Communities Invested in African American Youth: Strengthening Relationships among Children, Caregivers, and Teachers

On Friday, February 7, 2014, Dr. Willie Winston III and Dr. Sonya S. Brady co-presented at the Minnesota Psychological Association’s First Friday Forum. The title of their presentation was Communities Invested in African American Youth: Strengthening Relationships among Children, Caregivers, and Teachers. The presentation described results from a five-year research partnership between the Minnesota Association of Black Psychologists (ABPsi) and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, funded by the University of Minnesota Medical School, Program in Health Disparities Research. Minnesota’s ABPsi chapter is a non-profit organization focused on enhancing the well-being of African Americans through social change programs and positive approaches to research. Formative research was conducted in two stages with a partnering elementary school in St. Paul, Minnesota including: (1) Focus groups of 16 African American children and their caregivers to discuss the most important issues affecting the well-being and future success of young people in the African American community; and (2) structured interviews of 46 African American children and caregivers to begin testing a conceptual model informed by empirical literature and clinical experiences of Minnesota ABPsi members. The model posits that externalizing behavior among disadvantaged African American youth may be a response to stressors within the home, school, and community. Inadequate resources may lead professionals to focus solely on children’s behavior, without also addressing underlying affective symptoms, such as depression, related attitudes, and low academic investment. Youth assets and resources for resilience fostered by parents, teachers, and community members may protect youth from negative outcomes. Further, advocacy on the part of caring adults may reduce the likelihood that mental health referrals, diagnoses, and treatments are exclusively focused on behavior.

Dr. Winston and Dr. Brady presented data in support of their conceptual model. Key interview findings discussed with the First Friday Forum audience included the following: (1) When children experience many stressors or have poor relationship quality with their caregiver, children report more symptoms of depression, anxiety, anger, aggression, and rule breaking; (2) When caregivers feel more supported by others in their social networks, children feel more supported by their caregiver; (3) When children feel more supported by teachers, they exhibit fewer externalizing symptoms, are more academically invested, and perform better academically; (4) When African American boys engage in greater levels of problem-focused coping, they perform better academically and have higher standardized test scores; and (5) Different facets of African American identity are associated with academic investment and performance among boys and girls. Key focus group findings discussed with the First Friday Forum audience included the following: (1) It is sometimes difficult for caregivers to acknowledge information suggesting that children are struggling with behavior because this may reflect poorly on the caregiver; (2) children hesitate to trust professionals with their problems, particularly those involving events at home; (3) words such as “depression” and “anxiety” are not used in the African American community, despite the need for help in coping with feelings; (4) teachers and parents need to work together to help children reach their full potential; (5) African American families address racism and discrimination in different ways. Collectively, findings demonstrate a need to strengthen relationships among African American children, caregivers, and teachers. In addition, it is essential that mental health practitioners and other professionals improve the conceptualization and treatment of behavioral problems among youth who experience adversity.

The next stage of Dr. Winston and Dr. Brady’s research partnership involves building a community coalition that will select, refine, implement, and evaluate a school-linked health promotion program for African American youth and caregivers. The coalition will include mental health service providers, caregivers, teachers, children, and other individuals active in local faith and community organizations. Working goals of the coalition include (1) Preventing or reducing externalizing symptoms, risk behavior, receipt of school-based disciplinary action, and juvenile justice involvement among youth, and (2) promoting family, school, and community connectedness, academic investment, and social and emotional well-being among youth. This project, titled Communities Invested in Healthy Life Trajectories of African American Boys, is part of a larger National Transdisciplinary Collaborative Center for African American Men’s Health project, funded by the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities. The project will utilize principles of community-based participatory research (CBPR) to enhance the sustainability of the developed health promotion program and relationships that are built between community members. While the project focuses on the health and well-being of African American boys, it is anticipated that the community coalition will also offer the health promotion program to African American girls, as well as other children from ethnically diverse families served by the partnering school.

Dr. Winston and Dr. Brady’s program of research is premised on the notion that changes in health policy and practice are most likely to be effective when relationships are built between key stakeholders who influence the health of communities. Key stakeholders include parents and children, as well as professionals within schools, clinics, state agencies, and research institutions. Dr. Winston and Dr. Brady’s conceptual model focuses on professionals’ behavior as well as youth and caregivers’ behavior. It recognizes that youths’ behavior may be a response to structurally embedded stressors and inequities. Through interventions to improve policies and practices that impact children’s mental health, risk can be transformed into resilience.

Willie Winston III, Ph.D., is a community psychologist providing educational, clinical and community mental health services to youth and families in St. Paul (e-mail: [email protected]). He is a Community Faculty member within the Human Services Department at Metropolitan State University and Associate Faculty member within the University of Phoenix.  Dr. Winston received his doctorate and a master’s degree in Counseling and Student Personnel Psychology from the University of Minnesota and a master’s degree in Developmental Education from Grambling State University. He is past president and a current member of the Minnesota Association of Black Psychologists. His research and practice interests are in improving access to mental health services in the African American community and reducing racial/ethnic disparities in mental health.

Sonya S. Brady, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor within the Division of Epidemiology and Community Health, University of Minnesota School of Public Health (e-mail: [email protected]). She received her doctorate in Clinical Psychology and Health Psychology from the University of Pittsburgh, completed her clinical internship at the University of Illinois Institute for Juvenile Research, and completed a postdoctoral fellowship in Health Psychology at the University of California, San Francisco. Her interests include health risk and health protective behaviors during adolescence and young adulthood; socioeconomic and racial/ethnic disparities in consequences of risk taking; mechanisms linking stressful life circumstances to health risk behavior and factors promoting resilience; and public policies affecting adolescent health. 

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