Dr. JoEllen Pederson and Dr. Lee Bidwell are wrapping up a three-year research project that involved more than 80 students. Five of those students will present their findings at an April conference.
Dr. JoEllen Pederson and Dr. Lee Bidwell are wrapping up a three-year research project that involved more than 80 students. Five of those students will present their findings at an April conference.

Call it Blue Apron for family involvement.

Some area children have been arriving home with a project in their backpacks. It might be an easy peanut butter bird feeder made from ribbon and cardboard tubes. It might be making cookies together.

Here’s the idea: Families sit down together and work on the project, creating extraordinarily valuable involvement that many families say they just can’t seem to find time for.

Working with these families and seeing the impact on their lives, I know what I want to do with my life and how I want to help.

Samantha Heaney ’19 Tweet This

During the last year, Longwood students have been sending home pre-packaged family activities to area Head Start classes—small projects like planting seeds in a cup of potting soil, feet painting and puzzle making—and collecting data on whether those families feel closer to each other.

“The biggest thing parents say is they don’t have the time to engage with their children as much as they want to,” said Kayla Barner ’19, who is analyzing the data and will present key findings at a conference in April. “We designed these activities to specifically address that challenge, and we’re using the data to make them even more effective.

The multiyear project run by Dr. Lee Bidwell, professor of sociology, and Dr. JoEllen Pederson, assistant professor of sociology, involves multiple students and will culminate in some of them, including Barner, presenting at the Virginia Social Science Association conference this April.

As a first-generation college student performing research in a field that I didn’t know I was going to go into when I first got to Longwood, this has been a major confidence-booster for me.

Kayla Barner ’19

The project began three years ago when Pederson and Bidwell embarked on a needs assessment in the community, looking at family involvement and the pressures on them that hindered that valuable interaction. Using data gathered from parents and teachers in Prince Edward County, the professors and students took two tracks: developing and gathering data on easy, age-appropriate family activities within the Head Start community, and developing trauma-informed activities for parents and children at Madeline’s House, a local domestic violence shelter. In all, more than 80 students in three classes took part in the research project.

As part of a class on stress and family crisis, Samantha Heaney ’19 began working with Jamesha Watson ‘19 on developing pre-packaged age-appropriate activities for families to work on together.

“The Head Start families we worked with often had children at different age levels in the home, so we wanted to develop activities that everyone could enjoy,” she said. “For infants, who couldn’t make a birdhouse or a puzzle, we designed activities like an easy nature walk where they had different tactile experiences. Anything that could get the families involved in a common activity.”

The research took Heaney’s academic career in a different direction than she expected—she arrived at Longwood planning to become a law enforcement officer.

“Working with these families and seeing the impact on their lives, I know what I want to do with my life and how I want to help,” she said. “Numerous classes in the family studies program have inspired me to make a difference. Longwood has given me so many opportunities, and my professors have been so supportive along the way. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunities I’ve been given.”

Heaney is criminology and sociology double major with a concentration in family studies and hopes to become a mental health counselor for victims of sexual assault or go into family counseling, working with children.

Barner, along with Margaret Sutton ‘20, is analyzing data gathered in part from the work Heaney has finished. Looking at the qualitative data—written feedback from parents who took part in the activities—struck a personal chord with the senior sociology major.

“As a first-generation college student performing research in a field that I didn’t know I was going to go into when I first got to Longwood, this has been a major confidence-booster for me,” said Barner. “Even more rewarding is having the opportunity to work with families in the Head Start program, assessing the data we collected so we can better understand the impact of some of these activities.”

Barner hopes to parlay her experience completing this research into graduate study and then a career as a clinical mental health counselor, eventually working in public schools in the Richmond area, where she sees a major need for those services.

Haley Schultz ’21, a psychology and sociology double major and member of the Cormier Honors College, has adapted the family activities using trauma-informed practices for distribution at Madeline’s House, where children deal with “adverse childhood experiences” like witnessing intimate partner violence.

Those activities, revolving around things like gardening and cooking together, and creating string art, done in safe, stable, nurturing relationship environments, help children build resilience in dealing with some of the trauma they have experienced, said Schultz.

“Administrators and caregivers at Madeline’s House have told us that parents are often extremely stressed and traumatized themselves when they arrive at the shelter, and don’t have the time or energy to create these experiences for their children,” said Schultz, who hopes to pursue a graduate degree and a career in victim witness counseling when she graduates. “These activities don’t directly impact the trauma that children and parents have experienced, but helps build resilience to that trauma. Coping with these adverse childhood experiences is much easier done when family involvement is strong.”

Bidwell and Pederson said they hope the work can continue.

“These students are all learning what it means to be a citizen leader,” said Bidwell. “We’ve identified a need in the community and are working to address it using a variety of techniques, and they’ve all approached it with a kind of maturity and insight I didn’t expect from undergraduate students. It’s very rewarding to see a multiyear project like this culminate in students presenting at a statewide conference and hopefully a publication shortly thereafter.”

“We set out with the aim of completing a research project that will have some benefit to the community,” said Pederson. “I think it makes a practical connection between research and real-world impact that students and community members can appreciate.”

The research will be presented at the 2019 annual Virginia Social Science Association conference on April 13 at Longwood

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