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Anita Zucker Center co-director honored for leadership, impact on behavioral disorders

Maureen Conroy

Maureen Conroy

Maureen Conroy, co-director of the University of Florida Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, has received the 2016 Outstanding Leadership Award from the Council for Children with Behavioral Disorders.

CCBD, a division of the Council for Exceptional Children, presents the award to an individual who has made significant contributions to the field of behavioral disorders in the areas of research, leadership, teacher education and policy. Conroy was recognized April 14 at the CEC’s annual conference in St. Louis.

Conroy, the Anita Zucker Professor in Early Childhood Studies, has advanced research and practice in the field of behavioral disorders through her work in early identification, prevention and intervention. For 35 years, she garnered more than $15 million in research and training grants, produced 90 peer-reviewed publications and trained the next generation of leaders. A member of CCBD since 1981, Conroy has served in a number of leadership roles, including co-editor of its flagship journal, Behavioral Disorders.

Brian Boyd, who received a doctoral degree at UF under Conroy’s mentorship, nominated her for the award, citing her years of research, practice and teaching.

“I can attest to the importance she feels in ensuring her students acquire the ability to conduct sound research that contributes to the field, and importantly, educators, families and children,” said Boyd, now an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Boyd, also recognized at the conference, received the CEC’s 2016 Distinguished Early Career Research Award. The honor recognizes scholars who have made outstanding scientific contributions in basic or applied research in special education within 10 years after receiving their doctoral degree.

Independent of her award selection, Conroy was invited by the Institute of Education Sciences to present her research at the conference. She and her colleague, Professor Kevin Sutherland of Virginia Commonwealth University, shared findings from their recent investigation of an early childhood classroom-based intervention. Developed to support early childhood teachers’ use of effective practices, the intervention is designed to improve the social, emotional and behavioral competence of young children at risk for behavioral disorders. Their large-scale, four-year study was funded by the institute, which is the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

The CEC is an international professional association of educators dedicated to advancing the success of children with exceptionalities through advocacy, standards and professional development. The mission of the CCBD is to improve the educational practices and outcomes for children and youth with emotional and behavior disorders.

Source: Maureen Conroy, 352-273-4382
Writer: Linda Homewood, 352-273-4284


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Conroy named as first Zucker Professor in Early Childhood Studies

Maureen Conroy, Ph.D., an early childhood expert and professor in the University of Florida College of Education, has been named the Anita Zucker Professor in Early Childhood Studies.

Maureen Conroy1

Maureen Conroy

Conroy, who co-directs the Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies at UF, is working with other center researchers to transform science, policy and practices in early childhood learning, intervention and healthy development. Their efforts are gaining national and worldwide attention.

“Ninety percent of a child’s brain development happens before he or she turns 5,” Conroy said. “Our research mission is to provide science-based approaches for supporting young children’s development and learning during this critical time.”

A primary focus of the center is supporting young children who are most vulnerable, their families, and their early childhood providers to create nurturing and supportive early learning environments to help them succeed.

Through the Anita Zucker Center, Conroy and her collaborators partner with colleagues from a number of colleges at UF as well as other community, state, national and international stakeholders.

Zucker, a 1972 UF education graduate and a UF Board of Trustees member, has long been interested in early childhood studies. In 2011, the Charleston, South Carolina native contributed $1 million to the College of Education to establish the endowed professorship that Conroy now occupies. Last year, Zucker gave another $5 million to expand the center’s efforts and UF’s Preeminence initiative in early childhood studies.

“Anita Zucker understands the importance of investing in young children’s growth, development and education,” Conroy said. “Her generous gifts are a game-changer that ensures our work will reach children and families in our community, state and across the nation and world.”

A graduate of Keene State College in New Hampshire and a two-time graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Conroy’s 38-year career has revolved around conducting research and training future researchers as well as those working directly with young children and their families.

Patricia Snyder, director of the Anita Zucker Center who also serves as the David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, said the appointment of Maureen Conroy as the inaugural Anita Zucker Professor in Early Childhood Studies will advance the College of Education’s national and international visibility and impact.

