The preschool years are the most formative for young brains. University of Notre Dame psychologist Kristin Valentino sees both the promise and vulnerability of children at this stage of life.
That’s why Valentino, the William J. Shaw Center for Children and Families Assistant Professor of Psychology, developed an intervention program designed to improve communication between mothers and maltreated preschoolers and, ultimately, lead to happier, healthier families.
Initial trials proved so effective that Valentino was recently awarded a $3 million grant from the Eunice K. Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to continue the project.
“This work has the potential to advance scientific knowledge and enhance policy efforts to improve the welfare of maltreated children and their families,” Valentino said. It also has the potential to impact the local community in a more immediate way, she noted.
Titled “Fostering Healthy Development Among Maltreated Preschool-Aged Children,” Valentino’s project evaluates a program to help parents and children learn effective communication techniques.
“The intervention involves six weekly home-based sessions focused on enhancing mother-child communication and emotional support,” Valentino said. “We hypothesize that improvements in mother-child communication will lead to improvements in child cognitive, emotional and physiological domains. We also hypothesize that the intervention will lead to improvements in maternal parenting and sensitivity, and decreased re-involvement with the Department of Child Services (DCS).”
Valentino developed a manual and employs four family coaches who work with local families and report back to her.
“My family coaches are trained on the intervention and have a lot of experience working with at-risk families. They’re also really familiar with the community,” she said. “Several of the families are working with DCS already. The department has been referring families who seem pretty excited about the project.”
The work can be challenging, but the potential for positive results inspires Valentino to pursue her research.
“I feel really passionate about trying to use science to improve the lives of maltreated children and families,” she said. “These families are some of the nation’s most vulnerable, so I really hope to develop practical intervention programs that can improve the trajectories of these children.”
Over the course of her research, Notre Dame and the College of Arts and Letters have proved an invaluable source of support for Valentino. “The pilot research I conducted provided the justification to apply for this grant, and Notre Dame’s Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts provided support for the pilot research,” she said. “I have also received really excellent mentoring from some of my senior colleagues.”
The $3 million grant will fund Valentino’s work through the next five years.
“It’s pretty big,” she said. “I was thrilled to have the opportunity to conduct this type of research.”
Originally published by Eileen Lynch at al.nd.edu on Nov. 15, 2013.