Thesis yields valuable info for clinicians, trainers, volunteers

Faced with high demand for their services coupled with scarce resources, many programs designed for children who require accommodations rely heavily on volunteer support.

How to efficiently and effectively train those volunteers is at the heart of research conducted by Brock Applied Disability Studies master’s student Sarah Davis.

Even before Davis’ thesis project evolved, her supervisor, Associate Professor of Applied Disability Studies Kendra Thomson, had discussed a potential cross-Faculty collaboration with Maureen Connolly, Professor of Kinesiology and founder of Supporting Neurodiversity through Adaptive Programming (SNAP).

“Our department really values collaborations and multi-disciplinary approaches to problems,” says Thomson. “I thought it would be very interesting to see what we could learn from each other.”

The resulting collaboration allowed Davis to connect with volunteers in the SNAP program to test the efficacy of the Behavioural Skills Training (BST) model within the context of the physical education program for children with special needs.

SNAP offers weekly activity programs for school-aged children and youth experiencing disability. The program relies on volunteers from among the Brock University student population.

Davis’ research included both a quantitative and qualitative aspect. With her quantitative research, she wanted to know whether the BST model, which has been empirically validated, could be improved.

Based on applied behaviour analysis (ABA), the BST model is comprised of four components: instructions, modelling, rehearsal and feedback. While the model has been proven to be effective as a package, Davis wanted to know if the individual steps could be effective on their own.

Davis knows first-hand the challenges faced by clinicians on the frontlines of the health system working and volunteering in a number of community organizations serving individuals with developmental disabilities.

“Resources are always very limited, especially in volunteer-based programs,” says Davis. “We wanted to see if we could save valuable time and resources by using just instructions or just modelling.”

Davis found that with only individual components of BST instead of the whole four-step package, individuals do acquire the skills being taught, but they don’t maintain those skills for long. That’s an important consideration for clinicians when they’re put in the position of training volunteers and want to do that effectively and efficiently, she says.

“In a pinch, I know I can get away with just giving instructions, but I also know that I’ll have to go back and continue to provide instructions intermittently,” she says. “Or, I can just go with the full BST approach from the beginning because we saw that maintenance was not affected when they had the whole BST framework.”

The qualitative component of Davis’ thesis explored how learning BST might inform how the SNAP volunteers approached teaching new skills to individuals with developmental disabilities. Davis interviewed SNAP volunteers to find out about their training and about their experiences with the program.

“That was really rich information,” says Thomson.

The qualitative data provided a “solid rationale to provide training,” says Davis, and especially feedback.

That is particularly important for supervisors or managers to understand, says Thomson.

“They typically struggle with delivering feedback — tough feedback sometimes — but the volunteers were telling us that it was what they really wanted.”

The results of this research could apply across a range of fields.

“The framework is general,” says Thomson. “Evaluating it in different contexts gives us more confidence that the framework is causing the improved outcomes.”

Working across disciplines was challenging and rewarding for both Davis and Thomson.

“We ended up learning a lot from each other in terms of methodology,” Thomson says. “I’ve never been a qualitative researcher and Sarah got thrown right into learning how to conduct a qualitative study.”

She says thesis committee members Maureen Connolly and Priscilla Burnham Riosa were instrumental in that learning.

“One of the take-home messages for us was that fields that seem divergent and speak different languages, when you really break things down, share the same sort of core values or core approaches,” says Thomson.

Davis agrees.

“I think that was the most interesting part of the research. I got to look at this intersection point between quantitative and qualitative analysis, and that’s where the most novel information was coming out.

“We’re describing things completely differently but we’re talking about the same thing. Sometimes people just get lost in the labels.”

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