Elementary teachers can make measurable difference with autism students, FSU-Emory project shows

By Ron Hartung, Florida State University | June 27, 2018

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Kindergarten through second-grade students with autism spectrum disorder whose teachers received special training and coaching did measurably better than their peers in communicating and getting along, according to researchers at Florida State and Emory universities.

“They were initiating more, participating more, having back-and-forth conversations more, and responding to their teachers and peers more frequently,” says researcher Lindee Morgan. She was co-principal investigator of a three-year, 60-school study that measured the effectiveness of a curriculum designed specifically for teachers of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

The team reported its results this month in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Morgan, the lead author, who worked at the FSU College of Medicine’s Autism Institute when the study was conducted, now is at Emory’s School of Medicine and Marcus Autism Center. One of the co-authors is Amy Wetherby, director of FSU’s Autism Institute. Wetherby was co-principal investigator of this study – and one of the developers of the SCERTS curriculum.

SCERTS, which was developed in 2006, targets the most significant challenges presented by ASD, spelled out in its acronym: “SC” for social communication, “ER” for emotional regulation, and “TS” for transactional support (developing a partnership of people at school and at home who can respond to the ASD child’s needs and interests and enhance learning).

“There is now a solid body of research on treatments for preschool children with ASD,” Wetherby says. “However, this study is one of only a few demonstrating the efficacy of a treatment for school-age children. And the most impressive part is it was conducted in public school classrooms with a good mix of general and special education teachers.”

ASD refers to a group of complex neurodevelopmental disorders characterized by restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and difficulties with social communication and interaction

The paper just published is titled “Cluster Randomized Trial of the Classroom SCERTS Intervention for Elementary Students With Autism Spectrum Disorder.” The study was funded by a $3 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences in the U.S. Department of Education.

The research team enlisted the participation of 60 schools in 10 districts: one in California, two in Georgia and seven in Florida. They randomly matched pairs of schools for the study. In each pair, one school was designated ATM, for “autism training modules.” Its students got “business as usual,” or regular classroom teaching, supplemented only by a website where modules related to autism were available to teachers. The other school was designated CSI, for “classroom SCERTS intervention.” Its participating teachers received three days of SCERTS training – plus regular coaching, access to extra reference materials and videos of themselves in the classroom.

“Randomization is a rigorous experimental design,” Morgan says. “This is fairly rare in educational research, particularly in special education research. It was a cluster randomized trial, which prevented bias in terms of which schools were using the different teaching methods.”

Morgan said the team was delighted with the results showing how CSI schools outperformed ATMs. One of the study’s strongest features, she says, was that teachers could watch the videos and see for themselves how the classroom had changed.

“Our primary outcome measure was a direct observation tool, which is basically unheard of in educational intervention research,” she notes. “Video was a very tedious process. However, it’s such a great measure to see what both teachers and students are using in the classroom.”

In addition, she says, a parent report and several teacher measures also showed that the students in the CSI group outperformed the ATM group.

“There is a pressing need to change the landscape of education for school-age students with ASD,” the paper concludes. “This work has the potential to contribute to this change by providing a feasible, comprehensive model of intervention that can be implemented in a variety of educational placements and settings.”

Morgan says CSI could benefit teachers and all students, not just those on the autism spectrum.

“General education teachers in most states aren’t required to have autism training,” she says. “And yet they find themselves with kids with autism because that’s the law. These days, more than 70 percent of kids on the spectrum have no intellectual disabilities. Therefore, schools are moving more toward modifying and adapting the mainstream classroom in ways that are not only helpful for kids with autism but also good for all the students. I remember some of our kindergarten teachers saying afterward: ‘Putting this in place helped my whole class.’”

The other co-authors of the paper were Chris Schatschneider and Jessica L. Hooker, from Florida State University, and Nicole Sparapani and Vanessa P. Reinhardt, from the University of California, Davis.