Creating Momentum of Success

David Lee, associate professor of education and director of the Applied Behavioral Analysis Program, hones techniques to improve outcomes of children diagnosed with emotional behavioral disorders.

Zack has a reputation for trouble in the classroom. Everyone knows he'll use any means necessary to avoid academic work. Some days he's the class clown, coaxing giggles from classmates. Other days, he just won't stay seated, beating a path between the garbage can and his desk, maybe stopping to look out of the window. His current teacher says that often Zack just plain refuses to complete an assignment: “There's no getting him going on the task.” 

Children like Zack, who have been identified with emotional/behavioral disorder (EBD), autism spectrum disorder, or ADHD, present enormous challenges for teachers, caregivers, and parents. Not only do these episodes disrupt the entire class, but in the long term, refusal to even engage in tasks negatively affects learning. What starts out as a “won't do” problem soon becomes a series of “can't do” problems. 

"We can't necessarily control what goes on with a child out in the world, but we can control what happens in our classrooms. This is a simple, highly effective preventive strategy that teachers can easily do."—David Lee

And it's a national issue. Consider the numbers: ADHD affects 3-5% of the school-age population. Similarly, about 1 in 88 children are diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. And while the Department of Education reports that a little less than 1 percent of children with EBD are provided special education services, experts believe that there may be as many as two to three kids with EBD per classroom. The drop-out rate for these youths is more than 50 percent.

Turning the Tide

The concept is simple. Success breeds success. It builds momentum. Creating a momentum of academic success is the cornerstone of Lee's research.

Imagine a Mack truck barreling down the highway, flying over potholes in the road. In the face of an environment obstacle, the truck persists. The driver of a Prius, on the other hand, might jerk the steering wheel in order to avoid an accident.

In the same way an engineer might be interested in how physical momentum plays out in that scenario, Lee is interested in variables that affect task engagement and persistence in classrooms.

"How can we help children, who typically do not engage in academic tasks, begin and persist in those tasks for long enough to produce more fluent performance?" Lee asks. "Start with something simple. Start with a series of simple, preferred tasks followed by something more difficult. This primes the pump. It creates a history of success that builds momentum."

Lee's research is based on applied behavior analysis (ABA), which focuses on techniques, such as positive reinforcement, that can bring about meaningful and positive changes in behavior. It's about arranging the environment in a manner that encourages success.

Experts believe that there may be as many as two to three students with emotional behavioral disorders (EBD) per classroom. 

ABA has been around since the 1960s, but in the past decade, it has begun to transform the field of special education, where it's particularly effective when employed with children who require behavior supports, such as ADHD, autism, and EBD. ABA practitioners have made great strides in providing these children with the verbal, motor, and social skills needed to function in society. 

The idea, Lee says, is to look at each child as an individual, to figure out why the child is behaving inappropriately. "For instance," he says, "if a student throws books on the floor or calls a teacher a four-letter word, normally that child gets sent to time-out, or to the principal's office."

Lee explains that in the short term, that tactic certainly gets the job done. "But the child learns pretty quickly that acting out is an effective way to avoid engaging in an academic task," he says. "A teacher using behavior analytics strategies can teach that student to raise their hand, or flip a card over to ask for help. The teacher can then provide the individualized assistance needed to help the student succeed." 

"But this goes way beyond the classroom," Lee notes. "Parents wind up feeling like prisoners in their own homes, afraid of what can happen when they take their kids out. ABA strategies can change that. Maybe they can have tantrum-free trip to the grocery store, or they can sit down together for dinner without a meltdown."

Research in Practice

For the past eight years, Lee has served as the director of the Applied Behavioral Analysis Program, which is delivered by the special education faculty through Penn State World Campus. What began as a small regional effort in Pennsylvania—the first cohort consisted of just a few students—is now a full-blown program approved by the Behavior Analyst Certification Board (the governing body of behavior analysts).

The program consists of four online courses plus a fifth course, a face-to-face weeklong seminar held every August at Penn State University Park in conjunction with the National Autism Conference, which is in its 17th year. Attendees include family members, physicians, education faculty and anyone interested in autism.

The program is popular, Lee says, because care-givers are demanding interventions that work. "We have a number of parents in the program. Some use the information to become better consumers of behavior analytic services. Sometimes, their kids have grown up and they want to give back to the community, help the next group of folks who are coming along." 

"The impact that these individuals have on kids is a sobering, but amazing thought," Lee says. "Listening to a teacher from Hong Kong tell you about how she used an intervention based on behavioral momentum to help increase the engagement levels of one of her students really brings research to practice full circle." 

Top photo: Professor David Lee works with educators as they learn the most effective ways to teach children.