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IES Grant

Title: Intervention to Enhance Student-Teacher Relationships and School Outcomes for Autistic Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial
Center: NCSER Year: 2023
Principal Investigator: Eisenhower, Abbey Awardee: University of Massachusetts, Boston
Program: Social, Emotional, and Behavioral Competence      [Program Details]
Award Period: 5 years (07/01/2023 – 06/30/2028) Award Amount: $3,608,773
Type: Initial Efficacy Award Number: R324A230223

Co-Principal Investigators: Blacher, Jan; Hamsho; Narmene

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to evaluate the efficacy of the Smooth Sailing professional development (PD) program for improving the student-teacher relationships (STRs) and academic, social, and emotional-behavioral outcomes for early elementary-age autistic students. Children's relationships with teachers during the early school years impact their concurrent and long-term school adjustment. Unfortunately, autistic students experience poorer quality relationships with teachers relative to their peers without autism. In addition, while most autistic children are placed in general education classes, most general education teachers lack training in autism. Smooth Sailing was developed with prior IES funding to address these needs. It takes a neurodiversity-affirming approach and focuses on supporting elementary school general education teachers to build positive relationships with their autistic students. The goal of the current study is to examine the impact of Smooth Sailing on STRs as well as outcomes for teachers, parents, and autistic students. The project will also examine mediators and moderators, cost and cost-effectiveness, and stakeholder perspectives on program effects.

Project Activities. To examine the efficacy of Smooth Sailing, researchers will conduct a randomized controlled trial (RCT) across two sites with three cohorts of teachers. Teachers will be randomized to either the intervention condition or waitlist control. The effects of the intervention on teachers' autism preparedness; STRs; parent-teacher relationships; and students' relational, academic, social, and emotional-behavioral outcomes will be examined. In addition, investigators will also explore potential mediators (STR quality, implementation fidelity) and moderators (child and teacher characteristics) of intervention effects, qualitatively examine stakeholder perceptions of effectiveness, evaluate program costs, and assess implementation fidelity.

Products: This project will result in evidence about the efficacy of Smooth Sailing for general education teachers and their autistic students as well as its cost-effectiveness. The project will also result in a final dataset to be shared, peer-reviewed publications and presentations, and additional dissemination products that reach education stakeholders, such as practitioners and policymakers.

Structured Abstract

Setting: The research will take place in elementary schools in urban and suburban communities across Massachusetts and California.

Sample: Participants will include 150 general education teachers in kindergarten through second grade who have one or more autistic students in their classrooms, 150 autistic students (one per teacher), and students' parent(s).

Intervention: Smooth Sailing is a four-week PD program for general education teachers that targets improved STRs as its primary focus, while also increasing teachers' autism knowledge and enhancing collaborative partnerships with parents. In turn, the program is designed to lead to gains in student academic engagement, social integration, and emotional-behavioral adjustment. It includes three components, online learning modules, individualized coaching sessions, and in vivo practice activities. The in vivo practice activities include Time2Connect sessions which are brief daily, one-on-one interactions where teachers use evidence-based strategies to form positive connections with the child. They also include Teacher-as-Interviewer sessions designed to strengthen parent-teacher collaboration.

Research Design and Methods: Using a three-cohort RCT design, investigators will randomly assign 50 teachers per year to the intervention condition or the delayed intervention. Data will be collected through teacher, parent, and child surveys and classroom observations at pre-intervention, post-intervention, and 3-month follow-up. Fidelity will be monitored in terms of whether the intervention was delivered to teachers as intended and whether the intervention strategies are practiced as intended by teachers in their interactions with students or parents. Implementation of program practices will also be assessed in the waitlist control group to determine whether practices are also happening in business-as-usual cases. Researchers will also gather data on stakeholder perceptions of program effects through focus groups with teachers in Year 1 and parent interviews in Year 2.

Control Condition: Teachers assigned to the waitlist control group will engage in business-as-usual instruction and receive the intervention after the intervention group completes the 3-month follow up data collection.

Key Measures: To measure STR quality, researchers will use the Individualized Classroom Assessment Scoring System, the teacher-reported Student-Teacher Relationship Scale, and the My Teacher and Me child-report measure. To measure PTR quality, researchers will gather teacher and parent report on the Parent-Teacher Relationship Quality Scale. Teachers' autism knowledge and neurodiversity-affirming perceptions of autism will be assessed through the Autism Knowledge Scale and the Social Distance and Appreciation Scales. Students' academic engagement, social integration, and emotional-behavioral adjustment will be assessed with the Individualized Classroom Assessment Scoring System observational measure, the teacher- and child-reported Academic Engagement Scale, the teacher- and parent-reported Behavioral and Emotional Screening Scale, teacher reports on the Social Competence and Behavior Evaluation and Social Academic, Emotional, & Behavioral Risk Screener, and the child-reported Loneliness and Social Dissatisfaction Questionnaire. Fidelity of implementation of each of the program components will be assessed using researcher-developed measures.

Data Analytic Strategy: Researchers will conduct a series of latent growth curve models to examine main effects of the intervention on teacher outcomes, STR quality, and student outcomes. They will also test for mediation, including the extent to which changes in STR quality mediate the effect of intervention on student outcomes, and the extent to which implementation of program practices mediates effects on key study outcomes. They will also examine potential moderators, including students' autism characteristics and language ability and teachers' autism training. Finally, stakeholder perceptions of the program's effects will be evaluated using qualitative consensus analysis and thematic analysis approaches.

Cost Analysis: Researchers will use the ingredients method to estimate intervention costs from the perspective of teachers, parents, school administrators, and society. They will also conduct an exploratory cost feasibility analysis of selected schools, comparing schools' available budget and resources to implement PD programs with the costs of implementing Smooth Sailing, to determine whether individual schools have adequate capacity, funding, and resources to implement the intervention.

Related IES Projects: Successful Transition in the Early School Years for Children with Autism (R324A110086); Teacher-Directed Intervention to Improve Outcomes for Young Children with ASD in General Education Classrooms (R32A180105)