May 26, 2022

Senior Research Associate

Project Title: What Matters Most for Teachers and Young Children? An Examination of Teacher Practices, Child Outcomes, and Teacher Professional Development in Low-income Preschool Programs

Dr. Michelle Maier’s research focuses on early childhood education and intervention. She has extensive experience in design, start-up, and measurement in implementation research projects within a variety of early care and education (ECE) programs. Most of her projects focus on ECE programs that support the development and school readiness of children from families with low incomes. In 2017, Dr. Maier joined the Foundation’s Young Scholars Program (YSP) as a member of the 14th cohort. She is also a co-author of the Foundation’s 2020 publication Getting it Right: Using Implementation Research to Improve Outcomes in Early Care and Education.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
When I was in undergrad, I had some opportunities to contribute to small research projects and that really piqued my interest. I was a psychology major, and it made me want to ask and answer questions that might help build an understanding about how children learn and how we can best support them to do so. When I applied to graduate school, I was debating between clinical psychology and developmental psychology. It became clear to me that my personal interests best aligned with the research side of things. I became most interested in thinking about how we can best help the youngest learners and early care and education. As I went through grad school, I found that I really wanted to be in a place where I could have the potential to do research that would be well positioned to influence early care and education policy.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
When I came to MDRC, the very first project that I worked on was the Making Pre-K Count project. It was evaluating the effects of a math curriculum and professional development program in pre-k programs in New York City. We had collected a vast amount of nuanced data on the provision of professional development to teachers and on how teachers implemented the math curriculum. It was pretty unique in that we had collected these data through coach logs and after every coaching session over two years. But, we were limited in what we could publish in the report. When I saw the opportunity for YSP, I thought, I’m sitting on all this rich, implementation data and I don’t have the resources to analyze it and write it up. I thought here’s my opportunity to be able to do more with these data that we had already collected.

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
I appreciate that the YSP program is set up in a way that allows scholars to receive so much feedback. Everyone is so supportive, trying to help you develop your research plan and craft your research questions in a way that’s going to advance your interests but also advance the field. That feels very, very unique to this kind of program — that they hand hold and guide you, and provide various webinars so you can learn what would maximize your ability to become a Young Scholar and then they continue to provide that support during your grant.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?
The convenings and the YSP network. You’re able to meet and connect with all the other Young Scholars, alumni, and the senior researchers who help facilitate. That’s where [at the convenings] I first learned a little about different apprenticeship models in early care and education. That sparked my interest in the workforce and what folks are doing in the field. More recently, the focus on equity has stood out as being very important and I have greatly appreciated having the opportunity to learn from different scholars that are trying to make headway in the field on that topic. I really do love how the program encourages alumni to join. I feel like it makes it even richer and builds your network even more. Even now, my project is over but there’s still this opportunity to continue that connection and to think about potential collaborations. I love that.

I really appreciate the Foundation. The arc of their interests has followed mine personally. When I came in, there was this focus on professional development. So that was very aligned with my work, but now they have a focus on the early care and education workforce. I am also now starting to do more work thinking about the workforce and what kind of strategies and policies are best support them. It’s been nice to then see the convenings’ topics can help me to expand my interests and my knowledge base.

What have you learned from your YSP research?

Through my FCD [Foundation] funding, I was able to explore a couple of different research questions. One thing I found most interesting about the first study I was able to do was that I found that teachers who have more common planning time built into their day were observed implementing fewer whole group activities and more small group activities. I think this is interesting because small group activities are times when teachers are potentially better able to individualize and tailor the activities they provide to individual kids based on their needs, and that has been thought to be important for developing children’s skills. There’s not a lot of research on common planning time, so I think this finding is important for the field because it identifies a professional support for teachers that may give them time to plan for small group lessons.

