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Early Results of National Center for Technology Innovation (NCTI) Study with TeachTown Efficacy in Pre-1st ASD Classrooms

Boy at chalkboardThe following is a summary of our results to date in a study in progress.  This is a collaborative research effort with Jigsaw Learning (TeachTown), Los Angeles Unified School District, and Cal State University, Los Angeles.  The study will conclude in June, 2009 and final results will be posted this summer.  In addition, the results will be submitted to a peer-reviewed journal this fall.
To address the increasing need for solutions for serving children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) in the schools, it is important to consider options that are more accessible and affordable such as Computer-Assisted Instruction (CAI).  However, it is even more essential that these solutions are effective and research is needed to address this issue.  In this collaborative study with TeachTown, Los Angeles Unified School District, and California State University, Los Angeles, a CAI program which targets language, cognitive, academic, social, and life skills will be assessed in a large public school system.  Approximately 50 preschool and kindergarten-1sTeachTown Mapt grade children with ASD are participating with 25 children in a treatment group and 25 children in a control group.  Children in the treatment group received 50-100 minutes per week of CAI and 50-100 minutes per week of supplementary off-computer activities designed to enhance generalization to the natural environment.  The CAI and off-computer activities were provided through TeachTown: Basics, which is currently being used in many schools across the United States, but which has not yet been tested in a randomized research study.  In addition to the automatic data collection provided by the software, students were assessed using behavioral and standardized outcome measures.  It was anticipated that the classrooms using the TeachTown: Basics program would demonstrate significantly higher rates of acquisition across learning areas and would also show more improvement in their spontaneous language and social interaction.  It was also expected that children in the treatment group would exhibit less inappropriate behaviors following treatment than their peers in the control group. Following this Gen Webinar study, it is also anticipated that teachers and parents involved in the Children at computertreatment group will show higher satisfaction ratings with their child’s program than those parents and teachers associated with the control group.  The results of this research will help demonstrate to school districts the effectiveness and social validity of implementing CAI, and will help districts such as LAUSD secure funding for these types of programs by having data to demonstrate the effectiveness.  The behavioral observation data is currently being coded by graduate students at California State University, Los Angeles, and children in both groups will use TeachTown: Basics through the rest of the school year to assess effectiveness between groups and within the control group.

About LAUSD Population
District Population: 688,138
Special Education Students: 82,326
English Language Learners (ELL) Students: 39,455
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) students: 8,516

  • Primary eligibility
  • Additional 55 with ASD as secondary eligibility

LAUSD Autism Programs
Preschool Autism Special Day Programs (SDPs) - 1/2 day
Intensive Comprehensive Autism Program (ICAP) (ages 3-6)
Autism SDP (primary – high school)
Autism SDP for students with High Functioning Autism (HFA) /Asperger
Any/all other options

Issues in Autism Programs

  • Staff-student ratios
  • Funding
  • Staff training and implementation
  • Accountability
  • Behavior problems of students
  • Access to general curriculum
  • Rapid increases in ASD
  • Access to evidence-based interventions
  • Paucity of appropriate staff (have to contract out)

Potential Benefits of TeachTown: Basics for LAUSD Students
Evidenced-based intervention with built-in data collection
Differential instruction
Collaboration with parents
Curricular guidance for teachers
Motivation for “hard to teach” students
Flexibility as students transition to different settings

Treatment Procedure

  • TeachTown: Basics Curriculum (Dev Ages 2-7 years)
    • Academic/Cognitive Skills
    • Social UnderstandingPicture3.jpg
    • Receptive Language
    • Life & Community Skill Understanding
  • Daily computer sessions on school days for 20 minutes/day (can be done in 2
  • 10-minute sessions)
  • Daily off-computer activities on school days for 20 minutes/day (1:1, small group or circle activity)
  • 3 months of intervention

Purpose and Design of Research

  • Purpose: To assess the efficacy of the TeachTown: Basics program in self-contained special education classrooms in a large, urban school district.
  • Design: Between and Within-Subjects Group Design, 4 schools – each randomly assigned in the fall to Treatment or Control, in spring, Control classrooms begin treatment.

