IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

Smooth Sailing Using the Neurodiversity Paradigm: Developing Positive Classrooms Experiences for Autistic Students

In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we’d like to highlight an IES-funded research project on autism spectrum disorder and discuss how the current framework of neurodiversity informs this research. In recent years, the neurodiversity paradigm has been an increasingly popular way of viewing autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions. Neurodiversity is a term coined in the late 1990s by Judy Singer to refer to natural human variation in neurotypes. Neurodivergent individuals diverge from the norm, usually with conditions such as autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, or dyslexia. Rather than focusing on deficits, this paradigm supports a strength-based view of these conditions while still acknowledging individual challenges. For this blog, we interviewed Dr. Jan Blacher and Dr. Abbey Eisenhower, principal investigators who created a professional development (PD) program supporting general education teachers of students on the autism spectrum. In the interview below, the researchers describe how their PD program works and how it uses the neurodiversity paradigm to strengthen relationships between autistic students and their teachers.

What is Smooth Sailing and what led you to develop it?

Headshot of Dr. Abbey EisenhowerHeadshot of Dr. Jan Blacher

Smooth Sailing is the nickname for our PD for general education teachers in kindergarten through second grade who have at least one student on the autism spectrum in their classrooms. The catalyst for the program was the findings from our previous project on student-teacher relationships, indicating that teachers are central to facilitating positive school experiences, especially for autistic students. Warm, positive student-teacher relationships are predictive of academic engagement and social adjustment.

The program provides coaching-based support for teachers, equips them with strategies for building strong relationships with autistic students, and enables them to expand on their students' strengths and interests in the classroom. Developed by educators, clinicians, and researchers in partnership with teachers and autistic individuals, Smooth Sailing uses an autism-affirming, neurodiversity perspective throughout the program.

What makes this program unique?                                                                                                                

Smooth Sailing recognizes the importance of relationships—especially student-teacher relationships—in making school a positive and welcoming place for students.

Our program prioritizes a neurodiversity perspective on autism: We recognize autism as a set of differences that are part of the diversity of human experience. In order to best support autistic students, we must provide an affirming context that embraces their strengths and differences. This approach contrasts with a deficit-based model, which focuses on changing children and their behaviors. The deficit model could impair relationships between students and their teachers, making academic engagement and social adjustment worse.

Finally, Smooth Sailing is unique for centering on autistic people as key contributors to shaping program content so that the program reflects the lived realities of autistic students.

What have you learned while developing and testing the Smooth Sailing intervention?

We have learned several important lessons:

(1) During the initial research for our intervention, findings indicated that only 8% of general education teachers in the study had received any professional training in autism. This provides a clear-cut mandate for more autism-focused training for these educators.

(2) After the intervention, general education teachers endorsed three key Smooth Sailing strategies for reaching out to their autistic students: (a) identifying interests, (b) celebrating talents, and (c) having one-on-one time to form stronger relationships. We learned that these simple strategies are ones every teacher can adopt to create more inclusive classrooms and cultivate stronger relationships with students, especially autistic students.

(3) Overall, teachers who received the Smooth Sailing PD experienced significant improvements in the quality of their relationships with autistic students, including higher student-teacher closeness and lower student-teacher conflict, compared to teachers who had not received the program. Thus, in addition to other positive outcomes for teachers and children, we learned that our brief program (12 hours over 4 weeks) was sufficient for moving the needle on the critical construct of student-teacher relationship quality.

How does respect for neurodiversity inform the Smooth Sailing intervention and your philosophies as researchers?

One key factor that has been transformative to the resulting Smooth Sailing program has been our close consultation with current and former autistic students. As part of developing the Smooth Sailing program for teachers, our research team interviewed many autistic adolescents and adults about their school experiences, their advice for teachers, and their opinions on making schools more affirming and inclusive. In addition, we closely engaged autistic adults as expert consultants during our program development process. These consultants advised on teacher-focused content, reviewed materials, and weighed in on program changes.