Another thing that I was able to do was take a deeper dive into the implementation of that math curriculum and the extent to which it was implemented with fidelity — meaning that the curriculum was delivered as it was written or intended. I found that children in classrooms with teachers that were implementing the curriculum with fidelity tended to show greater gains in their executive function skills and, to some degree, in their math and vocabulary skills. This suggests that there’s something about curriculum fidelity that may be meaningful for children’s outcomes, particularly if children have consistent exposure to a curriculum that’s being implemented with fidelity throughout a school year.

Finally, I looked at whether there are differences in how teachers implement the math curriculum in their first year of receiving professional development compared to their second year. I found that implementation was a little more consistent, and a little stronger, in the second year compared to the first year. But, when we look at impacts on classroom instruction, we found that teachers who received the intervention spent more time on math, did more math activities, and did higher quality math instruction compared to the teachers that were in the control group at the end of the first year and at the end of the second year, but those differences were a little stronger in the first year. This is interesting to me because it suggests that implementation takes time – it takes time for teachers to be able to learn a new curriculum and implement it well. But, there’s something about that first year when you’re looking at the impacts of the intervention -- maybe there’s more buy in, there’s more excitement when something is new. This has implications for the evaluation design of different curriculum professional development models.

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
There were a couple of new opportunities that I wouldn’t have had access to if it wasn’t for FCD [the Foundation]. I was able to do a presentation that included findings from my FCD [Foundation] work at the Early Learning Bootcamp. I also presented key takeaways from my co-authored chapter in the Getting it Right publication to the Council of Chief State School Officers. Both opportunities allowed me to practice speaking to a different audience. It is a different way to talk about your work, not the detailed way of here is the exact statistical significance, but what is the broader messaging that is going to be enticing to policymakers.

Publishing my paper, Professional Development Supports and Teacher Practice in Low-Income Pre-K Programs (2019), in the YSP Paper Series was another opportunity. There were also two different times where I was able to speak with the Foundation’s Board about my work and about being a Young Scholar. That was a wonderful way to practice talking about my work and receiving some feedback on it.

Now, FCD [the Foundation] has a Promising Scholars component in the YSP program, and I think that is such a wonderful idea. I was recently connected with a promising scholar to talk about implementation research. It’s a lovely opportunity to give back to the program, and I appreciate being thought of to do that kind of work. It goes to show that the Foundation truly values you and your work.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
It provided the time and resources to focus on a different set of research questions using existing data that we had in house that I wouldn’t have been able to work on otherwise.

YSP afforded me with an opportunity to be PI [Principal Investigator] of a small grant that I could lead and run on my own. It opened the door to a larger network of folks within the early care and education field, and it provided more dissemination opportunities for me.

What advice would you offer to early career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
Apply and take advantage of this opportunity! It’s such a supportive community at the early stage of your career, and then it continue to be so as you progress. That’s such a special thing.

May 25, 2021

Provost’s Distinguished Associate Professor
Department of Psychology
Georgetown University

Project Title: Understanding Publicly Funded Early Care and Education Workforce Supports and Well-being: Implications for Vulnerable Children’s School Readiness

Johnson, A. D., Phillips, D. A., Partika, A., Horm, D., Luk, G., Dericks, A., Hutchinson, J., Martin, A., Schochet, O., & Castle, S. (2020). Everyday Heroes: The Personal and Economic Stressors of Early Care and Education Teachers Serving Low-Income Children, Early Education and Development, 31(7), 973-993. doi: 10.1080/10409289.2020.1785266

Johnson, A. D., Phillips, D. A., Schochet, O. N., Martin, A., & Castle, S. (2021). To Whom Little Is Given, Much Is Expected: ECE Teacher Stressors and Supports as Determinants of Classroom Quality, Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 54, 13-30. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​e​c​r​e​s​q​.​2​0​2​0​.​0​7​.​002

