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College of Education > News and Publications > News: Jan. - March 2012 > A Writing Intervention Study for Adolescents with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

A Writing Intervention Study for Adolescents with Emotional and Behavioral Disorders

Rick KubinaAs published in the 2011 Annual Report (volume 2) of the Penn State Social Science Research Institute

Linda Mason(March 2012)

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Writing is a marker of academic achievement across almost every subject area in American education. Students with disabilities often have underdeveloped writing skills, and students with emotional and behavioral disorders (EBD) often struggle with the self-regulation necessary for writing. A new study by Penn State researchers indicates that struggling middle school students with EBD can improve their writing skills when taught with the Self-Regulated Strategy Development (SRSD) instructional approach.

Linda Mason and Rick Kubina, associate professors of special education, were awarded a $1.8 million grant by the National Center for Special Education Research, Institute of Educational Sciences to develop an intervention that addresses the writing problems of middle school students with EBD, a group that is at high risk for school failure and dropout.

SRSD instructional intervention is designed to promote writing independence by teaching students cognitive and self-regulating strategies for facilitating the writing process.

Prior research in this area typically addressed behavioral outcomes rather than academic outcomes. Mason and Kubina are using the SRSD method for quick writing to promote writing independence by teaching students cognitive and self-regulating strategies for facilitating the writing process. While SRSD had been effectively used with elementary students with EBD, Mason and Kubina adapted the intervention for middle school students.

A quick write is a brief written response often used to assess content learning. Students must write a timed short answer to a specific question that requires either an informative or persuasive response. Mason, Kubina, and their colleagues conducted six studies using the SRSD intervention, including one quasi-experiment that encompassed four urban charter schools, and five case studies. Studies have been conducted in alternative school settings and in special education classrooms in inclusive middle schools.

“Capturing our target population for instruction has been our biggest difficulty,” said Mason, citing the fact that adolescents with EBD often change schools frequently.

Students with EBD show greater variability in the quality of their writing than other students at their grade level, so one of the main goals of the instructional intervention was to facilitate consistency. In addition, students with EBD tend to stay off task during writing. Mason and Kubina theorized that improving writing consistency and on-task behavior could be achieved by teaching students to set goals, self-monitor, self-instruct, and self-reinforce effective writing strategies.

In the six studies, a persuasive writing strategy called POW (Pick ideas, Organize notes, Write and say more) + TREE (Topic sentence, Reasons, Examine, Ending) was taught. The intervention involved a period of six 30-minute sessions in which an instructor conducted lessons and provided students opportunities to practice writing while receiving guidance. Responsibility for self-regulation and strategy use gradually shifted from instructor to student by scaffolding instruction (i.e., building the basic framework of writing step by step).

In all six studies conducted, the intervention significantly improved students’ writing as measured by indices of writing quality and length of writing (see the figures below) and by the Woodcock-Johnson standardized tests of writing fluency. In addition, students’ attention or time on task improved following the intervention.

Importantly, students reported that they liked the intervention and felt that it should be taught to other middle school students. They also noted that they were using the strategies they learned in their classroom and in testing situations.

Mason suggests that teachers may need to reconsider extended-time accommodations for students with EBD. “They may need other accommodations, like breaks or some one-on-one instruction,” said Mason. “But the studies show that students with EBD can write timely by staying on task through self-regulation. Teachers can change the attitudes of students with EBD about writing. These students definitely can perform academically.”