Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) present with executive function (EF) and social challenges in the classroom, which interfere with making transitions, following rules, planning, and reciprocating. Unstuck and On Target(UOT; Cannon et al., 2011) is a cognitive/behavioral EF intervention for children that includes guidelines for establishing a flexible and supportive classroom, such as maintaining a high ratio of praise-to-corrections, using active priming, providing ample visual supports, and modeling flexibility.
This study compares change in classroom climates in schools implementing UOT versus a social skills intervention (SS; Baker, 2003) and explores relationships between teacher behavior, classroom environment, and student behavior in both groups.
The interventions took place in 14 mainstream elementary schools. All children had IQ>70 (M=108.45, SD=18.01), met criteria for ASD on ADOS or ADI and clinician impression, and were in the 3rd–5th grade (M age=9.52, SD=1.02). Ten schools (47 participants) received UOT, and 4 schools (20 participants) received SS. Groups were initially evenly-matched for age, sex, school type, parent education level, IQ, race/ethnicity, and percent on psychotropic medication.
Teacher and student behavior, as well as classroom climate, was measured during 10-20 minute sessions at 2-3 time points during the school year. Observers blind to intervention condition rated student behaviors (negativity/overload, transitioning, social reciprocity, rule abidance, participation), teacher behaviors (use of praise, use of priming, modeling of flexibility), and classroom environment (use of visual schedule, visual of classroom rules, use of reward system) during transitions and classroom activities (e.g., lectures, seat work, group work, free-time). Classroom climate was calculated using mean teacher and classroom ratings to generate an overall rating ranging from 0 (indicating poorer climate) - 6 (more positive climate) for each school.
Paired-samples t-tests were used to measure classroom climate change between initial observations and final observations. Spearman’s rho correlations were used to identify relationships between teacher behaviors, classroom environment, and student behavior (see companion IMFAR abstract related to UOT classroom outcomes) at the final classroom observation (data from all 3 time points will be presented at the conference).
There was a significant, positive increase in classroom climate ratings during the school year for schools in the UOT intervention (t=-3.980, p<0.01), but not for schools in the SS intervention (t=-0.260). Teacher behaviors (praise, flexibility, and priming) and classroom environment (visual of schedule, visual of rules, use of reward system) were both significantly, positively associated with student flexibility, planning skills, social reciprocity, rule abidance, transitions, and participation (rhos:0.275-0.535, ps<0.05).
Generalization strategies of UOT include training teachers, providing standard vocabulary to use and coaching in the use of visual supports, praise and priming. The data indicate that the generalization strategies in UOT may result to improvements in classroom climate. In addition, children with ASD benefit from visual supports in the classroom and teacher use of praise, priming, and modeling of flexibility is related to positive student performance. Classroom supports and teacher training in basic best practices for ASD may be an important mediator of the effectiveness of UOT, and perhaps any intervention.
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