School of Education Researchers Bridge Gap between Autism Research and General Education Practices

Nicole SparapaniA team of School of Education researchers has received a $1.69 million Institute of Education Sciences grant to explore how general education teachers can use inclusive math and literacy instructional practices to support learners with autism in their kindergarten to third grade classrooms.

The interdisciplinary team includes experts in both autism and general education, allowing for a novel approach that seeks to identify what teachers are already doing in their general education classrooms that works best for all students, including those with autism. Most research into supporting autistic children in the classroom has been led by autism researchers seeking to implement autism-based interventions within classrooms, particularly in special education classrooms.

The team will be led by Principal Investigator Assistant Professor Nicole Sparapani and Co-PI Professor Peter Mundy, who are autism researchers with appointments at both the School of Education and the UC Davis MIND Institute. Co-Investigator Dr. Nancy Tseng, a Lecturer/Supervisor in the School’s Multiple Subject Credential Program, will bring her expertise in general education settings and mathematics instructional practices.

Peter Mundy“Right now, as a field, we’re at a loss as to how to support students with autism in classrooms, especially in general education classrooms,” Sparapani said. “Our goal is to identify the nuances of teachers’ talk and instructional practices that support inclusion in math and literacy contexts and work for all students. Ideally, we hope to find techniques that teachers can weave into their everyday practices, rather than specific interventions they need to use for their autistic students. This is about giving teachers concrete practices that support inclusion.”

Sparapani has been developing classroom observational tools for measuring student active engagement and teachers’ language use since 2009. Her focus will be on videotaping and analyzing teacher-student interactions to see which interaction features support student active engagement, and in turn, math and literacy learning.

Nancy Tseng“With video you are able to capture a snapshot of what’s really happening in a classroom,” she said. “We’ll be combining a variety of approaches to get a very comprehensive picture of what teachers are doing in their instructional lessons and how students respond and participate in the opportunities provided to them. This approach will give us a richness of data that you really miss if you just look at test scores alone.”

Sparapani is concerned that students with autism are often provided with low-rigor, less-demanding instructional opportunities, which hinders how well they do in school, and in turn leads to them being moved into less-challenging academic tracks.

Sparapani and Co-I Dr. Nancy Tseng recently analyzed classroom observations of preschool – 2nd grade mathematics instructional opportunities provided to students with autism. Sparapani had noted that students with autism were frequently offered less challenging tasks, such as recall tasks, which focus on rote memorization. Yet, studies have found that engaging students in conceptual learning tasks helps them to build a deeper understanding of mathematical concepts. “Conceptual learning tasks are important for learning,” said Sparapani. “They’re linked to best practices in general education because they help students think deeply about the content.” 

In her research on the categories of language that teachers use across general education and special education classrooms, Sparapani also found that teachers most often used talk to direct the behavior and attention of their autistic students.

“In a math lesson, for example, the content is stripped when a teacher uses language like ‘sit down, look over here, etc.,’” she said. “We see these specific features of talk and more simplified learning opportunities presented to kids with autism. This means autistic students have fewer opportunities to learn. It’s an educational equity issue.”

Learn more about the study, titled “Examining How Teacher-Student Interactions within Mathematics and Literacy Instructional Contexts Relate to the Developmental and Academic Outcomes of Early Elementary Students with Autism.”

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