“Having the Zucker Professor and Lawrence Chair working side-by-side demonstrates UF’s commitment to achieving preeminence in early childhood studies,” Snyder said.

Zucker, who taught elementary school for 10 years and has a master’s degree in educational administration and supervision from the University of North Florida, agreed.

“Early childhood education really is the key to unlocking doors for later learning and success in life,” she said. “Transforming our children’s lives through education is important in so many ways.”

Liaison: Larry Lansford, director, College of Education Office of News and Communications;; phone 352-273-4137.
Writer: Linda Homewood, Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies,; phone 352-273-4284.


COE-UF contingent makes splash at inaugural early childhood symposium


Posing for a group shot are some of the 40 participants from the College of Education and other UF colleges at the Early Child Symposium Nov. 11 in Charleston.

Posing for a group shot are some of the 40 participants from the College of Education and other UF colleges at the Early Childhood Symposium Nov. 11 in Charleston.

Early childhood faculty researchers, postdoctoral fellows and students from the College of Education and other UF colleges associated with UF’s Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies formed a substantial presence last week at an inaugural symposium in Charleston, S.C., focused on supporting young children and their families.

Anita Zucker (BAE '72) welcomes symposium participants.

Anita Zucker (BAE ’72) welcomes symposium participants.

Some 40 members of the Gator Nation were among an estimated 300 scholars, practitioners and advocates participating in the Tri-County Cradle-to-Career Collaborative’s Early Childhood Symposium Nov. 11 in Charleston. The University of Florida was one of the sponsors of the event, which carried the theme: “Mobilize to Move the Dial on Early Childhood Indicators.”

COE alumna Anita Zucker (BAE ’72), a business and civic leader in the Charleston area and a major supporter of UF’s early childhood efforts, chairs the TCCC board of directors and invited scholars from her UF alma mater to participate in the symposium. Just last month, Zucker, a former teacher and the current CEO and board chair of The InterTech Group, a Charleston-based global manufacturing conglomerate, provided the leadership gift of $5 million to bolster a comprehensive initiative at UF focused on optimizing early childhood development and learning experiences. UF’s Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, based in the College of Education, has been named for Zucker in recognition of her generosity.

Patricia Snyder (center), Maureen Conroy (right),, shown with moderator John Read, helped set the stage with their morning  conversation.

Patricia Snyder (center), Maureen Conroy (right), shown with moderator John Read, helped set the stage with their morning conversation.

COE professors Patricia Snyder and Maureen Conroy, the director and co-director, respectively, of the Anita Zucker CEECS, helped set the stage for the symposium conversations by highlighting evidence-informed practices and strategies that “move the dial” on early childhood indicators. UF alumnus David Lawrence Jr., president of The Early Childhood Initiative Foundation of Miami and the namesake of the UF endowed chair in early childhood studies held by Snyder, was the keynote luncheon speaker.

Early childhood specialists from the Tri-County Charleston area and across South Carolina facilitated other discussions on vital topics including: assessing for school readiness; supporting families with young children; providing health and mental health services for young children; early intervention for children with disabilities; and the role of higher education, government and community agencies in supporting young children and their families.

“We were so honored to partner with Anita Zucker and the TCCC in their inaugural Early Childhood Symposium. We look forward to future symposia and ongoing collaborations,” Snyder said.

    SOURCE: Patricia Snyder, professor and David Lawrence Jr. Endowed Chair in Early Childhood Studies, and director, UF Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies; 352-273-4291;
    SOURCE: Maureen Conroy, professor and co-director, UF Anita Zucker Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies; 352-273-4382;
    WRITER: Larry Lansford, communications director, UF College of Education; 352-273-4137;;
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Study: Solving behavior problems early boosts preschoolers’ chances for success in learning

Maureen Conroy

Maureen Conroy

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Studies show that up to a quarter of all children entering prekindergarten classrooms today have behavior problems that can disrupt learning for them and their peers. What’s more, researchers say that many preschool teachers lack the necessary training to effectively quell this growing trend in behavior problems.

“Many preschool teachers are ill-prepared to work with these children, often impacting the child-teacher relationship and the classroom learning environment. This can lead to problems with learning and result in too many children entering kindergarten unprepared to succeed,” said Maureen Conroy, professor of special education and early childhood studies at the University of Florida College of Education and co-director of UF’s Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies.