Dr. Anna D. Johnson’s research sits at the intersection of two disciplines: she blends the theory and measures of developmental psychology with econometric quantitative methods. With an interdisciplinary approach, she asks exploratory and evaluative questions about how public policies can impact vulnerable children’s early development. Initially, she focused on publicly funded early care and education (ECE) programs and their impact on children and families with low income. More recently, her work has expanded to encompass the ECE workforce. Johnson’s interest in the role of early educators and how they help children to develop important academic and self-regulation skills aligned with the 2016 shift in the Foundation’s Young Scholars Program (YSP) research focus. In 2017, she became a YSP awardee and a member of the 14th cohort.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
I always knew that’s where I was headed in some ways. My graduate training was very focused on the intersection of child development and poverty research. I felt like that was the best way to understand how policies and societies can best support children. When you come from a tradition of thinking about the effects of poverty on child development, you’re automatically turning to research because you want to understand what the effects are and how you can make it better. I think there was an obvious point for me after graduate school where I could either go to a think tank and do research there or I could go to a university and do research there. There wasn’t a question of whether to do research, but more like where.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
It was a confluence of events. The Call had come out and it was clear that the Foundation was starting to focus on workforce well-being. At the exact same time, my own research started to lead me to a place where I was understanding more about teachers’ own stress, their own supports, their own well-being. I thought it was actually going to help illuminate some of the unanswered questions I had been considering, like what other features of preschool classrooms and teachers might help support child development?

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
I’ve always felt like the Foundation is very personalized and very individual and not a big anonymous place. My experience with the Foundation and with the program has been really supportive and really engaging. I feel like they’re very interested in what’s going on. They’re very good at bringing the Scholars together for various meetings and conferences, putting together conference presentation groups, and getting us together to learn different skills. It’s a supportive program.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?
The various activities that the Foundation does to bring Scholars together. They do these [professional learning] convenings once a year. They put effort into building community. I found those in-person meetings to be really valuable. It’s just nice to informally get together with other researchers. You meet people who are doing similar work and I think that’s a nice way to build future collaborations.

What have you learned from your YSP research?
Lead teachers in our sample in Tulsa reported high levels of depression, food insecurity, financial strain, and mental stress. Yet there were very few associations between those things and classroom processes and children’s outcomes. To me, what that says is teachers are absorbing the negative experiences that they are having, and rather than having it affect their classrooms, teaching, and the children they teach, they’re dealing with it in another way. The sample in my YSP research focused only on lead teachers in a mid-size urban, midwestern location, so I look forward to future research in which I can learn about the stressors that assistant teachers encounter and explore the experience of teaching staff in other locations.

The research results suggested that the resilience of the teachers enabled them to still provide high-quality care and education to the children in their classrooms despite their stress and constraints faced. While this might bode well for the outcomes of the children, it does not for the well-being of the professionals themselves. I suggest that we’re expecting so much from teachers. We called one of our papers To Whom Little Is Given, Much Is Expected because these teachers are paid poverty-level wages and yet the country expects preschool teachers to prepare the next generation of students for success in school.

In this study, even if teacher stress doesn’t predict worst classroom quality or doesn’t predict worst child outcomes, from a gender equity and human rights perspective, we should be doing more to support this (largely female) workforce. 

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
The chance to present research at a national conference [Society for Research in Child Development (SRCD) 2021 Virtual Biennial Meeting], because of the support that the Foundation gave us. I also presented this research, Everyday Heroes: The Personal and Economic Stressors of Early Care and Education Teachers Serving Low-Income Children and To Whom Little Is Given, Much Is Expected: ECE Teacher Stressors and Supports as Determinants of Classroom Quality, at SRCD in 2019.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
After I got the FCD [Foundation] grant, I got three other really big grants. I was only able to get those because FCD [the Foundation] funded me at the beginning of my research program. I think if I hadn’t gotten the funding from FCD [the Foundation] at like the ground level, I wouldn’t have been able to show the other funders that I could do it.

What advice would you offer to early-career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
Keep trying. Don’t give up on anything.

I had to try three times for this. This was the first time I could get funding so that I could do other things. If you don’t get it the first time, try again.

