Helping New Jersey families: How community-engaged scholarship made an impact in the pandemic
How do the first thousand days of life shape the rest of life? Students in the psychology seminar “Developmental Origins of Life Outcomes” sought to answer this question through virtual coursework and collaboration with community partners.
The fall course, taught by professor of psychology Casey Lew-Williams, drew on research from many fields including psychology, neuroscience, education, linguistics, sociology, public policy and medicine. As part of the Program for Community-Engaged Scholarship (ProCES), the course gave students opportunities to apply their studies to work with three New Jersey-based nonprofits: Advocates for the Children of New Jersey, Children’s Futures and The Father Center of New Jersey.
“The seminar is great for community-engaged scholarship because research on infants and toddlers inherently bridges basic and applied science,” said Lew-Williams. “You can address fundamental questions about humanity, and at the same time study how the environment causes big differences in children’s cognition, learning and well-being.”
Together with ProCES staff, the community partners generated ideas about what would benefit their organization. Then, throughout the course of the semester, students transformed these ideas into projects with actionable solutions, based on the feedback they received from the community partners.
The students were divided into four groups and worked on a variety of projects that met each organization’s specific needs, ranging from survey and website development to writing policymakers with evidence-based ideas for improving policies.
Advocates for the Children of New Jersey (ACNJ) is a nonprofit that identifies children’s needs and works with elected officials and other decision-makers to enact effective responses. The students' project focused on infant mental health services, a new field that aims to address social and emotional concerns of children from birth to age three.
“Infant mental health is about developing and strengthening a caregiver’s relationship with their baby through family or dyadic therapy,” said Hannah Korn-Heilner, the outreach coordinator at ACNJ. “Babies don’t live in a silo; they can’t survive without their caregiver. So it’s very important that this is a strong, healthy relationship.”
This budding field is especially crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, because the field is new and under resourced, many families don’t know that infant mental health support is available, let alone how to go about accessing it. As junior Kamron Soldozy pointed out: “When they try to get help, it’s not really clear the path they’re supposed to take because there are many points of entry. So where do they go to find these sources?”
To address these problems, students created materials for ACNJ to use with families, childcare centers and healthcare providers, including surveys that evaluate infants’ mental health and families’ access to care, and informational flyers about infant mental health for pediatricians and childcare facilities to share with parents.
“We wanted to give [providers] something to distribute to parents if they noticed something that they might want to alert them to… something to hand off to parents to give them a streamlined way of [knowing] what behaviors to look for,” said senior Owen Wheeler.
ACNJ was awarded a grant to increase infant mental health services for babies in low-income families by 25% in the year 2023, so the students’ work was timely and important. “Having the students work on this project was a huge help for ACNJ,” said Korn-Heilner.
For senior Yolore Airewele, the feeling was mutual: "It was really nice to expand what we learned in class into real tools that could be used in the community, and we could not have done that without the ProCES staff, Professor Casey or Hannah."
Another group partnered with Children’s Futures, a nonprofit that works across Central Jersey to ensure that all children and families get off to a healthy start in life. Students focused on the organization’s “Trenton Community Doula Project,” which supports expectant moms and their partners, by creating a new website and other informational resources.
“In our meetings [with Children’s Futures], it became clear that there are a lot of misconceptions about what a doula actually does, and so one of the ways we wanted to support the program was making a website,” said senior Ares Alivisatos. “The website is a one-stop place for a client to learn more about what a doula does, as well as an easy and convenient way to contact a doula and get access to this free service.”
Two other student groups worked with The Father Center of New Jersey (TFC), a nonprofit empowering fathers to gain the skills and meet the responsibilities of parenthood. To help support this mission, the group developed informational videos and a texting outreach program for dads of children ages zero to three to promote father-child engagement.
As senior Kennedy Casey explained: “Three times per week over the course of a year and a half, dads will receive short text messages providing them with information about child development, fun and easily implementable reading and play activities, and general support for dealing with the challenges of parenting.”
Since a central focus of the course was thinking about how experiences in the first three years of life critically shape developmental outcomes, Casey found that the course’s readings and discussions directly informed her work on the TFC project.
“We read and critically engaged with primary literature [on child development], which helped us further the research topics related to our final project and then translate them into easily digestible tips or tidbits of information for fathers,” said Casey.
The Father Center staff was enthusiastic about how well the students’ project addressed the organization’s needs, particularly in the face of challenges presented by the pandemic.
“This [project] dovetails very nicely with our desire as an organization to pivot as a result of the pandemic and do things virtually,” said Karen Andrade-Mims, executive director of The Father Center. “We’ve gotten some COVID relief funding as it relates to increasing our ability to utilize technology, so I think these [projects] are very timely for us to reach dads in a virtual way.”
Despite initial hesitations around what a virtual semester would look like, participants were pleasantly surprised at how seamlessly the course went.
“All groups were able to generate impressive final projects that will be relatively straightforward for community partners to implement and will hopefully help to meaningfully support children and families across New Jersey,” said Casey.
Lew-Williams agreed: “I am deeply grateful to our colleagues in Trenton for their willingness to collaborate, and I am immensely proud of these 18 students for stepping up time and time again during the toughest of semesters.”
Each term, ProCES supports upwards of 30 courses that involve service, civic engagement, and/or community-engaged research. This spring, several ProCES courses will provide students opportunities to engage with the community virtually. For example, in the French course “Migration, Diversity, Diaspora,” students will conduct fieldwork research and partner with organizations working with migrant communities to create proposals for programs Princeton students will be able to work with in the future. In “Arts in the Invisible City: Race, Policy, Performance,” students will collaborate with Passage Theater on the development of a new documentary-style play on art and controversies in Trenton.
View more spring semester courses incorporating service and civic engagement on the ProCES website.
Additional reporting by Denise Valenti, Office of Communications.