Conroy is the principal investigator on a team of researchers from UF and Virginia Commonwealth University that is working to reverse this trend. In a study reported this month in the spring issue of the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, the researchers teamed up to evaluate the promise of a pilot program that they designed to train teachers how to work with preschoolers who display emerging behavior problems. The program is called BEST in CLASS, short for Behavioral, Emotional and Social Training: Competent Learners Achieving School Success.

Conroy’s VCU co-authors on the report are Kevin Sutherland, Abigail Vo, Staci Carr and Paul Ogston. Their work was funded by a $1.5 million grant from the Institute of Education Sciences, part of the U.S. Department of Education.

The published study involved 10 teachers and 19 high-risk children from state-funded prekindergarten classrooms and Head Start programs.

The teachers attended an introductory group workshop on the BEST in CLASS intervention strategies, and then received 14 successive weeks of individually tailored coaching and feedback on implementing effective instructional strategies for strengthening children’s social, emotional and behavioral competence. Early-childhood specialists on the research team led the professional development activities and also developed coaching and teacher-training manuals for the participants.

Conroy said their BEST in CLASS model emphasizes both individual and classwide interventions to improve interactions between the teacher and children and enhances the overall classroom atmosphere for learning.

“Teachers use classroom rules and routines with children and praise specific positive behavior. For example, some young children need to learn classroom expectations such as sitting and waiting their turn during a sharing circle or game,” she said. “The BEST in CLASS intervention helps teachers learn to use specific strategies in a more targeted way with select children. These strategies aren’t necessarily new to teachers, but we show them how to use the strategies in a more precise and intense way for given children and classroom situations.”

BEST in CLASS also has a home-school component where teachers send home a daily “behavior report card” to parents, stating in a positive manner the social, emotional and behavioral skills their child is learning that day and suggestions for parents to use at home.

“As children learn early how to positively engage with adults in their environment, they become more prepared to succeed as they enter kindergarten,” Conroy said.

The promise of their pilot study has led to a follow-up, large-scale investigation of the Best in Class intervention by the UF-VCU research team, supported by $4 million over four years from the Institute of Education Sciences. The follow-up project involves 120 prekindergarten teachers in both Florida and Virginia.

    SOURCE: Maureen Conroy, UF College of Education;, 352-273-4382
    WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education;; 352-273-4137

Odd couple? COE, health center pair up to improve health education, patient care

Sixteen years ago, Linda Behar-Horenstein, a distinguished scholar and professor in UF’s College of Education, was teaching a course on curriculum. What she didn’t know was that one of her students was going home at night and enthusiastically talking about it to her husband, who happened to be the associate dean of research for the College of Dentistry. Word soon traveled, and Behar-Horenstein received an invitation from then dean Frank Catalanotto to meet.

“The meeting wasn’t even two minutes,” she says. “He said, ‘OK, this what I would like you to do. I want you to go out to all the clinics and I want you to find out to what degree are the faculty promoting critical thinking skills among our students.’ That was my assignment.”

COE professor Linda Behar-Horenstein (left) observes a dentistry professor and student during a patient visit. (Photos by Maria Farias/UF&Shands)

Armed with only a notepad, Behar-Horenstein conducted 44 observations at six clinics. She watched dental faculty work with students as they themselves worked with patients, and she scribbled down everything she saw them say and do. When she was done, she analyzed her notes for commonalities, characteristics, recurring behavior and techniques. Then she brought her findings to the associate dean of education.

“She was just like, ‘You got this all from an observation?’”

Thus began Behar-Horenstein’s long relationship with the College of Dentistry. Over the years, she’s taught dentistry faculty alongside her graduate education students, run seminars on different teaching methodologies, written 10 papers pertaining to dentistry and worked one-on-one with dentistry faculty who want to improve their teaching evaluations.

Education and health care: It’s an odd match of disciplines, at least at first glance. The College of Education conjures up images of lesson plans, curricula and schoolteachers in training. For the six colleges in UF’s Health Science Center, people think of labs, white coats or hospital corridors.

