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AERA honors UF Special Ed professor for impactful research

Special Education professor Stephen W. Smith, one of the College’s most prolific researchers and federal grant generators, has been chosen to receive the Distinguished Researcher Award from the Special Education Research special interest group of the American Educational Research Association.

FUTURITY.ORG: Stephen Smith, Ann Daunic
Stephen Smith, Ann Daunic, Tools for Getting Along reported on the University of Florida’s Tools for Getting Along, a new curriculum aimed at helping at-risk students learn how to control aggressive behavior. Stephen Smith and Ann Daunic, the UF professors who researched the effects of the curriculum, are quoted in the story.


‘Tools for getting along’ helps schoolchildren solve social conflicts

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — Two University of Florida special education researchers have found a method to help at-risk students with significant behavioral problems learn to calm aggressive tendencies and actively solve their social conflicts.

Researchers Stephen Smith and Ann Daunic

For the past 15 years, UF College of Education researchers Stephen Smith, the Irving and Rose Fien Endowed Professor, and associate scholar Ann Daunic have been developing a curriculum that would target these students’ problem-solving skills. The curriculum, Tools for Getting Along, known as TFGA, gives upper elementary students processes for approaching social problems rationally.

“A lot of times when kids are having a social conflict with another person, it can be emotion-laden,” Smith said. “Because of that, they can end up with an irrational approach to solving their problems, often through physical or verbal aggression, or some other inappropriate behavior that doesn’t really achieve what they want to achieve.”

Daunic and Smith’s latest evaluation of their problem-solving curriculum appeared in a spring issue of the Journal of School Psychology. Smith said the paper is the first to reveal the curriculum’s effectiveness.

In the study, the curriculum was randomly assigned to about half of the 87 fourth- and fifth-grade classrooms observed in 14 schools in North Central Florida with the other half receiving no intervention. Almost 1,300 students participated in the study.

Between 70 and 87 percent of the students in both groups studied received free and reduced price lunch, an attribute of socioeconomic status that can contribute to risk for emotional and behavioral difficulties. The researchers also considered gender and race, which can also be associated with this risk.

“While the target of Tools for Getting Along is children who have difficulties, it’s also a preventive curriculum because it is implemented classwide with the idea that peers will help at-risk children see that there are other ways to solve problems that are more productive,” Daunic said.

The curriculum contains instructional lessons, role-play scenarios, small-group activities and practice opportunities. Then, the effects of tool kit’s 27 lessons were evaluated through teacher and student self-reports, observations and other measures.

Smith said the most significant findings of the recent study measuring TFGA’s effects were the improvements in teacher ratings of students’ “executive functions” — a psychological term describing a set of mental processes, including attention flexibility, working memory for temporarily storing and organizing information, and inhibitory control—that help us regulate our emotions and behaviors in new situations.

With better attention flexibility, students are able to shift their attention from being on the aggressive offense in a social conflict to thinking through alternative strategies. Improvement in working memory and inhibitory control enhances students’ ability to stop and think before acting upon emotions.

“I think this shows a good example of what teachers can do for kids to allow them to equip themselves with a way to handle their own behavior,” Smith said. “It’s an opportunity for students to learn how to control behavior when teachers aren’t there to manage it for them, like at recess, in the cafeteria, on the school bus and at home.”

Daunic said that the study’s results are particularly important in light of current research in neuropsychology and neuroscience that ties children’s emotional well-being with their behavior in school and academic success.

“As more research comes out about the brain and how we learn, there’s more support for interventions that help young people regulate their emotions and regulate their thought processes socially and academically,” Daunic said. “What makes me feel good about this kind of work is that there’s more and more evidence about its importance.”

According to Daunic, positive effects of Tools for Getting Along have endured even a year after the study took place. The researchers are now writing a paper about the curriculum’s longer-term effects and analyzing more data. Their findings will then be reviewed by national educational review panels, or clearinghouses, and considered for designation as a preferred, “evidence-based practice” in education.

The curriculum is available for purchase by teachers and schools at 

    Source: Stephen W. Smith, UF professor of special education, 352-273-4263;
Alexa Lopez, UF College of Education, news and communications, 352-273-4449
    Media contact: Larry Lansford, director, UF College of Education news & communication, 352-273-4137


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;