Research Agenda

All of my work in school psychology and education centers around supporting vulnerable child populations. I pursue this work at the micro level via the study of how children with learning differences process information. I pursue this work at the macro level through the study of how individuals view diversity and how groups make decisions that may or may not be inclusive.

Areas of Current Focus

The three areas of inquiry driving my research agenda are 1) the remediation of specific learning disabilities, 2) the ways in which social attitudes shape our identities and how this impacts our conception of diversity, and 3) how group dynamics influence ethical decision making.

Remediation of Learning Disabilities

My interest in learning disabilities is both personal and professional.  I have over 20 years of experience working with children who experience school failure due to atypical learning styles. My work in numerical cognition has resulted in unique discoveries about the ways in which children represent numbers, critical models for remediation of poor number sense, and how children transfer number representations across scales of magnitude. This work contributes new information to the literature on how to teach children with dyscalculia. More importantly, the work provides insight into early intervention. It is possible to predict which students will have difficulty with numerical reasoning before they are using Arabic numerals to count. It is also known that poor number sense is the strongest predictor of failure in mathematics throughout development. Conversely, little is known about how to intervene when problems with number sense are detected. I have two specific goals: 1) To find the best methods to remediate poor number sense before children experience failure with formal mathematics, and 2) To bridge the gap between identification and remediation of dyscalculia by testing treatment techniques involving visual modeling. These goals lead to several lines of inquiry as follows:

  • Development of visual models for the key spatial components of number, including magnitude, relative magnitude, continuous extent, successor function, and ordinality
  • Determination of which visual models have an impact on number sense, as measured by change in Weber ratio and/or numberline placement tasks with typically developing children and children who are identified with developmental dyscalculia
  • To explore the recursive structure of number and whether there is a relationship to the recursive structure of language. Specifically, I want to know if people who have difficulty with the principles of recursive grammar (syntax) tend to have difficulty with number sense. This question is important because it is possible that direct intervention in language function can improve a person’s ability to represent and use integers.
  • The development of a book for teachers on how to support number sense development, how to use manipulatives to model the visual-spatial aspects of number, and how to encourage the transfer of skills to larger scales of reference.

Diversity and Identity Development

My interest in identity development comes from a framework of social justice. Specifically, I am interested in how people conceptualize individual differences. Diversity is the norm and not the exception, but much of human interaction centers around how to overcome perceived differences rather than how to connect our common need for belonging. I have spent most of my adult life advocating for children whose apparent differences challenge them with barriers to education and social acceptance. It is important to study the ways in which people do or do not conceptualize disability as contextual because the social context dictates our level of access to the larger community. Social media and other technologies are rapidly changing how we present ourselves to the world and how we access social capital. I have one specific goal: To uncover insights into how 21st century school systems might be adapted to incorporate principles of Universal Design for Learning. Current and upcoming work in this area includes the following:

  • To explore hidden attitudes by using a crowdsourcing platform to collect, transcribe, and code responses to open-ended questions about disability. Colleagues and I are actively collecting stories and exploring common themes. This work has been presented at one international conference and one national conference.

Ethical Decision Making and Public Schools

My interest in ethics and group dynamics comes from over 20 years of leading teams whose mission is to respond to challenges in the best interest of vulnerable student populations. Decision making on school leadership teams is influenced by social and cultural attitudes, political interest groups, financial concerns, fear of litigation, and other personal factors unrelated to the student(s) in question. Moreover, most preparation programs for school leaders do not include principles of ethical decision making or social justice as part of the required curriculum. The study of the dynamics that promote caring and ethical school leadership teams is critical. Characteristics of effective teams have been well documented, but the functional aspects of how to construct ethical school leadership teams have not.

Currently, I am working with colleagues to explore the limits of ethical decision making in schools. These case studies relate directly to our work on the ways in which people conceptualize diversity because challenges with diversity are often a catalyst for the creation of multiple biases and sets of rules within and between groups. Recently, we conducted a study on altruism and competition within groups. Current projects include:

  • A study comparing characteristics of altruism between several cohorts from an educational leadership program with a social justice mission and several cohorts from an educational leadership program with a certification mission. We have collected data from 14 cohorts on multiple scales, including altruism, problem solving, conflict, competition, and group satisfaction.
  • Case studies on the limits of ethical decision making in public school settings such as the Zero Reject Rule. When presented with a situation that tests the limits of Zero Reject and Least Restrictive Environment, how does a school team react? What are the individual biases and political pressures that constrain an individual child’s right to community? The first two case studies will be presented at an international leadership in education conference in October, 2016.