Both disciplines are more diverse and expansive than a few clichés capture — but it may still be surprising how often the College of Education teams up with UF’s health colleges. Education students work in clinical practices. Education faculty share office space with health-focused colleagues. They partner with health care researchers on grants, contribute to health curricula and teach everyone from doctors to dentists how to be better teachers. They show health care professionals the world through the lens of a classroom.

“Any time two disciplines overlap, you have a possibility to create something completely new,” says David Norton, UF’s vice president for research. “With the Health Science Center, education is essential to their mission — educating students and their patients. In the College of Education, you have people who focus on just that. Very interesting things can emerge when those two things combine.”

Teaching teachers

So why is it worthwhile to develop the teaching skills of clinicians and researchers in the first place?

“What we do in our teaching is going to impact the kind of provider that’s going out into the world,” Behar-Horenstein says. “And that provider is going to impact the kind of patient-provider relationships they have.”

During her time with the College of Dentistry, Behar-Horenstein has gone from being a consultant to an affiliate professor, and last year she even received an office as part of a federal grant that expanded her role further. Recently, she developed a series of online courses for faculty that focus on teaching techniques.

“We as faculty are trained to be dentists, but we don’t have a special knowledge of teaching,” says Catalanotto, a professor and chair of community dentistry and behavioral science. “So having a collaborator like Dr. Behar-Horenstein brings us a new set of skills. That’s why we originally asked her to come the college in 1996, because we recognized that we needed help with teaching issues.”


Kent Crippen is another education professor who’s helping educators expand their repertoire, but in this case, it’s high school teachers.

Crippen is a consultant for Biomedical Explorations: Bench to Bedside, a two-week summer program for high school science teachers. The program is part of the Center for Precollegiate Education and Training, which connects educators to more than 350 UF faculty researchers to promote math and science in secondary school classrooms.

Crippen, an associate professor of science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, education, uses his knowledge of the K-12 school system to help translate the projects for classroom use.

“We struggle in K-12 education to present authentic science experiences that students can engage in, enjoy and learn from at the same time,” Crippen says. “Bench to Bedside takes new and emerging science and translates it to appropriate experiences for students to learn from.”

Through the center’s programs, high school teachers can stay current with modern technology and teaching techniques. The program, now in its third year, is expanding to support small groups of teachers throughout Florida who want to continue the professional development initiated in the program. Crippen will help them develop curricula and measure results and feedback.

Small group work

When asked what his typical day looks like, Erik Black, Ph.D., pauses, then laughs.

“I have three offices.”

There’s the cubicle at Shands at UF, the pediatric outpatient clinic office, and the office at the College of Education. In other words, there aren’t a lot of typical days for this assistant professor, who’s held a primary appointment in pediatrics and a secondary appointment in the College of Education since 2009. Black teaches and has graduate education students and does his own research for pediatrics.

“While many people traditionally think about the College of Education in a K-12 format, there are a number of us who are actively involved in adult education, and that’s where I focus most of my career: how to effectively educate adults,” Black says.

He’s currently serving as the educational technology expert for the Interdisciplinary Family Health course, which brings 600 first-year students from six colleges together to visit and help local families. At the end of last year, the program was expanded to include second-year students, and Black was involved from the beginning stage, developing basic goals, through the design and delivery of the curriculum.

“There is a real desire on the part of the administration to continue more interprofessional learning experiences,” Black says. “So this is a real opportunity, since we’ve got six health science colleges within a couple blocks of each other, to get students working together.”

UF has programs in place specifically designed to encourage interdisciplinary research, Norton says. The Research Opportunity Seed Fund, for example, is an internal grant program specifically for interdisciplinary faculty research.

“We’re always interested in creating forums and venues where people can interact,” he says. “It’s one of the strengths of the University of Florida that we have 16 colleges on campus, most of them with strong research programs. New fields emerge.”

COE professor Jeanne Repetto (second from left) meets with an interdisciplinary team of “transition” health-care specialists from UF&Shands.

The Education and Health Care Transition certificate program emerged last summer under just such a collaboration. Four years ago, Jeanne Repetto, an associate professor in the College of Education, and social worker Susan Chauncey Horky, the co-director of the UF Pediatric Pulmonary Center, realized educators and health care professionals were approaching the same problem at two different angles — when instead, they should be working together.

