Severe child behavior is focus of $515,000 grant

PetersonIdaho State University special education professor Dr. Stephanie M. Peterson will explore new tactics for teachers to employ to work more effectively with children with disabilities who engage in severe problem behaviors and who avoid completing school tasks.

The U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences has awarded a $515,384 grant to Peterson to explore this problem, and perhaps come up with new solutions for teachers.

Peterson and her four graduate assistants will work with children in kindergarten through sixth grade. The ISU researchers will work with teachers and administrators in the Pocatello, Blackfoot and Minidoka school districts.

"We will be focusing on 5- to 12-year-old students with disabilities who engage in severe problem behavior, such as aggression, self-injury and chronic noncompliance, who come from a variety of cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds," Peterson said. "I believe we have designed a rigorous research project that will attempt to answer very important questions for the fields of special education and serious behavior disorders."

The study will focus on students with diagnosed disabilities, rather than general-education students having behavioral problems.

"We will be studying from 36 to 50 children over three years, helping teachers with the assessment of problem behavior and implement our new interventions to test them out," Peterson said. "Assuming it works well, we will work with teachers to imbed the new tactics within their class routines. School districts, generally speaking, have problems dealing with the type of behaviors we're studying. We're aiming to work with children that have some of the worst behavior, and then we'll help the schools work with them."

For dealing with the types of children that are the subject of the ISU study, the most popular current intervention strategies focus on communication and decreasing work demands. With the first type of intervention strategy, children are taught to ask for work breaks instead of over-engaging in problem behavior. Often, this is done by having the students touch a "break card" or form a manual sign for "break, please." The trouble with this intervention, although it can be effective in curtailing problem behavior, is that students can begin asking for breaks frequently and not get their assigned work done. Decreasing work demands is also an effective strategy to decrease problem behavior, but a poor method of stimulating students to get their work done.

The gist of the approach Peterson will study is combining the two methods noted above and test the effectiveness of it. The researchers will set up "a choice-making" situation, giving work to children and letting them choose between doing the work and requesting a break. More high-quality breaks will be the reward for choosing work. Conversely, asking for a work break will result in a lower quality break. The intervention will teach children to request breaks from demanding tasks and—more frequently—to comply with task requests. This study will evaluate the effects of providing different dimensions of reinforcement for break requests, compliance, and problem behavior for children who display escape-maintained problem behavior.

ISU will provide the participating school districts with staff and consultation to do the study. There is no financial cost to the participating schools.

The official grant title is "Concurrent Schedules of Reinforcement and Adjusting Demand Requirements: Effects on Communication, Compliance, and Problem Behavior." The grant will be implemented throughout a three-year period beginning this fall. The Institute of Education Sciences received more than 200 submissions for this type of grant, but only approximately 20 received funding.

For more information on the grant, contact Peterson at (208) 282-3552 or