The case of Endrew F. v. Douglas County School District heard by the U.S. Supreme Court early this year involved a young man with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The student, Drew, had an IEP through fourth grade. When the school presented his IEP for fifth grade, which looked very much like the previous ones, the parents objected, arguing that it was not sufficient for him to make progress. They then withdrew him from the public school and sent him to a private school. The family requested the district pay for the private school, saying the public school failed to provide their son with a free appropriate public education as required under the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the family, establishing the need for schools to ensure students with disabilities have goals that are “appropriately ambitious” and allow them “to meet challenging objectives.” This ruling, coupled with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that estimates 1 in 68 children is identified as having ASD, suggests that public schools will likely be under increasing scrutiny as they continue to serve students with autism.

Schools serve children with ASD in a variety of educational settings, though evidence-based practices (EBPs) for these students continue to be underutilized. This may be due to inadequate preparation of teachers and principals, including a limited knowledge base of which practices are effective for this population. Some educators (including authors of this article Williamson and Letson) have suggested that one way to increase the use of EBPs and improve services for all students with ASD in schools is to develop a collaborative school culture. Researchers have defined collaborative school cultures as including mechanisms for school personnel and families to work toward improved school outcomes. They may be useful, as they have been identified as critical to other schoolwide reform efforts, such as Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). A framework has been created to help principals develop a collaborative school culture aimed at increasing the use and implementation of EBPs for students with ASD.

Collaboration Framework for Students With ASD

The framework we present here addresses how principals can facilitate and sustain a collaborative culture.

Phase I: Setting the Stage for Improving Use of EBPs

Establishing a Vision

To establish a vision, principals begin by meeting with a targeted group of individuals who are knowledgeable about EBPs and their use (e.g., special education teachers, paraprofessionals, school counselors, speech language pathologists, families). This group should review additional information about EBPs (see resource list below). Using their expertise, this group begins developing goals and activities to improve use of EBPs for students with ASD.

Identifying Personnel Needs

Next, principals are encouraged to work with faculty and staff to identify personnel who can lead development efforts and those who need additional preparation. Principals might:

  • Survey teachers and staff about their knowledge/comfort with EBPs. There are a number of free online survey tools available.
  • Review records, such as lesson plans or documentation of professional development activities, for evidence related to knowledge and use of EBPs.

Organizing Systems for Change

Systems should be examined to determine whether changes are necessary to support and ultimately sustain schoolwide change efforts. For example, principals may need to adjust school schedules to support planned activities, such as time for common planning, coaching and mentoring, etc. Principals may also need to dedicate technology—including data systems—to planned activities. For example, technology can be incorporated to support coaching while data systems are updated to collect information about the efficacy of EBPs for individual students. In addition, developing a wiki of content that’s available when teachers need it is important.

Communicating Effectively

Initial communication plans should include facilitating buy-in for the initiative. In addition, effective communication plans will include mechanisms to (a) create a safe environment that values diversity of thought, (b) regulate the stress of individuals so they can focus on implementing EBPs, (c) maintain institutional focus on EBP implementation, (d) put unspoken issues on the table, and (e) problem solve conflicts that arise. We suggest that, to the extent possible, communication plans use existing mechanisms—albeit with a focus on EBPs—for students with ASD. For example, many schools convene student study teams, which may be a place for problem solving around the use of EBPs for students with ASD. Once initial plans are in place, sustaining changes becomes the focus.

Phase II: Sustaining Change

Expanding Leadership Roles

To ensure sustaining the use of EBPs for students with ASD, distribute leadership efforts. Many school reforms fail when personnel changes. Distributing leadership across multiple individuals is one way to ensure success. Principals may select pre-existing communities or develop new teams tasked with achieving specific objectives. For example, principals might transfer ownership and responsibility for maintaining high use of EBPs to professional learning communities (PLCs) and grade-level or content teams. Involving families in this effort is also critical. For example, a parent network of experienced families could be created that is responsible for helping new families carry over practices from school to home.

Using Student Data

In Phase II, principals should systematically and consistently review data regarding use of EBPs to know which practices are effective and which still need improvement. Although there are many ways for principals to accomplish this, we suggest the use of the Plan-Do-Study-Act (PDSA) cycle, in which three questions must be answered. First, what are we trying to accomplish? Second, how will we know that a change is an improvement? Third, what change can we make that will result in improvement? Consistent use of this process will ensure individual students’ current needs have been met and future needs are anticipated.

Continued Development of Teachers and Staff 

In addition to onboarding new teachers and staff, principals should anticipate the need to continually update teachers and staff as the research community establishes new information about EBPs. Much of this work can be accomplished through established systems, such as PLCs. However, it is critical for school leadership to stay abreast of new research developments and for those new developments to be disseminated. Much like in teaching hospitals, the role of periodically checking for new research should be assigned to an individual or a small group of individuals. Once this information has been distributed, leaders should ensure teachers and staff have opportunities to transfer their knowledge of this research into practice. Professional development opportunities followed by coaching are recommended to increase the likelihood of implementation of EBPs within the classroom.

Pamela Williamson is an associate professor in the Specialized Education Services Department of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Sarah J. Letson is a doctoral student in the Department of Specialized Education Services at UNC-Greensboro. Christina Carnahan is an associate professor of special education at the University of Cincinnati in Ohio.

Making It Work

Here’s how to develop a collaborative school culture aimed at increasing the use and implementation of EBPs for students with ASD:

  • Establish a vision and communication plan. Develop goals and activities to improve the use of EBPs for students with ASD, along with plans to address issues that may arise.
  • Evaluate personnel needs and school systems. Identify which faculty and staff can serve as effective leaders through this process and determine which school systems need updating to facilitate change.
  • Continually assess data and provide teacher support. Regularly review data pertaining to teacher use of EBPs and related student outcomes using the PDSA cycle, then provide opportunities for teacher development.