The problem was “transition,” a term to describe how children with disabilities and/or health issues are prepared to succeed in adult life. From the educational standpoint, these children receive support and training at school to tackle transitioning into a university or job, as well as life skills. From the health care standpoint, children are likewise prepared to handle medical needs, such as ordering prescriptions and making appointments.

These two types of transition often operate independently of one another, with both sides unaware of the other, Horky says.

“I was sort of embarrassed when I realized there was a whole transition process in education,” she says. “You do get stuck in your own mindset — we tend to think in the patient mode and the school thinks in the student mode. But from the family’s perspective, it’s only one kid going from childhood to adulthood, so why are these skills not integrated?”

Horky, Repetto and a small, interdisciplinary team including a pediatric cardiologist, a medical social worker, a health policy expert and a parent of a child with a chronic illness, started working to integrate the two transitions.

Years of biweekly meetings, joint research, journal articles, grant proposals and national presentations culminated in the Education and Health Care Transition program, a fully online certificate from UF that prepares graduate students and professionals from both fields to collaborate. It’s a new field, and the first class of medicine and education students from across the country will graduate this semester.

“Many of the students in the program are practitioners, so it will have an immediate impact,” Repetto says.

From the clinic to the classroom

It’s probably not that surprising that most collaborations between the Health Science Center and the College of Education involve the department of pediatrics. After all, children with disabilities often need help from clinical professionals to succeed in school — and sometimes those professionals need help bringing their findings into the classroom.

“Collaborators with educational backgrounds, particularly those related to childhood — childhood education, how children learn, how they adapt to their environments — have real expertise that we can learn from as we develop programs in our department,” said Scott Rivkees, a professor and chair of pediatrics.

UF neuropsychologist Kristin Radonovich (left) and COE professor Maureen Conroy (right) often meet at Norman Hall to discuss their grant project.

Maureen Conroy, says that finding collaborators is like making friends; you look for similar interests. For Conroy, a College of Education professor, that interest was autism research.

It led her to seek out others on campus with the same interest, like neuropsychologist Krestin Radonovich. The two recently teamed up on an Office of Research grant to improve the social competence of children with autism spectrum disorders.

“To teach children social skills, they need to socially interact with other people,” says Conroy, co-director of UF’s campuswide Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies, headquartered at the College of Education. “Kids in the lunchroom or the playground usually play with each other, but children with autism don’t necessarily know how to do that. They stand by themselves. This will teach them how to play with the other children and will also teach the other children how to play with them.”

Their project is currently in the planning phase, but eventually Conroy and Radonovich will take strategies that promote social behavior directly into schools and work with children with autism.

Testing out strategies that were developed in clinics in schools is part of what makes this study unique, Radonovich says. It’s also where Conroy’s expertise comes in.

“For kids, their everyday life is largely at school and that’s where these interactions take place,” Radonovich says. “I want my work to be relevant, so to work with Dr. Conroy in a naturalistic school setting helps me to bridge that gap between the isolated clinic setting and real life for these kids.”

School psychology student Jill Welsh uses toys while working with children in the psychology clinic at UF&Shands.

The College of Education also makes its mark in UF and Shands clinics. Several doctoral students in the school psychology program work in the pediatric clinic to gain experience working with children.

“I realized that working with kids who have a communication deficit is what I love,” says Jill Welsh, a fourth-year doctoral student. “My passion is trying to find ways to communicate with them.”

That passion is put to use in the UF Psychology Clinic, where Welsh has worked under Radonovich for two years, working with children with autism spectrum disorders.For 15 hours a week, she performs assessments and runs therapy groups alongside clinical psychology students. The education students contribute insight into the educational side of patients’ lives, such as knowing what strategies are feasible in school and consulting with teachers, Welsh says.

“It’s their experience in the school system and their training that helps inform me and other trainees who work with them how our recommendations can better match the school setting, or what our expectations should be,” Radonovich says.

Making the grade

It’s clear that the Health Science Center benefits from collaborating with faculty and students within the College of Education.

