VCU won a $3.29 million grant to test a new program for teaching kids with behavioral disabilities. It's called Best In Class, and it could change the way we think about education. 

The program, called Best In Class, is the work of Dr. Kevin Sutherland and University of Florida's Dr. Maureen A. Conway, both scholars in the behavioral education field, and will be tested at eight Richmond Public Schools and eight Florida Public Schools in tandem. 

Best In Class integrates a new model of teaching methods to create classrooms more conducive to academic success for students with behavioral disabilities, particularly those who struggle in the classroom because of ADD and ADHD.

These students often fall through the cracks of our education system.

“If I'm a teacher and I've got a child in my classroom that I struggle with behaviorally, I'm less likely ... to work to keep that child engaged ...” Dr. Sutherland says. "So that over time, that child doesn't have the same learning opportunities as other kids...”

Dr. Sutherland's "intervention" program aims to hit a virtual reset button on student-teacher interaction. In workshops, educators will learn new strategies for resolving classroom issues with "problem-based learning," aiming to redirect behavior problems before they begin. The program will equip educators with both a one-day workshop and 14 weeks of intensive, individualized coaching aimed to change the way teachers interact with these students, and vice-versa.

For the study, researchers will identify students exhibiting the most pronounced classroom difficulty. With the consent of parents, the study will focus on gearing a learning environment to engage these students and improve their communication with teachers. At the conclusion of four years, the study will evaluate the students' and teachers' progress compared to a control group of "business as usual" classrooms. With this data, researchers will measure the program's effectiveness and improve its methods for potential broader implementation in classrooms nationwide.

Image result for kevin sutherland vcu best in class Richmond area teachers participate in an early version of Best In Class at VISTA Camp. (Photo Courtesy of VCU News- Virginia Commonwealth University)

In a recent trial run phase, the intervention program was tested with Richmond-area preschoolers. The team spent three years working closely with students and teachers. With additional funding from an IES grant, the researchers collected data on over several hundred students and several hundred teachers. Another pilot version of Best In Class was conducted at three Richmond Public Schools last year. The Richmond and Florida Public Schools project will expand its existing research to incorporate longitudinal data on intervention programs. The project will involve 192 teachers spanning kindergarten to second grade.

The grant awarded to VCU's Dr. Sutherland is a whopping affirmation of the trial version's success. It's also a huge step in changing the way we teach students nationwide.

“We’ve seen decreases in child disruptive behavior, increases in child engagement in school," Sutherland says, "We’ve seen increases in improvements in student-teacher relationships and improvements in the overall classroom climate."

Many children struggle to learn in a classroom setting, but it's not because these students are intellectually lacking. Dr. Sutherland would argue it's because our education system is lacking instead. An estimated 16 percent of students are non-traditional learners, meaning they often struggle in academic environments. The impact of this isolation hits early on, affecting both their academic performance and their relationships with educators. As early as first grade, many students report feeling frustrated, guilty, or self-conscious based on discouraging experiences in the classroom.

The Best In Class methodology aims to stop the problem before it starts.

Kieasha King, a third-grade special education teacher at Richmond's Woodville Elementary, took part in an earlier incarnation of the study last year. She considered it a resounding success not just for students, but also her job as a teacher.

"Without BEST in CLASS, I just would have been doing the same thing in the classroom and thinking I was going to get different results,” Ms. King shared publicly. "And it was great getting observed weekly and getting feedback. It helps us to be better and to improve our practice in the classroom ... That's something that teachers -- new teachers and veteran teachers -- need.”

Maybe that's something we all need, too.

Virginia schools are now required to offer mental health education. Read more about it here!