Researchers Collaborate with Head Start

Drs. Jason DeCaro, Ansley Gilpin, and Caroline Boxmeyer
A group of University of Alabama researchers will implement and assess a new curriculum at local Head Start programs this fall. Pictured from left to right are Drs. Jason DeCaro, Ansley Gilpin, and Caroline Boxmeyer.

Can what you teach preschool students have lasting effects on them and on their family’s health and well-being?

That’s what a group of University of Alabama researchers, in collaboration with Community Service Programs of West Alabama, hopes to determine. With a $2.2 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families, the researchers have the potential to impact national policy on early childhood education. Their study will involve implementing a new curriculum and assessing its effectiveness at local Head Start programs this fall.

Dr. Ansley Gilpin, assistant professor in the Department of Psychology; Dr. Jason DeCaro, associate professor in the Department of Anthropology; Dr. John Lochman, professor in the Department of Psychology; and Dr. Caroline Boxmeyer, associate professor in the College of Community Health Sciences, are leading the study. More than 700 preschool students across West Alabama are expected to participate, and the hope is to enhance children’s and families’ overall well-being and school readiness over and above the aims of Head Start, not just during the grant period, but also for years to come.

The team isn’t working alone, however. UA’s researchers are part of a consortium of researchers from Northwestern University, the University of Oregon, and the University of Southern California who will pool their results from concurrent studies, each assessing the effectiveness of dual-generation programming for Head Start. Once the studies are complete, policymakers will use the information to revamp and improve Head Start programs nationwide.

“This is a great opportunity for UA and for the state to make a difference in our national Head Start preschool initiative,” Gilpin said. “The programs that we’re implementing locally may end up being model programs for the nation. That’s a great opportunity for Alabama, both now and in the future.”

The opportunity was made possible, in large part, because the team has worked together and with CSPWAL since 2011. Its members previously received funding from UA’s College Academy of Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity to implement a similar program with 60 preschool children living in Tuscaloosa. That program showed promising results, established their credibility as a team, and laid the groundwork for submitting future proposals, including the one that funded their current study.

When the Administration for Children and Families announced it was seeking grant proposals, the team had little more than a month to submit their application.

“It took about a month of frenetic activity, right down to the wire, to get the proposal submitted, but I feel like we made the proposal stronger in the end,” DeCaro said. “They were looking for groups with a good amount of experience who were ready to hit the ground running.”

The goal of the research is to improve Head Start’s dual generation services, which combine child-focused programs with parent-focused programs to support the well-being of families.

“Dual generation approaches propose that the way to have the most positive impact on children’s lives, including their academic success, is to do more than just focus on the children,” DeCaro said. “Children grow up and develop in a context, and there are critical people in that context including their caregivers at home. If you can find good programs that are reasonably cost-efficient and effective at addressing the needs of parents, those programs, in the end, are not only helpful to the parents, but also are very helpful to the children.”

UA’s team of researchers, in collaboration with CSPWAL, will implement and assess the effectiveness of two integrated programs. The first, a classroom curriculum known as Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies, or PATHS, helps children understand and control their emotions. The second, a parent program based on the Coping Power parent program that was developed by Lochman, helps parents manage stress. The parents also will learn about the PATHS curriculum, so they can help their children apply PATHS across contexts, even when they’re at home.

“The idea behind PATHS is to get the kids emotionally and behaviorally ready for kindergarten,” Gilpin said. “We know from developmental research that a precursor to being able to control your emotions – not hitting your friend when you’re mad, for instance – is recognizing that you’re mad. PATHS teaches the children to recognize an emotion, label it, and encourages them to find a good resolution. They learn good ways to express their emotions.

“We also know from developmental research that if you’re constantly in an emotional situation, you’re not learning much because you can only attend to so many processes at the same time. If the kids are constantly focused on some emotional drama, they’re going to miss learning their ABCs and 123s, and then when they move into first grade, the difficulties compound. Once they’re able to redirect their attention away from their emotions, they can focus on what they’re supposed to be learning.”

For both PATHS and the parent program, the team will conduct randomized controlled trials in which they will compare groups participating in the programs to groups not participating in the programs. Boxmeyer and Lochman, both clinical psychologists, will spearhead implementing the programs, while Gilpin and DeCaro will assess the programs’ effectiveness.

According to the researchers, the most exciting part of the study is its scope.

“Not only are the programs comprehensive, but so are the assessments,” DeCaro said. “We will assess the students’ responses before, during, and well after the pre-K programs end, all the way through the end of first grade, and we will see how they’re doing academically, behaviorally, socially, emotionally, and psychologically. Following the students through the end of first grade, we will be able to see if the programs consistently reduce stress and improve development over long periods of time. That’s the greatest goal – persistent effects.”

The other exciting aspect of the study, according to Gilpin, is the potential impact made possible through teamwork, both within the UA team and nationally.

“Although I have experience in child assessment, I have no background in planning and implementing interventions like Dr. Boxmeyer and Dr. Lochman do, nor do I have experience in measuring stress levels, like Dr. DeCaro does,” she said. “I wouldn’t be able to do this study on my own. Combined, we take each other’s skills and create a team that can do a lot more than one person ever could be trained to do.

“More importantly, the other universities are collecting similar data. When we combine our results, the data set should be large enough that we’ll have reliable results, which policymakers can use to enhance Head Start programming for families. It’s exciting to see decisions being made based on research, and it’s a great opportunity for The University of Alabama to be a part of decisions being made at the national level. This research is a great opportunity to make a difference.”