The rich information we learned from the interviews and intensive consultation substantially impacted the content of the resulting program. To offer one example, these interviews showed us the outsized power of a positive student-teacher relationship, even with just one teacher, in making school a bearable place for autistic students.

Because many autistic students describe their school experiences as ableist and marginalizing, our team's programming aims to disrupt these school problems by building strong student-teacher relationships and fostering teachers' understanding of autism through an affirming, neurodiversity-informed lens. By incorporating first-person perspectives of autistic students and adults in its creation and content, our programs affirm the lived realities of autistic students. 

What needs are still unmet for general education teachers working with autistic students?

We have heard from teachers and administrators at all K-12 levels—high school, middle school, and later elementary school—that they would like access to similar autism-focused PD programs targeted to the student age ranges they teach. We think that creating a school culture that affirms neurodiversity starts by fostering understanding between students and all school staff, not just primary classroom teachers.  

What's next for the Smooth Sailing project?

We hope to expand the Smooth Sailing PD program to the early childhood education context. Unfortunately, our research has shown that, by the time they enter elementary school, one out of every six autistic children has been expelled from a preschool or childcare program. Viewed through a social justice lens, this preschool expulsion is an educational equity issue.

Early childhood educators are key to improving these early school experiences. We believe that preschool and childcare educators can be catalysts in providing an inclusive environment by forming strong relationships with autistic and neurodivergent children. That said, most early childhood educators report having no professional training in autism, feeling underprepared to meet the needs of autistic children, and wanting more support for inclusion. We hope that programs like Smooth Sailing can be applied to support educators working with preschool-age children who are autistic or neurodivergent, many of whom are not yet diagnosed, so that their first school experiences can be enriching and inclusive.

Jan Blacher is a distinguished research professor in the School of Education and the director of the SEARCH Family Autism Research Center at the University of California, Riverside. Abbey Eisenhower is an associate professor in the Psychology Department at the University of Massachusetts, Boston.   

This blog was authored by Juliette Gudknecht, an intern at IES, along with Emily Weaver (Emily.Weaver@ed.gov), program officer at NCSER with oversight of the portfolio of autism grants.

Paving Better Paths to the Future through Gender-Specific Curricula Interventions

Young women and men with disabilities face unique barriers in the transition from school to adulthood. In recognition of the IES 20th anniversary, we are spotlighting Paths 2 the Future, a career development intervention for students with disabilities with gender-specific versions for boys and girls. For this blog post, virtual intern Audrey Im checks in with IES grantees Dr. Lauren Lindstrom (University of California, Davis) and Dr. John Lind (University of Oregon) about their experiences iteratively developing Paths 2 the Future. What started as an intervention to provide career guidance to high school girls with disabilities has now expanded to a package of interventions that also address the needs of high school-aged men with disabilities and underserved students of all genders.

Headshot of Dr. Lauren Lindstrom

In 2007, Lauren Lindstrom (then a senior research associate at the University of Oregon) received a grant from the National Center for Special Education Research (NCSER) to develop PATHS, a curriculum to improve education and career outcomes of high school girls with learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD, and emotional or behavioral disabilities. Lindstrom and her team created a curriculum advancing gender equity, disability awareness, and career readiness, which was then implemented in six high schools as an 18-week program.

According to Dr. Lindstrom, her team created PATHS just for girls after examining the disparate post-school outcomes for high school girls with disabilities enrolled in existing transition programs. “I consistently noticed that the girls were less likely to go to work, and if they went to work, they were working in really low-wage jobs,” she said. “And this was with the benefit of an intervention, right? Same kind of disabilities, same schools, but very different outcomes. So that really sparked my interest.”

In 2015, Dr. Lindstrom received a second grant to conduct a randomized controlled trial to test whether the intervention, now called Paths 2 the Future (P2F), improved career knowledge and skills among participants.

“We realized that this was probably one of the very first randomized controlled trials of a gender-specific career intervention,” Lindstrom said.

