How One Interdisciplinary Research Group Helps Students On and Off Campus

Research can encompass a seemingly infinite number of topics or subject matter. Yet most research is typically driven by a common interest: to make something (like a product, a service or a process) better.

Case in point? The collective research produced by Western Kentucky University’s Behavioral Innovations for Child Success.

“BICS is an interdisciplinary group of researchers who provide services to improve outcomes for children and families in our community,” said Thomas Gross, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at WKU.

BICS includes professors of special education and psychology from WKU’s College of Education and Behavior Sciences (see sidebar for a list of participating faculty). BICS gives each professor a chance to deepen their specific research interests while also working with local, regional and national organizations to make an impact on the Bowling Green community.


BICS: Equipping students, teachers and families with the knowledge to act

Much of BICS’s research happens in collaboration with community partners like schools. That way, BICS researchers can collect data from applicable student populations, then turn around and deliver data-driven recommendations that typically result in better outcomes and experiences for both students and teachers.

Christina Noel, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Teacher Education, said BICS “has a number of initiatives within our local community,” including partnering with a high needs elementary school to provide social and academic support and interventions. According to the Higher Education Act of 1965, high need elementary schools meet one or more of the following criteria:

  • High percentage of students from families with incomes below the poverty line
  • High teacher turnover rate

“Some of these projects include academic support for English Learners (ELs), school-wide behavioral assessments and classroom-level behavior interventions,” she said, which can help improve the classroom experience for both students and teachers.

Researchers also empower parents and families with information to help them better understand various challenges their children may be facing, as well as how to more effectively advocate on their student’s behalf. Gross said one example is a series of workshops for families of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The workshops are developed by Treatment and Research of Institute of Autism Spectrum Disorders, a branch of the Kennedy Center at Vanderbilt University, and delivered to regional families by BICS members, Noel said.

Members of Western Kentucky University’s Behavioral Innovations for Children’s Success joined 70 undergraduate students in presenting at the Kentucky Council of Exceptional Students’ annual conference. Student projects focused on intervention projects in local high needs schools.

Other BICS research examines the efficacy of currently used tools and helps pinpoint opportunities to refine these resources to deliver better outcomes. One BICS study in process centers on the Good Behavior Game, which, according to the American Institutes for Research, “is an evidence-based behavioral classroom management strategy that helps children learn how to work together to create a positive learning environment. It promotes each child’s positive behavior by rewarding student teams for complying with criteria set for appropriate behavior, such as working quietly, following directions or being polite to each other.”

In the BICS study, Noel said an adaptation of the Good Behavior Game was implemented “based on a series of needs assessments.” Resulting outcomes like impact on behavior, students’ well-being and intrinsic motivation were then measured to help determine if the needs-based adaptation might prove a more effective alternative for classrooms, said Ryan Farmer, Ph.D., an assistant professor of psychology at WKU.


How BICS helps WKU students

Given that the focus of BICS is to improve outcomes for children and families, it’s no surprise that student involvement is key to many of the BICS research studies. The impact of BICS on students also extends to WKU, both as beneficiaries of BICS-led initiatives and as student researchers.

As a result of an initiative led by BICS members, National Public Radio and the Kelly Autism Program Circle of Support, WKU students with Autism Spectrum Disorder can participate in a student employment fellowship that gives them training and firsthand work experience.

WKU undergraduate and elementary teachers learn how to implement the Good Behavior Game during a professional development opportunity funded by a grant from the state of Kentucky.

Students in WKU’s College of Education and Behavior Sciences have opportunities to work directly with BICS members on both service projects and research opportunities, Gross said.

“Students become involved with projects in support roles and as they develop skills, they take on their own research initiatives through FUSE grants, Honor’s projects and Master’s theses,” said Susan Keesey, Ph.D., an assistant professor of Teacher Education. “Students have presented with BICS faculty at international, national and regional conferences.”

Like other research centers and groups that fall under the Western Kentucky University Research Foundation’s umbrella, BICS members understand the importance of collaboration and how partnerships can introduce opportunities for research and data collection that might not otherwise be possible. An old adage, “strength in numbers,” seems especially fitting when considering the scope, reach and resulting impact of BICS.

“Our strength is in our collective efforts,” Gross said.


Meet the BICS team

The interdisciplinary group of researchers in Western Kentucky University’s Behavioral Innovations for Child Success includes:

Ryan Farmer, Ph.D., assistant professor, Psychology: Dr. Farmer described his research interests as “decidedly behavioral. I’m especially interested in behavioral approaches to assessment and interventions for socially meaningful behaviors.”

Thomas Gross, Ph.D., assistant professor, Psychology: Dr. Gross’s research includes evaluating implementation, studying caregiver influence on youth social behavior and conduct problems, and outcomes measurement. His secondary interests include school psychologists’ preparedness to work with diverse groups, as well as math interventions.

Susan Keesey, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Teacher Education: Dr. Keesey’s research interests include behaviorally-based academic interventions to support struggling readers from diverse populations, using data to drive academic decision making, and postsecondary student retention and success.

Adam Lockwood, Ph.D., assistant professor, Psychology: Examining educator training and practice are among Dr. Lockwood’s research interests. As stated in his bio, he’s “particularly interested in educators’ perceptions of their capabilities, obtaining a better understanding of what training practices are used nationally and gaining objective measurement of educators’ capabilities.”

Christina Noel, Ph.D., assistant professor, School of Teacher Education: Dr. Noel’s research interests include behavioral interventions for students with Autism Spectrum Disorder, positive behavior intervention supports, improving social skills for students with low incidence disabilities, and national and international inclusion policies.

Timothy Thornberry, Ph.D., assistant professor, Psychology: Dr. Thornberry’s research interests relate to four key areas: primary care psychology, behavior health, rural health and public health. He also has an interest in parenting, is a certified Parent-Child Interaction Therapy provider and studies the use of analog behavior observations in the assessment of parenting skills and parent-child relationship functioning.