“In general, any time our faculty have a chance to collaborate with faculty outside of the college, it broadens our faculty’s knowledge base,” says Thomasenia Adams, associate dean of educational research in the College of Education. “When our faculty collaborates with the Health Science Center, we find other ways of applying our expertise and crafts.”

It’s always a plus when they can see other perspectives, Adams says. For example, both entities view clients differently. In the College of Education, clients are primarily teachers and the children they serve; in the Health Science Center, they’re primarily patients. Seeing how each serves and responds to their clients — especially when they overlap — can improve their overall approach, she says.

“It can be challenging when we meet people who have different approaches, but challenges help us grow as scholars.”

   Writer: Marilee Griffin, UF&Shands Communications,; 352-273-7891
   COE Source: Larry Lansford, news and communications, UF College of Education,; 352-273-4137

THE POST: Collaborations between the College of Education and UF’s health colleges

UF&Shands’ The Post
February 2013
Collaborations between the College of Education and UF’s health colleges

The Post wrote an article about the relationship between the College of Education and UF&Shands that is helping improve health education and health care. Linda Behar-Horenstein, Kent Crippen, Erik Black, Jeanne Repetto, Maureen Conroy, and Thomasenia Adams are quoted.


‘Opportunity’ research will boost interventions for children with autism

Fresh off winning a highly competitive seed grant from the University of Florida’s Office of Research, UF College of Education professor Maureen Conroy aims to fill a critical gap in intervention options addressing core social and communication learning deficits in children with autism spectrum disorders, or ASD, a complex, neurological developmental disorder that affects more than 240,000 American children and young adults.

Although no two people with autism will have exactly the same symptoms, people with the disorder typically have difficulty communicating with others and are socially awkward or prefer to stay to themselves.

“Social skill deficits are the most distinguishable feature of children with autism, but little research has been conducted to explain the intentions behind occasional displays of positive social behavior,” Conroy said. “Determining the primary reasons these children engage in positive or ‘prosocial’ behavior—perhaps to get attention, get their way or escape an uncomfortable situation—is a new strategy that showed promise in an earlier study. Now we can use this information to design and test tailored interventions for improving a child’s communication and social skills.”

Principal investigator Conroy, a professor of special education and early childhood studies, and co-PI Krestin Radonovich, a UF pediatric neuropsychologist, have received a Research Opportunity Fund (ROF) grant from UF worth more than $93,000 for their two-year study. Sixty children with ASD between 3 and 10 years old are being recruited from Alachua County to participate.

“Autism is a vital national health concern,” said Conroy, who also is associate director of UF’s Center for Excellence in Early Childhood Studies. “It’s estimated that ASD occurs in one of every 88 children. What’s most alarming is that the prevalence rate today is 10 times higher than it was in the 1980s. The cost impact on our society is estimated as high as $90 billion annually.

“In our research, we will implement function-based interventions to promote higher rates of positive social interactions in children with ASD, which should improve their long-term outcomes.”

Conroy’s project is one of 18 ROF grants awarded this year by UF’s research office. The annual seed grants provide funding for new and particularly promising research proposals that are multi-disciplinary and are expected to attract additional external funding from major funding agencies such as the National Institutes of Health. Conroy also was awarded a seed grant in 2005.

Other past grant recipients from the College of Education include Linda Lombardino (2011), Ann Daunic (2009), Holly Lane and Luis Ponjuan (both 2008), and Jennifer Asmus (2002).

“Research Opportunity Fund grants historically go to UF faculty researchers in the technical fields such as medicine and engineering,” said Thomasenia Adams, associate dean for research, faculty development and graduation education, “so it is notable to have several multidisciplinary research teams from the College of Education receive this highly competitive award over the past several years.”

Conroy has extensive experience in conducting early intervention research with children who are at risk for or have social and behavioral disabilities, including children with autism spectrum disorders. She is principal investigator on an Institute of Educational Sciences grant worth $4 million, investigating the efficacy of a classroom-based intervention model aimed at reducing significant behavior problems in pre-kindergarten children at risk for learning and behavioral difficulties.


