In a recent study by UCR Professor Jan Blacher, distinguished professor of education and UC presidential chair in the Graduate School of Education, and student researchers from both UCR and the University of Massachusetts, Boston, found that teachers without positive relationships with their autism spectrum disorder (ASD) students made the transition from early childhood at home to kindergarten in public school more difficult and less accessible. ASD is an interchangeable term with autism defined as a group of complex brain disorders, that can be characterized by difficulties in social interaction, verbal and nonverbal communication and repetitive behaviors.
The study, called “Smooth Sailing,” was conducted over a span of four years and included a sample of 200 children between the ages four through seven, with 85 percent having high-functioning autism (HFA). HFA, a suborder of ASD, distinguishes children displaying no intellectual disabilities and who are at the respective grade level for their age. Statistics released by U.S. Center for Disease and Control in 2014 identify that 1 in 68 children are affected by ASD, which includes over 3 million people in the U.S. and millions globally.
Blacher and her team focused on two important conclusions from the study. The first conclusion she discussed was about how critical it is to understand how other students in class develop a relationship “with a child of ASD at this age” because “the relationship defines how they perceive the child and how they behave towards the child.” However, a common occurrence in many situations is that other students do not interact with the child, which results in the child acting out from “loneliness.” The researchers found that there was a large correlation between kindergarten-aged children in early grades that felt the most lonely and teachers that felt less close to them and got into more conflict with them. Blacher stated, “It’s possible that other kids model what teachers do, if the teacher’s don’t feel close or the teachers are chastising these kids more. The other kids won’t want to be with them and the children feel lonely.”
The second conclusion Blacher cited was, “The children who had the most problematic behaviors were children who had teachers with more difficult relationships … but the children that had the best student-teacher relationships tended to do better in academic subjects. The teacher’s behavior really did affect the way the children behaved and the children’s behavior affected the way the teachers behaved. It is reciprocal and causal.”
When asked about how this study would affect the future of public policy in educational institutions, she stated, “We are continuing to write about these student-teacher relationships so that it is built into teacher training programs and that schools will focus more on that in their training of teachers who have kids with autism to really understand the importance of their relationship.” Blacher hopes that teachers and schools will “build on the strengths of the children such as their intellectual abilities of HFA, instead of always focusing on their behavior and social deficits. By taking advantage of their strengths, we could help them socially and academically.”
Blacher explained how she became involved with special education and psychological development to help students, saying, “I only do my work in order for students to be involved. That’s my main goal in life, trying to teach and train students. I love working with students.”