Physiological Research at Head Start Creates Opportunities for UA Students

The past year marked the beginning of data collection for Dr. Jason DeCaro’s multiyear Head Start research project. This interdisciplinary project focuses on child development during the transitions from prekindergarten through first grade. Dr. DeCaro joins Drs. Ansley Gilpin and John Lochman of the Psychology Department and Dr. Caroline Boxmeyer of the Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine, as well as community partners from the Community Service Programs of West Alabama.

Students Ashley Daugherty, Caitlin Baggett, and Linnea Moran conduct an assessment on hat day at Head Start.
Students Ashley Daugherty, Caitlin Baggett, and Linnea Moran conduct an assessment on hat day at Head Start.

Funded by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), Power PATH is an intervention program designed to improve emotional, behavioral, social, and cognitive wellbeing. Included in Power PATH is PATHS, a supplemental preschool curriculum that offers children techniques for dealing with difficult emotions and processing emotions in appropriate ways in the classroom. The addition of parent intervention meetings, adapted from the Coping Power program, is a novel contribution of the UA project. Parents learn about the PATHS curriculum and can reinforce the lessons from PATHS at home, receive resources related to managing stress and improving their own wellbeing, and have an opportunity to network with other parents.

As one of only four grants funded by the ACF to study “dual-generation” approaches in Head Start that address the needs of the entire family, this is a fantastic opportunity to evaluate programs that could affect Head Start programs across the county. Children learning the curriculum are being compared to a control group of children not learning the curriculum to determine any differences between the two groups. Dr. DeCaro leads the portion of the project that evaluates physiological responses to stress in four-year-olds during their first exposure to the PATHS curriculum and again at the end of the study in first grade. Physiological assessments include ECG, skin conductance, saliva samples for the stress-related hormone cortisol, and basic anthropometric measurements. During the fall 2014 semester alone, the physiological teams were in contact with more than 100 four-year-olds.

This project has created many exciting opportunities for students. Graduate students Sarah Elizabeth Morrow and Edward Quinn of the Anthropology Department and Allie Nancarrow of the Psychology Department have led field research teams at nine different Head Start centers across West Alabama. This project has also afforded our Department the opportunity to expose an unprecedented number of undergraduates to real biocultural research. Forty-four undergraduate students were involved on the physiological side of the project in fall 2014 alone. Students majoring in a broad range of disciplines, including anthropology, biology, chemistry, premedical studies, environmental engineering, international relations, and computer science found roles within this study.

Students Steven Beall, Lauren Pratt, and Tiffini Taylor observe a child as he watches videos for his assessment.
Students Steven Beall, Lauren Pratt, and Tiffini Taylor observe a child as he watches videos for his assessment.

Student field teams work in groups of two or three, dividing up duties of interviewing, collecting ECG and skin conductance data, and keeping the study protocols on task and organized. Other students conduct lab work, analyzing ECG data, organizing and analyzing written data sheets, and checking video recordings to identify key events in the interview protocol. The third major aspect of student involvement is with lab management. Students work closely with graduate students and Lab Manager, Shanta Hardrick Burrell, to learn about informed consent management, file keeping, and how to maintain records in order to protect respondents.

One of the most exciting aspects for many students has been to simply interact with the children. From drawing pictures together to discussing their favorite birthday presents, assessments are special times when each child feels listened to and attended to by the field team. As a complex and important research project, Power PATH will continue to expand over the next few years. We look forward to continuing to work with a diverse and broad range of students (and community volunteers) in order to make this program a success. If you are interested in joining this project in some capacity, please contact Sarah Elizabeth Morrow, lead physiological graduate student at semorrow@crimson.ua.edu. Students are eligible for either ANT or PY credits; volunteers are also always welcome!

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