Lindstrom and her team sampled 366 girls with high-incidence disabilities in 26 Oregon high schools. The girls randomly assigned to the P2F intervention received the curriculum’s four core modules on self-awareness, disability knowledge, gender identity, and career and college readiness. They also received extensive information on career-related activities. The girls in the control group received the existing transition services of their respective schools. This study period lasted one 18-week semester and included a 6-month follow up with the students.

The P2F study found that the girls in the treatment group not only had more awareness of their identity and career possibilities after completing the curriculum, but they also had more confidence to talk about those topics. “The nature of being in a girl-only class really mattered,” Lindstrom said. “The students told us they felt safe there. They said things like ‘I’m a different person now. I feel empowered to talk, to think differently about my future.’” Lindstrom’s study also found that students in the treatment group were more likely to seek and have work experience in high school, an important observation as early work experience has proven to be a predictor for their future employment.

Headshot of Dr. John Lind

Lindstrom’s co-PI and research collaborator, Dr. John Lind, wondered if the P2F model would also work for boys. Lind, a research associate at the University of Oregon, received a 2019 IES grant Paths to the Future for Young Men (P2F-Young Men) to modify the P2F curriculum to take into account the specific needs of high school boys with high-incidence disabilities. These needs included (but were not limited to) building healthy relationships, breaking down gender stereotypes, and managing anger and stress.

“I think these needs are applicable to a range of genders but doing it in a classroom with just young men opens up the opportunity for potentially deeper discussions,” Lind said. “And that’s feedback that we’ve gotten anecdotally from the teachers we work with.”

After fully developing the P2F-Young Men curriculum, the researchers are currently conducting a small randomized controlled trial with eight teachers and their students at Oregon high schools. Although they are still in the process of collecting data for this study, Lind noted that teachers report that having a gender-specific curriculum helped the boys feel more comfortable in having discussions. “This is anecdotal at this point,” Lind acknowledged, “but if that stands true by the end of our study, I think that’s a really important finding.”

To Lindstrom and Lind, having separate curriculum interventions for different genders was necessary to address gender-specific issues and foster a safe learning environment. At the same time, they felt that it was important for all students across the gender spectrum to have access to these curricula to promote social-emotional development and build knowledge of career pathways.

“Teachers and schools have come to us and said, well is it just for cisgender students or people who are born as a certain gender? And our answer to that is no,” Lind affirmed. “What we’ve done with P2F-Young Men is create a transition curriculum for people who identify as young men. We start early in the curriculum of getting to know yourself, exploring yourself, your strength.”

In 2017, through funding from the National Center for Education Research (NCER), Lindstrom and Lind also developed a non-gender-specific version of the curriculum called P2F for All. This curriculum was targeted to underserved youth who face barriers to educational attainment and, due to a variety of reasons, may not be receiving transition services or college and career readiness support. Their study developed and tested the new P2F for All curriculum and found that it increased participating students’ career readiness, emotional coping skills, and interpersonal skills.

P2F for All aimed to take the findings from their gender-specific studies focused on the needs of students with disabilities and create a new, comprehensive career readiness curriculum—one that succeeded at addressing the needs of underserved students, not just those identified for special education services, regardless of gender. “What we strive to do in special education is provide services that are individualized and meet the needs of the person,” Lind said. “I think we’ve got a range of lessons to address that, and, ultimately, I think that lessons could be pulled out of a menu to meet specific needs for all students.”

Lauren Lindstrom is a professor and dean of the School of Education at the University of California, Davis. Prior to UC-Davis, Dr. Lindstrom served more than 25 years as an academic and administrator at the University of Oregon’s College of Education. Dean Lindstrom is an active researcher whose areas of interest include inclusive education, gender equity, career and college readiness and transition services for youth with disabilities. 

John Lind is a research associate at the University of Oregon’s College of Education. As a former special education teacher, Dr. Lind has extensive experience developing and implementing strength-based interventions for youth with disabilities, including adolescents with emotional and behavior disabilities. He has also worked as an educational consultant, providing training and technical assistance to international, national, and state departments of education on issues related to IDEA, effective classroom management, multi-tiered levels of support, and inclusion. Currently, he is the director of the SIGnetwork, a clearinghouse of resources for the OSEP-funded State Personnel Development Grantees.

