Lehigh University Faculty Awarded Federal Grants for Special Ed, Reading Skills Research

Funded projects, including prestigious early career awards, will study reading interventions, supports for students with disabilities and teachers of students with autism.

Story by

Amy White

Lehigh's Alumni Memorial Building

Esther Lindström, Kristi Morin and Ethan Van Norman recently received research funding from the Institute of Education Sciences.

Three faculty with Lehigh University’s College of Education recently received research funding from the Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the arm of the U.S. Department of Education that supports research, statistics and evaluation to ground education practice and policy. Two of the three received prestigious early career research awards.

Esther Lindström, assistant professor of special education, received an Early Career Research Award from IES’s National Center for Special Education Research for “Project RISE: Examining Teachers’ Reading Instruction, Supports, and Expertise for Students with Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities.” She will examine reading instruction for elementary school students with intellectual and developmental disabilities and how it relates to their reading growth, taking into account student and teacher characteristics.

Kristi Morin, assistant professor of special education, received a National Center for Special Education Research Early Career Research Award for “Project STAY: Supporting Teachers of Autism in Years 1-3.” The project focuses on developing an induction model, including mentoring and professional development, to promote retention among elementary teachers of students with autism who work in under-resourced schools.

Ethan Van Norman, associate professor of school psychology, received a research grant from IES’s National Center for Education Research for “Catch and Release: Predicting Maintenance of Tier 2 Reading Intervention Effects.” He will identify component skills and instructional practices that predict the maintenance of gains students experience during supplemental reading interventions after those supports are removed. The project includes collaborators from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and ServeMinnesota, a non-profit AmeriCorps agency.

Esther Lindström headshot

Esther Lindström, assistant professor of special education

“The College of Education is thrilled with the funding of Professors Lindström, Morin and Van Norman in the highly competitive arena of Institute of Education Sciences annual research grants,” said William Gaudelli, dean of Lehigh’s College of Education. “The research funded related to reading interventions, students with disabilities and autism support are areas of critical need in communities nationally, including our own. We are very proud of their efforts and of all those who supported the applications.”

The research will help to extend the college's work in the Lehigh Valley and beyond and support the expanding research profile of the college, Gaudelli said.

As few IES early career research awards are given each year, Lindström’s and Morin’s awards are even more notable, said George DuPaul, associate dean for research at the College of Education. The two Lehigh researchers are among only seven nationally to receive early career awards from IES this year, and they are the first from Lehigh to receive these awards. The seven grants, totalling nearly $5 million, provide support for an integrated research and career development plan for researchers in the early stages of their academic careers.

Reading growth for students with disabilities

Lindström will partner with local school districts and intermediate units to examine current practices in reading instruction for students with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD) who receive reading instruction in special education classrooms.

“Until recently, academic expectations for students with IDD have been very low, and classroom instructional practices have mirrored those expectations,” Lindström said. “However, major research and policy developments in the last 15 years have raised expectations substantially and given way to some encouraging progress in this area. That said, some practices are still in need of improvement. Over the next four years, we'll be examining what the current instructional practices are, how they are related to various teacher and student factors, and what it means for student reading growth.”

Kristi Morin headshot

Kristi Morin, assistant professor of special education

Lindström’s team will investigate how reading is being taught to elementary students with IDD, examine teachers' knowledge and beliefs related to reading instruction for this group of learners, and explore potential connections between these data and students' long-term reading growth. The team, including a few new Lehigh doctoral students, will collect data from each elementary student and teacher for two years, in three overlapping cohorts over the span of four years.

“We will be surveying teachers, observing and collecting data in schools, and then comparing our findings with what we know about effective reading instruction for this population,” Lindström said. “Our aim is to better understand how reading instruction is implemented, why, and what the implications are for students and teachers. From what we learn in this project, we can develop better ways to support students with IDD and their teachers.”

The project is the first of its kind to bring together these data for this population at this scale, Lindström said, and has potential to contribute significantly to an under-studied area of research within the field of special education. The award amount is $699,923.

Supporting teachers of students with autism

Morin’s project aims to conduct a program of research for improving outcomes for teachers of students with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) while participating in mentoring and training activities to develop expertise in school-based research, mixed methods and group design research, and grant and publication writing.

