Many advantages exist in partnering with school districts to evaluate autism interventions. For example, studying subgroup variation will require large samples. Testing interventions in real-world settings determines effectiveness, rather than efficacy. Observations of how interventions are implemented in schools allows for meaningful changes to program manuals. If interventions are shown to be effective in these (rather than university-based) settings, it will increase the probability of uptake in community settings.
There also are challenges: Districts have strongly entrenched, difficult-to-change values and practices. Ethical and practical considerations limit acceptable research designs. Districts have limited resources for teacher training and program implementation. Classroom staff may have limited ability or willingness to implement interventions with fidelity. Finally, educators may be suspicious of researchers’ motivation.
Objectives: to present the strategies and experiences of the Autism Instructional Methods Study (AIMS) in partnering with a large school district to implement a randomized field trial of two classroom-based interventions for children with autism
The study was planned in close collaboration with district administrators over a 2-year period. Early planning centered solely on issues important to district personnel. District personnel led efforts to evaluate and choose intervention programs for implementation. A test of two interventions (rather than a “teaching as usual” control group) was conceived based on practical and research considerations. To recruit teachers, letters were sent from the district and the PI visited schools. Union officials were involved in approving data collection, especially videotaping.
Compensation for teachers and parents was high. Parent burden was minimized by conducting assessments at schools. Student recruitment was done through teachers and early intervention transition teams. Passive consent was used for nonparticipating students so videotaping could occur.
To date, 370 students have been consented, comprising >60% of eligible students. Education staff in 54 of 66 classrooms received training in Years 1 and/or 2 of the study, with 49 classrooms participating in Year 2. Based on preliminary results, the district chose one of the interventions to be implemented in all K-2 autism support classrooms. Local staff and district personnel shadowed the program developers/trainers to develop local expertise in coaching.
Unanticipated challenges included poor communication with principals, which made direct assessments difficult; classroom staff changing classrooms based on seniority; difficulty in obtaining professional development days for training, and changes in district staffing, which inhibited the transfer of capacity for teacher coaching from the research team to the district. Some of these challenges were addressed by creating a monthly newsletter for families and district staff, working with the district and union to keep teachers in their classrooms, and reclassifying assistants as autism specialists. Because the district adopted the program, staff training was moved from weekends to professional development days, which greatly facilitated training. The issue of capacity transfer is challenging and may necessitate ongoing relationships between the district and researchers.
Conclusions: This type of large-scale partnership to conduct rigorous, meaningful research is feasible, but will require rethinking some issues related to intervention and research design.