Engagement of Students with ASD in Elementary and Middle School Classrooms

Saturday, May 17, 2014: 11:06 AM
Marquis BC (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
J. R. Dykstra, Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute, University of North Carolina - Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC

Understanding engagement in the classroom setting is critical to providing effective educational programs for students with ASD. Joint engagement, which incorporates the social aspects of engagement and learning, may be particularly sensitive to the challenges of students with ASD. Although joint engagement has been examined in preschool children, it has not been examined in elementary and middle school students with ASD.


This descriptive study examines the joint engagement of students with ASD in classrooms in relation to other classroom and student variables. The specific objectives of this study were (1) to characterize student engagement in the classroom, (2) to examine the relationships between teacher and instructional factors and student engagement, (3) to examine the relationships between student characteristics and engagement.


The participants for the study were recruited from 8 elementary and middle school self-contained classrooms (i.e., serve only children with disabilities). There were 25 student participants in the current study, with 2 to 4 student participants from each of the eight classrooms. All students had an educational label of autism and ranged from 8 to 12 years old at the time of recruitment.

The researcher conducted a series of observations and assessments to gather data for the study. The dependent variable, student joint engagement, included six hierarchical categories: unengaged, onlooking, object only, person only, supported joint engagement, and coordinated joint engagement (Adamson et al., 1998). Engagement data were collected using observational coding during one-to-one, small group and large group classroom instruction. The independent variables included teacher, instructional, and student characteristics. Teacher characteristics (interaction style and teacher burnout) were measured through observations and questionnaires. Instructional characteristics were measured using observational coding and included group size and use of student-directed practices. Student characteristics included expressive communication, receptive vocabulary, and autism severity, and were measured using standardized and semi-structured assessments.

Data for the current study were collected at three different levels: classroom, student, and observation. Based on the nested design of the study, the researcher used mixed level modeling for statistical analyses, with engagement being modeled as a function of different independent variables.


The students in the study were actively engaged approximately 40% of the time, and passively engaged or unengaged for around 60% of the time. The results showed that smaller group size and the use of more student-directed practices were significantly related to student joint engagement. Additionally, joint engagement was significantly related to expressive communication, but was not related to autism severity or receptive vocabulary. Joint engagement was not related to teacher characteristics.


Based on extrapolation from the study and assuming a 30-hour school week, students in the study would be actively engaged for approximately 12 hours per week, well below the recommended 25 hours of active engagement for effective intervention with children with ASD (NRC, 2001). The findings of the study suggest that specific instructional practices may impact joint engagement in older students with ASD. Additionally, the relationships between joint engagement and specific student characteristics may have implications for educational programming or placements.