April 21, 2021

Associate Professor
Department of Literacy Teaching & Learning
University at Albany, State University of New York

Project Title: Estimating the Differential Impact of Preschool Teachers’ Outreach Efforts on Measures of School Readiness for Children from Economically Disadvantaged Backgrounds: The Mediating Role of Parental Involvement

Puccioni, J., Froiland, J. M., & Moeyaert, M. (2020). Preschool teachers’ transition practices and parents’ perceptions as predictors of involvement and children’s school readiness. Children and Youth Services Review, 109, 104742. https://​doi​.org/​1​0​.​1​0​1​6​/​j​.​c​h​i​l​d​y​o​u​t​h​.​2​0​1​9​.​1​0​4​742

Dr. Jaime Puccioni grew to love educational policy and quantitative research in her second year of graduate school at Michigan State University. She was a first-generation college student and became a middle school teacher before completing her dual Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education. Dr. Puccioni was awarded a research grant in 2017 as part of the Young Scholars Program, Cohort 14. Her research examines ways in which family and classroom contexts influence children’s educational opportunities and development, with a particular focus on family engagement.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
My students were learning English as a new language and living in a high-poverty context. I understood that very well because I also grew up in poverty and that’s why I wanted to teach in that community. After I had my son, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Educational Policy and Curriculum and Instruction because I wanted to become a teacher educator and an educational researcher. I was always interested in understanding more about the complex interrelationship between children, families, and schools, particularly, in relation to educational opportunity, equity, and child outcomes. I worked really hard to develop home-school partnerships with my families and my students. As a mother of a young child at the time, I also learned a lot from his early care providers and teachers. So, I was always interested in understanding how teachers and families can work together to support children. Although I do quantitative research, it’s always inspired by a real-world interaction.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
In the second or third year into my tenure-track job, a close friend from graduate school forwards me the email from FCD [the Foundation] announcing their Call and she says, “I think you’d be perfect for this, Jaime.” At that time, the focus was understanding disparities in children’s opportunities and outcomes. The Call was focused on understanding the systems, programs, interpersonal relationships, and interactions that support young children’s resilience and capacity to reach their full developmental potential. I thought that’s exactly my life and what I’m interested in exploring. I was working on an idea. It was literally a seed of an idea. That LOI was due maybe a month later and I just started working on it. I took that seed of an idea and I read, I conducted a literature review, I really tried to develop the idea, and the questions and the method. I submitted that LOI and then I was invited to submit the Full Application. It was serendipitous.

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
Just the whole experience — writing an LOI and being invited to submit a full grant application and using the reviewer’s feedback to revise and prepare the grant. From identifying a consultant myself and identifying scholars who would help me develop the proposal and give me feedback, to having the support system built into the application process was great. It was just a really great experience — the entire process from LOI to publishing research. They [the Foundation] do a very nice job of having the informational webinars for you to attend.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?
The most beneficial part was having the financial support so that I had a reduced teaching load. Being a pre-tenured faculty member and a woman of color, like the research indicates, sometimes we tend to have more service. For example, I served as the Vice Chair and Chair of the Black Faculty & Staff Association, I participated on a search committee for my university, and there is also the hidden work of supporting students of color who are seeking mentorship. So, having that time to do the work was just priceless.

One of the most beneficial parts of the YSP process is our yearly convening. You get to meet other scholars and we’re learning about important issues in the field of early care and education, meeting senior scholars, and people who work on policy. It was an amazing experience because everyone there was so interested in each other’s work and was so supportive.

The Foundation wanted you to succeed, and that’s not always the case in academia. It felt like a very inviting and supportive space. The convenings are great opportunities to research and network. You also have time and opportunities to gain friends and mentors.

What have you learned from your YSP research?
What my research points to is the importance of parents’ beliefs and their perceptions about early educators’ transition practices. I found that children whose parents hold more positive beliefs and perceptions about preschool teachers’ transition practices experience higher levels of academic success and social well-being. I also found that children from economically disadvantaged backgrounds benefit even more. Interestingly, I found that parents whose children attend Head Start hold more positive views about preschool teachers’ transition practices. It’s interesting to think, what does that mean? What are they doing? What are the programs in Head Start doing to contribute to parents feeling supported and helped and having information to support their children? That was the main takeaway. It’s not just what teachers do but it’s probably how they do it in ways that parents feel positively about these home-school relationships, these partnerships. Those positive beliefs and perceptions contribute to family involvement, family engagement, which in turn contribute to children’s academic achievement and socio-emotional well-being.

