Call for translational research to innovate and improve school psychology practice
By Karen Callan Stoiber
In my last President’s message, I highlighted the work being done by Division 16 through our three Working Groups: (1) Translation of Research to Practice; (2) Globalization of School Psychology, and (3) Social Justice and Children’s Rights. Promoting and developing translational research is one of my key goals during my presidency and thus, the work undertaken by the Translation Working Group especially resonates with me.
In the current column, I will discuss several “understandings” that have been uncovered in the work being done by the Translation Working Group (WG) along with opportunities for school psychology to explore as we advance an age and aimed at improving the implementation of evidence-based practices in the schools. These understandings are not necessarily new or unique, yet they seem critical to overview as they clearly influence the implementation of translational research and evidence-based practices in the schools. The understandings stem from several sources, including research syntheses and reviews, focus groups conducted by the Translation WG Co-Chairs, Sylvia Rosenfield and Susan Forman, as well as “think tank” sessions with Translation WG members. The translational work builds on more than a decade of work on the topic of empirically-supported or evidence-based practices within the school psychology community. Importantly, it also reflects a vision for change and innovation in both research and practice. The shift toward embracing and advancing translational research aims to improve schools and schooling outcomes.
A first issue uncovered by the Translation WG regards the quality of available research that school psychologists and other school-based practitioners can draw upon when selecting and implementing interventions. In general, the knowledge base for academic concerns, such as early literacy and reading difficulties, is stronger than the research base regarding social behavioral concerns. Nonetheless, in a recent report of the National Early Literacy Panel (National Institute for Literacy, 2008), significant research problems were noted, including (1) most studies used simple pretest-posttest designs; (2) few studies incorporated control groups or alternative treatment groups that were equivalent prior to an intervention; and (3) studies showing positive results incorporated components that may be difficult to replicate in typical classrooms, such as delivering interventions one-on-one or using small-group design.
The report calls for additional translational research that allows causally interpretable evidence and that can be readily implemented in typical education settings. Unfortunately, the knowledge base on promoting social competence and responding effectively to children’s social and emotional needs is less developed, and hence, less available and applied in the schools.
A second issue that was clear when we began work on evidence based interventions in 2000 (Stoiber & Kratochwill, 2000), remains a key consideration for the Translation Working Group: a viable research-to practice agenda needs to reflect the diverse ecological and complex qualities of schools. Simply put, research-to practice models applied within schools are different than ones that may fit clinical settings. Schools are complex organizational structures, which can’t be captured through the use of “traditional” laboratory-like procedures and methodologies. Thus, the multiple factors and reasons surrounding youths’ psychosocial and educational difficulties make the task of selecting and implementing interventions more complex and challenging in schools. An intervention found to work with a particular population or for a particular problem based on clinic-based studies may not work in the school setting because there may be other factors that affect whether, when, and how the intervention is implemented. As such, school psychologists can’t rely on knowledge of evidence-based interventions that were proven to work in a clinic setting, because this setting does not match the unique contextual realities of a given school.
A third issue regards treatment integrity, often regarded as a key component in the implementation of reliable and valid evidence-based practices. Yet treatment integrity can’t be assumed in school-based practice, especially when other individuals such as teachers and parents are involved in the implementation of the intervention. Further, measures of treatment integrity often are not included in school-based research protocols due to budget, personnel, and time constraints. Similarly, schools may not have the personnel or resources to apply the “gold standard” and examine what works, for whom, and under what conditions. Rather, results are based on “average responses” to an intervention, and particular characteristics of students who receive an intervention within a classroom are left unexamined. Many schools do not allocate resources for systematic program evaluation, and when program evaluation occurs, formative measurement strategies may not be included.
Additional factors that have emerged as potential barriers to promoting the translation of science to practice and of practice to research include thefollowing: (1) Trainers in school psychology programs lack consensus on whether and what evidence-based practices and research-based approaches should be taught in their programs; (2) Practitioners may lack opportunities to learn, apply, and evaluate research-based practices. Several questions also have evolved as key to address for our working group to make progress, including (1) How do most practitioners view the role of translational research, and does their view differ from school psychology trainers?; (2) Is it feasible for practitioners to apply translational research findings, or are they limited by the role assigned to them and their school culture?; (3) How can we best support researchers in President’s Message: Call for Translational Research to Innovate and Improve School Psychology Practice uncovering evidence-based practices that can readily and realistically be applied in school settings?; and (4) How can we best support practitioners in learning about translational research and applying research-based approaches such as single participant design to their assessment, intervention, and problem-solving work?
Clearly, to move forward an agenda of promoting the translation of research to practice and practice to research will require efforts that are both comprehensive and systematic. To this end, the Translation Working Group invites input from a broad school psychology audience. Please feel free to contact Sylvia Rosenfield or Susan Forman with your ideas or suggestions. Onward!
Kratochwill, T. R., & Stoiber, K. C. (2000). Empirically supported interventions and school psychology: Conceptual and practice issues: Part II . School Psychology Quarterly, 15, 233-253.
National Institute for Literacy. (2008). Developing early literacy: Report of the National Early Literacy Panel. A scientific synthesis of early literacy development and implications for intervention. Available at http://www.nifl.gov/nifl/publications.html
Stoiber, K. C., & Kratochwill, T. R. (2000). Empirically supported interventions and school psychology: Rationale and methodological issues: Part I. School Psychology Quarterly, 15, 75-105.