Researchers land grant to help K-2 teachers test strategies to reduce challenging classroom behavior

Joseph R. Pearson Hall

LAWRENCE — A recent study from the University of Kansas has found that teachers widely believe increasing students’ engagement in instruction can help decrease challenging behaviors. Based on that finding, researchers are now testing strategies to boost engagement and help teachers select interventions that might work best for their classrooms.

Kathleen Zimmerman, assistant professor of special education and a researcher at KU Center on Developmental Disabilities, received a grant from the Institute of Education Sciences to help enhance engagement in K-2 classrooms for students with challenging behaviors by testing commonly used behavioral interventions. Her team has completed the first year of the four-year, $699,085 grant to the KU Life Span Institute. The first phase included a survey asking educators how they felt about engagement in instruction, challenging behaviors, how to address such behaviors, which strategies were effective and where teachers find these strategies.

“We know we have strategies for addressing challenging behaviors, but I wanted to start centering teacher voices in the process of how they are chosen and evaluated,” Zimmerman said. “Are they going to the web, their peers or research to find them? Do they believe improving engagement can improve student outcomes for children exhibiting challenging behaviors, rather than focusing on just the challenging behavior?”

Survey results from about 450 educators from 45 states showed that 61% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed that challenging behavior makes it difficult to teach in their classrooms, and 85% agreed or strongly agreed that they preferred to use proactive strategies to prevent such behaviors. Survey results also found that 82% agreed or strongly agreed if students are engaged in class, challenging behaviors are less likely to happen, and 91% responded that educators should know some interventions to increase engagement.

The strong responses regarding engagement confirmed the notion that teachers believe engaged students are less likely to display challenging behaviors and that interventions can help keep students engaged.

“Our goal with this was to directly ask general and special education elementary teachers about these interventions. Our national sample found educators felt challenging behaviors impact their teaching, and that if they could engage children, they could eliminate those behaviors,” Zimmerman said.

The survey then asked respondents about 10 strategies to address challenging behaviors, roughly half of which are evidence-based. The other half might be commonly used in classrooms and effective, but they have not been formally assessed. The researchers asked about feasibility of the intervention, if teachers had tried it and where they found intervention ideas. Strategies included visual supports, sensory strategies like sitting on an exercise ball instead of a chair, providing opportunities to respond, incentive charts, telling students expectations before an activity and behavior-specific praise.

The effectiveness and feasibility ratings for each strategy will help the research team determine which strategies to pilot in future studies. The researchers will then develop decision-making guides for educators.

The survey also found that 90% of respondents found interventions to improve student engagement on the internet, including through popular social media platforms such as Pinterest and TikTok, as well as education blogs. Additionally, 58% said they sought information from people in their school such as administrators or co-workers, and only 19% said they consulted the federally funded Institute of Education Sciences What Works Clearinghouse, a repository for evidence-based interventions.

“What that tells us going forward is we need to change where we disseminate information on innovative tools and strategies,” Zimmerman said. “We need to put information where people will find it — on these web-based resources educators are already using.”

That sentiment was bolstered by the finding that 87% of educators said they were supported by people within their schools when finding strategies to boost engagement. Additionally, 52% said they were supported by families and communities and 34% by experts outside of their school building, including district coaches or other experts or researchers in the field.

Zimmerman and fellow researchers presented their findings at the Annual Teacher Educators for Children with Behavior Disorders conference in November 2022 and will present strategies for coaching educators based on their findings at the Association for Positive Behavior Support conference in March. A peer-reviewed publication on the findings is forthcoming.

To test strategies, Zimmerman's team is recruiting schools in the Kansas City and Lawrence areas to partner on observing how teachers are using behavioral interventions, both evidence-based and not. 

“We wanted to go into this with an open mind. That’s why we are testing what educators are using, not what we think might be the best,” Zimmerman said. “Educators are the experts about what is happening in their classrooms. We’re excited to learn with them during this project.”

Image credit: KU Marketing

Tue, 03/14/2023


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