New grants aim to improve learning and behavior in children with developmental disabilities

Photo of hispanic boy doing a math problem on a chalkboard

Four new grants led by VKC researchers will advance interventions for children with learning and behavioral challenges. Research strategies include the development of innovative technology.

Learning Disabilities Hub

Vanderbilt’s Learning Disability Hub, one of only four in the nation, will continue its work with renewed funding from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The project aims to identify what connects math problem-solving to reading comprehension, with a focus on non-native English speakers. Math problem-solving is the single best school-age predictor of success in the adult workplace.

“Language comprehension is the most likely connection between these critical two areas of school performance,” said co-principal investigator Lynn Fuchs, Dunn Family Chair in Psychoeducational Assessment and professor of Special Education. “We want to increase understanding about the specific ways that math problem-solving and reading comprehension are connected via language comprehension in order to see if work in one domain may simultaneously improve performance in the other domains.”

Pictured left to right: Laurie Cutting, Lynn Fuchs, Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, Doug Fuchs

Pictured left to right: Laurie Cutting, Lynn Fuchs, Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, Doug Fuchs

Additional members of the transdisciplinary team are Doug Fuchs, Ph.D., Nicholas Hobbs Chair and professor of Special Education; Laurie Cutting, Ph.D., Patricia and Rodes Hart Professor of Special Education and professor of Psychology, Radiology, and Pediatrics; Jeannette Mancilla-Martinez, associate professor of Literacy Instruction; and Pamela Seethaler, research associate in Special Education.

Autism and artificial intelligent systems

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a highly variable neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by difficulties related to social communication and interaction, as well as restricted interests and repetitive behaviors. Early intensive behavioral intervention is effective for many children, but intervention resources are often limited and costly. Zachary Warren, Ph.D., and Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D., collaborators on robotics and autonomous systems for ASD intervention, each have received grants proposed in response to a call from the National Institute of Mental Health: Adaptation Optimization of Technology (ADOPTech) to Support Social Functioning.

Zachary Warren

Zachary Warren, Ph.D.

Warren is leading a project to develop and test an intelligent 3-dimensional technological environment designed to support important aspects of early social communication development and learning in very young children with ASD. The aim is to create an intelligent system able to automatically measure and alter the learning environment itself, creating a system that helps young children with ASD more frequently respond to their names, follow gaze and common gestures, and coordinate social attention with their caregivers—all building blocks of early social communication.

Photo of Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D.

Nilanjan Sarkar, Ph.D.

Sarkar is leading a project to enhance and measure social functioning of adolescents with ASD through virtual intelligent systems. The aim is to develop a technology able to autonomously detect, respond to, and alter embedded tasks based on performance and communication during intervention; and to validate the feasibility of such a system to provide within-system measures of communication efficiency and collaboration with the “artificially intelligent partner.” The project addresses the need for sound outcome measures of meaningful changes in social communication, both short-term and over time.

Photo of Amy Weitlauf, Ph.D.

Amy Weitlauf, Ph.D.

Warren is associate professor of Pediatrics, Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences, and Special Education, and executive director of VKC TRIAD (Treatment & Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders). Sarkar is professor of Mechanical and Computer Engineering. Each are co-investigators on the other’s grant. Also co-investigator on Sarkar’s grant is Amy Weitlauf, Ph.D., assistant professor of Pediatrics.

Tool to guide behavior analysis in the classroom

For students with disabilities, challenging behavior is one of the most significant barriers to receiving an effective education. Practitioners use Functional Behavior Assessments to address problem behavior by identifying the reasons behind them (their functions) and tailoring interventions to address these functions.

Blair Lloyd, Ph.D.

Blair Lloyd, Ph.D.

Blair Lloyd, Ph.D., has received an Early Career Grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, to develop functional behavior assessment maps for students with persistent challenging behavior as a guiding framework for practitioners. Lloyd is assistant professor of Special Education.

Lloyd’s research will examine different ways to test hypotheses of when and why a student engages in problem behavior and will develop a framework for matching these strategies to behavioral profiles and instructional settings. She also will develop an accompanying training manual for educators, followed by a pilot study to evaluate the effects of the final framework on student outcomes. Students with persistent challenging behavior will be recruited for the study, and each student will be paired with a behavior specialist and a special or general education teacher from their school.

Joan Brasher is Public Affairs Officer, Vanderbilt University. Jan Rosemergy is VKC director of Communications and Dissemination.

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