Preservice early childhood teachers’ sense of efficacy for teaching children with autism spectrum disorder


Source: Journal of Early Childhood Teacher Education, 43:2, 167-193

(Reviewed by the Portal Team)

Early childhood teachers (ECT) are an important group to study as they are key members on the child study team responsible for the initial placement of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) into self-contained or inclusive settings.
If ECT are not confident in their abilities to meet the needs of children with ASD in inclusive settings, then they may be more likely to recommend educating those children in self-contained classrooms.
Therefore, the purpose of this investigation was to explore changes to pre-service ECT’s understanding of ASD and individuals with ASD, and their self-efficacy for teaching children with autism in inclusive settings as they participated in a course on the nature of ASD.

Rationale and research questions
Pre-service ECT of children with ASD need to develop both knowledge of the field and self-efficacy in their ability to enact and use that knowledge effectively in the classroom.
To fully address both of these concerns, research informed coursework and professional development built around the Autism Inclusion Tasks is needed to help teachers foster the skills and beliefs necessary to meet the needs of children with ASD in inclusive settings.

In this investigation the authors analyzed the influence of such coursework for pre-service ECT by exploring the following research questions:

(1) Following the course experiences, do participants report changes in their thinking about children with ASD, if so what is the content of those changes?
(2) To what extent do participants report that class activities designed to address the Autism Inclusion Tasks contributed to their understanding of children with ASD?
(3) Does participants’ sense of efficacy for teaching and/or sense of efficacy for teaching children with ASD change over the course of the semester and what is the relationship between their reported self-efficacy before and after the course?

The authors employed qualitative content analysis (RQ1), quantitative descriptive analysis (RQ2), and quantitative significance testing (RQ3) to analyze the data gathered in response to our research questions.

Participants - Twenty-five students in two sections of the course (described below) participated in this study.
The majority of participants (84%) had some prior experience with a child with ASD.
Most participants (88%) held a Bachelor’s degree and 12% of participants held a Master’s degree.
Two participants were practicing teachers and all but five participants had some experience working in inclusive classrooms either as a teacher, paraprofessional, or student teacher.

Course context - The course, Conceptual Foundations of Autism Spectrum Disorder: Biological, Psychological, Social Perspectives, provided the context for this study.
This course is offered at a university in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States to students pursuing teacher certification in pre-K through grade 3 or kindergarten through grade 6 and special education.
The first and third authors designed and taught the course.
Course content was scientifically-based and focused on ASD as a neurobiological disorder affecting the structures of the brain which control reasoning, problem solving, memory, communication, sensory processing, regulation and motor planning.
The class structure included face-to-face and asynchronous online sessions.

Data Sources - Teachers’ sense of efficacy scale (TSES, T1 & T2).
The authors used the 12-item short form of the Teachers’ Sense of Efficacy Scale (TSES) to assess participants’ sense of teaching efficacy for classroom management, instructional practices, and engagement as a single factor (Tschannen-Moran & Woolfolk Hoy, 2001).
Items on this scale assessed self-efficacy for classroom management, instructional practices, and engagement.

Teacher self-efficacy for teaching children with autism spectrum disorder in inclusive classrooms scale (TSE-ASDI; T1 & T2) - The authors used the Teaching Students with ASD in Inclusive Classrooms Scale (TSE-ASDI) to assess self-efficacy for teaching children with ASD in inclusive settings based on the five inclusion tasks identified in the literature (Catalano, 2018).
Participants were asked to think of a child between the ages of 3 and 8 with autism that they knew (or were familiar with) as they reported how confident they were to complete each task.
Participants responding on a 1–9 scale with the anchors 1 (cannot do at all) and 9 (highly certain can do).

Open-ended reflection on ASD (T2)
At the end of the semester participants provided a written response to the prompt: “How has your thinking about children with the diagnosis of ASD changed since the start of this course? Please explain your answer.”
This prompt was designed by the research team.
Participants’ written responses were transcribed for analysis.

Influence of class activities on understanding of ASD inventory (T2) - This inventory, administered at T2 only, was designed by the research team to capture participants’ perceptions of the degree to which class activities contributed to their understanding of children with ASD.
They provided participants with a list of 10 class activities designed to address the Autism Inclusion Tasks and asked them to:
Please indicate the degree to which each class activity has influenced your understanding of children with ASD.
Participants responded on a 9-point scale, with anchors at 1 (no influence), 4–5 (some influence), and 9 (a great deal of influence).