This blog was written by Virtual Student Federal Service Intern Audrey Im and produced by Katina Stapleton (Katina.Stapleton@ed.gov). Akilah Nelson (Akilah.Nelson@ed.gov) is the program officer for the IES Transition to Postsecondary Education, Career, and/or Independent Living portfolio. The blog is part of a larger series on DEIA in Education Research.

Investing in Math Learning and Achievement for All Learners

International and national assessment data show that many U.S. students struggle with mathematics, and there continues to be a gap between students with and without disabilities. The recent 2022 NAEP mathematics results continue to showcase these disparities, which have been further exacerbated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly for lower-performing students and students of color.

In honor of Mathematics and Statistics Awareness Month, we want to highlight the research IES is supporting to improve mathematics achievement and access to educational opportunities for all learners, especially learners who have been historically underserved and underrepresented in STEM education.

IES is supporting research through its discretionary grant competitions to measure, explore, develop, and evaluate effective mathematics programs, practices, and policies for all students, including those with or at risk for disabilities. Here are a few highlights of some new research supported by IES:

  • Interleaved Mathematics Practice – Bryan Matlen (WestEd) and colleagues are conducting a systematic replication of a highly promising mathematics learning intervention, interleaved practice, in 7th grade classrooms. With the interleaved practice intervention, some of the assigned math practice problems are rearranged so that problems of different kinds are mixed together, which improves learning, and problems of the same kind are distributed across multiple assignments, which improves retention. Numerous studies in the laboratory and classroom have demonstrated that merely rearranging practice problems so that the students receive a higher dose of interleaved practice can dramatically boost scores on measures of learning. This replication study will determine whether this promising intervention can improve math learning and achievement and whether the intervention can scale to a widely-used online intervention that currently reaches tens of thousands of students in diverse settings.
  • Educational Technology Approaches to K-12 Mathematics – Jennifer Morrison (Johns Hopkins University) and colleagues are conducting a meta-analysis of rigorous evaluations of approaches that use technology to improve student mathematics achievement in grades K to 12. Using meta-analytic techniques, the team will be identifying conditions under which various types of technology applications are most effective in teaching mathematics. The results will provide researchers and education leaders with up-to-date information on effective uses of technology, including computer assisted instruction, cooperative learning, intelligent tutoring systems, games, simulations, virtual reality, inquiry/discovery, project-based learning, and media-infused instruction.
  • Specialized Intervention to Reach All Learners - Sarah Powell (University of Texas at Austin) and colleagues are conducting an initial efficacy evaluation of Math SPIRAL, an educator-provided mathematics intervention for students identified as needing intervention services through state achievement testing in grades four and five. Educators are provided with an evidence-based word problem intervention (Pirate Math Equation Quest), associated professional development, and coaching to support implementation and address the needs of their learners who are struggling in math. The research team will evaluate the impact of Math SPIRAL on mathematics outcomes for upper elementary students identified as being with or at risk for a disability. The results will provide information on the efficacy of Math SPIRAL as a tool to accelerate the learning of students in need of math intervention.
  • Math and Reading Acquisition Co-Adaptive System – Jess Gropen (Center for Applied Special Technology), Steve Ritter (Carnegie Learning), and their research team are iteratively developing and studying a set of individualized reading supports for students embedded within an adaptive mathematics learning system (MATHia) and an associated teacher application (LiveLab). Heuristics will determine when reading supports or scaffolds should be provided or recommended to students. In addition, adaptive supports for teachers will alert them when students are likely exhibiting reading challenges and provide recommendations for intervention. The findings will determine whether these reading supports that can be embedded into a variety of digital and/or adaptive math tools to decrease reading challenges and increase students' ability to engage effectively with math. The findings and generated technical resources (such as design assets and heuristics) will be Creative Commons licensed and made available through GitHub for use by other developers.

