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When interventions hurt: KU researcher works with teachers to test ways to help students with disabilities

Wednesday, April 03, 2019

LAWRENCE — Every day in classrooms across the country, teachers are looking for new ways to support and reach their students, especially those who may be struggling or have disabilities. However, it is all too common and easy for teachers to come across untested methods that some claim can have positive effects for students. In fact, those methods could have negative outcomes. A University of Kansas professor has co-written a study comparing an untested intervention for a student with autism with a research-backed intervention, finding the latter worked better to improve engagement while the former actually made it worse.

Katie Zimmerman, assistant professor of special education at KU, works with teachers to find effective methods of helping students. In doing so, she helps them test interventions they may have found on their own and compare them with methods supported by peer-reviewed research. The goal is to individually help teachers and students while building a research base on untested methods teachers may use to better understand popular, yet possibly ineffective, approaches.

“I look to highlight the strengths of the teacher in the classroom. I support the teacher to reach the whole class. If a student or two is struggling, then we can work together to support each student individually,” Zimmerman said.

In a study published in the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, Zimmerman and co-authors worked with a kindergarten teacher to help a student with autism who had difficulty engaging during math time. The student knew the math skills yet had trouble participating in classroom exercises. The teacher requested use of a weighted blanket, which was purported to help students with autism focus. Although there was not peer-reviewed research supporting the weighted blanket as an effective intervention for improving engagement for students with autism, Zimmerman included the blanket in the study and compared its effectiveness with an evidence-based visual support intervention known as structured work boxes. The study was co-written by Jennifer Ledford and Katherine Severini of Vanderbilt University.

The researchers and teacher worked with the student to provide the weighted blanket, the structured work boxes or neither during math time in the class. They measured the student’s engagement and found that the work boxes increased engagement, while the blanket actually decreased his engagement, compared with when neither was in place. The structured work boxes provided a visual organization of the three tasks such as counting to 100 or sorting shapes for the student to complete during math time. The blanket actually tended to distract the student and reduce engagement.

A former elementary special education teacher who worked with students with autism and behavior disorders, Zimmerman said the study is an example of the benefits of single case research she conducts. The study quickly showed how an untested intervention not only was not as effective as an evidence-based practice, it actually had the opposite of the desired effect. Zimmerman has partnered with teachers in classrooms and is continuing to build relationships with Kansas teachers to conduct similar studies.

The approach has several benefits. First, single-case design studies can assist researchers and teachers who are looking for solutions and ideas to help their struggling students relatively quickly. Selecting evidence-based interventions that meet the specific needs of a student, classroom context and behaviors of interest can sometimes be difficult and time-consuming for teachers who already have a multitude of demands from a diverse array of students. A researcher-teacher partnership can help not only provide tested approaches but implement them in a timely fashion that can be tailored to the individual, unique needs of the student, teacher and school. Teachers are the experts in their classrooms and can help researchers with the data they gather and navigate those unique aspects that every school and student possess.

“I want to work with teachers, test interventions we both bring to the table, and ask together, ‘Let’s see what the data say,’” Zimmerman said. “I don’t have to convince teachers that an intervention does or doesn’t work, because we can look at and compare the data together. The data collected in my research mirror the data teachers gather in their classrooms every day.”

Teachers with struggling students are looking for new ways to help their students. However, if a teacher were to do an internet search for interventions, untested methods often not only appear first but are at times presented in more appealing, easily understood formats, including on social media networks. The sites that provide evidence-based interventions can sometimes be difficult to navigate and very time-consuming to comb through, especially for time-strapped teachers. By working with teachers in a direct research partnership, Zimmerman said she can help students by exposing them to effective instruction and interventions, help teachers by finding out what approaches work best for their students and classroom, and help the research field by contributing to the knowledge base about approaches that haven’t been tested and could potentially prove to be useful.

“Teachers are the experts in their classrooms,” Zimmerman said. “I want to partner with teachers and schools to support them and maximize their strengths to them help their students. Research-based interventions can sometimes be difficult to implement in classrooms with complex needs, though. My goal is to help teachers parse out effective interventions from non-effective ones, and find out what works best for them to help their students.”

Photo credit: Pexels.com

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