A study of special educators’ use of evidence-based practices

Children At School

The field of special education has long stressed the need for educators to use evidence-based practices, but the gap between identification and implementation remains. What influences how special educators decide which practices to implement is not well understood. Vanderbilt Kennedy Center (VKC) researchers surveyed special educators to better understand factors in instructional decision making. Their findings were reported in the journal Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilitiesin February 2018.

Victoria Knight, Ph.D.

Victoria Knight, Ph.D.

“The purpose of our study was to examine the instructional practices, priorities, and preparedness of special educators who serve students with autism and/or intellectual disabilities,” said lead author Victoria Knight, Ph.D., assistant professor of Special Education and a VKC member.

Research questions

The study focused on five basic research questions: (1) What instructional practices do special educators report using? (2) For which of these practices have they recently received training or resources? (3) What factors influence special educators’ decisions about which instructional practices to use? (4) How do special educators view the importance of providing instruction across curricular areas? (5) How prepared do they feel they are to provide instruction in each of these areas?

The research team also explored factors such as experience, education, school setting, caseload size, and access to training.

Study method

The research team surveyed 535 special educators of students with autism and/or intellectual disability using a 129-item web-based instrument that covered the five research questions. The demographics of participants were consistent with the state’s special education workforce: most were female, white, and held an advanced degree.

In the sample, 87.5% reported they were familiar with the concept of evidence-based practices to a moderate or great extent. Additionally, 86.5% said that knowing whether or not a practice is evidence-based was important in their decision to use it.

Student diversity varied across districts. In 86% of the districts, more than half of the students were economically disadvantaged.

The survey presented 26 instructional practices; of these, 18 were evidence-based practices, 5 were ineffective or harmful practices, 2 were promising practices, and 1 was an emerging practice. A brief definition was provided for each practice.

Participants were asked to rate the extent to which they personally used each practice with students with autism or intellectual disability during the current school year. Each practice was rated on a 5-point Likert scale: 1 = never, 2 = less than monthly, 3 = at least monthly, 4 = at least weekly, 5 = at least daily.

For each practice, participants indicated what types of training or resources they had received in the last year: live training, online training, print/electronic resource, other, or none. More than one option could be indicated.

To investigate how special educators prioritized different areas of the curriculum, participants were asked to rate how important it was for their students with autism or intellectual disability to receive instruction in each of 16 different content areas.


“Although special educators reported using a wide range of evidence-based instructional practices, we found that their recent access to training and resources was fairly limited,” Knight said. “Moreover, we found that having such access was important to their use of these practices.”

For all 26 instructional practices, special educators who had received any type of training or resource related to the practice made greater use of the practice than educators who had not received related professional development.

“The setting and number of students served also were factors,” said Knight.

Special educators who taught students with autism or intellectual disability in special education classroom settings made more frequent use of evidence-based practices, and the number of students served also correlated with reported use of these practices. Teachers in elementary schools reported more use of evidence-based practices than those in secondary schools. Teachers’ highest level of education was not correlated with reported use of instructional practices.

At least half of those surveyed reported having had training or resources related to direct instruction, functional behavior assessment, modeling, and Applied Behavior Analysis-based interventions. The most common type of training was live, followed by accessing print or electronic materials, attending on-line training, or other opportunities.

Special educators varied widely in the factors they reported related to their choices of specific practices. The factors reported by the highest percentage of participants were individual student need (84%), own professional judgment (63.4%), skills I want/need to teach (52.9%), and whether the practice has been effective for other students in the past (48.6%).

Factors reported as not influencing decision making were financial resources required to implement the practice, recommendations from researchers who work/have worked at the school, practices described in journal articles, and personnel resources required to implement the practice.

Curricular areas rated as being of greatest importance were social skills (91.6%), reading/language arts (89.5%), communication (87.3%), math (86.7%), and daily living (86.7%). Of the 16 curricular areas in the survey, special educators reported feeling prepared to provide instruction in only 4 areas: reading/language arts (77.4%), math (67.7%), social skills (56.1%), and daily living (55.3%).

Implications for practice

“The good news is that special educators reported using a wide range of evidence-based practices, many on a daily basis,” Knight said. “However, use of certain practices was not always uniform. For example, teachers were more likely to use these practices if they taught in primary grades, had a small number of students, had received training recently, or taught students in self-contained, rather than inclusive, settings.

“Of concern is that we found teachers reporting use of some ineffective or harmful practices more frequently than evidence-based practices. Our findings have implications for administrators, directors, and trainers of educators at both the pre-service and in-service levels.”

First, training should emphasize instructional strategies that are effective across a range of skills, for varied populations, and in various settings; and incentives should be provided for attending trainings that address evidence-based methods.

Second, researchers should focus on what motivates special educators to use the practices they adopt, and on how they find information that is accurate, relevant, and reliable. A focus on decision-making models also could be helpful.

Third, professional development needs to be multilevel and to include various delivery formats (e.g., live, online) to address educators’ needs and preferences. In addition, districts need to provide intensive and ongoing support to educators.

Finally, professional development needs to address a broader range of curricular areas, so that teachers feel better prepared for the full range of students’ instructional needs.

Knight, V. F., Huber, H. B., Kuntz, E. M., Carter, E. W., & Juarez, A. P. (2018). Instructional practices, priorities, and preparedness for educating students with autism and intellectual disability. Focus on Autism and Other Developmental Disabilities, first published online: Feb. 3, 2018.

Jan Rosemergy is VKC director of Communication and Dissemination.

Giving Banner

This is a monthly email of Vanderbilt Kennedy Center Notables published by the Communications staff of the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center. Between issues of Notables, you can stay up to date on the latest Vanderbilt Kennedy Center news, information, and resources via the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center’s Facebook page.