Identifying Evidence-Based Special Education Interventions from Single-Subject Research

By Freeman, Jennifer; Sugai, George | Teaching Exceptional Children, May/June 2013 | Go to article overview

Identifying Evidence-Based Special Education Interventions from Single-Subject Research


Freeman, Jennifer, Sugai, George, Teaching Exceptional Children


Special educators are aware of the need to use evidence-based academic and behavioral interventions in their classrooms. Using research to guide decision making in the classroom - whether at the program, school, or district level - can help ensure students are effectively served. A second-grade resource room teacher, Mark, struggles with managing the behavior of several students who have trouble staying on task and completing work. Cindy, a middle school special education teacher, teaches a self-contained program and is looking for a way to teach writing skills to a seventh-grade student with a learning disability. How can Mark and Cindy find out about best practices, and read reviews or summaries of recent studies? Currently, there is no rigorous and comprehensive database to support educators. It also can be difficult for teachers, schools, and policy makers to interpret the results of research. Despite the limitations in currently available resources, there are ways for special education teachers and administrators to identify evidence-based practices that fit their specific contexts. The most recent authorizations of the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA, 2006) and the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (2006) provide a mandate for the use of evidence-based practices (EBPs) in the areas of academic and behavioral education (20 U.S.C. § 1414[b][6][B], 20 U.S.C. § 7801 [37]). However, the lack of a clear understanding of what EBPs are and the difficulty finding EBPs that address the specific needs of students can be frustrating for many teachers and administrators. In response, educational researchers have attempted to evaluate the current research base and to define clear criteria for determining EBPs (Odom et al., 2005). However, the body of educational research in special education is extremely varied in both methodology and quality, often leaving special education teachers with the very difficult task of identifying and evaluating EBPs without clear criteria.

In order to address this issue, the U.S. Department of Education created the What Works Clearinghouse (WWC) as a resource for teachers. In addition, several other agencies, such as the Council for Exceptional Children (CEC), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the Promising Practices Network (PPN), also have attempted to bring together research results in a concise, user-friendly way for educators. Each organization has developed criteria for determining EBPs, and their web sites provide quick and easy access to EBPs for specific categories of students. However, differing criteria, a mismatch between current research practices and EBP standards, and limited access to specific research studies limit the usefulness of these resources for special education teachers. In particular, prior to 2010 the WWC prioritized randomized group design studies and excluded from consideration the results of studies using single-subject designs. This practice was particularly problematic for special educators due to the prevalence of single-subject designs in special education research (Horner et al., 2005).

In 2010, the WWC announced standards that included criteria for identifying EBPs through the use of single-subject research (Kratochwill et al., 2010), and both the CEC and APA have also developed standards. However, the WWC standards do not yet align with the current standard of practice in the field of special education. Consequently, few special education practices meet both WWC design and evidence standards.

Identifying Evidence-Based Practices

Table 1 provides a comparison of several web-based resources to assist special educators looking for EBPs. However, to benefit from these resources, educators must be critical consumers; the sites use varying criteria to evaluate the design standards and effects of single-subject research. In order to be able to evaluate practices based on single-subject research, educators must be fluent with the purpose and characteristics of single-subject research designs and the guidelines for evaluation and interpretation of that research.

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