and relevant education research. IES encourages our predoctoral fellows to develop strong writing skills in addition to subject-matter and methodological expertise. In this guest blog, we asked IES predoctoral fellow, Todd Hall, co-chair of the Black Scholars in Education and Human Development Writing Group at the University of Virginia, to discuss how participating in this writing group has helped his development as an education researcher. Todd, is part of the IES-funded Virginia Education Science Training (VEST) program and studies early childhood education policy as well as school discipline in both early childhood and K-12 settings.

How did you become involved in the Black Scholars in Education and Human Development Writing Group?

I started my PhD in education policy in August 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic made networking and simply making friends awkward. During my first week in Charlottesville, VA, I watched wistfully from my window as a Black person jogged past my house. For me, the jogger represented communities of color at UVA that I did not know how to connect with.

Enter Dr. Edward Scott and Dr. Miray Seward, then students and co-chairs of the Black Scholars in Education and Human Development Writing Group. They sent me a personal email invitation to join the group’s first virtual writing retreat. When I joined the Zoom room, I found the affinity space I was looking for. I connected with graduate students whom I later turned to for informal mentorship, course recommendations, tips on navigating the hidden curriculum of grad school, insights from job market experiences, and examples of successful written proposals. The laughs shared virtually during check-ins between writing blocks helped ward off the pandemic blues.

I resolved to pay it forward, so I began shadowing Edward and Miray. When they graduated, I stepped into a leadership role alongside my co-chair, Sasha Miller-Marshall.

How has participating in the writing group helped you develop as a scholar?

The writing group has reminded me that I am not the only one who experiences writer’s block and has provided me with writing process role models. The professional development sessions we host have been one of the few opportunities that I have found to see faculty expose and reflect on their own writing challenges, from protecting their time for writing to incorporating critical feedback. This provides a unique perspective on the writing process—I often see faculty discuss works in progress, but the format is usually an oral presentation with slides rather than something written.

In the Black Scholars Writing Group sessions, speakers often share candidly about their own process, including writer’s block and how they overcome it. For example, a senior faculty member shared that they used voice memos to process their thoughts when they feel stuck. That disclosure normalized my experience of writer’s block and made me feel comfortable sharing that I write memos on my phone when I feel stuck. Moments like these have provided tools to overcome resistance in my writing process and normalized the experience of strategizing about writing rather than expecting words to flow effortlessly.

The presenters who lead sessions with our group have diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds, but the focus of the group on creating affinity space for Black doctoral and PhD students allows me to be less concerned about stereotype threat. Whereas I am often the only Black person in other rooms, I am never the only Black person in this writing group. That alleviates any concern about being perceived as a token representative of Black people, or worse, as less capable if I choose to share my difficulties. In one session, I was able to unpack with the faculty speaker that a particular piece of writing was difficult because I had not yet answered the simple question of why the work was important. I got to that realization because the speaker modeled vulnerability about their own writing process, and I felt at ease to discuss my own.

How can the broader education research community help graduate student researchers develop as writers?

Where appropriate and feasible, education researchers can share their successful conference proposals, grant applications, budgets, reviewer response letters, and perhaps even dissertation chapters. If it does not make sense to post them publicly, researchers could offer to share materials with graduate students that they meet at speaking engagements, conferences, etc.

Successful models have given me helpful guidance, especially when tackling a new format. Beyond the writing group, I am immensely grateful to the alumni of my IES pre-doctoral fellowship who have provided many of their materials for current students to reference.

What advice can you give other student researchers who wish to further develop their writing skills?

Cultivate authentic relationships with a network of mentors who are willing to share examples of their successful writing and review your work. My advisor is amazing and thorough with her feedback. That said, it has been useful to strategically ask others who bring in complementary perspectives to review my work. For example, my advisor is a quantitative researcher, and I recently proposed a mixed methods study. Researchers who do qualitative and mixed methods work were able to challenge and strengthen the qualitative aspects of my proposal based on their expertise. You might also be applying for opportunities or submitting to journals that other mentors have succeeded with or reviewed for. They may help you anticipate what that audience might be looking for.

In addition, when you receive feedback, do so graciously, weigh it seriously, and ask yourself if there’s a broader piece of constructive criticism to apply to your other writing.


This blog was produced training program officer Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov) and is part of a larger series on the IES research training programs.

Experimenting with Science Education to Improve Learner Opportunities and Outcomes

The NAEP science assessment measures science knowledge and ability to engage in scientific inquiry and conduct scientific investigations. According to results from the 2019 NAEP science assessment, only one-third of grade 4 and grade 8 students, and less than one-quarter of grade 12 students scored at or above proficient. In addition, for grade 4 middle-performing and low-performing students, their science performance showed declines from 2015. While IES has a history of investing in high quality science education research to improve science teaching and learning, these data suggest that much more work is needed.

To that end, during the 2022-23 school year, IES held two Learning Acceleration Challenges designed to incentivize innovation to significantly improve learner outcomes in math and science. Under the Challenge for the Science Prize, IES sought interventions to significantly improve science outcomes for middle school students with low performance in science. Unfortunately, the judging panel for the Challenge did not recommend any finalists for the Science Prize (more information about the Math Prize results can be found here). IES recognized this Challenge was an ambitious and rapid effort to improve science achievement. Feedback from potential Science Prize entrants indicated that the rapid cycle for evaluating the intervention along with the lack of resources to implement the intervention were barriers to this competition.

With the knowledge gained from the Science Prize, IES is continuing to design opportunities that encourage transformative, innovative change to improve teaching and learning in science. In our newest opportunity, the National Center for Education Research (NCER) at IES, in partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF), released a Request for Applications for a National Research and Development Center (R&D Center) on Improving Outcomes in Elementary Science Education. Results from the most recent NAEP science assessment and the lessons learned from the Science Prize suggest opportunities for improving teaching and learning in science education need to begin early in education, and more resources are needed to conduct high quality research in science education. Through this R&D Center, IES and NSF will provide greater resources (grant award of up to $15 million over 5 years) to tackle persistent challenges in elementary science education, including the measurement of elementary science learning outcomes, and generating evidence of the impact of elementary science interventions on learner’s science achievement. In doing so, the new Elementary Science R&D Center will provide national leadership on elementary science education and build capacity in conducting high-quality science education research.


This blog was written by NCER program officer, Christina Chhin. For more information about the Elementary Science R&D Center competition, contact NCER program officers, Jennifer Schellinger or Christina Chhin, take a look at the 84.305C RFA, and/or attend one of our virtual office hours.