May 2004, Issue 2

Understanding Children and Their Families to Make a Difference in Their Lives

Ellen Pinderhughes, PhD (Psychology, Yale 1986), began working full time as an associate professor in the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Development in September 2003, but she had been an active visiting faculty member for the previous academic year. Before coming to Tufts, Pinderhughes spent several years on the faculties of Vanderbilt University and Cleveland State University. She has also worked in a residential facility as a child therapist and directed a daycare center in Boston. Pinderhughes is interested in cultural and contextual influences on family socialization processes and children's development in diverse families, as well as in the development of children at risk for problematic outcomes.

Speaking of her reasons for coming to Tufts, Pinderhughes says, "I was attracted to the energy in the Department of Child Development the multidisciplinary energy around understanding children in the context of the cultures in which they grow up, and making a difference in their lives and in their families' lives through research, practice, or policy advocacy." She was also impressed by "the University's mission to educate and train students to be active citizens, either in direct service or in conducting research that will make a difference in the lives of people."

Fast Track, a longitudinal randomized clinical trial that began in 1991, has consumed a considerable amount of Pinderhughes' time since she joined its research staff in the fall of 1992, first as an investigator and then in 1998 as a principal investigator. The Fast Track program intervened with children growing up in high-risk communities who were identified by their teachers and their parents as having very high levels of behavior problems at the end of kindergarten. The program delivered comprehensive intervention services to the youth, their parents, and their classrooms during the elementary school years and then delivered individualized and small-group services during middle school and high school, in an effort to provide both preventive and protective supports. The program strived to "give them some skills and competencies to be able to navigate the communities and settings that they were growing up in," Pinderhughes says. Fast Track finished delivering services in May 2003 and will continue to follow the youth until age twenty.

The project has four intervention sites Nashville, Tennessee, linked to Vanderbilt University; Durham, North Carolina, linked to Duke University; rural central Pennsylvania, linked to Penn State; and Seattle, Washington, linked to the University of Washington. "With these four sites, we're in a position to look at the efficacy of this intervention across different regions, as well as across different gender and racial groups."

After assessing pre-intervention levels of functioning, the project investigators sought to intervene in areas of parent and child functioning that were hypothesized to link high levels of problem behavior in kindergarten with serious conduct problems in adolescence. Pinderhughes explains: "Some of those mediators were parenting behaviors, parents' cognitions about their children's behaviors, children's cognitions about peer conflict, children's ability to negotiate peer conflict, children's aggressive behavior as well as their classroom-based functioning and achievement, and in later years their affiliation with antisocial peers." Possible outcomes included interpersonal violence, juvenile delinquency, dropping out of school, substance abuse, mental illness, and risky sexual behavior. The program attempted to have an impact on these mediators and outcomes through the content of the prevention services.

Fast Track is a multipronged intervention that included both family coordinators, who worked with parents to deliver group-based parenting training as well as home visits, and educational coordinators, who tutored and worked with the children in friendship groups where they learned social problem-solving skills. The educational coordinators also monitored, supervised, and supported classroom teachers who had been trained to deliver a classroom-based curriculum called Promoting Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS).

"It would be an understatement to say that this was fairly time consuming," Pinderhughes says with a laugh. "We found ourselves growing a phenomenal intervention structure. We have a data center infrastructure at Duke that receives all of our data, cleans it, and puts it on our server. We also are affiliated with a research methodology center at Penn State. We've received quite a bit of statistical and quantitative collaboration as we've tried to identify the best models for analyzing the data."

While most of the data the project has accumulated have been quantitative, there is also a set of qualitative data from open-ended interviews with program parents and youth. Pinderhughes has several graduate students working with her to code these qualitative data, and she says that this is one area where collaboration with a Tufts colleague who has qualitative expertise could be helpful.

Another area of Pinderhughes' interest actually her primary area that got put on hold as she transitioned to Tufts this year involves families who adopt or foster older children. "These are children who come out of foster care with histories of abuse and neglect, and move into new families. I'm particularly interested in generating an understanding of what are the normative processes that unfold as the individual child and family members readjust, as relationships get formed and realigned, and as the family system shifts in order to incorporate the new child." She hopes that by identifying these normative patterns of readjustment, adoption practices and counseling can help parents anticipate and be prepared for hurdles in the adjustment process, and thus stabilize the families in order to increase successful adoptions. Pinderhughes has begun working with the Center For Family Connections in Cambridge, Massachusetts, an agency that provides innovative services to the adoption and foster care community, and has been gearing up to start new data collection.

She also is involved with a national, interdisciplinary group of scholars, the Study Group on Race, Culture and Ethnicity. "We're trying to unpack culture and its processes and their influences on family functioning, particularly parenting," Pinderhughes says. This group just received a grant to carry out a working conference, which will be based at Tufts in the fall of 2004. Participants will report preliminary findings of parallel analyses on contextual and cultural influences on parenting processes using different data sets.

Pinderhughes is not yet collaborating actively with any of her fellow Tufts researchers, but she has colleagues in her department with whom she hopes to begin collaborations. "Outside of the department I would be interested in collaborating with others who have some interest in adoption and foster care, as well as others who have interest in working, either through intervention services or simply through research-based efforts, in understanding family processes, particularly in families of color and families raising kids in high-risk communities."

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