UMass Boston

Psychology Professor Awarded $3.6 Million Grant to Evaluate Autism-focused Professional Development Program for Educators

11/06/2023| Sandra Mason

The Institute of Education Sciences (IES), the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education, has awarded a five-year $3.6 million grant to Abbey Eisenhower, professor of psychology at UMass Boston. The award is for her work evaluating Smooth Sailing, a professional development program for elementary school educators.

Abbey Eisenhower
Abbey Eisenhower

For many students on the autism spectrum, the school environment can be challenging and isolating. Although most autistic students spend time in general education classrooms, the majority of general education teachers report not having professional training to work with students on the autism spectrum. For their part, many autistic students report that having teachers who understand autism is the main factor that would make school better. Relationships with teachers, however, have been identified as a key source of support for autistic youth in school. The Smooth Sailing program fills this gap by preparing teachers to form positive, strong relationships with their autistic students.   

Eisenhower’s project, Intervention to Enhance Student-Teacher Relationships and School Outcomes for Autistic Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial, will use the IES funding to evaluate Smooth Sailing’s effectiveness.   

“We’ll be looking at how Smooth Sailing impacts the quality of relationships between teachers, students, and caregivers," Eisenhower said. "We also expect the program to help teachers provide affirming, neurodiversity-oriented support to their autistic and neurodivergent students, and to improve children’s social, emotional, and academic well-being in school.” 

The research team will conduct a randomized, controlled trial of the program with 150 teachers, their students on the autism spectrum, and the students’ caregivers. The participating kindergarten through 2nd grade teachers will come from a range of urban, suburban, and rural school districts across the Greater Boston and Worcester metropolitan areas in Massachusetts and the Southern California / Inland Empire areas of California.  

The project reflects a long-standing collaboration with the University of California Riverside, where Dr. Jan Blacher, distinguished professor of education, served as principal investigator on two previous IES grants with Eisenhower. In these prior grants, they identified factors that helped students on the autism spectrum have positive school experiences and developed Smooth Sailing.  In addition to Eisenhower and Blacher (co-principal investigator), the research team includes Co-Principal Investigator Narmene Hamsho, assistant professor of school psychology at Fairleigh Dickinson University 

Other key collaborators include clinical psychologist Eric Endlich; research statistician Nedim Yel; Yasamin Bolourian, director of outreach and dissemination at the UCLA Tarjan Center; Shana Cohen, associate professor at University of California San Diego; and Jason Downer, professor and director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning at the University of Virginia, in addition to graduate students and staff. As a research team with non-autistic, autistic, and neurodivergent team members, the team will rely on the first-person experiences and input of autistic adults, autistic students, and teachers to inform program improvements.

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Note: Intervention to Enhance Student-Teacher Relationships and School Outcomes for Autistic Children: A Randomized Controlled Trial is fully supported by federal funds, which total $3,608,773.00.