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VCU receives $3.29M grant to study ways to improve children’s problem behaviors in elementary schools

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Research shows that students who exhibit problem behaviors early in school often fail to fully benefit from early educational experiences.

A Virginia Commonwealth University researcher has received a $3.29 million grant to test a program in Virginia and Florida elementary schools that aims to address children’s problem behaviors in the classroom.

The grant from the Institute of Education Sciences at the U.S. Department of Education will support a study of a program called BEST in CLASS-Elementary at eight elementary schools in Richmond Public Schools and eight in Alachua County Public Schools in Florida over four years.

The program — developed by Kevin S. Sutherland, Ph.D., a professor in the VCU School of Education, and Maureen A. Conroy, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Florida — trains teachers in behavioral and instructional practices that reduce students’ problem behaviors, increase positive teacher-student interactions, improve teachers’ sense of self-efficacy, enhance the quality of teacher-child relationships and improve the overall classroom environment.

“The overarching aim of BEST in CLASS is to help teachers better meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable children and students,” said Sutherland, a professor in the Department of Counseling and Special Education and the Clark-Hill Institute for Positive Youth Development in the Department of Psychology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. “Through improvements in teacher-student relationships and interactions, BEST in CLASS can help improve the likelihood of students' success, both in the near term as well as in later years.”

The study will involve 192 kindergarten to second-grade teachers across the four years. Ninety-six teachers and their students will receive BEST in CLASS training and coaching, while 96 teachers and their students will be in a business-as-usual condition. In each classroom, the study will focus on up to three students identified as being at risk for emotional and behavioral disorders, with a total of 576 students and families involved.

The prevalence of emotional and behavioral disorders in children and adolescents is estimated to be between 9 percent and 16 percent of the total school population. Research has shown that students who exhibit problem behaviors early in school often fail to fully benefit from early educational experiences.

Over time, when children present problematic behaviors, their relationships and interactions with teachers get worse, and research indicates these early relationships and interactions predict later problems or successes in school, Sutherland said.

“If I'm a teacher and I've got a child in my classroom that I struggle with behaviorally, I'm less likely to ask that child questions. I'm less likely to work to keep that child engaged. I'm less likely to spend time developing a warm relationship with that child,” he said. “So that over time, that child doesn't have the same learning opportunities as other kids, in large part because of their behavior and their relationship and interactions with me as the teacher.”

Kevin Sutherland, Ph.D., a professor in the VCU School of Education, co-developed BEST in CLASS, a program that aims to help teachers better meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and students. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)
Kevin Sutherland, Ph.D., a professor in the VCU School of Education, co-developed BEST in CLASS, a program that aims to help teachers better meet the needs of some of the most vulnerable children and students. (Photo by Kevin Morley, University Relations)

BEST in CLASS identifies — with parental consent — two or three children in a classroom who are most likely to exhibit problematic behavior and then works to change their interaction patterns with the teacher.

Teachers in the program receive a BEST in CLASS manual and attend a one-day workshop. Following the training, they receive 14 weeks of individualized coaching to provide them with guidance and support in implementing the program’s strategies.

Additionally, the program trains teachers in being culturally responsive and in listening skills, and the coaches help facilitate meetings with the students’ families.

“The focus of the intervention is not only helping the teacher improve her interactions with the students in her classroom, but also the relationships with those children's families,” Sutherland said.

The goal of BEST in CLASS is not only important for the educational success of the children with emotional or behavioral problems. It is also important for improving the overall classroom environment, benefiting all students.

“When the teachers can improve their relationships and interactions with these two to three children per classroom and those children's problem behavior reduces and their engagement increases, which we found, the overall classroom atmosphere improves,” Sutherland said. “It has a larger impact, a broader impact on the classroom climate and classroom quality.”

A pilot study of BEST in CLASS-Elementary took place at three schools in Richmond last year. In that study, the researchers worked with 30 teachers and their children, with 15 teachers in a randomly assigned treatment group and the other 15 assigned to a business-as-usual group.

Researchers are still analyzing the results, but initial findings show that teachers in the treatment group saw improvements in their teaching and classroom management, as well as improvements in child behavior.

If I'm a teacher and I've got a child in my classroom that I struggle with behaviorally, I'm less likely to ask that child questions. I'm less likely to work to keep that child engaged. I'm less likely to spend time developing a warm relationship with that child. So that over time, that child doesn't have the same learning opportunities as other kids, in large part because of their behavior and their relationship and interactions with me as the teacher.

Kieasha King, a third-grade special education teacher at Woodville Elementary School, took part in last year’s study. BEST in CLASS, she said, helped her learn new strategies for the classroom, and for connecting with parents and students.

“Without BEST in CLASS, I just would have been doing the same thing in the classroom and thinking I was going to get different results,” said King, who was named her school’s teacher of the year last year. “And it was great getting observed weekly and getting feedback. That's something that teachers — new teachers and veteran teachers — need. It helps us to be better and to improve our practice in the classroom.”

David T. Peck, principal of Chimborazo Elementary School, said the partnership between VCU and his school, along with BEST in CLASS, has enable Chimborazo students to flourish behaviorally and academically.

“Many of our students at Chimborazo cope with environmental circumstances that impact their ability to focus on the academic rigors and behavioral expectations needed to be successful in school,” he said. “BEST in CLASS’ staff has more readily enabled not only our students, but our teachers, to more efficiently navigate these challenges with strategies and tools to support the needs of both.”

BEST in CLASS builds on a preschool version of the program developed by Sutherland and Conroy a decade ago to ameliorate challenging behavior and to build the positive prosocial behaviors linked to later social outcomes and academic success.

The elementary school version differs in a few ways, notably including a greater emphasis on family involvement.

“In the preschool program, we had a training module called home-school communication where we trained teachers on communicating better with families and providing them with weekly behavior notes,” Sutherland said. “For the elementary project, we found teachers really wanted more information, training and support in connecting with families, and particularly families of children who present some problem or challenging behaviors, because oftentimes those families are the least engaged with school or least likely to be responsive and have negative experiences with school.”

The Peter Paul Development Center has been a key partner in helping build the family-school connections, said Sutherland, who serves on the board of the nonprofit outreach and community center that serves Church Hill and neighboring communities in Richmond’s East End.

“Through the work with our community partners in this project, including the Peter Paul Development Center, Richmond Public Schools, and the teachers and the families, we've had a lot of people across time who have contributed to get to where we are now as an intervention and as a program,” Sutherland said.

BEST in CLASS is a collaborative project among faculty at VCU and the University of Florida. In addition to Sutherland and Conroy, the project’s co-investigators include: Bryce McLeod, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Psychology, and Kristen Granger, project coordinator in the Department of Counseling and Special Education, at VCU; and James Algina, Ed.D., professor emeritus of research and evaluation methodology in the College of Education at the University of Florida.

About VCU and VCU Health

Virginia Commonwealth University is a major, urban public research university with national and international rankings in sponsored research. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 217 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. Thirty-eight of the programs are unique in Virginia, many of them crossing the disciplines of VCU’s 11 schools and three colleges. The VCU Health brand represents the VCU health sciences academic programs, the VCU Massey Cancer Center and the VCU Health System, which comprises VCU Medical Center (the only academic medical center and Level I trauma center in the region), Community Memorial Hospital, Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU, MCV Physicians and Virginia Premier Health Plan. For more, please visit www.vcu.edu and vcuhealth.org.