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Research To Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education: Grantee Spotlight Blog Series Featuring Dr. Beth Stormshak

We hope you enjoyed yesterday’s NCSER grantee spotlight! Today, we present to you Dr. Beth Stormshak, Knight Chair and professor at the University of Oregon. Dr. Stormshak’s project is to conduct an efficacy trial of the Family Check-Up Online to address emotional and behavioral challenges among middle school students with or at risk for disability during their transition back to school after the pandemic-related school closures. 

*Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

NCSER: How would you describe your research project in a sentence?  

Headshot of Dr. Beth Stormshak

Dr. Beth Stormshak: This research examines the Family Check-Up Online in a hybrid efficacy-effectiveness trial that provides support for schools to implement the model under ideal conditions, and then tests the ability of schools to implement and sustain the intervention under real-world conditions, with the goal of reducing mental health and behavior problems in students who have been identified as “high needs.” 

NCSER: What was the need that inspired you to conduct this research? 

Dr. Beth Stormshak: The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the dire circumstances that most schools are facing as they tackle the mental health and behavioral concerns of students. Staffing shortages, escalating rates of mental health problems, and limited resources have led to a crisis that needs to be addressed nationwide. 

NCSER: What outcomes do you expect to change with this research? 

Dr. Beth Stormshak: With this research, we expect to impact student outcomes—including mental health, behavior, attendance, and achievement—which we refer to as the “ABCs” of student success (attendance, behavior, and classroom performance). We also expect to impact staffing outcomes, such as training in evidence-based approaches to intervention and willingness to engage with parents and caretakers to improve student success. 

NCSER: What inspired you to do research in special education?   

Dr. Beth Stormshak: I am interested in evidence-based interventions that support students who are struggling both academically and behaviorally. My work began over 30 years ago with a focus on improving student behavior problems in schools and has now expanded to include mental health and wellness, which impact most students and families receiving special education services. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic exposed the dire circumstances that most schools are facing as they tackle the mental health and behavioral concerns of students. Staffing shortages, escalating rates of mental health problems, and limited resources have led to a crisis that needs to be addressed nationwide.

NCSER: Why is this particular research project important to you?  

Dr. Beth Stormshak: There is clear evidence that supporting parents in building positive relationships with their child improves child behavior, mental health, and academic outcomes. Yet schools have few resources to administer family-centered interventions. My research bridges the gap between schools and families by testing a new tool for supporting families at home, with clear implications for school behavior. The ultimate goal of this research is to support parent skills and relationship building, which in turn will lead to reductions in student problem behavior and mental health concerns. 

NCSER: How do you think this grant will impact special education?  

Dr. Beth Stormshak: Special educators are unique in that they often interface with families more than other school personnel. They also have training in behavioral supports for students, making them ideal candidates to learn this model and apply it to school settings. I hope that our work will provide a sustainable tool for educators that can be used to improve student outcomes. 

NCSER: How will this project address challenges related to the pandemic?  

Dr. Beth Stormshak: Parents are more frustrated than ever with services provided to support student mental health. Schools are overwhelmed with students who need support, and communities do not have any additional resources to support families and students. This online program provides a cost-effective approach to service distribution that will have greater reach and impact than most programs currently available in schools and communities. 

NCSER: What are some of the biggest challenges in special education research today? 

Dr. Beth Stormshak: There are many challenges to special education research, including sustaining partnerships with schools when there is high turnover in staffing and limited resources at the school level to engage with the research community. Due to the crisis levels of staffing in most schools, it is challenging for schools to add “one more thing” to their plate. It is also a challenge for schools to identify staff for training and support in new programs. 

NCSER: What’s one thing you wish more people knew about children and youth with or at risk for disabilities?  

Dr. Beth Stormshak: Disabilities come in a variety of forms, and may include behavioral concerns, mental health concerns, and academic concerns. All parents want the best for their children, and many families struggle with approaches to behavioral management that are effective and helpful to their child. Many parents also feel blamed by schools or communities for their child’s disabilities. The Family Check-Up is strength-based and supportive, focusing on what parents are doing well and supporting parents to engage positively with their child. Our research on this model over 25 years suggests that parents who engage in the program will experience improvements in child behavior, mental health, and self-regulation, as well as their own parenting skills, stress, and depression. All of these outcomes lead to improvements in student achievement. 

NCSER: What are some of the most exciting news/innovations/stories that give you hope for the future of special education research?  

Dr. Beth Stormshak: There are many ways to intervene and support students. The COVID-19 pandemic has helped us focus on the mental health needs of students, and ultimately may change the way we think about schools, their role, and their engagement with families. The pandemic has also normalized telehealth and online support for students and parents. This has enabled the development of evidence-based programs, such as the Family Check-Up, to online platforms, which can be delivered asynchronously and therefore can reach large numbers of students that were, before, inaccessible. Ultimately this will lead to reductions in health disparities for many populations who have had limited access to mental health services. 

NCSER: What are some of the future goals for you and your team? 

Dr. Beth Stormshak: Our goals are to test the Family Check-Up Online in real-world settings and to adapt the model to fit the needs of schools across the country. Our work is community-based and we have engaged school providers in the process of development, carefully testing the feasibility and acceptability of this approach with school collaborators. We hope that this research provides insights into the process for implementing the model in schools, which can be applied to other schools across the United States who are interested in learning this model and providing this resource to parents and students. 

Thank you for reading our conversation with Dr. Beth Stormshak! Come back tomorrow for our next grantee spotlight!  

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