From Turtles to Tweets

Cohort groups have become increasingly popular as a means for developing cooperative learning environments in doctoral programs of education. Despite widespread use, a review of the literature suggests cohort models often have a negative influence on cooperation. Characteristics of successful cohorts have been documented, but little is known about the mechanisms by which successful cohorts develop. The purpose of this study was to compare a successful cohort with other cohorts from the same program. Current and former students were surveyed on dimensions of cohort effectiveness, conflict resolution style, and altruism. These domains were chosen through discussion among members of a successful cohort group. The authors are members of this cohort. Analysis of qualitative data resulted in themes of helping behavior, competition, and collaboration. Conversely, a quantitative comparison of the three surveys resulted in no relationship between cohort success and altruism; and a strong association between cohort success and competition. These contradictory results are explained in the context of how competitive altruism develops in groups. Social media is discussed as a signaling behavior that serves to build trust and social capital in successful cohort groups.

Stolen Affection

A middle school hallway was examined during entry and transition over a three month period. A series of short video observations were analyzed using qualitative research methods to determine what students do during unstructured transition time. Hallway time was chosen because it is one of the only social times in the school day, students are more likely to act naturally as hallways have less adult monitoring, and students spend a lot of time in hallways. Videos of observations were coded for proxemics and kinesics. Male and female behaviors were coded separately as a method of comparison. Three themes emerged from the data analysis: 1) males directed body orientation in groups, 2) males directed the use of space and were more likely to use personal and intimate space to communicate, and 3) males initiated and reciprocated 86% of the incidences of touch observed. Conversely, females rarely initiated close proximity, the use of personal space, or touch with males or females. Implications of the frequent use of personal space and touch between males are discussed in the context of male identity development and rites of passage.

Crowdsourcing Ourselves

In H.G Wells’ famous Country of the Blind, a man finds himself trapped in an isolated mountain valley where all of the inhabitants are blind. During the days that follow, the man’s ability to see manifests as a handicap among people who can hear anything and move and work in the dark. There are many real life examples of disability as a contextual construct. Nora Ellen Groce found the people of Martha’s Vineyard had lived among the deaf for so long everyone spoke sign language and no one could remember who was actually deaf. Oliver Sacks found superior night fishing ability in a group people with achromatopsia in Papua New Guinea. Every day, millions of people download audio books and some of them are print-disabled.

It is only recently that disability has been studied as a product of the culture in which it is situated. The idea that disability is culturally constructed from intersecting social, gender, power-distance, class, and ethnicity boundaries is unique in some societies and more common in others. Digital-age tools such as social media are breaking down the boundaries between people and what it means to be part of a group and ultimately a cultural framework. Social media allows us to connect, interact, and collaborate with people we would not ordinarily meet. In fact, social media may be changing our identities in multiple ways and on many levels.

The purpose of this paper was to discuss challenges we encountered and themes that emerged when we sought input on people’s conceptions of disability. We wanted to interact with people about their experiences with disability, using a social media crowdsourcing application to connect to as many people as possible. Our goal was to take a digital field trip to explore the lived lives of people who have been affected by disability; particularly how the physical and cultural constructs including environmental attributes, social mores, and social media influence participation. We also wanted to know if social media had played a role in people’s sense of what it means to be “disabled”.

Crowdsourcing is a business model whereby people use social media to tap the collective intelligence of the general public. Crowdsourcing is like putting a job out to bid over the internet. One Story is a new crowdsourcing platform that enables people to respond to questions using video.  Simply put, One Story is a way to collect the stories that matter to people. The platform allows users to post an introduction and two questions. We decided to post essential questions that were open-ended in nature, so that people could share what they wanted to share, using each other’s stories as sources of inspiration. We wanted to know how people would use the application to share their experiences and philosophies.

Crowdsourcing is a new and unorthodox way to collect qualitative research data, but we decided to use the media to test our theory that social media influences the ways in which people share and conceptualize their personal identity.

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