Meet Our Fellow Investigators

Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center (University of Massachusetts Medical School)

The Shriver Center promotes the understanding of neurological, cognitive, and behavioral development associated with developmental disabilities, particularly in the area of intellectual disabilities. To accomplish this, the Shriver Center conducts basic and applied research to determine the biological and environmental factors that influence typical and atypical development. Some of the Shriver Center researchers working with NECC include William Dube, Karen Lionello-DeNolf, Max Jones, William McIlvane, and Richard Serna.  A large collaborative research project currently underway is funded by a Program Project grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. The overall goal of this research project is to conduct a scientific study of behavioral processes involved in choice making. Daily life continually presents a series of choices, for example, whether to participate in classroom instruction or to do something else instead. What affects choice making? Why do students make one choice rather than another? The research is examining issues related to choice making from several different perspectives related to reinforcement, including the individual's sensitivity to changes in environmental feedback, the effects of reinforcement on behavioral persistence, behavioral economic analyses of the "costs" vs. "benefits" of different choices, and the effects of social interactions on choice making. For example, through different types of testing, it has been shown that choice making often depends on how well the individual can tell the difference between the consequences of their choices. In addition, choice making sometimes depends on what other choices are available. This research project also studies ways in which basic research findings could be applied to help special education students make more appropriate choices in various learning situations.

Another project funded by the Program Project involves examining factors in the environment that influence behavioral flexibility. The hypothesis is that behavioral flexibility is related to the rates of reinforcing consequences - or positive feedback - that typically occur in a given situation, with higher rates leading to greater persistence and thus lower flexibility. The goal is to develop a principled, broadly applicable approach to designing behavioral interventions for making adaptive adjustments - both increases and decreases -  in the flexibility of the student.

A third project, examining "symbolic potential," is aimed at testing a new set of procedures to teach children who have mental retardation and limited language abilities to perform a series of tasks that indicate an understanding of symbolic relationships. An example of a symbolic relationship is the relation between the name of an object ("paper") and the object itself (a piece of paper). The main goal of this project is to determine if different types of teaching procedures can increase participants' likelihood of forming symbolic categories between objects, events and behaviors. The ability to form such relationships is the foundation for many other higher-order skills, such as reading comprehension.

 

Praxis, Inc.

Praxis, Inc. is a software company comprised of educators, clinicians and researchers devoted to bringing evidence-based teaching methods and procedures to special needs students, teachers, school staff and parents. Our unique ability to interpret laboratory-based research findings for classrooms and home-based instructional settings makes it possible for every child to have access to state-of-the-art teaching methods and procedures.

Our vision is to enable every child with intact sensory capacities to learn basic skills such as listening, looking, matching, sequencing, spelling, and self-care skills. All Praxis, Inc. software is grounded in the belief that every child can learn and that every parent and teacher can help with that learning.

We have completed development of our initial product, StartLearning. StartLearning is a comprehensive set of computer-based tools combined with reinforcement techniques for teaching basic listening and looking skills as well as matching skills to students with severe learning disabilities. Being able to tell whether shapes, pictures or other images are the same or different is a crucial first step toward learning letters, words, communication symbols, money skills and even basic reading. StartLearning takes the student's whole environment into consideration when preparing teachers and parents to teach and students to learn. Our curriculum model is unique in this way: if one approach doesn't work for a child, the software automatically routes the curriculum to an alternate approach. The curriculum is customized for each student as he or she progresses through teaching sessions.

 

We are currently developing products in the following areas:

 

Augmentative/alternative communication (AAC)…….teaching students that certain icons and realistic color photographs or video depictions of items and/or activities are interchangeable.  

 

Sequencing …….teaching students to complete tasks using picture cues. This is a skill that can be used in many daily activities and can help students gain independence in their daily tasks.

 

Spelling …….teaching early spelling skills.

Symbolic Relations …….teaching children to match an object to a symbol. For example, a student might be taught to match the picture of an item to the printed word of the item.  

 

For more information, please contact the Praxis Research Coordinator, Jennifer Brooks, at jbrooks@praxisnetlearning.com

 

For more information on our work with any of these research partners, please feel free to contact us via e-mail