2018 IDEA Award Winner Q&A: Jaclyn Russo

By Rachel Chapdelaine

Every year, the Curry School of Education awards grant funding to select students as part of the Curry Innovative, Developmental, Exploratory Awards (IDEA) Competition. Funded through Curry’s Research and Development Fund, this grant helps students advance both their careers and the field of education through the development of innovative research. This article is a part of a series that explores the winning 2018 IDEA projects and their potential impact on education.

Program Area: Clinical Psychology
Project: Advancements in Understanding How Children’s Experiences in Neighborhoods and Classrooms Contribute to Self-Regulation

Can you give me a brief overview of what this project is about?

Broadly, this project aims to understand school readiness better by taking a closer look at children’s communities and teacher-child interactions on an individual level.

More specifically, this project focuses on young children’s self-regulation skills like waiting one’s turn or thinking flexibly—skills that are critical for success in school and life. This project carefully considers how development of these skills is shaped by children’s experiences before they arrive to school—at home and in their communities.

The current work innovatively uses satellite images to more comprehensively observe and measure both the resources (e.g. fresh food stores, parks and libraries) and risk factors (e.g. lack of street safety signs and abandoned buildings) present in young children’s immediate neighborhoods. This is exciting work because the data will provide new information about children’s immediate neighborhoods — for example, whether or not a family has a park within a few blocks of their home. This is important because access to green space helps children develop self-regulation skills—but if this is not easily accessible for a family, then it will be challenging for them to regularly access and use this resource.

In addition, most current research examines the quality of teacher-child interactions at a classroom level. In our project, we measure the quality of an individual child’s interactions with their teacher. Taken together, those two sets of data — information about a child’s neighborhood and individual interactions with their teacher — will help us better understand the personal experiences that influence a child’s self-regulation development.

Why are you passionate about this area of research?

My research interests primarily include understanding and supporting children's readiness for school. I take a systemic view on this topic, and I see myself sitting at the intersection of clinical psychology, developmental science and public policy. I strongly believe that applied, community-based research will be most effective and impactful when collaboration occurs across disciplines.

My interests and commitment to interdisciplinary research have been my motivation to work toward changing the current narrative about risk factors within communities. While it is true that many communities are in need of supports, there are also many strengths—and I often worry that these are missed when researchers do not take the time to establish relationships within communities and with families. I believe that psychologists can work together with educators, policymakers, urban planners and others to support communities in need.

Where did the idea for this particular project come from?

The idea for this project was motivated by my work on the Virginia Kindergarten Readiness Program (VKRP). During the summer, I travel across the Commonwealth training teachers how to administer a variety of readiness assessments, including math and social-emotional assessments. Last summer, as I drove between divisions, I was struck time and time again by the disparities in available resources—sometimes even the most basic resources, such as access to a fresh food store. I tried to imagine the everyday experience of families living in neighborhoods where fresh food, parks or libraries are not easily available. I found myself wondering how access to resources (or lack thereof) might influence young children’s development.

Together with my mentor, Amanda Williford, I began exploring available data sources that examined neighborhood and community factors. We discovered that most data exists at the census level—this felt unsatisfying to me. Census tracts vary widely in geographic size, and for families where time and money are limited, traveling several miles on a weeknight to go to the park is not a reality.

I was excited to learn when Jason Downer, my co-mentor, became aware of a new virtual neighborhood coding scheme that measures both resources and risk factors in children’s immediate neighborhoods through his collaborative work with colleagues at Northwestern and Harvard.

How did you decide to submit a proposal to the Curry IDEA competition?

My mentor, Amanda Williford, encouraged me to apply for the Curry IDEA grant. Given the novelty of the virtual coding scheme, we thought that this project would be an excellent fit for the mission of the Curry IDEA grant competition. Dr. Williford helped me with all aspects of the grant preparation.

What other people and organizations will be involved?

I am currently collaborating with Terri Sabol (Northwestern School of Education and Social Policy; and, Curry graduate) and Dana McCoy (Harvard Graduate School of Education), who are leading the effort to validate the new virtual neighborhood coding scheme. They have been tremendously supportive throughout the process.

What goals do you have for this project?

My immediate goals for this project include completing the virtual neighborhood coding for our current sample in the Tidewater region of Virginia. After this, I will complete analyses to examine how the resources and risk factors in children’s immediate neighborhoods are associated with their self-regulation development in preschool and how the quality of individual teacher-child interactions in the classroom can moderate this relationship.

Future goals include exploring how individualized neighborhood information can be used to inform effective and sustainable supports for communities.

How will the IDEA grant help you achieve those goals?

The support of the IDEA grant is critical in helping me achieve these goals. The IDEA grant will provide funding to complete the preparatory coding during the summer of 2018. In addition, the grant will provide the funding needed to purchase the software necessary to complete further analyses of the data.