New Collaboratory Focuses on Research to Improve School and Child Health

A new partnership between UConn’s Neag School of Education; Office of Public Engagement; and Center for Health, Intervention, and Prevention (CHIP) promises to take a coordinated, comprehensive approach to promoting the health and well-being of “the whole child.”

The Collaboratory on School and Child Health (CSCH), which has become part of CHIP, will connect relevant UConn researchers from a range of disciplines and unite them with the shared goals of conducting community-engaged research to inform healthy, safe, supporting, and engaging environments for all children and translating their findings into improved policies, processes, and practices.

CSCH Collaboratory
The Collaboratory on School & Child Health will focus on promoting the health and well-being of the “whole child.”

“It can be relatively easy to check off that a school has a plan to address a particular area related to child well-being. For example, every district in Connecticut is required to have anti-bullying policies and practices in place. And in terms of pulling together all of the factors that influence student health and achievement, states generally have what is called a coordinated school health plan – but what does that mean in terms of actual practices at each school, and how do you evaluate those policies, processes, and practices to understand what is working and where gaps exist for the whole child?” asks Collaboratory co-director Sandra Chafouleas, a professor of educational psychology and the associate dean for research in the Neag School.

Chafouleas and her Collaboratory co-director E. Carol Polifroni, a professor of nursing and director of the University’s Office of Public Engagement, identified the need for the Collaboratory when they first met each other a year ago and discovered they had been trying to address the same pressing, complex school and children’s health issues from different perspectives – and largely on their own.

“There are lots of people at UConn who have been doing research on schools and children’s health for a long, long time, but our work separately and individually doesn’t do what it needs to be doing. It does not have impact,” Polifroni says. “The opportunity to come together under the CHIP umbrella to focus on health behavior change for children in order to improve their learning and quality of life will be the key to our success.”

“States generally have what is called a coordinated school health plan – but what does that mean in terms of actual practices at each school, and how do you evaluate those policies, processes, and practices to understand what is working and where gaps exist for the whole child?”

– Professor Sandra Chafouleas, co-director,
Collaboratory on School & Child Health

Grant Competition
Dedicated to the study of health behavior and health behavior change, CHIP has a proven track record of building and supporting multidisciplinary research teams to address a variety of health problems, securing significant external funding for its research, and translating its most effective interventions into practice. CHIP also has a burgeoning research focus on children’s health, bolstered by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity’s move to CHIP from Yale University in January and its emphasis on childhood obesity.

“Establishing healthy behaviors and curbing unhealthy ones during childhood is far easier and more effective than it is during adulthood, once bad habits have become ingrained,” says CHIP associate director Deborah Cornman, who will serve on the Collaboratory’s steering committee.

CHIP and the Neag School will accelerate the development of the Collaboratory’s research program with a new, jointly funded Dual-Principal Investigator (PI) Seed Grant competition, which will award two grants of $15,000 each to multidisciplinary research teams focused on school and children’s health. The Collaboratory also hosted a networking event on the Storrs campus last month to help researchers interested in applying for the seed grants find collaborators from different disciplines. CHIP has had success in recent years using jointly funded dual-PI seed grant competitions to strengthen its multidisciplinary research capacity in targeted health areas including HIV, obesity, cancer, children’s health, and mental health.

The Office of Public Engagement will contribute to the Collaboratory through the establishment of valued community partners, assessment of their needs and interests, and assistance with the implementation of interventions that emphasize healthy behaviors for the whole child, Polifroni says.

Her office also will make some seed program and/or research funding available to Collaboratory-affiliated researchers through a grant it has received from the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at University of Pennsylvania. The Netter Center grant has partially funded the Office of Public Engagement to establish the New England University Assisted Community School Collaborative (NE UACSC) to conduct engaged research with and to provide training and technical assistance to area schools.

Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child
The Collaboratory is based on the recently updated U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” model, which identifies the need for collaboration across education and health sectors to improve learning and health in our nation’s schools. The model includes 10 components: community involvement; counseling, psychological, and social services; employee wellness; family engagement; health education; health services; nutrition environment and services; physical education and physical activity; physical environment; and social and emotional climate. Within and across the CDC’s 10 components, the Collaboratory also will examine the influences of culture, health care disparities, and social determinants of health on children’s health and well-being.

The Collaboratory’s diverse steering committee includes UConn faculty and community members representing work related to each of the CDC model’s components for school and child health.

Husky Sport founder and director Jennifer McGarry, who is also a professor of educational leadership in the Neag School, is one of the steering committee members.

Husky Sport is a campus-community partnership, with program and research components, that pairs UConn student mentors with Hartford elementary and middle school students to emphasize the importance of sports and physical activity and to advocate for good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Now in its 12th year, Husky Sport has grown its number of community partners since its inception and broadened its scope to address different aspects of child health and well-being.

“The bottom line, what connects everything, is this: Children need caring adults in their lives,” McGarry says. “The greater the number of caring adults there are, the better. The longer those adults stay in their lives, the better. And the more those adults talk to each other about the children’s needs, the better.”

Chafouleas and Polifroni envision that, in the future, Connecticut schools will view the Collaboratory as their “go-to partner” for their research needs.

This story was originally published in CHIP Today.