Program to support middle-school students with academic, behavioral difficulties

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. —David Lee, professor of education, is part of a research team that recently received a three-year $1.5 million research grant from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES) to develop and evaluate a professional development program for seventh- and eighth-grade teachers to help support students experiencing academic, behavioral and social difficulties.

The purpose of the research project, Supporting Early Adolescent Learning and Social Success (SEALS II), is to create classroom interventions in the areas of academic engagement, classroom management and social dynamics/bully prevention.

“The goal of SEALS II is to help teachers support students who may be at risk behaviorally, socially or academically,” Lee said. “Sometimes teachers simply don’t have training on potential interventions or fail to recognize when kids are falling though the cracks.”

The collaborative research project is housed in the Department of Special Education and Disability Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and is led by associate professor Thomas Farmer. Jill Hamm, professor of educational psychology at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, is also a co-principal investigator with Lee and Farmer.

The team began working on this project more than five years ago with SEALS I, a professional development program aimed at helping students make the difficult transition from fifth to sixth grade. The program was extended to seventh- and eighth-grade teachers because administrators and teachers in the schools in which they were working on the successful SEALS I initiative identified additional needs in those grade levels.

“Middle school is an important time because teachers can change the trajectory toward student outcomes,” Lee said. “We know that the outcomes of students with or at risk for academic and behavioral issues are poor after high school. It is easier, and more effective, to change a student’s trajectory towards those outcomes earlier on than it is to attempt to alter outcomes just as students are leaving high school.”

The team is currently conducting focus groups with teachers, administrators and parents to learn more about the needs within seventh- and eighth-grade classrooms. They will then develop interventions based on these needs and send specialists to middle schools to deliver the interventions. Finally, they will evaluate the interventions.

Lee noted that the focus groups are critical to the development of the interventions.

“It’s not about us going out and saying to teachers, ‘Do this.’ It’s about saying, ‘Here are some possibilities that the research suggests may work for you. What are your main student concerns? Let’s talk about how we can learn from you and you can learn from us, in order to develop interventions that are effective and practical for use in classrooms,’” Lee said.

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Last Updated July 28, 2017