For his body of applied research, Wheeler has been named the 2002 Donald Caplenor Faculty Research Award winner at Tennessee Tech University.
"John is a valuable resource and model for faculty on research productivity and program development," said TTU College of Education Dean Darrell Garber. "His research is widely respected by his peers across the country, has made a significant positive impact on the preparation of special educators, and has clearly resulted in improving the lives of children and youth at-risk and their families."
Wheeler, associate dean of TTU's College of Education, has directed the "Make A Difference Project," for the last eight years. The project provides consultation and technical assistance to schools, children and parents in the Upper Cumberland area to help them develop positive behavioral supports for children. He's also published approximately 50 articles and technical reports, several book chapters and two books.
"Our services are focused on identifying and building supports around the individual strengths of children," said Wheeler. "Challenging behavior is often the result of skill deficits associated with disabilities and the lack of structural or environmental support. If we can intervene and make the environment more sensitive to a child's strengths, we're likely to support more positive behavior."
Wheeler says there are basic elements assessing behavior. There's a setting event, a trigger, a behavior and a consequence. For instance, the setting event could be that a child, who traditionally doesn't do well in math, comes to school sleepy. The teacher may inadvertently trigger a behavior by telling the child to do math problems. The child may respond by refusing to do the math problems. As a consequence, the child is excused from class, resulting in the child escaping from the having to do the task.
"If we can determine what function or purpose the behavior is serving, for instance, is the child wanting social attention or wanting to avoid a task he or she is not capable of completing, we can intervene and modify triggers, teach alternative behaviors and alter consequences," said Wheeler.
"We promote positive replacement behaviors by aiming at actively teaching and reinforcing new skills," he said.
The goal of the Make A Difference Project is to make clinic-based interventions portable so that they can used in classroom settings around the region. An example of a success in this area is organizing visual cues for children with autism who need classroom environments arranged to provide visual clarity.
Wheeler, who joined TTU in 1984 as a special education professor, earned his bachelor's degree in therapeutic recreation, a master's degree in special education and mental retardation, and a doctorate in special education from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale.
While in graduate school, the Council for Exceptional Children's Division on Mental Retardation honored him for outstanding graduate student research. His paper, "Teaching Appropriate Social Behaviors to a Young Man with Moderate Mental Retardation in a Supported Competitive Employment Setting," was an original contribution to the field and is still widely cited in textbooks.
Wheeler serves as a member of the editorial review board for Education and Training in Mental Retardation and Developmental Disabilities, a top tier journal in mental retardation.
In collaboration with Dean Richey, Wheeler is co-authoring a Prentice Hall textbook, "Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports: Applications Across Learning Environments," to be published Spring 2003.
The Caplenor Award, first presented in 1984, is the university's premier research award. The award was named in honor of Donald Caplenor, former associate vice president for research and dean of instructional development, who died in 1979.
Last year's award winner was Joseph Ojo.