Educators can face challenges managing K-12 students, as 60 percent of students with special needs now spend much of their day in a regular classroom. Those students may have emotional and behavioral problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which can trigger a range of disruptive activities: frequently getting out of their seats, asking many off-task questions, crying in frustration, or having difficulty listening and paying attention.
“Teachers are struggling to manage all of that as well as the typical students and gifted students,” says researcher Julie Owens.
Helping these children succeed academically and socially can be a struggle for school administrators, too. They may have a high load of administrative tasks, mandates to focus on standardized testing, and fluctuating funding for counseling and mental health services. Educators also may not know which intervention strategies have been scientifically demonstrated to help students, explains researcher Steven Evans.
The stakes are high: The students with ADHD are more likely to drop out of school, not go to college, have difficulty holding jobs, and experience substance abuse issues, Evans notes.
“The long-term outcomes for adolescents with ADHD paint a pretty troubling picture for them,” he says.
Enter Owens and Evans, professors of psychology who lead Ohio University’s Center for Intervention Research in Schools (CIRS). Over the course of their careers, they have studied the effectiveness of various school-based interventions for students with ADHD, consulted with schools across North America on how to implement them, and expanded the network of scholars and educators equipped with this expertise by mentoring graduate students and postdoctoral researchers.
Owens and Evans, who were both named Ohio University Presidential Research Scholars in 2017 in recognition of their impact on K-12 education, have consistently attracted funding from organizations including the National Science Foundation, National Institutes of Health, U.S. Department of Education, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They have worked with school districts as close to home as Cincinnati and Logan, Ohio, and as far away as Calgary, Canada.
NEW HORIZONS FOR STUDENTS
One project, the Challenging Horizons Program, was designed to help students improve their study and organizational skills to boost their academic performance and succeed in higher grade levels. The Ohio University researchers found that the intervention had a documented positive impact on teens with ADHD immediately after the study was complete, as well as a year later.
Parents whose children participated in the study reported that their teens were more attentive, and more organized with their school work, and got along better with peers after participating in the Challenging Horizons Program. But one of the biggest benefits was academic outcomes, Evans notes—the grade point averages of the teens in the study improved significantly more than the students in a control group.
“The outcomes of the students who are receiving these services at school exceed the benefit of other psychosocial interventions available. The gains get even bigger as time goes on,” Evans says.
One problem that the Ohio University research has uncovered, however, is that teachers can struggle to sustain classroom interventions over the long term.
“It’s unrealistic to say to a teacher, ‘You need to do this 100 percent of the time or 90 percent of the time.’ They have so many demands,” Owens notes.
To help, the researchers are creating various online and digital tools that educators can readily and consistently access.
Owens and a former graduate student created a website called the Daily Report Card Online that can help teachers target problem student behaviors, identify intervention tactics, and monitor progress. The program is designed to help educators make difficult decisions, Owens notes. Her student’s research showed that at least 50 percent of teachers studied were likely to use the tool. Subsequent research with a school district in Canada found that 30 percent of teachers trained on the Daily Report Card Online used it, with strong positive outcomes for their students, Owens reports.
“We think we are able to reach a significant portion of the teaching population through technology,” she notes.
The success of the Daily Report Card Online prompted Owens and Evans to develop a second technology platform, Beacon, for a more comprehensive range of K-12 classroom issues. With funding from Ohio University’s Innovation Strategy program, they are currently working with information technology, design, and marketing experts to provide a custom analysis and plan for individual student needs, based on research that demonstrates what works.
The researchers also are developing technologies that students can use directly. Evans and Brandon Schultz of East Carolina University received a $1.38 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to design a video game to help students learn and practice skills such as organizing materials in their book bags or taking better notes in class. The game, which is under development in Ohio University’s Game Research and Immersive Design (GRID) Lab, uses a fun premise, which includes interactions with extraterrestrial aliens, to drive home lessons.
“Many young adolescents tend to be engaged in video games and want to play them over and over, and that’s consistent with our goal of getting them to practice,” Evans explains about the concept.
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
In addition to conducting their own studies, the CIRS researchers recently were commissioned by the American Psychological Association to review the field’s ADHD study findings from the last six years. The review clearly showed that the interventions that are successful with preschool and elementary school students are distinctly different from those that are successful with older adolescents, Owens says. It’s a finding that echoes conclusions that Owens and Evans have made in their own work.
But regardless of age, interventions can make a difference, the researchers argue. Owens and Evans hope to spend the next few years piloting their new technologies and working with schools to more systematically adopt and test the effectiveness of their strategies.
“I think one of the things that people should understand is how difficult it is for teachers to meet the needs of students with emotional and behavioral problems,” Owens says, “and how much research we probably need to understand how we can best support teachers to meet those needs and get positive outcomes.”