UO researcher using tech tools to help families tackle child behaviors

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Wendy Machalicek
Wendy Machalicek

Wendy Machalicek, a researcher and board certified behavior analyst in the University of Oregon's College of Education, has found new and exciting uses for iPads and Skype: quick, direct distance consulting for the parents of children who engage in challenging behavior.

Her research focuses on care and interventions for special needs children, such as those with autism spectrum disorder or other developmental disabilities.

Embracing technology was a serendipitous idea that came to Machalicek, an assistant professor in the UO's Department of Special Education and Clinical Services, while she was conducting a previous study.

She was working with parents who had difficulties with transportation or childcare – a population that was difficult to serve in a hands-on outpatient approach. Machalicek's team chose to use video-conferencing to provide intervention services.

"These were parents that we did not actively recruit, but they self-selected to participate in our study primarily because the use of distance technology allowed them to participate," Machalicek said.

Machalicek said that she realized that certain types of technology could be widely and efficiently used to help parents and teachers who may lack access to additional help. And not only could she use Skype and Facetime, she said, perhaps iPad survey apps could be used to get quick responses from parents about their use of intervention strategies.

"One of the ways we can actually help parents implement strategies long-term is to provide long term follow up through the use of technology," Machalicek said.

She earned her doctorate in special education with an emphasis on autism and developmental disabilities in 2008 from the University of Texas. Before joining the UO, she served as an assistant professor at Portland State University, an assistant professor at University of Wisconsin-Madison and an investigator at UW-Madison's Waisman Center.

For parents and relatives whose children may exhibit challenging behaviors — tantrums, hitting or self-injury — it may be difficult to consistently keep up important and sometimes rigorous intervention strategies, Machalicek said.

If the parents have intellectual disabilities or other problems, it can be hard for them to seek intervention for their children. Or maybe a family lives in a rural area where there are few specialists or no access to outside childcare, she said.

Using simple, cheap and accessible technology like Skype, iPad surveys and texting allows practitioners and parents to communicate with each other in a cheap and accessible way, she said.

"If parents don't have technology, parents have friends who have technology, or family members who have technology," Machalicek said. "Parents are pretty handy at finding other people who will help them."

Parents and teachers should use intervention techniques such as prompting or positive reinforcement, to lessen dependence on a practitioner who can’t be around 24/7.

"We're really providing more of a consultant role in the field," Machalicek said. "Using the technology helps people to enforce that hands-off philosophy."

Machalicek is hoping that technologies such as video conferencing and texting prompts will help parents and teachers become less dependent on professional practitioners. But if a sudden need arises and a parent needs support, such technology will make accessing a practitioner much more feasible.

In an upcoming study, Machalicek will be investigating how much parent preference affects the success of an intervention strategy. It’s one thing to teach parents intervention strategies, prompting strategies and communication techniques, she said, but it's another to make sure parents are continuing to implement the strategies.

Machalicek plans to use survey apps to compile data from participating families. The families will fill out simple surveys that can be completed quickly about the intervention strategies and the data will be instantly compiled in a database.

- by JoAnna Wendel for UO Office of Research, Innovation and Graduate Education