About the TeachTown: Basics Program (the Intervention)

Vacuum Reward.pngCheck out the website for information about the program: www.teachtown.com

TeachTown: Basics includes the following:

  1. ABC Screenshot.PNGOn-computer lessons where the child gets on the computer and completes lessons in an ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) format with engaging reward games to keep them motivated;
  2. Off-computer activities to work on skills that are not targeted on the computer (e.g. Expressive Language, Play, Imitation, Social Interaction, Motor Skills) and to enhance generalization of skills learned on the computer to the natural environment;
  3. Automated data collection and tracking to assess the child’s progress as they move through the computer program and for school staff to use to assess the effectiveness of the intervention and to determine which skills may need more work off the computer;
  4. Note taking system for school staff to jot down anecdotal information about the child’s performance or any other relevant information to the child’s success with the program; and
  5. Synchronization and updating of data which allows the teacher to eventually share information with the families (not in this study) and for the child to be able to use the program at home (not in this study).  In addition, this feature allows the research team to look at data on a regular basis to determine how the study is progressing and to conduct final data analysis.

Participants Results: TeachTown: Basics Software Program
LAUSD Feb Melvin Dontell Computer_0001.jpgFifteen of the 22 students mastered lessons using the TeachTown:Basics software program.  This does not mean that the other students did not make progress on the program, it just means that some of the children are still working toward mastery on their lessons, which will likely result in some mastered lessons by the end of the school year for most students.  It is not unusual for students to not master lessons in only 3 months time.  Students not meeting mastery are those with more severe cognitive delays, and those that were unable to complete 20 minute sessions.  Data below is shown for the 15 students who did master lessons in 3 months time.  There was statistical significance at the p>0001 level from the Pre tests to the Post tests, which are a part of the TeachTown: Basics program and test the child’s knowledge of concepts using a different set of stimuli from the training to ensure that the children are learning the concepts (i.e. targets) and not just memorizing pictures. In 3 months, students, on average, mastered lessons in about 43 minutes (Preschool) to 52 minutes (K-1) and mastered 5-6 lessons (20-24 concepts/targets).

Results: Language Changes on the Brigance Assessment from Pre (November, 2008) to Mid-Treatment (Feb, 2009)
The Brigance is a standardized developmental assessment that is frequently LAUSD Feb Parthenia Isaah Computer_0001.jpgused to identify deficits and track progress in various developmental areas including language, cognition, social skills, and motor skills.  LAUSD uses the
measure in their ICAP and other autism programs to asess the progress of the children enrolled in their programs.  This measure aligns well with the TeachTown: Basics curriculum and was used in this study to measure progress for students
in the Treatment and the Control groups.  Body Parts measures the knowledge of body parts; Receptive Language measures comprehension and vocabulary; and Expressive Language measures labeling and expressive communication.
All classrooms demonstrated improvement in language areas on the Brigance, but
–         The TeachTown Treatment Group showed much bigger changes in Body Image (i.e. identification of body parts) and Expressive Language.
–          The students in the preschool groups performed similarly on Receptive Language, but,
–         the K-1 students in the TeachTown Treatment group showed greater change than the Control K-1 students

NCTI- Brigance2.bmp

Results: Cognitive and Social Skill Changes on the Brigance Assessment from Pre (November, 2008) to Mid-Treatment (Feb, 2009)
The Preschool students had similar improvements in Matching on the Brigance, but TTB students (Tx Grp) made bigger gains than the Control group in Auditory Memory, General Concepts, and Social Skills.
The K-1 Students had similar improvements in General Concepts and Social Skills, but the TTB students (Tx Grp) made bigger gains in Matching and Auditory Memory.
Matching measures the child’s ability to match objects and categorize, Auditory Memory measures the child’s ability to understand and follow directions and to remember information that was presented to them, General Concepts measure the child’s basic early academic abilities (e.g. letters, numbers, etc.), and Social Skills measure the child’s knowledge of social situations (e.g. emotions, friendship, etc.).

Results: Language Changes on the PPVT-III and EVT Assessments from Pre (November, 2008) to Mid-Treatment (Feb, 2009)
The Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT-III) and the Expressive Vocabulary Test (EVT) were used to further measures changes in Receptive and Expressive Language skills.  Age-Equivalents are not shown because many students did not establish basal in Oct.  In Feb, there was a larger increase in the number of Preschool students establishing basal in the TeachTown group (4 additional students on PPVT, 5 additional students on EVT) compared to the Control group (1 additional student on PPVT & EVT).  The TeachTown (Tx) group also had slightly more students establishing basal in Feb (2 additional students on PPVT & EVT) compared to the Control group (1 additional student on PPVT & EVT).

