Real-world action research in SEND: its significance and ideas on how to enhance rigour

May 20 · 9 min read

by Lila Kossyvaki

I was very honoured to be asked to submit a blog to the AAIDD Student and Early Career Professional Interest Network. In this, I would like to share some thoughts on why I think there is a pressing need for more academics in the field of Special Educational Needs and Disability (SEND) to engage in rigorous real-world action research.

It has always been my aim to conduct research with ecological validity and societal impact. To me the first research priority in the field of SEND is to produce findings, which can be easily implemented in individuals’ everyday life and improve the quality of life for people with SEND and their families. I have often worked in close collaboration with school staff, as I believe this collaboration informs and evolves the work of both the academics and school practitioners.

At the beginning of my career in academia about 10 years ago, involving school staff in research as part of the team would result in substandard research for many senior academics who possibly believed that their role is to generate ideas to move the field forward but not to go out in the community and emerge themselves in situations they wanted to explore. Nowadays, the landscape has changed considerably; universities are after research which contributes to understanding of the world and promotes applicable solution to real-world problems (i.e. research with impact). This direction will, hopefully, encourage more academics to leave the university premises and work out in the community, as this is where meaningful real-world projects are more likely to develop.

Despite a gradually increasing interest towards research in schools with practitioners in the role of co-researchers, there is still a substantial gap between research and practice in real-world classrooms (Reichow et al., 2008) and substantial lack of school practitioner involvement in intervention research (Parsons et al., 2011). However, since children with SEND all over the world spend most of their day at school, there is a pressing need to conduct better research in schools. Additionally, doing real-world research can be a great way of evidencing effective practices at schools, which often go unnoticed because they are not reported and disseminated beyond a school boundaries (Kossyvaki, 2019).

Abuse of certain research methodologies has led to practices of anathematization which has resulted in whole university departments conducting certain types of research to the exclusion of others and journals publishing only papers of certain methodologies. A research methodology I am very fond of is action research (also often called Participatory Research or Participatory Action Research). I believe action research works very well in intervention studies involving school practitioners. However, especially educational action research has often been misused and this is possibly why it is still not perceived as a scientific enough methodology by a number of academics and journal editors. Thankfully this is not a universal attitude.

Action research is a growing field in SEND addressing the need for more evidence-based practice (Parsons et al., 2011). It is a practice-driven approach in which researchers and practitioners work in close partnership to produce viable improvements to real-world problems (Reason and Bradbury, 2001). In action research the ‘researched’ (i.e. participants) are involved in some or all stages of the research process (e.g. planning, research design, data collection and analysis, distribution of the research findings). Change and reflexivity are integral parts of action research. Reflection on the initial findings generates ideas for change, which then shape the next stages of the study. In the beginning, the researcher plans a change, implements a solution agreed with the people involved and then observes what happens. The researcher and the participants reflect on the effects of the change and plan the next stage of the research process together. They then implement the amended plan and observe the consequences. This process is repeated several times until a final solution is established.

There are a number of advantages in using action research. Most importantly, it bridges the gap between academic research and practice. It is true that school practitioners often feel excluded from what is happening in academia. Most findings are published in specialized journals with high subscription fees or presented at scientific conferences, which are primarily attended by academics. Action research can address this issue by making school staff part of the research process. In action research, participants have the chance to be trained free of charge in up-to-date interventions without having to leave their setting. The researcher benefits too, from working closely with school practitioners as they learn how to better plan research and to understand the constraints of using interventions in real-world environments.

At the same time, there are several criticisms of action research; the two most widely known are related to its rigour and generalizability (Koshy, 2005). Action research cannot claim the rigour and validity of laboratory-based studies. In real-world environments, the researcher cannot isolate the variables they are interested in, which means that changes due to other factors cannot be excluded. However, using a variety of data collection methods can enhance the standards of rigour and validity of such studies. Data generalizability is another issue that should be handled with caution. Action research does not set out to seek data which can be generalized to the wider population. Data can only be generalized within the situation in which the study took place. The aim of action research is to provide data which informs future practice and to form the basis of future more rigorous large scale research.

As a result of the growing attention to the importance of real-world research, scholars provide detailed guidelines to researchers as to how to enhance rigour. For example, Denscombe (2002) provides ten criteria or ground rules for conducting good research (e.g. accuracy, accountability, objectivity, proof), which can be of great interest for those conducting action research projects whereas Reichow et al. (2008) provide lists of primary and secondary quality indicators for single subject and group intervention research (e.g. baseline condition, inter-observer agreement, blind raters, social validity, use of statistical tests) some of which can also apply to real-world action research.

