Lee Kern, program coordinator and professor of special education at Lehigh’s College of Education, will lead researchers at seven universities in establishing the National Research and Development Center on Serious Behavior Disorders at the Secondary Level.
The researchers have received a highly competitive $9.6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education to create the center—a collaboration among special education and mental health experts. Over the course of five years, they will study a range of interventions designed specifically for high school students suffering from intensive behavioral disorders. The study will be the largest of its kind to focus exclusively on the high school population.
Lehigh’s Kern is the lead author of the grant application and is its principal investigator. The grant is the largest ever awarded to a faculty member at Lehigh’s College of Education and falls under the auspices of the college’s Center for Promoting Research to Practice, a research center whose goal is to disseminate information and best practices to the special education community and into the nation’s schools.
“Over 50 percent of high school students with severe behavioral issues never make it to graduation. It’s a societal issue that, unfortunately, has never been identified as a national priority,” Kern says. “These serious behavior problems are typically misunderstood. The center will be successful if our collaborative efforts can help find ways that students diagnosed with these challenges can become productive and contributing members of society.”
Conservative estimates indicate that 2 to 3 percent of all school-aged children demonstrate severe behavioral disorders, and far more experience mental health problems, but it is believed that only a small number of those receive proper services to address their issues. The disorders may include aggression, delinquency and personality concerns, as well as developmental and learning disabilities.
Steve Evans, the Alvin V. Baird Jr. Centennial Chair of Psychology at James Madison University’s Alvin Baird Attention & Learning Disabilities Center, and Tim Lewis, professor and associate dean for research, development and graduate studies at the University of Missouri, will serve as co-principal investigators on the grant.
“Developing effective school-based interventions for adolescents with emotional and behavioral disorders is a challenging task,” Evans says. “The talented group of nationally recognized experts we have assembled are well-suited to make meaningful advances in work that will make an important difference in the lives of adolescents and their families.”
The team of researchers involved with the grant is distinguished by its work in the fields of special education, clinical psychology, developmental psychology, racial and ethnic diversity, education and mental health policy, and statistical analysis. Along with Kern, Evans and Lewis, they include:
• Mark Weist, the University of Maryland’s Center for School Mental Health,
• Deborah Kamps, the University of Kansas’ Juniper Gardens Children’s Project,
• Terry Scott, the University of Louisville, and
• Carl Paternite, Miami University
“Lee has truly made a name for herself among the country’s special education community not only for her groundbreaking research, but also for her passion and her commitment to improving the lives of these students,” says Gary Sasso, dean of the College of Education. “It’s an honor for Lee and for the college to have been recognized for their accomplishments and to lead such an important and timely research program.”
For the first two years of the five-year grant, researchers will study the impact of a wide range of interventions on small groups of secondary-level students who have serious behavioral disorders. During years three through five, the most successful of those interventions will then be packaged and offered to 500 students representing 40 high schools in six states.
Interventions are ways in which problems caused by a student’s disorder can effectively be minimized. Traditionally, it involves reducing inappropriate behavior while reinforcing the positive and productive actions of students, both in and out of the classroom. Researchers at the center will interact not only with students, but discuss intervention techniques with their families, educators and peers—an approach that will allow Kern and her colleagues to create a comprehensive package of interventions that could become the standard for high schools across the country.
There has always been a piecemeal approach to addressing behavioral disorders among older students, with little attention paid to how these techniques fit with each other, Kern says. Hopefully, we’ll be able to change that through the center.