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Researchers to address critical need in tracking young students’ progress

07/02/15 - BOSTON, MA. - Amy Briesch, Assistant Professor Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology and Robert Volpe, Associate Professor Department of Counseling and Applied Educational Psychology. Both have received a $1.6 million grant from the US Department of Education to develop a web-based system for school teachers to monitor social behavior in their children. Photo by: Ian Hurley/Northeastern University

Northeastern University researchers have received a four-year, $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to develop a Web-based system for elementary school teachers to more easily track the progress of children in their classrooms with emotional or behavior disorders.

Robert Volpe, an associate professor in the Department of Applied Psychology in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences, is leading the project. He said it addresses a critical need for both teachers and their students—to effectively monitor the progress of students in classrooms nationwide with behavioral disorders like ADHD or emotional disorders like anxiety or depression. These issues, he said, affect students’ learning and increase their risk of dropping out of school and other long-term negative outcomes.

The researchers also envision their Web-based system being used to track student behaviors that enable academic success, such as study skills, interpersonal skills, motivation, and social engagement.

Though health professionals and educators have in recent years sought to take a more proactive approach to monitoring social behavior and response to interventions, Volpe said the methods used to accomplish this remain antiquated and cumbersome, and data collection and management is challenging. For example, teachers might be asked to regularly fill out lengthy assessment forms by hand, which is very time-consuming and also makes tracking the data inefficient. Furthermore, he said, there’s the task of motivating teachers—whose schedules are packed and responsibilities are many—to partake in and keep up with this effort.

“These older assessments only provide snapshot pictures. What you really need to measure a child’s response to intervention is a moving picture to observe their response to intervention over time,” said Volpe, a certified school psychologist whose research focuses on behavioral assessment, early-literacy interventions, and academic problems experienced by children with ADHD.

Volpe and associate professor Amy Briesch, who is also in the Department of Applied Psychology, comprise the Northeastern team leading the project. They are collaborating with Julie Owens, a professor of psychology and co-director of the Center for Intervention Research in Schools at Ohio University.

With a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Northeastern professors will develop a Web-based system that teachers can use to more easily track the progress of children with emotional or behavior problems. Photo via Istock

With a $1.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education, Northeastern professors will develop a Web-based system that teachers can use to more easily track the progress of children with emotional or behavior disorders. Photo via Istock

With this grant, the researchers plan to develop a Web-based program that teachers would access via smartphone or tablet. The system would prompt teachers at predetermined times to answer questions about students’ progress. The answers would be based on a Likert-type scale—for instance, one end of the scale’s spectrum will be “never” and the other “always.” The researchers also want to expand the number of psychological constructs beyond what previous methods have monitored; examples of constructs include attention problems, disruptive behavior, study skills, and motivation.

Teacher feedback will be a focal point throughout the project, Volpe said. Approximately 775 teachers, from kindergarten to third grade, in urban, suburban, and rural schools in Massachusetts and Ohio, will participate in the study. The researchers will lead regular focus groups with the teachers to get ongoing feedback and will convene a separate panel of teachers, parents, administrators, and school psychologists and counselors. The panel will be presented with drafts of the program and will weigh in on the system’s user interface and whether the program captures the data they would like to see collected and analyzed.

The researchers envision that the mobile system will also provide teachers with useful feedback and visuals that summarize a student’s progress over time and how that progress matches up with any predetermined goals.

The key to developing the most optimal mobile system, Volpe said, will be striking the proper balance between gathering the important data and determining the frequency of the surveys and the ideal number of questions to ask the teachers without overwhelming them.

“One of the driving themes of the study is to make this process easier for teachers,” he said. “We expect to have clear guidelines on how the data should be collected.

“At the end of this project, we’ll have a set of tools that we can use to assess children’s response to the interventions they’re receiving in school.”