In August 2022, IES also launched the Learning Acceleration Challenge (LAC) Math Prize to identify and award school-based, digital interventions that significantly improve math outcomes for upper elementary school students with or at risk for a disability that affects math performance. Interventions for the Math Prize needed to specifically focus on fractions and could also include prerequisite skills such as whole numbers and operations. Two interventions are currently competing for the math prize and the winner will be announced Fall 2023.

In addition, IES has developed Practice Guides with evidence-based recommendations for educators to address challenges in their classrooms and schools. A list of the mathematics focused Practice Guides can be found here.


This blog was written by Christina Chhin (christina.chhin@ed.gov), NCER; Sarah Brasiel (sarah.brasiel@ed.gov), NCSER; and Britta Bresina (britta.bresina@ed.gov), NCSER.

Types of Communication for Persons with Autism

Headshots of Drs. Ganz, Pustejovsky, and Reichle In honor of Autism Awareness Month, we took a deep look into NCSER-funded research on augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) for students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and/or moderate-to-severe intellectual disabilities (ID) who have complex communication needs. Principal investigators Drs. Ganz, Reichle, and Pustejovsky discussed their research on AAC (such as communication board or speech output device), which provides an alternative means of communication for persons who are nonverbal or minimally verbal and ensures they have the opportunity to communicate their wants and needs. This research team’s current IES project examines treatment intensity factors (how often or how long an intervention takes place) related to teaching AAC use. In the interview below, they discuss their current project and how it builds upon their previous research on AAC interventions.

What is the purpose of your current project?

Individuals with ASD and/or ID who have complex communication needs typically require intensive, costly, and individualized educational interventions to develop communication. However, there is little information to guide parents and instructional personnel in selecting the most effective dose and duration of treatment. Similarly, there is a lack of guidance about when and how treatment integrity and strategies for generalization (use in various contexts) and maintenance (sustaining treatment over time) affect treatment outcomes. The purpose of this current project is to examine the effects of various treatment intensity parameters on expressive communication outcomes for students with ASD and/or ID through a meta-analysis. This investigation aims to guide the development of protocols for instructional personnel and parents so they can implement efficient, acceptable, and effective treatment for improving communication for these students.

What motivated you to conduct this research?

Educational interventions to treat ASD can be costly. This can lead to disparities wherein wealthier families can access high-quality services while most Americans cannot. Social services—including educational and healthcare services—are typically underfunded, impeding the provision of quality services for this population. For example, behavioral experts have recommended 25-40 hours per week of intensive, one-on-one educational and behavioral services for young children with ASD. However, there has been limited research aimed at comparing the relative efficacy of interventions based on various factors associated with treatment intensity. Not all individuals will need the same level of treatment intensity, but more research is needed to understand how treatment intensity needs can be differentiated by student characteristics, intervention types, and service context. Interventions that are efficient and tailored to individual student need may allow them to be more accessible to a wider range of families. In addition to studying these factors, this project aims to develop a treatment integrity template that can be used by others in determining appropriate treatment intensity levels for a range of interventions and populations. Such investigations hold promise for significant improvements in intervention efficiency, potentially giving schools ways to effectively serve more individuals.

Our goal is to provide information to family members and practitioners to enable them to better individualize AAC interventions, allowing them to match treatment intensity needs to individual characteristics, precursor skills, background, and consumer preferences and needs. By doing so, we can provide guidance for the allocation of services where needs are greatest.

How does this project build upon your previous research in AAC?

In 2021, we completed a research project that examined AAC interventions using similar meta-analytic methods with the same population as those studied in our current research. In that project, we focused on the ways in which instructional features and contexts are associated with learner performance. We found that AAC interventions are commonly implemented in school, home, and community settings with no significant differences in learner outcomes based on the setting. This tells us that AAC use does not need to be limited to one setting and can include caregivers and family members in this process. Across studies, a wide range of instructional strategies were used to teach AAC use, with behavioral and naturalistic strategies the most common.

