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Disruption, Correlated Constraints, and Adaptation during Troubled Times: The Role of Research When All Other Things are Not Equal

In the spring newsletter, I indicated that my final message would center on a developmental systems perspective of special education research. When I wrote that, the coronavirus was just beginning to impact the United States and the most recent acts of institutional discrimination, racial violence, and social injustice had not occurred.

Much has changed in a few months. We are experiencing health, economic, and social turmoil across the nation. Turmoil that differentially impacts communities, families, and persons. Differences that tend to vary by race, education, geographic, and disability factors. Current circumstances warrant the attention of researchers to not only help in response to the pandemic, but to use this time to learn about the needs and adaptation of students with exceptionalities and their families when their lives are disrupted and their experiences and opportunities are not the same as those afforded others. Clarifying the adaptation of individuals in context is central to developmental systems research.

My spring message centered on limits of the general linear model and large-scale cluster-randomized trials for special education research.  I suggested that findings based on the general population might not be relevant for our students. Karen Harris contacted me and pointed out two factors that qualified my message.  First, evidenced-based research in special education is often conducted with samples comprised of students with exceptionalities or students who need intervention. Second, special education research often involves single case experimental designs that are not based on the general linear model.  Dr. Harris was quite right in pointing out these issues. I need to make it clear that my message is that evidence-based practices are important and necessary, but are often a starting point.  It is also necessary to understand how other factors influence the impact of intervention and to have data and expertise to individualize evidence-based strategies to the needs of specific students, contexts, and circumstances.

That brings us to the point of today’s message. Experimental research and research based on the general linear model often operates under the assumption that, except for the intervention, all other things should be equal. We design studies through sampling or statistical procedures to control for differences and focus on the impact of intervention.  However, disruptions caused by Covid 19 and social injustices clearly show us that in the real world all other things are not equal.

As Bronfenbrenner (1996) suggests, children develop as a dynamic system of individual factors (e.g., biophysical, behavioral, cognitive, emotional) bi-directionally linked to each other and to a system of ecological factors (e.g., family, peers, community, culture, socio-political). Because these factors are organized as a dynamic system, they operate as correlated constraints that influence each other as they coactively contribute to the functioning and growth of the child (Cairns, 2000). When a child’s developmental system involves strengths across multiple factors, problems in one factor are likely to be mitigated (i.e., constrained) by the strengths of other factors to foster adaptation. When correlated constraints involve multiple risks, difficulty in one factor is likely to promote difficulties in other factors and contributes to maladaptive outcomes.

With recent disruptions in society, we see correlated constraints in action.  Covid 19 revealed disproportionate rates of risk and mortality for African Americans and people with underlying health issues, as well as other groups. The differential impact of this pandemic brings to the forefront socio-political factors including economic opportunity, housing, healthcare, food security, transportation, and myriad other factors that impact the well-being of children and their families.  All other things are not equal. For some groups, strengths across these factors mean lower risk. For others, correlated risks across these factors mean increased risk for contracting the virus and potential serious health problems and death. The same is true with social injustice.  Although they may be sitting in the same classroom, some of our students have to negotiate a very different set of factors and circumstances than their peers. All other things are not equal.

Also, the developmental timing of a disruption can differentially impact the outcomes of youth. In Children of the Great Depression, Elder (1999) describes disruptive historical events and the effect on different cohorts of youth.  Children who transitioned to adulthood during the depression had different lifecourse experiences than children who were much younger during that time. Not only did they experience few work prospects, their lives were disrupted by World War II in ways that constrained educational opportunities, work, and family processes. Younger children had less interruption in their development and experienced greater educational and work opportunities. We can expect differential cohort effects for youth during the pandemic depending on their age and how these circumstances impact their learning and subsequent opportunities.

A developmental systems perspective helps us understand the way forward when all other things are not equal. Building on the concept of correlated constraints, we can identify individual pathways and contextual factors that may be leveraged during intervention to foster adaptation and positive outcomes that are meaningful to students and their families. This involves a person-centered approach that clarifies the factors that matter for youth who have similar characteristics, experiences, and ecological circumstances.  From this foundation, it is possible to determine how specific factors operate together as a system to contribute to a student’s functioning, how these factors can be changed in relation to each other to enhance the student’s experiences, and how we can create supports in the student’s ecology to promote adaptation and positive outcomes.

This is special education.  As we move forward with research during and beyond these troubled times, we need to view disruptions as a time to learn about the differential experiences of the youth we serve and use this knowledge to enhance their opportunities. Through research, we need to ensure that we see each child, their families, their neighborhoods, their hopes, their strengths, their fears, and the obstacles they experience and overcome each day. This is the science of special education.  Science when all other things are not equal.



Bronfenbrenner, U. (1996). Foreward. In R. B. Cairns, G. H. Elder, & E. J. Costello (Eds.), Developmental science (pp. ix-xvii). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Cairns, R. B. (2000).  Developmental science: Three audacious implications.  In L. R. Bergman, R. B. Cairns, L-G. Nilsson, and L. Nystedt (Eds.), Developmental science and the holistic approach (pp. 49-62).  Mahwah, NJ: LEA.

Elder, G. H. (1999). Children of the great depression. Routledge.

Posted:  1 August, 2020

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