A method which often goes hand in hand with action research methodology is that of video recording and feedback. Video recording has a number of strengths and limitations. The openness of the data to multiple scrutiny (Heath et al., 2010) is one of the most significant advantages. Different researchers can code the same video multiple times, increasing the reliability of the data. Additionally, video data is also likely to promote inter-disciplinary research (Stigler et al., 2000), as it can be available to a wider range of researchers who might not have the chance or the knowledge to conduct studies with certain groups. However, the use of videos has some disadvantages. Like observations, video data are limited to whatever the observer can record (Stigler et al., 2000) which might be unrepresentative of what usually occurs. The camera effect is another important limitation which should be considered (Stigler et al., 2000). Teaching staff might show their best when the camera is in the classroom and children might feel excited or embarrassed and behave in a different way than usual. Additionally, video poses a number of practical and ethical problems. Practical concerns might be related to where the camera is placed as well as lighting and sounding issues. Gaining consent from parents and staff can be an issue as video is likely to put the participants off (Heath et al., 2010).

Video feedback has been used effectively for some time to train school staff. As an accredited Video Interaction Guidance (VIG) practitioner, I tend to use this video feedback method to train school staff in interventions for research purposes. VIG is an intervention used to improve communication building on each individual’s unique and effective style in which clients are supported to reflect on moments of successful interactions (Kennedy, 2011). It is based on a number of theoretical foundations (e.g. theories of primary and secondary intersubjectivity, mediated learning and social learning, positive psychology) and values and beliefs (e.g. crisis can be an opportunity for change, people in troubled situations do want to change and the power for change resides within the individual or situation itself) (Kennedy, 2011). Clients are first video recorded by the VIG guider while they naturally interact with people in their environment. Then the guider micro-edits the film and selects a few very short clips of ‘better than usual’ patterns of interactions.

The clients watch these micro moments together with the VIG guider, reflect on them and set goals for the next session. This joint viewing of the clips is called shared review and is unique to VIG.

You can watch a summary video of the VIG process here. Most VIG research so far has involved parents and their children but there is a growing body of studies, which have implemented VIG with school staff in SEND settings. Here is a study I used VIG in an action research methodology.

Therefore, my recommendation for novice researchers is to get out, in the real world and conduct innovative but also rigorous action research with people who will benefit from the research findings. I would highly encourage you to involve stakeholders in as many research stages as possible (from defining research questions to disseminating findings) and learn from them. Be aware that people with SEND are the main stakeholders and they are often the last to be asked to be involved in research.


Denscombe, M. (2002). Ground rules for good research. Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Kennedy, H. (2011). What is Video Interaction Guidance (VIG)? In H. Kennedy, M. Landor, & L. Todd (Eds.), Video interaction guidance: A relationship-based intervention to promote attunement, empathy and wellbeing (pp. 20–42). London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Koshy, V. (2005). Action research for improving practice: A practical guide. London: Paul Chapman Publishing.

Kossyvaki, L. (accepted) Why is research important? Reflections for professionals and parents. PMLD link.

Heath, C., Hindmarsh, J., & Luff, P. (2010). Video in qualitative research: Analysing social interaction in everyday life. London: SAGE Publication Ltd. Parsons, S., Guldberg, K., MacLeod, A., Jones, G., Prunty, A., & Balfe, T. (2011).

International review of the evidence on best practice in educational provision for children on the autism spectrum. European Journal of Special Needs Education, 26(1), 47–63.

Reason, P., & Bradbury, H. (2001). Introduction: Inquiry and participation in search of a world worthy of human aspiration. In P. Reason & H. Bradbury (Eds.), Handbook of action research: Participative enquiry and practice (pp. 1–14). London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Reichow, B., Volkmar, F., & Cicchetti, D. (2008). Development of the evaluative method for evaluating and determining evidence-based practices in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(7), 1311–1319.

Stigler, J.W., Gallimore, R., & Hierber, J. (2000). Using video surveys to compare classrooms and teaching across cultures: Examples and lessons from the TIMSS video studies. Educational Psychologist, 35(2), 87–100.

Lila Kossyvaki is a Lecturer at the Department of Disability Inclusion and Special Needs (DISN) at the University of Birmingham in the UK where she leads the courses on Severe, Profound and Multiple Learning Disabilities (the equivalent of Intellectual Disabilities in the US). She has written a number of papers for peer-reviewed journals and has presented her work at conferences and workshops around the world. She is the author of the book Adult Interactive Style Intervention and Participatory Research Designs in Autism: Bridging the gap between academic research and practice. Prior to getting her academic post, she worked in special schools and day care settings in Greece and in the UK.

Social media outlet:


Written by

American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Student and Early Career Professional Special Interest Group