Summary of Results

  • The Treatment group demonstrated much bigger increases in
    • Receptive and Expressive language using the PPVT-4, EVT-2, and the Brigance
    • Auditory Memory, General Concepts, and Social Skills for the Preschool students using the Brigan000_94_Bill_throwing1.pngce
    • Matching and Auditory Memory for the K-1 students using the Brigance
  • They also showed slightly larger increases in
    • Matching for the Preschool students using the Brigance
    • General Concepts and Social Skills for K-1 students using the Brigance
  • After 3 months of using the TeachTown: Basics program, students in the Treatment group:
    • Made significant gains from Pre to Post Tests in the TeachTown: Basics software
    • Learned 34-39 target concepts (on average) in the TeachTown: Basics software with the largest gains in Receptive Vocabulary

This is a summary of our results to date in a study in progress.  This is a collaborative research effort with Jigsaw Learning (TeachTown), Los Angeles Unified School District, and Cal State University, Los Angeles.  The study will conclude this summer and final results will be posted later this summer. 

Discrete Trial Training - New Findings

Over the Memorial Day weekend, Dr. Chris Whalen and Dr. Shannon Cernich attended the Applied Behavior Analysis International conference in Chicago.  There were many exciting presentations and new developments in the field of ABA related to autism.

Of particular interest was a poster presentation entitled “An Analysis of Instructor Errors in Discrete-Trial Teaching of Children with Autism” by Daniel Mruzek, Tristram Smith, and colleagues at the University of Rochester.  They found that the largest proportion of instructor errors when delivering discrete trial training (DTT) occurred when delivering reinforcement.

These errors were of two types:  The instructor reinforced an incorrect child response or the instructor failed to reinforce a correct child response.  For example, instructor says “Show me the big one.”   Child points at small item but instructor thinks the child pointed at big item and says, Great job!”  Or the child points at the big item but the instructor is looking at her data sheet and thinks the child did not respond and says, “Try again.”  As reinforcement (often colloquially known as reward) is what increases the rate of a response, DTT can result in the wrong responses being increased, even with a trained instructor.

This is not to suggest that DTT is a flawed methodology.  All training methods as well as life often result in the wrong responses being reinforced.  Imagine the following scenario:  You meet someone new named Shelly; you mishear her name and call her Sally.  She responds when you call her Sally and does not correct you.  Your behavior of calling her by the wrong name is reinforced.

So the point is not to end your child’s DTT program in place of some other methodology, but to make sure it is being properly supervised.  Trained, good ABA therapists will regularly make the errors describe above (they’re only human), but a good supervisor will detect and correct these errors while supervising your child’s session.

More highlights from the ABA conference will follow in future blogs, but in conclusion, Dr. Chris and Dr. Shannon gave presentations at the conference on the use of TeachTown: Basics, a computer-assisted program that delivers concepts during the computer sessions in a DTT format.  Although computerized instruction is meant to supplement human instruction, not replace it, we are proud to state that TeachTown: Basics delivers errorless reinforcement.  There are some things that computers can do better than people.  If only your computer would help you the next time your child tantrums!

When is my child ready to start using the computer?

 There is no specific age that a child should start using the computer, but most people would agree that the child should be at least 2 years old. At this age, many children may be ready, but some will not, even at 3 or 4 years old. By the age of 5 years, most children are probably ready to start using the computer in one way or another. There is little research on when a child should begin using the computer, but there are a few signs that your child might be ready:

  1. Your child is at least 2 years old
  2. Your child is interested in visual stimuli such as the computer or television
  3. Your child attends to visual stimuli for at least 5 minutes (with or without your help)
  4. Your child is able to reach for items or point to desired items (so that they can touch the computer monitor or point to items on the screen) (not necessary for your child to use a computer mouse at first) (this one is not totally necessary as there are accommodations that can be made even for those children who cannot point to the screen)
  5. Your child can attend to and follow brief, verbal instructions (e.g. “sit down”) (for this one, it is worth trying the computer briefly to see what happens, for some children, they respond better to the computer than to verbal instructions).

How can I get a child started using the computer?

The best way to get a child started on the computer is to introduce it gradually with little demand on the child. The focus at first should be on showing the child that the computer is fun!

