In recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month, we spoke with Dr. Elizabeth Stormshak (University of Oregon) about her intervention, the Family Check-Up (FCU), which addresses emotional and behavioral challenges during times of transition for students with or at risk for disability. Dr. Stormshak has been testing the efficacy of FCU during different student transitions, from its initial iteration focused on the middle to high school transition, to implementation during the transition to kindergarten, to a “booster” intervention to support in the transition to middle school. The FCU intervention now includes an online version for middle school students, which is especially suited to the transition from virtual to in-person learning.
Let’s start off with the transition for young children. What are some challenges facing children at risk for behavioral problems and their families as children transition into kindergarten?
Our work has focused on family challenges and contextual stressors that impact the successful transition to schools, such as parent mental health, stress, and parenting skills. Our approach to intervention has focused on providing support to families as they transition with their children to elementary school through brief, strength-based, adaptive interventions to reduce problem behavior and enhance academic outcomes.
How does Family Check-Up address these challenges?
First, the FCU helps parents assess their own strengths and their child’s strengths, building on “what is going well” as they consider ways to focus on areas that need support. This strength-based approach to intervention helps motivate caretakers to consider different ways to manage child behavior and emotional problems in the home, which has implications for the transition to school.
Second, the FCU is a brief intervention that is adapted to the needs of families. No family receives the exact same intervention content because the focus is always derived from an individualized assessment that is norm-referenced and guides intervention delivery.
Why was it important to build the FCU to support the transition to middle school?
Middle school is a difficult time for youth and families. Caretakers tend to “disengage” during this time, which can lead to mental health and behavioral problems for youth. The FCU focuses on “re-engaging” parents during this critical transition. The intervention was originally focused on reducing risk during the transition from middle to high school. Interestingly, the FCU is an ideal intervention for all transitions that a child and family might experience (school entry, middle school, and high school). Therefore, extending FCU to help families with the transition from elementary to middle school seemed like a natural and critical extension of our work using FCU to support school adjustment during the other periods of transition.
What have you found so far? Has FCU been found to improve student outcomes?
Our work at kindergarten entry has clearly linked the FCU intervention with a variety of important school-based outcomes, including reduced problem behavior and enhanced parenting skills and home–school engagement. In our primary outcome paper from this research, we found that engagement in the intervention led to improvements in parenting skills—including limit setting, parent self-efficacy, and parental warmth—which then led to reductions in child behavior problems from kindergarten to second grade.
Our work supports the FCU model as an effective intervention for children and families during the transition to school. We continue to follow this sample of children and families into the middle school years. Our data collection for this project will end during the 2022-2023 school year. At that time, we will be able to examine the impact of the kindergarten and middle school intervention combined and compare this group of children to a control condition with no FCU as well as groups that received intervention only during kindergarten entry and only during middle school entry.
Your latest project is part of a new competition, Research to Accelerate Pandemic Recovery in Special Education. How has the FCU been adapted to address the needs of students following the disruptions of COVID-19?
I am excited to pursue this work and apply my interest in child and family mental health to the pandemic recovery. My whole career has been focused on the mental and behavioral health of children and families, and I hope to make a difference during this stressful time in society where mental health challenges for youth and their families have escalated.
We are eager to provide the FCU Online to schools in our area (Portland, Oregon) to address the recovery of students and families after the pandemic. Our work on the FCU Online began in 2015, well before the pandemic. Initial results of a randomized trial (supported by postdoctoral fellows funded through a postdoctoral training grant) supported the online approach for reduction of child emotional problems and improvement of parenting skills, especially for at-risk youth and parents. We expanded the model during COVID-19 in multiple ways, including adaptations that make the online model more accessible to families from a variety of backgrounds. The FCU Online can be delivered in both Spanish and English, is available on smartphones, and is easily delivered by schools because it can be supported by a range of providers, such as school counselors or behavioral health specialists.
The FCU Online has also been adapted with new content since the COVID-19 pandemic, including a module on Healthy Behaviors for Stressful Times that provides support to caretakers focused on healthy routines, coping, listening skills with youth, and management of depression and anxiety. We are excited to partner with schools in Oregon to implement this online approach to service delivery.
What are the next steps for your research?
The next steps in our work involve a focus on implementation and dissemination of the FCU Online model in schools. We have conducted focus groups and data collection with school providers over multiple grants and projects and have integrated this feedback into the FCU Online content and process. We look forward to continuing to build on this work in our new grant and to adapt the FCU Online to our changing times. We know that mental health and behavioral problems are going to persist for children and families, and evidence-based solutions that can be disseminated widely are going to be critical for helping us recover from the long-term mental health impacts of the pandemic.
Dr. Elizabeth Stormshak is the Knight Chair and Professor of Counseling Psychology and Human Services at the College of Education at the University of Oregon,
This interview was produced and edited by Julianne Kasper, Virtual Student Federal Service Intern at IES and graduate student in Education Policy & Leadership at American University.