   SOURCE: Maureen Conroy, professor in special education and early childhood studies, UF College of Education,; 352-273-4382

   WRITER: Larry Lansford, director, news and communications, UF College of Education;; 352-273-4137


Researchers awarded $5.5M in grants to help teachers reduce disruptive classroom behavior

University of Florida education researchers have received two federal grants totaling $5.5 million to conduct studies aimed at reducing significant behavior problems in children that can disrupt the classroom learning environment.

Their intervention research targets at-risk children during two of the most critical times of their development—before they enter kindergarten and the transitional middle school years (grades 6 through 8). The highly competitive grants were awarded by Institute of Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education.

Maureen Conroy

The prekindergarten study, funded by a $4 million grant, is a joint effort between special education and early-childhood specialists at UF and Virginia Commonwealth University. Co-researchers Maureen Conroy of UF and Kevin Sutherland of VCU will examine the efficacy of their experimental intervention—called BEST in CLASS—that showed high promise in a preliminary study.

The four-year investigation will involve 120 voluntary prekindergarten classrooms, most of them in Head Start programs, split between UF’s home region in North Central Florida and VCU’s hometown of Richmond, Va. Each year, 90 children identified as high-risk for emotional and behavioral disorders will undergo the intervention; a second group of 90 at-risk children will serve as a comparison group.

“As many as one-fourth of children in Head Start classes exhibit significant problem behaviors that place them at elevated risk for future development, and most have never been in structured classroom situations before,” Conroy said. “Through 14 weeks of classroom-based coaching, we will train teachers to implement effective instructional strategies for improving children’s emotional behavior competence.”

Conroy said the BEST in CLASS model emphasizes both individual and class-wide interventions to improve interactions between the teacher and students and enhance the overall classroom atmosphere for learning.

“Teachers discuss classroom rules and routines with students and praise specific positive behavior—for example, sitting and waiting their turn in a circle during a game or sharing time,” she said. “Such strategies aren’t necessarily new, but we show teachers how to use them more precisely and intensely for given situations.

“The teacher works to prevent any problem behaviors during typical classroom activities.”

The treatment also has a home-school component where teachers send home a daily “behavior report card” stating, in a positive manner, how their child behaved or which corrective behaviors they learned that day.

Stephen Smith

The second federal grant, worth $1.5 million, supports the work of University of Florida special education professors Stephen Smith and Ann Daunic, who are developing a lesson series teaching middle school students with significant behavior problems techniques to control their emotions and behavior in social situations.

“The middle school years are difficult enough for students in their pre-teen and early adolescent years. Those with serious emotional and behavioral disorders face tremendous obstacles to learning,” Smith said. “They require focused attention to help them develop the essential skills for modifying their behavior, and we need to catch them before they drop out of school or end up in the juvenile or adult justice systems.”

Smith and Daunic are developing a curriculum for teachers of children with emotional and behavioral disorders, and they’ve given it a name—In Control—that’s as much a mantra for the students as it is the title of their program. It’s actually a two-unit, 26-lesson curriculum that shows students how their minds work and how they can use that knowledge to take control over their own behavior and their learning process.

“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 as ‘executive functions’—are fundamental to helping students set personal goals, control their emotions and improve their social problem-solving abilities.”

Ann Daunic

Starting in August, the researchers will spend two years developing and testing the In Control lessons in collaboration with special education teachers, school counselors and school psychologists at two Gainesville schools—Lincoln and Fort Clarke middle schools. Participating students will be from small classrooms especially for students with emotional and behavioral disorders.

Smith and Daunic will continually refine and polish the curriculum and expand testing in the third year. If their curriculum effectively improves students’ behavior and learning, the researchers will publish their preliminary findings and develop a professional development package for additional large-scale testing.

“Up to 10 percent of middle school students have significant behavioral issues that merit some attention outside of what is normally provided in our education 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.”

: Maureen Conroy, professor in special education and early childhood studies, UF College of Education, 352-273-4382;

: Stephen Smith, professor in special education, UF College of Education, 352-273-4263;

: Ann Daunic, associate scholar in special education, UF College of Education, 352-273-4270;

Larry Lansford, Office of News & Communications, UF College of Education,; 352-273-4137;