  1. Pick a stimulating program that your child is likely to love (this does NOT have to be educational – just fun for your child!) and have your child sit with you while you navigate through the program. If your child wants to grab the mouse or touch the monitor, let him, but do not give your child any instructions or place any demands on him or her.
  2. Once your child begins to show interest (which could be the very first time!), start placing your child’s hand on the mouse occasionally and physically prompt them to move it around and click. If you have a touch screen monitor, you can have your child start touching the screen to see what will happen. For this step, you should again choose a program that is reinforcing for your child, not necessarily a learning program.
  3. Now you can introduce a simple learning program (you will want to start with content that is relatively easy, but not boring, for the child). Begin with very short sessions such as 5 minutes and do several times throughout the day (2-3 times). Sit behind your child and provide extra reinforcement (e.g. praise, food, touch) to keep your child engaged. You may want to set a timer so the child knows how long they are expected to sit at the computer.
  4. Increase the difficulty of the learning program and increase the time gradually that the child sits at the computer (no more than 20 minutes for a young child, up to an hour for an older child).
  5. As your child gets more independent on the computer, you can fade your presence but it is recommended that you sit with your child for some of the computer sessions to work on expressive language and social interaction.
  6. To make sure it is working, you should collect data on the skills you are trying to improve.

What should I look for in purchasing software for my child?

  1. If only looking to entertain your child, not teach, pretty much anything will work – these kinds of programs are good rewards for your child to earn after using a learning program.
  2. For teaching, look for programs that are specifically designed for your child’s needs. For instance, if you have a child with an Autism Spectrum Disorder, you may want to purchase a program that is designed specifically for this population. Also, be sure to look at the ages the program is designed to teach. If your child is older, you will want to choose a program with age ranges that match your child’s developmental level.
  3. Look for programs that are based on science. Many programs claim to do this, so look at what “science” they are referring to.
  4. Look for companies that have done and continue to do research on their products! This one is extremely important, claiming something is “evidence-based” or “effective” without any research is a false claim. At minimum, the companies should provide a scientific framework that their products are based on.
  5. Identify programs that are visually interesting and have fun sounds – you will want your child to enjoy what they are doing! Most companies provide free demos of their products so that you can check out what the program looks and sounds like. Higher quality products are more engaging for most children.
  6. Programs that claim to be effective should provide a data collection system in the software. Having frequent progress reports on how your child is doing will help you decide if the program is working or not.
  7. One of the biggest issues with computer instruction is whether or not skills will generalize to off-computer activities. Programs that provide generalization solutions in the software and give suggestions for off-computer activities are ideal.
  8. Last, but not least, try to identify programs that will grow with the child so that you are not replacing software every month or so (this gets costly, results in loss of data tracking, and can be frustrating for your child).

Written by:

Christina Whalen, PhD, BCBA

President and Chief Science Officer

TeachTown, Inc.

www.teachtown.com

How to Select an ABA Service Provider

000_51_Clark_reading.pngIf you are struggling with finding a quality service provider for your child, or if you are wondering if the ABA services you are receiving are appropriate, the ABA Autism Special Interest Group, with funding from the New Jersey Center for Outreach & Services for the Autism Community, have provided a set of guidelines that are extremely valuable:

ABAAutismSIG Gdlns 2007.pdf

In this document, they provide consumers with information about board certification for ABA providers and wha100_0152.JPGt other qualities to look for to increase the chances of receiving the quality services that your child deserves.  They note that certification is NECESSARY, but not SUFFICIENT for selecting a qualified professional.  In other words, someone who provides ABA services and who is not certified should be questioned regarding their education and ability to provide services.  However, just having that is not enough, you should look at the applicant’s experience with autism, and with the age group and functioning level of your child. 

This document was put together with a lot of expertise and thoughtfulness, I hope you find it helpful!

Interview with Krista Schultz, Registered Psychologist and Autism Expert

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Krista Schultz, who works in Alberta, Canada with children with autism.  She is an ABA and developmental specialist and a frequent user of TeachTown with her clients.  I love her philosophy for teaching children and her passion for making a difference in the autism community.  I also really enjoyed her responses regarding technology and her feedback on TeachTown.  I hope you enjoy this as much as I did! 

Krista Picture.JPGInterview with Krista
May 2, 2007

1) Please provide us with a brief background about your education and credentials:

I am originally from Northern Alberta, Canada and received my first degree (Bachelor of Education) from the University of Alberta.  During teaching and then school counseling, I worked through a Master of Science degree in Educational Psychology with a Specialization in Developmental Psychology.  Since that time I have become a Registered Psychologist in the Province of Alberta and have continued to work in educational systems as well as home environments supporting children with special needs.

2) When and why did you start working with children with autism?