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
It afforded me the time to develop my research trajectory and earn tenure. First and foremost, that’s what it does. Being a woman in academia, you’re more likely to have service. You’re more likely to be the primary caregiver in your family. This helps level the playing field. It afforded me time to conduct research and build collaborative relationships with other scholars in the field.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
It provided a framework to build a working relationship on a project. The scholar who worked as my statistical consultant is working with me now on preparing another grant proposal. Another scholar who joined us on publishing the article brought a lot of expertise on socio-emotional development. The three of us are working on other papers and projects. I think that being a YSP Scholar and having the funding to do this project helped expand my social network. Now, I have a group of people that I’m working with regularly on research and I didn’t have that before. Being a YSP Scholar and having that grant helped build that [external] partnership. It is all grounded in my YSP work.

What advice would you offer to early-career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
I would definitely attend the informational sessions to learn about the application process, review any of the supplemental materials, and reach out to senior scholars who can help you think about developing your Letter of Intent. When you do receive feedback, take it very seriously and do your best to integrate it. Be clear about the focus of the Foundation and really try your best to align your studies to the actual Call. The Foundation is looking to fund work that’s closely aligned to what they’re emphasizing at that time.

June 19, 2020

Associate Professor
Department of Curriculum and Instruction
University of Texas at Austin

Lead Researcher
Agency and Young Children Research Collective (AYC)

Project Title: Towards a Culturally Relevant Continuity of Development for Latino Children of Immigrants in PK-3 Educational Settings

Adair, J. K., Sánchez-Suzuki Colegrove, K., & McManus, M. E. (2017). How the word gap argument negatively impacts young children in Latinx immigrants’ conceptualizations of learning. Harvard Educational Review, 3, 309-334.

Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair’s work explores the relationship between children’s agency and development as well as how institutional racism impacts how much individual and collective agency young children get to enact at school. The disparities that exist in the educational experiences of young children and the racialization of those experiences led her to apply to the Foundation for Child Development Young Scholars Program (YSP). As a member of the 2012 cohort, she examined how young children’s agency impacted their social and academic development. Methodologically, Adair is a qualitative researcher specializing in video-cued ethnography and an educational anthropologist by training.

In this YSP Spotlight, she explains how YSP provided her with an extended sense of community, substantially grew her professional network, and how her YSP research provided the basis of her new book, Segregation by Experience: Agency, Racism, and Early Learning, which will be published by the University of Chicago Press in the winter of 2020.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
I was on a very large multi-cited international early childhood study called Children Crossing Borders. When I took over a lot of the analytic process and the data analysis and some of the interviews, it just kind of opened my mind to being able to think about research as a way to understand significant problems better and more deeply. Equity and the impact of racism on early learning is the biggest part of what I do and what I’m interested in. Research that can try to understand inequity better and to figure out how to make things more equitable and who would need to change or what would need to change to make that possible, that’s what I’m interested in.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
At the time, the focus was on children of immigrants and I was trying to understand how young children of Latinx immigrants being able to enact their agency at school impacted their development. I was so grateful to find a foundation specifically interested in early childhood education and equity. That made it feel like a group of people that I wanted to be associated with and where I would find like-minded people. I was really excited about a community where people really cared about the communities and the ages that I did. I was very nervous about applying because the call seemed aimed at quantitative researchers and I was scared of being rejected so I needed a lot of encouragement.

