School Psychology Research: Combining Ecological Theory and Prevention Science

By Burns, Matthew K. | School Psychology Review, March 2011 | Go to article overview

School Psychology Research: Combining Ecological Theory and Prevention Science


Burns, Matthew K., School Psychology Review


Research and the scientific method is the foundation for school psychology practice and training (Ysseldyke et al., 2006). Fortunately, research within school psychology is more rigorous than ever before and recently has had notable effects on policy and practice. The number of federally funded studies published in School Psychology Review (SPR) almost doubled between 2006 and 2010 in comparison to the previous 5 years, which represented a shift in conceptual soundness, methodological rigor, and alignment with federal priorities within school psychology research (Power & Mautone, 2011). The impact factors and immediacy index for school psychology journals, which are based on frequency with which articles in a journal are cited and used as estimates of journal quality and influence, consistently rate among the highest within educational psychology. Moreover, the provision for using response to intervention as part of the learning disability diagnostic process and the rapid increase in its use in practice are directly linked to school psychology research. The widespread use of response to intervention is an example of how our research has directly affected the lives of countless children.

Given the expanding influence of school psychology research, it is essential that journals promote ever-evolving standards of methodological rigor to lend confidence to conclusions that affect children, communities, and families. We will continue to follow published methodological guidelines (e.g., Kratochwill et al., 2010; What Works Clearinghouse, 2008) to enhance the internal validity of research conclusions and will promote the use of sophisticated designs and analyses. However, increased rigor alone does not influence practice. Ellis (2005) suggested that for educational innovations to have a lasting effect, there should be convincing research regarding its theoretical basis, its effectiveness in highly controlled settings, and the consistency of results when applied in natural settings. School psychological research has focused on effectiveness and even somewhat on consistency of implementation (e.g., Bolt, Ysseldyke, & Patterson, 2010; Hagermoser Sanetti, & Kratochwill, 2009), both of which will advance the field. However, our research has yet to adequately address theoretical implications and doing so will move our science to a more mature presence. The purpose of this article is to comment on the importance of theoretical implications within school psychological research, to discuss which theoretical orientation will advance the field, and to outline potential implications for research and practice.

Why Does Theory Matter?

Many community organizations conduct free health screenings to promote early identification of potential health difficulties. Early identification is almost always important in treating health problems, but the President of the Minnesota Academy of Family Practice argued against these health screenings, stating that potential patients were better off receiving regular physicals that examined the entire body and considered risk factors and family history, than they were to receive a "blind search for disease" (Yee, 2009). In other words, diagnosticians cannot understand risk data without fully considering the context from which they came. This is quite analogous to the role of theory within research in that the data cannot be adequately interpreted unless they are contextualized within theory.

Tharinger (2000) cautioned against an overreliance on empirically supported treatments, and suggested that instead practitioners should rely on an integration of theoretical frameworks and a working knowledge of empirical research. Practitioners are frequently presented with newly developed interventions for which the research base is still developing. School psychologists should be cautious about practices without a solid research base, but should avoid those without a theoretical foundation because theoretical and conceptual frameworks provide a structure to guide practices and solve problems (Tharinger, 2000; Tilly, 2008). …

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