Similarly, there was a range of teaching formats used during instruction. We looked at instructor- versus child-led, contrived versus naturalistic, and one-on-one versus group contexts, with structured approaches (one-on-one instruction, instructor-led, and contrived learning opportunities) the most common. However, just as with settings, no significant differences in outcomes were observed across instructional strategies or formats, indicating that there is no “one-size-fits-all” approach to AAC use and it can be individualized to the needs of each learner. The current grant offers a close examination of treatment intensity factors—such as how many sessions of intervention per week, how many minutes per session, and how many communicative opportunities the learner has during each session—and their potential effect on learner performance. Overall, the study asks, “what is the association between AAC dosage and successful learner outcomes?”

What can your research tell us about the relationship between education outcomes and AAC use for students with ASD and ID

We are hopeful that it will provide clarity for successful intervention protocols by specifying aspects of treatment intensity. Factors of treatment intensity and related intervention characteristics we are looking at include dosage rate, duration, form, and frequency; total intervention duration; degree that the treatment is implemented with integrity; and implementation of generalization and maintenance strategies. Additionally, we will explore possible associations between key skills that are important for students with ASD and ID to develop (such as imitation and matching) and choice of treatment intensity parameters.

Communication is the basis for most other learning, including social skills, literacy, and other functional life skills; thus, improving and increasing communication production and comprehension for individuals with ASD and ID who are minimally verbal or nonverbal will build a foundation for further academic and functional progress.

What do families and caregivers need to know about AAC use?

We believe that families should encourage communication in a range of modalities, including aided AAC, but also natural gestures, speech, and speech approximations. Although there is a myth that AAC use discourages speech, research has shown that individuals often learn speech simultaneously with AAC learning. Further, by increasing fluent communication, frustration and challenging behavior are often decreased. Communication in all forms must be targeted across people, settings, and vocabulary to provide minimally verbal and nonverbal individuals with opportunities to learn and use new language.

We hope to provide information to family members and practitioners that better enables them to individualize AAC interventions, allowing them to match treatment intensity needs to individual characteristics, precursor skills, background, and consumer preferences and needs. By doing so, we will be able to target services where needs are greatest and preserve resources for those in most need.

Many thanks to Drs. Ganz, Reichle and Pustejovsky for sharing their work with our readers!

Joe Reichle serves as the PI for this project and is a former Department Chair and current Professor Emeritus in the Department of Communication Disorders at the University of Minnesota.

J. Birdie Ganz is a professor of Special Education at Texas A&M University and serves as current Project Director and co-PI for this project.

James Pustejovsky is an associate professor in the School of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and serves as co-PI for this project.

This blog was written by Shanna Bodenhamer, virtual student federal service intern at IES and graduate student at Texas A&M University. She also serves as a research assistant on this project.

 

Educational Diagnostician Promotes Knowledge of IES-Supported Research on Measurement and Interventions for Learning Disabilities

This week, Texas celebrates Educational Diagnosticians’ Week. In recognition, NCSER highlights the important work that one Texas-based educational diagnostician, Mahnaz (Nazzie) Pater-Rov, has been doing to disseminate information from IES researchers to practitioners on improving reading outcomes.

Nazzie conducts assessments of students who have been referred for testing within multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS) to determine whether they have a learning disability (LD) and makes recommendations for intervention/instruction to improve their literacy and achieve their Individualized Education Plan goals. Working in this field requires an understanding of district/school policies and research-based evidence on identifying students with disabilities. To do this, Nazzie has immersed herself in current research by reading many of the resources IES provides through the What Works Clearinghouse and IES-funded grants so that she can use valid measures and recommend evidence-based interventions. After 16 years in the profession, Nazzie has realized that she is not alone and wants to help other diagnosticians understand the latest developments in LD identification and intervention. Nazzie uses a social media audio application called Clubhouse to share what she is learning, including hosting researchers for chats to present current work on related topics. Nazzie’s chat room is called ED. DIAGNOSTICIANS and has over 900 members, mostly education diagnosticians. Some of her speakers have been IES-funded researchers.  

