UF researchers awarded $5.5 million in federal grants to help teachers reduce disruptive classroom behavior
GAINESVILLE, Fla. — University of Florida education researchers have received two federal grants totaling $5.5 million to conduct studies aimed at reducing significant behavior problems in children that can disrupt the classroom learning environment.
Their intervention research targets at-risk children during two of the most critical times of their development — before they enter kindergarten and the transitional middle school years, grades 6 through 8. The highly competitive grants were awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.
The prekindergarten study, funded by a $4 million grant, is a joint effort between special education and early-childhood researchers at UF and Virginia Commonwealth University. Co-investigators Maureen Conroy of UF and Kevin Sutherland of VCU will examine the efficacy of their experimental intervention — called BEST in CLASS — that showed high promise in a preliminary study.
The four-year investigation will involve 120 voluntary prekindergarten classrooms, most of them in Head Start programs, split between UF’s home region in North Central Florida and VCU’s hometown of Richmond, Va. Each year, 90 children identified as high-risk for emotional and behavioral disorders will undergo the intervention; a second group of 90 at-risk children will serve as a comparison group.
“As many as one-fourth of children in Head Start classes exhibit significant problem behaviors that place them at elevated risk for future development, and most have never been in structured classroom situations before,” Conroy said. “Through 14 weeks of classroom-based coaching, we will train teachers to implement effective instructional strategies for improving children’s emotional behavior competence.”
Conroy said the BEST in CLASS model emphasizes both individual and class-wide interventions to improve interactions between the teacher and students and enhance the overall classroom atmosphere for learning.
“Teachers discuss classroom rules and routines with students and praise specific positive behavior — for example, sitting and waiting their turn in a circle during a game or sharing time,” she said. “Such strategies aren’t necessarily new, but we show teachers how to use them more precisely and intensely for given situations. The teacher works to prevent any problem behaviors during typical classroom activities.”
The treatment also has a home-school component where teachers send home a daily “behavior report card” stating, in a positive manner, how their child behaved or which corrective behaviors they learned that day.
The second federal grant, worth $1.5 million, supports the work of University of Florida special education professors Stephen Smith and Ann Daunic, who are developing a lesson series teaching middle school students with significant behavior problems techniques to control their emotions and behavior in social situations.
“The middle school years are difficult enough for students in their pre-teen and early adolescent years. Those with serious emotional and behavioral disorders face tremendous obstacles to learning,” Smith said. “They require focused attention to help them develop the essential skills for modifying their behavior, and we need to catch them before they drop out of school or end up in the juvenile or adult justice systems.”
Smith and Daunic, with doctoral student Brian Barber, are developing a curriculum for teachers of children with emotional and behavioral disorders, and they’ve given it a name — In Control — that’s as much a mantra for the students as it is the program’s title. It’s actually a two-unit, 26-lesson curriculum that shows students how their minds work and how they can use that knowledge to take control over their own behavior and their learning process.
“Up to 10 percent of middle school students have significant behavioral issues that merit some attention outside of what is normally provided in our education system,” Smith said. “We are developing lessons that tap self-control skills such as monitoring your thoughts, inhibiting impulses, planning better, and adapting to changing situations.”
“These high-level skills — known collectively as ‘executive functions’ — are fundamental to helping students set personal goals, control their emotions and improve their social problem-solving abilities.”
Starting in August, the researchers will spend two years developing and testing the In Control lessons in collaboration with special education teachers, school counselors and school psychologists at two Gainesville schools — Lincoln and Fort Clarke middle schools. Participating students will be from small classrooms especially for students with emotional and behavioral disorders.
The UF researchers will continually refine and polish the curriculum and expand testing in the third year. If their curriculum effectively improves students’ behavior and learning, they will publish their preliminary findings and develop a professional development package for additional large-scale testing.