“Community professionals, practitioners, academics, and researchers all recognize that there is still a lot of work to be done in Kansas to improve child and family well-being, but often we find that community research is not as easy, effective, or useful as we want it to be,” said Amy Mendenhall, an Assistant Professor at the University of Kansas and Director of the Center for Children and Families (CCF).
On November 21, a panel of community leaders gathered to discuss the needs of children, adolescents, and families in Kansas and the current and potential role of community research in meeting those needs. The discussion was sponsored by the CCF, a division of the KU School of Social welfare that conducts research, evaluation, policy analysis, program planning, and training in areas related to children and families. A mixture of faculty and research staff from around the University of Kansas as well as Douglas county community members were present to hear and participate in the conversation.
The panel identified the biggest threats to child and family well-being in Kansas as the lack of community attachment and parenting support, particularly for those parents who are mobile, non-English-speaking, or not identified as at-risk.
“You need family and community when stuff happens. Non-resourced people have fewer tools in their tool box. When the community is supportive, it can change that,” said Erika Dvorske, President/CEO of United Way of Douglas County.
“When conducting assessments, we sometimes learn that children displaying undesirable behaviors are merely responding to less than ideal situations. When we can improve the situation, we often see an improvement in the behavior. Schools are also realizing that not all children come to school with having been taught appropriate behaviors. They are learning how to systemically screen for behavior needs and teach behaviors that will set children up for better success overall," added Cherie Blanchat, Systems Coordinator at TASN Autism and Tertiary Behavior Supports.
When the discussion turned to the challenges of doing research in community settings, the panel identified a lack of funding and staff buy-in. Partnerships with researchers, agency-wide training, and process research (or assessing one’s own practices) were identified as potential solutions.
Dr. Linda Bass, Vice President of Clinical Services at KVC Kansas added, “The funding sources are not set up to fund research or to pay for a data system or people to crunch the numbers. When we do have funding, the problem is staff buy-in. They didn’t go to school to be researchers. The data doesn’t provide immediate solutions. Partnerships [with research entities like the CCF] have been tremendously helpful in sharing resources.”
The panel concluded the discussion by outlining the supports and resources already available in Kansas that could make a tremendous impact on child well-being. The MTSS:CI3T Model adopted by the Kansas State Department of Education was highlighted several times by Ms. Blanchat during the discussion. The three-tiered model integrates academic, behavior, and social needs with a focus on prevention and early identification of students who need additional support. The three-tiered model allows teachers to identify problem behaviors and teach new skills before things reach a crisis point. Christina Mann, Director of Child & Family Services at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center, called the three-tiered system a “whole child education” that teaches children social and emotional skills.
Panel members felt that the helping professionals in various agencies who are passionate about child and family well-being are one of the strongest assets that we have in Kansas. “The community mental health system in Kansas makes sure we’re providing a continuum of supports and resources early on and in times of crisis. Some states have seen the system dismantled, which is like making people put out their own fires instead of having a fire department handle it,” said Ms. Mann.
Overall, the discussion helped generate potential solutions and paths for the CCF and community organizations to explore together. It can be summed up best by Jenn Preston, Case Management Supervisor of the Lawrence-Douglas County Health Department, “We can’t do it alone. We need to reach out and try.”