This year, Inside IES Research is publishing a series of blogs showcasing a diverse group of IES-funded education researchers and fellows that are making significant contributions to education research, policy, and practice. This week, Dr. Courtney Zulauf-McCurdy, an IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington School Mental Health Assessment Research and Training (SMART) Center, shares her experiences and discusses her path forward.
My interests in child development began early on. I moved frequently for my parents’ work, so I was often seen as an outsider by the other children at the schools I attended. One school in particular had a group of “popular students” who bullied others and were particularly aggressive to peers. Often, teachers and parents would turn a blind eye to this behavior, and I became curious about how parents and educators respond to and shape child behavior.
Understanding Disparities in Early Childhood
I pursued a PhD in clinical psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago out of a desire to advocate for children in both research and clinical practice. As a graduate student in the Social Emotional Teaching and Learning (SETL) Lab, I worked directly with parents, educators, and young children to understand how the school and home environment shape child behavior. Much of our research aimed to support teachers in improving children’s social-emotional development, but what I learned was that teachers weren’t providing equal opportunities and experiences to all children.
In particular, I became focused on an alarming disparity: disproportionate discipline. Not only are preschoolers being expelled at rates three times higher than students in K-12, but there are large discipline disparities by gender and race. In AY 2013-14, the U.S. Department of Education reported that Black children composed 19% of enrollment but 47% of those expelled. A report citing data from the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau found that children with social emotional difficulties are 14.5 times more likely to be expelled.
During graduate school, I explored the reasons why Black boys are being disproportionately expelled and found that it was at least in part related to teachers’ biased perceptions of parents. Because of this, I became interested in developing evidenced-based interventions for parents and educators to protect children from being expelled.
For my clinical internship, I specialized in integrated behavioral health at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where I provided evidenced-based practices to children and families in underserved community settings. Here, I learned about behavioral interventions that improve child behavior, which work best when parents and teachers work together across home and school. However, I noticed that children of color were less likely to receive evidenced-based interventions (such as classroom-based behavioral interventions or parent management training), and even when they do, parents and teachers experience barriers to working together to implement these interventions. As a result, I shifted my focus from designing new interventions to understanding how to improve the implementation of interventions in community settings that serve young children from under-represented backgrounds.
Moving from Intervention Development to Implementation Science
As a second year IES postdoctoral fellow at the University of Washington (UW) SMART Center, I am combining my research interests with implementation science. I am partnering with educators and parents to understand how teacher perceptions of parents and parent engagement is an implementation determinant—that is, a barrier or facilitator. Together, we are learning how to reduce disparities in preschool by improving the implementation of interventions that allow for early, easy, and acceptable access to families who face the highest levels of barriers.
I have been using stakeholder-engaged processes consisting of focus groups, community advisory boards, and rapid try outs of strategies to ensure equity by engaging the perspectives of families from under-represented minority backgrounds. Such community engagement aims to ensure that our interventions are culturally responsive and unimpeded by bias.
Through my work, I have learned that educators and parents want the best outcomes for their children but face a multitude of barriers that hinder their ability to engage. For example, preschool teachers have limited resources, face stress and burnout, are under-prepared and underpaid, leading to considerable barriers in addressing the mental health needs of young children. Likewise, parents face obstacles such as perceived bias from their child’s school and logistical barriers such as time and childcare.
I will continue working directly with parents and educators to understand how we can place all young children (and their families) in the best position to thrive. I will continue to use research methods, such as community advisory boards and qualitative methods, that seek to elevate the voices of parents and educators to promote equitable child outcomes. Through continued collaboration with community partners, disseminating my findings to parents, educators, and practitioners and connecting research with culturally responsive early childhood practice and policies, I hope to dismantle disparities in preschool outcomes.
Produced by Meredith Larson (Meredith.Larson@ed.gov), a program officer for IES Postdoctoral Training grants, and Bennett Lunn (Bennett.Lunn@ed.gov), Truman-Albright Fellow for the National Center for Education Research and the National Center for Special Education Research.