 

Date

Title

Researcher (Link to IES Grants)

1/13/2023

Are Subtypes of Dyslexia Real?

Jack Fletcher, University of Houston

6/17/2022

Efforts to Reduce Academic Risk at the Meadows Center

Sarah Powell, University of Texas at Austin

6/3/2022

Bringing the Dyslexia Definition in to Focus

Jeremy Miciak, University of Houston

5/27/22

Pinpointing Needs with Academic Screeners

Nathan Clemens, University of Texas at Austin

3/4/2022

Using EasyCBMs in our Evaluation Reports

Julie Alonzo, University of Oregon

 

We asked Nazzie to share some of her top concerns and recommendations for research.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What stimulated your desire to bring about changes not only in your school but across the state?

When Texas removed its cap on the number of students that could be identified as in need of special education, and districts changed procedures for identifying need, we started to experience a “tsunami” of referrals. Now we are creating a whole population of children identified with LDs without also simultaneously looking at ways to improve our system of policies, procedures, and instruction to ensure we meet the needs of all students through preventative practices.

How has the role of education diagnostician changed since the reauthorization of IDEA (2004)?

Prior to the reauthorization of IDEA, we would compare a student’s IQ with their academic performance. If there was a discrepancy, they were identified as LD. Many states now use a pattern of strengths and weaknesses (PSW) for identification, which is based on multiple measures of cognitive processes.

In Texas, there is also an increased demand for the specialized, evidence-based instruction now that we are better understanding how to identify students as LD and parents are seeing the need for identification and services for their children. However, this has led to doubling the LD identification rate in many districts. This, in turn, is increasing our caseloads and burning us out!

Some experts in the field advocate for using a tiered systems approach, such as MTSS, to identify when a student is not responding to instruction or intervention rather than relying only on the PSW approach. However, the challenge is that there are not enough evidence-based interventions in place across the tiers within MTSS for this identification process to work. In other words, can students appropriately be identified as not responding to instruction when evidence-based interventions are not being used? By not making these types of evidence-based interventions accessible at younger ages to general education students within MTSS, I worry that we are just helping kids tread water when we could have helped them learn to swim earlier.

What are your recommendations for systemic reform?

We need to find a better way to weave intervention implementation into teachers’ everyday practice so it is not viewed as “extra work.” Tiered models are general education approaches to intervention, but it is important for special education teachers and educational diagnosticians to also be involved. My worry is that diagnosticians, including myself, are helping to enable deficit thinking by reinforcing the idea that the child’s performance is more a result of their inherited traits rather than a result of instruction when, instead, we could focus our energy on finding better ways to provide instruction. Without well-developed tiered models, I worry that we end up working so hard because what we are doing is not working.

Are there specific training needs you feel exist for education diagnosticians?

Many new diagnosticians are trained on tools or methods that are outdated and no longer relevant to current evidence-based testing recommendations. This is a problem because instructional decisions can only be as good as the data on which they are based. We need training programs that enable us to guide school staff in selecting the appropriate assessments for specific needs. If diagnosticians were trained in data-based individualization or curriculum-based measures for instructional design rather than just how to dissect performance on subtests of cognitive processing (the PSW approach), they could be helping to drive instruction to improve student outcomes. The focus of an assessment for an LD should not be on a static test but be on learning, which is a moving target that cannot be measured in one day. 

What feedback do you have for education funding agencies?

Implementing a system of academic interventions is challenging, especially after COVID-19, where social-emotional concerns and teacher shortages remain a top priority in many schools. Funding agencies should consider encouraging more research on policies and processes for the adoption of evidence-based interventions. Diagnosticians can be important partners in the effort.

This blog was authored by Sarah Brasiel (Sarah.Brasiel@ed.gov), program officer at NCSER. IES encourages special education researchers to partners with practitioners to submit to our research grant funding opportunities