Data were gathered during class time at the beginning (T1) and end (T2) of the summer semester by a member of the research team who had no other contact with these students or responsibility for teaching or grading student work for this course.
At T1 participants provided informed consent, completed the background questionnaire and two self-efficacy scales.
At T2 participants completed the self-efficacy scales again as well as two additional questionnaires:
Influence of Class Activities on Understanding of ASD Inventory and an open-ended reflection on ASD.
Following the T1 data collection, participants engaged in 10 classroom activities.
Class activities were designed to promote wonder and experiential learning of the topics covered and aligned with the Autism Inclusion Tasks.
Course content aligned with the Autism Inclusion Tasks, was informed by literature on teachers’ sense of efficacy, and supported by current knowledge of ASD.
The activities examined for this study were not exhaustive of the curriculum, readings, and assignments, but represented various multimodal approaches to learning.

Findings and discussion
In this investigation, the authors found that pre-service teachers’ understanding of children with autism changed, that they attributed changes in their understandings to specific class activities, and that these participants demonstrated significant changes in their self-efficacy for teaching and for teaching children with ASD from the beginning of the course to its conclusion.

The ABC’s of changes in thinking
The authors found that pre-service teachers in this course overwhelmingly (96%) felt that they experienced change.
Further, they expressed the content of their change as relative to three main categories: alerted to the diagnosis, beyond the label, and creating comfortable contexts.
The most diverse of these categories was beyond the label, which illustrated the varied and unique insights to ASD that these pre-service teachers developed over the semester.
These changes suggest that participants reconsidered their preconceptions about teaching children with a diagnosis of ASD and came to understand the heterogeneity of individuals on the spectrum.
The breadth of change also provides implications for teacher education curriculum around teaching students with ASD.
The areas of change identified by these participants could serve to guide curricular content decisions and instructional activities to best support the areas of change that seem to be most influential for preservice teacher candidates.
Practitioners might consider using these “ABC’s” of change to frame initial class discussions, guide course or program objectives, or as a framework for ensuring that key topics are addressed in their course work.

Attributions to class activities for change
Participants’ qualitative descriptions of changes in understanding seemed to revolve around their developing understanding of the diversity of human experience beyond the label, behind the challenge, and because there is more; revealing clear changes in thinking about the behaviors, communication, and capabilities of children with ASD embedded in their lived experiences.
In the context of this study, it seems that these pre-service teachers reported on the class activity that they, perhaps, felt was most useful to their practice but did not directly lead to the types of changes revealed across participants in their open-ended responses.
The preference for this kind of information may interfere with students’ ability to align course activities with their described changes in thinking.

Changes in self-efficacy for teaching and teaching children with ASD
The authors investigated the potential contribution of a single course to changes in pre-service ECT’ self-efficacy beliefs and found that participants reported increased self-efficacy for teaching and for teaching children with ASD after participating in this course.
Moreover, when they examined the relationship between participants’ reported self-efficacy before and after the course, they found that participants reported a stronger association between teaching self-efficacy and self-efficacy for teaching children with ASD in inclusive settings after the course, possibly suggesting that these beliefs were no longer seen as unrelated activities, but all part of the practice of teaching.
With regard to practice, this study provides initial evidence of the contribution of a single course on pre-service ECT self-efficacy for teaching, and their efficacy for teaching students with ASD.
Greater efforts can be made to increase pre-service teachers’ knowledge of ASD over their professional sequence, as this may help them feel more confident in their abilities to teach children with ASD as well.
Teacher educators involved in both pre-service preparation and continuing teacher learning can use the descriptions of the Autism Inclusion Tasks to inform course or program development.

Catalano, C. G. (2018). Developing and validating the teacher self-efficacy for teaching students with autism spectrum disorder in inclusive classrooms (TSE-ASDI) scale (PhD dissertation). ProQuest LLC. (ISBN: 978-0-4383-5221-6).
Tschannen-Moran, M., & Woolfolk Hoy, A. (2001). Teacher efficacy: Capturing an elusive construct. Teaching and Teacher Education, 17(7), 783–805. 

Updated: Jul. 26, 2022