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East Meadow school psychologist gets published in academic journal

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Robert Mueller, a psychologist at East Meadow’s Bowling Green Elementary School, has spent the past six years researching techniques to help parents of children with autism spectrum disorder.

His work paid off last month, when his findings were published in the Journal of Child and Family Studies, a peer-reviewed academic journal published by Springer Sci-ence+Business Me-dia.

Mueller, 35, of Commack, recently spoke with the Herald about his research paper, titled “Positive Family Intervention for Children with ASD: Impact on Parents’ Cognitions and Stress.”

The focus of his research was helping parents combat negative thought patterns that can impede their ability to help their children. When a child misbehaves, “Maybe we blame ourselves for our child’s behavior, or maybe we blame the child,” Mueller said, “and sometimes that makes us sad or depressed or angry and resentful, and that could get in the way of what we want to do to help our kids.”

Mueller has a 4-year-old son, An-drew, and a 2-year-old daughter, Emily. He earned a doctorate from St. John’s University in 2015, when he began his research on his dissertation under the supervision of Associate Professor Lauren Moskowitz, who co-authored the research paper. 

Moskowitz, 41, of Queens, has two daughters, Arabella, 6, and Nora, 1. When Arabella was born, her mother thought she’d have an easy time being a parent because of her work as a psychologist, she said. But some things are easier in theory. 

“And that’s the hard part,” Moskowitz said, “because what gets in the way is emotion . . . You get this defeatist attitude, and then it could be hard for you to do the things that you know work.”

This behavior pattern has in many cases been worsened by the coronavirus pandemic, when parents have reported being more tired and stressed and feeling overburdened when working at home while helping their kids learn remotely, Moskowitz noted.

Mueller and Moskowitz turned to cognitive behavioral therapy, a technique developed by psychologist Aaron Beck in the 1960s as a treatment for depression. As Mueller described it, cognitive behavioral therapy “helps parents identify some of their ways of thinking and changes those ways of thinking, which can result in changing their feelings and actions.”

The researchers combined this approach with positive behavior support, a strategy used to identify the causes of a child’s misbehavior and what actions might change it. For example, a child may refuse to do his classwork because he is seeking attention from the teacher. Positive behavior support would include approaching him and quietly telling him what he should be doing.

“Children misbehave because they want to get something or they want to avoid something,” Mueller said. “Sometimes we understand the triggers or payoffs, but we still struggle to implement the right strategies because those thoughts get in the way. This intervention combines the two and makes them more comprehensive.”

Combining the two psychological models, Mueller and Mowkowitz turned to a hybrid theory called positive family intervention, first defined by psychologist Mark Durand in his 2008 book “Helping Families with Challenging Children.” In it, Durand explored methods that parents of children with autism spectrum disorder could use to improve their relationships with them.

Mueller recruited three families through social media and outreach from the Nassau Suffolk Autism Society of America. From September 2014 to March 2015, he conducted eight 90-minute sessions with the families, observing how the parents worked with their children on various activities and how things changed when they used the principles of positive family intervention.

Mueller found that the children misbehaved less as the sessions continued, and their parents, for the most part, felt better about themselves and their relationships to their kids. “It’s wonderful to see what progress students could make with the right support system in place,” he said.

Moskowitz said that she found their study to be useful for all parents and teachers, not just those of students with special needs. “The fact that the results were as great as they were is amazing,” she said. “It’s hard for me, as a parent of neurotypical kids, but it’s infinitely harder for parents with kids with autism, so the fact that success was able to be achieved to the extent that it was with these three families is miraculous.”

Mueller first got involved in the field of autism and developmental disabilities in 2006, when he started working at the Developmental Disabilities Institute in Smithtown.

He graduated from Stony Brook University in 2008, and completed an internship in the East Meadow School District, working with the psychologists at Meadowbrook Elementary School. He was a psychological consultant for the district until 2012, when he was hired as a full-time psychologist at Bowling Green Elementary.

To access Mueller’s research paper, go to https://rdcu.be/b7tRi