New Fien Professor finding ways to reduce disruptive classroom behavior

Disruptive, anti-social behavior in the classroom—such as openly defying the teacher’s instructions or bullying a classmate—has been a major concern of school systems for years. Studies show the single most common request for assistance from teachers is related to behavior and classroom management.

Research also shows that students in disruptive classrooms tend to make lower grades and do poorer on standardized tests.

That’s why University of Florida special education professor Stephen Smith has, for nearly 15 years, studied new teaching tools and strategies to help students self-regulate their disruptive impulses and aggressive actions. His research advances have earned him a prestigious appointment to the Irving and Rose Fien Endowed Professorship at UF’s College of Education. The three-year post, worth $120,000 in salary supplements, doctoral student hires and technical assistance, supports veteran faculty members with a track record of successful research aimed at helping “at risk” learners in kindergarten-through-high school, mainly at high-poverty schools.

The College of Education announced Smith’s appointment on Tuesday (Aug. 14).

In his 23-year academic career, Smith has generated more than $10 million through 26 research and training grants–$8.5 million of that since he joined the UF faculty in 1990. His Fien Professorship research will expand the breadth and scope of two federally funded studies he is conducting under highly competitive grants awarded over the past two years by the Institute of Education Services, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

One Fien-funded initiative calls for vital post-test analysis, involving 68 classrooms, of a social problem-solving curriculum—called “Tools for Getting Along”—that Smith and colleagues designed to help at-risk upper elementary students regulate their own aggressive behavioral tendencies. His team also will conduct a pilot study to test the curriculum’s effectiveness on small groups of at-risk students who require more personalized and intensive intervention.

“We are developing lessons that tap self-control skills such as monitoring your thoughts, inhibiting impulses, planning better and adapting to changing situations,” Smith said.

These high-level skills, known collectively by cognitive scientists as “executive functions” (or EF, for short), “are fundamental to helping students set personal goals, control their emotions and improve their social problem-solving abilities,” he said.

Smith also will test new training techniques to help middle school students with significant behavioral problems to tap into three specific EF skills—working memory, attention flexibility and impulse control—to counter their emotional and behavioral disorders.

“Up to 10 percent of middle school students have significant behavioral issues that merit some attention outside of what is normally provided in our educational system,” Smith said. “There aren’t many intervention resources available for these students that are effective and teacher-friendly. Our comprehensive program will provide long-term instructional impact.”

The college’s Fien Professorship was created in 1998 through a $600,000 gift by Irving Fien, founder of Fine Distributing, a Miami-based food distribution company. He made the donation to honor his wife Rose, who had died the year before. Irving, once an at-risk student himself, died in 2004.

At UF, Smith has received three teaching awards, a University Research Award, and has served twice as a UF Distinguished Research Professor. He has served on the federal Institute of Education Science’s social and behavioral education research scientific review panel since 2008.

The Fien appointment also recognizes Smith’s commitment to teaching and student mentoring. He teaches graduate level courses in special education research, emotional and behavioral disorders and principles of prevention science in education. He has published with doctoral students on 19 research papers and has hired 21 Ph.D. students as research assistants on his federally funded research grants.

Overall, Smith is the author of 14 professional books and book chapters and more than 60 journal articles and manuscripts.

He is on the executive board of the Council for Exceptional Children’s division for research and is a past president of Teacher Educators of Children with Behavioral Disorders. He has a doctorate in special education from the University of Kansas.

Smith’s appointment keeps the Fien Professorship in his family for three more years: His wife, Mary Brownell, also a UF special education professor, was co-holder of the post from 2008-11.


    SOURCE: Stephen Smith, professor, UF College of Education,  352-273-4263; email
WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news & communications, UF College of Education, 352-273-4137;