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
I owe so much to the Young Scholars Program. The Young Scholars Program was my first grant by myself. It was the first one I was in charge of. My first time doing a budget. There were a lot of mistakes that I made in doing the budget on my own. I just felt like they [the Foundation] were very patient with me learning how to be in charge of the grant and what all the different components meant. They helped me feel supported. They also explained things to me and let me mess up and fix it. There was a sense of flexibility in knowing that this was a learning experience for me in terms of being in charge of a grant. That made a major impact on me. Just learning how to do a grant and what it meant to be in charge of each stage of the grant made me ready for larger grants.

During my time as a fellow, we met twice a year. Everyone was brought together as the new cohort, and then anybody from any other cohort was invited. The Foundation partnered with other groups too. We met at the Foundation once a year and also with MPI [Migration Policy Institute] where we participated in joint sessions specifically around immigration and children. They would invite lobbyists, NGOs, and organizations to come hear our work. That was amazing. I met people from all over who I never would have met. As a baby professor, being in the room with past Young Scholars who were now associate and full (professors) and hearing their trajectories helped me understand what comes next and what I should work towards. I felt like I got a lot of information from outside my own field of early childhood education that I wouldn’t necessarily be connected to because of the Foundation. So that was very wonderful. We had meetings with New America and we had meetings with NAEYC. There was just a lot of networking and a lot of effort to bring us together. Those connections helped me so much as a tenure-track professor. MPI would ask me to do a report or New America would do a story on an article that I wrote or people would pass along my name to somebody at Washington Post. I feel like the Foundation’s network is kind of amazing.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?
It’s the community. Past and present Young Scholars are invited to everything. I still feel a part of the community and I’m still meeting new people through the Foundation. Being a part of a strong community such as YSP made me feel more brave and able to write larger-impact pieces and tackle research that could make some angry. I got to engage with people throughout the early childhood community who are really working to make change.

What have you learned from your YSP research?
Young children of color are being offered more rote, narrow, simplistic, and heavily-controlled learning experiences than their white and wealthier peers.

It is discriminatory to have some children enacting their agency at school while many children are heavily controlled without the ability to enact their agency beyond some kind of resistance. I think my work has turned people’s attention to agency and how some of the research and interventions aimed at Black and Brown children do real harm. My work signals a need to pay attention to learning experiences; that it’s not just access to early childhood programs but also the experiences that have once they are there. Children’s learning experiences are not equitable by any means and the disparity reveals an ongoing institutional anti-blackness that begins in early schooling. I hope my work as a Young Scholar contributes to the importance of looking at children of immigrants and their experiences at school and the ways in which intersectionality in the combination of immigration status, race, class and gender all come together to impact what kinds of policies, learning, curriculum and engagement young children receive at school. My YSP research also sheds more light on educational ethnography as a methodological option for large scale early childhood studies. Following my mentor Joe Tobin, I have tried to bring attention to young children’s schooling as an important and complex methodological area of study within anthropology.

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
There is an ability to get your work out there more nationally, because of the people that you meet. You also learn how to talk to multiple audiences and how to frame your research for a much larger audience. Trying to translate my work to policymakers impacted how I learned to write. I try to write much more accessibly because I want them to read it.

I just finished a book that’s based on all the Foundation research. There’s been plenty of articles from that work, but there was this story that I wanted to tell in a much more accessible way. I remember having a conversation with NPR in an interview and she asked me a question, and I remember being asked the exact same question at a Foundation meeting and knowing exactly what to say. After that interview, she was like, okay, as soon as the book is done send it to me because I really want to do a story about it. So much of that experience happened because I got to talk to people (through YSP) who didn’t talk about education or young children exactly the way that I was raised to do as a graduate student.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
The research that I did led to the articles in major journals that got me tenure. It led to a book and it led to a lot of opportunities nationally to get my research findings out there and try to address the disparity about what kinds of experiences you get as a young child in early school. It helped me narrow my research area.

It helped me commit to this area of equity and early childhood and be able to find a way to answer the questions that are compelling to me but also come from the communities of color I serve in my work. 

It is helpful to know that there’s a community of people also working on it too.