To be honest, it was quite unintentional.  Behavior has always been my key interest and I had been working with severe behavior disorders in children and adolescents. I am an avid proponent of the position that although we live in very rural areas, we should be providing children with services and professionals to the best of our abilities.  I received a call from a colleague who had a referral for an adolescent with autism and she asked if I would consult.  It was then that I realized that the area of autism and the families in our communities were sadly being under represented.  At that time, autism was not widely recognized.  Due to many factors, media included, I find there to be far more interest from the general public on the area of autism and thankfully, more recognition from service providers and educators to broaden their own knowledge of the diagnosis.

3) What positions have you had in the past and where do you work now?

I have been a teacher of many subjects, gifted students, educable mentally handicapped and those with severe behavioral disabilities.  As a Psychologist, I have a private practice and contract to school divisions, multidisciplinary teams and family agencies to provide assessment, support and programming for children with a variety of needs including those with medical conditions, FASD, severe behavioral disabilities, Autism Spectrum Disorders and learning disabilities.  I am also a workshop facilitator on several subjects surrounding special needs children and learning. 

B & E.JPG4) What is the best part of your job?

Watching my clients successfully meet objectives and seeing the joy on the faces of parents.  AND, having clients whom other professionals cannot pick out of the classroom as the child who has the autism diagnosis!

5) What part of your job is most difficult?

Supporting families while waiting for services to be put in place.

6) What is your approach to using ABA? 

I believe that ABA incorporates many different teaching methods.  It is flexible and transitions between developmental stages as well as changes that a child presents during the course of their programming.  It is that flexibility - and the knowledge and openness to accept and embrace those times - that allows ABA programs to meet the needs of the individual child and address behavioral teaching.  Generalizing to natural settings and a comprehensive interventionist program that eventually fosters the fading of reinforcers is my key approach with my primary work being in school settings.

7) Other than ABA, what other treatment approaches do you incorporate into your practice?

My treatment practices in my work with autism have largely been guided by the science of ABA and the writings of Lovaas, Fenske, etc. 

8) Do you find that many children you work with benefit from using visual strategies?

Absolutely.  Given the difficulties with self regulation and auditory “overload”, many of the children I work with can build increased independent and functional skills from incorporating the visual modality.

at_computer.jpg9) How do you think that computers can help children with autism?

Computers are tools in our society.  Working with children with autism and using computers allows behavioral teaching and independence with skill building.  While the face to face, social component of interactions is certainly important, there are many aspects of teaching that can be completed by the use of computers.

10) Do you think computers can help parents, in what way?

Often the parents with whom I consult are eager, interested and motivated but they are not therapists or teachers.  They are not autism specialists or experts.  Having the technology and support of a good program that is effectively addressing the unique needs of their child(ren) with autism is empowering and motivating.  It also allows parents to be parents and not have the worry of appropriate programming or seeking out multidisciplinary teams to do, essentially, similar work.  Given our shortage of professionals in many areas and the factor of rural living, computers also “shrink” and sometimes eliminate barriers to effective programming.

11) How can computers help schools?

In our province, technology in schools is priority and for children with autism we find that while teachers want to offer similar experiences, they are often at a loss to make these times meaningful and functional.  In several situations this year, I have been exploring the use of TeachTown in a variety of settings in schools.  Again, non-expert facilitation and the preparation time that computers offer teaching professionals has been invaluable.

12) How do you use computers in your position and how can other clinicians benefit from technology?

I have been far more open to using technology and computers as tools for increasing functionality, independence and skillstreaming.  We are fortunate in this day and age that assistive technology devices and technology such as TeachTown has vastly reduced barriers that would have otherwise made appropriate and beneficial teaching very difficult or unrealistic.

13) What aspects of TeachTown: Basics are most helpful for you?teachtown cloud background1.JPG

The non-expert model has been very motivating for those unfamiliar with autism.  The ease of setting the program up and moving parents and para-professionals through the trials has been excellent.  As an educational psychologist working with Individual Program Plans, the data, ease of collection and simplicity of results (graphs, etc.) have provided solid evidence of progress for clients.  Teachers have been thrilled with the explanations of objectives for sessions as it has allowed more meaningful short and long term goals to be added into the child’s program plan.

14) If you were on the design team at TeachTown, what would you do next to improve or enhance TeachTown: Basics?

Expand the developmental levels to promote additional training for older children!

15) What future directions should TeachTown take for developing other products?

I would like to see TeachTown work with assistive technology professionals to address the needs of children with autism who may present with additional impairments such as hearing impairments, visual problems or severe fine motor skill deficits. 

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