The Early Career Development and Mentoring Program in Special Education provides support for investigators in the early stages of their academic careers to conduct an integrated research and career development plan focused on learners with or at risk for disabilities. Dr. Jason Chow is an assistant professor of special education at the University of Maryland, College Park and principal investigator of a current Early Career grant funded by NCSER. Dr. Chow’s research focuses on the comorbidity of language and behavior disorders in school-age children as well as teacher and related service provider training in behavior management. We recently caught up with Dr. Chow to learn more about his career, the experiences that have shaped it, and the lessons he’s learned from the Early Career grant. This is what he shared with us.
How did your experiences shape your interest in a career in special education?
I first became interested in education when I started substituting for paraprofessionals in special education programs over winter and summer breaks in college, which I really enjoyed. That experience, along with a class I took in my senior year on disability in the media and popular culture, got me interested in the field of special education. After I graduated, I ended up applying for a full-time position as a paraprofessional in a program supporting high schoolers with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD).
My experiences as a paraprofessional definitely shaped my career path. As a substitute paraprofessional in college, I was surprised that my job was to support students with the most intensive needs even though I had the least amount of classroom training. That made me recognize the need for research-based training and supports for related service providers and got me interested in different factors that contribute to decision making in school systems. Another memorable experience occurred when I was working in the support program for students with EBD. All our students had the accommodation to be able to come to our room at any time of the day as needed for a check in or a break. I was alarmed by how often students needed a break because of things teachers said or did to upset them or make them feel singled out. I was also coaching several sports at the time and saw first-hand how a strong, positive relationships with the players were vital. These experiences got me interested in teacher-student relationships, how important positive interactions and experiences can be, and the need for general education teachers to receive training on working with students with disabilities. Ultimately, my work as a paraprofessional supporting kids with EBD also helped shape my interest in determining how language and communication can facilitate prosocial development, which led to my Early Career grant.
What are the goals of your NCSER Early Career grant?
My project focuses on better understanding the co-development of language and behavior in children at risk for language disorders, behavior disorders, or both in early elementary school. Many studies have examined the concurrent and developmental relations between language and behavior, but they are typically done using extant datasets. The goal of this project was to conduct a prospective study aimed at measuring both constructs in several different ways (such as direct observations, interviews, and teacher report) to provide a more robust analysis of how each of these constructs and assessment types are related over time. This type of research could inform the types of interventions provided to children with EBD and, more specifically, the need to address language impairments alongside behavior to improve academic outcomes for these learners.
How has the Early Career grant helped your development as a researcher?
This project has taught me a lot about the realities of doing school-based research and managing a grant. First, I have learned a great deal about budgeting. For example, I proposed to recruit a sample based on a power analysis I conducted for the grant application. But in my original budget, I did not consider that I would need to screen about triple the number of children I estimated in order to enroll my planned sample. I have also learned a lot about hiring, human resources, procurement, and university policies that are directly and indirectly involved in process of conducting research. Also, like many others, my project was impacted by pandemic-related school closures, and I have learned how to be flexible under unpredictable circumstances. More specifically, we had intended to determine how developmental trajectories of language and behavior were associated with academic outcomes, but we lost our outcome assessment timepoint due to the pandemic. Fortunately, we are working collaboratively with our partner schools to use district-level data to approximate some of these intended analyses. I’m thankful that I had the opportunity to learn and develop my skills in the context of a training grant.
What advice would you give to other early career researchers, including those who may be interested in applying for an Early Career grant?
Reach out to other early career grantees and ask for their proposals. (I am happy to share mine!) Just be aware that the RFA has changed over time—including a substantial increase in funds—so the more recent proposals the better. Also, in terms of setting up a strong mentorship team for your career development plan, reach out to the people whom you see as the best to support your career development (no matter how busy you think they are or if you think they are too senior). In talking with other folks, I’ve learned that generally people are very willing to support the next generation of researchers!
This interview blog is part of a larger IES blog series on diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility (DEIA) in the education sciences. It was produced by Katie Taylor (Katherine.Taylor@ed.gov), program officer for the Early Career Development and Mentoring program at the National Center for Special Education Research.