“Teaching students with ASD requires knowledge of evidence-based practices and other unique skills that are often not taught in preservice programs,” she described in the project summary. “Without them, teachers may lack the ability and confidence to meet their students' needs and be at increased risk for stress and burnout. Given that stress and burnout are strongly associated with attrition, support for teachers of students with ASD is critical, especially for novice teachers in under-resourced schools. As such, the goal of the current study is to develop an induction program to support novice teachers of students with ASD who work in under-resourced schools.”

Morin’s previous experience as a beginning teacher of students with autism gave her insight into the need for support for these teachers.

“I can remember feeling overwhelmed and underprepared to meet my students’ needs,” she said. “Having a support system that incorporated mentoring, additional training and a professional network would have helped me successfully navigate those first few years of teaching and better meet my students' needs. That is what I am hoping to accomplish with this project – supporting beginning teachers so they do not get burned out and leave the teaching profession.”

Ethan Van Norman headshot

Ethan Van Norman, associate professor of school psychology

Lee Kern, professor of special education and director of the Center for Promoting Research to Practice at the College of Education, who provided support for the project, will be Morin’s primary mentor on the grant. The award amount is $700,000. The Center for Promoting Research to Practice also sponsored Lindström’s grant, and Kern serves as her designated onsite mentor.

"IES Early Career Research Awards are very competitive grants and demonstrate not only the promising research potential of these two pre-tenure faculty members, but also their innovative approach to developing interventions that will improve the lives of children with disabilities and the teachers who support them,” Kern said. “I am certain these two exciting projects, and the work that follows, will have a significant impact on our field.”

Because Lindström’s and Morin’s are early career grants, funding will also go toward their development as scholars through workshops and formal mentorship from established researchers in the special education field.

Interventions for reading skills

Van Norman’s project, funded with a $1,689,125 award, will take place in 12 to 14 elementary schools in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metropolitan area. The research team, including Lehigh through the Center for Promoting Research to Practice, and collaborators from University of Wisconsin-Madison and ServeMinnesota, will work with about 600 students in second and third grade who are receiving Tier 2 reading fluency interventions provided by the Minnesota Reading Corps. Tier 2 intervention is generally for students whose literacy needs are not being met through Tier 1 or core (regular classroom) instruction alone.

The research team will collect diagnostic information, both before and after the intervention, regarding participants' component reading skills (such as comprehension and word reading fluency) that promote text reading fluency. They will also observe participants' academic engagement during Tier 1 literacy instruction – instruction generally at the “whole class” corresponding grade level – and collect data regarding the time allotted to different reading skills. In addition, they will continue to collect academic skill data after the interventions end to assess maintenance of effects.

The purpose of our project is to identify factors that predict whether students that show improvement from reading interventions will maintain those gains after the interventions end,” Van Norman said. The Lehigh team will be primarily responsible for analyzing data collected as part of the study and training tutors who will deliver the interventions.

Little attention has been paid to students’ maintenance of reading intervention effects generally, particularly for students who are initially successful but later identified as needing additional support, the researchers wrote in their project summary. If facilitators of intervention maintenance are identified, educators could better align the intervention to the critical component reading skills that predict students' post-intervention maintenance or ensure the environment is structured to provide sufficient opportunities to practice text reading during Tier 1 instruction, they said.

The results will provide needed information regarding the relationship between students' pre-intervention skills, their engagement during Tier 1 instruction, and their text reading fluency growth during and after a Tier 2 reading fluency intervention.

“As a group we've been exploring how we can improve the long-term effects of reading interventions,” Van Norman said. “This project will help us zero in on what things matter most when identifying which interventions we should deliver to students.”

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES) is an independent, non-partisan federal program whose mission is to provide scientific evidence on which to ground education practice and policy and to share information in formats that are useful and accessible to educators, parents, policymakers, researchers and the public. Its National Center for Special Education Research supports a comprehensive program of education research designed to expand knowledge and understanding of infants, toddlers, and children with disabilities and those at risk for disabilities. The National Center for Education Research supports research that addresses pressing education needs, from early childhood to adult education.

Story by

Amy White

Related Stories

image for story on Helping Autism Educators STAY

Helping Autism Educators Through Project STAY

Kristi Morin develops Project STAY to help new teachers working with autistic students and improve teacher retention.

Profile view of a head with a clock

Esther Lindström Studies Reading Instruction Practices for Students with IDD in Self-Contained Settings

Lindström examines instructional practices for teaching reading to students with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Lehigh University's Iacocca Hall from above

Ethan Van Norman Receives APA’s Prestigious Lightner Witmer Award

The APA’s Division of School Psychology early career award recognizes Van Norman’s significant contributions to the field.