What advice would you offer to early-career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
Don’t give up. Know that you may have a certain way of writing or a certain way of presenting your ideas but that you may have to broaden and do some translation work so that people across disciplines that intersect with early care and education or intersect with child development will be able to follow what you’re saying and how you’re thinking about it. You can’t just write in the way you would for your tiny subfield. You have to be willing to translate and broaden your language so that people across disciplines will be able to see its importance. Research should really come from what the community would like, not what you think they need. It should be something the community is asking for. The community’s ideas and voice should be a part of the study, especially if you’re an outsider like I am.

June 9, 2020

Assistant Professor
Department of Population Health
New York University School of Medicine

Project Title: Navigating Uncertainty: Understanding the Impact of Immigration-Related Stressors on the Well-being and Work of Pre-K-3rd Grade Teachers and Social Workers Working with Immigrant Families

Dr. R. Gabriela Barajas-Gonzalez has always been interested in the interplay between how communities, families, and schools work together to promote health and well-being in children. She began pursuing research on the impact of immigration-related stressors on the early care and education workforce and the children they work with through the Young Scholars Program (YSP) as a member of the 2018 cohort. Barajas-Gonzalez is currently analyzing quantitative and qualitative data from her YSP mixed-method study.

In December of 2019, she had the opportunity to provide testimony about her YSP research before the U.S. House of Representatives in a Congressional hearing titled, “Growing Up in Fear: How the Trump Administration’s Immigration Policies are Harming Children.”

In this YSP Spotlight, Barajas-Gonzalez shares how her experience as a Young Scholar has influenced her research and her career thus far.

What influenced you to become a researcher?
The biggest influence for me to become a researcher was growing up with immigrant parents and doing a lot of language and cultural brokering for them. Having to be aware at a very young age of multiple inputs of information and having to make decisions that potentially affected my loved ones always made me be thoughtful and careful about finding the “truth” about something. As a researcher, you know that findings depend on who you sample and what the limitations of studies are. When we hear that policies are aimed for certain populations - especially when I am a member of that population - I like to be able to scrutinize the policy. As a bilingual, bicultural researcher, I am asked to vet things for people. There’s always vetting that’s necessary because there are so few bilingual, bicultural providers - whether you’re a provider of research or a provider of education.

What led you to apply to the Young Scholars Program?
I knew about the Young Scholars Program ever since I was in grad school. I would look to see what the opportunities were for developmental psychologists to grow their scholarship and their careers. I looked at what scholars who were ahead of me did in their trajectories. Several of them all had been part of the Young Scholars Program. Once I graduated, I applied for it. I didn’t get it the first time. Luckily, another opportunity presented itself with a new research question due to the immigration climate. I had been working with schools on a project and teachers were asking for support managing anxiety that they were seeing in classrooms. When I saw the question emerging from the community itself, I knew it was a question that was important and valuable. That’s what motivated me to reapply. It was a topic that I could understand from many perspectives. I felt like I could really jump into it and learn myself.

Tell me about your experience in YSP.
It’s been rewarding for a couple of reasons. I’ve gotten to meet a lot of people that I really admire. It has been an opportunity to meet people that I wouldn’t otherwise get to meet. Attending the annual scholars meeting has facilitated a lot of thinking and collaboration. I’m working on a paper right now with several former YSP scholars on the immigration climate. Having the shared YSP experience as basic groundwork to collaborate and build scholarship together has been really invaluable. It’s also nice to not feel alone in this process of learning how to manage a grant because this is my first.

What was the most beneficial part of the process?

The allocation of funds to invest in my own research was huge. One, because psychologically it gave me the assurance that what I was thinking about was valuable.

Two, as a first-gen Ph.D. student, I’m figuring things out, in some ways blindly, because I don’t have role models within my family for how to build a career in academia. The social capital it is giving me by exposing me to other scholars has been invaluable. Three, there’s an expectation of policy relevance and excellence in thinking about what your work does or doesn’t say, which I take to heart.

What have you learned from your YSP research?
One recommendation thus far is that there needs to be greater investment in mental health resources for schools. Teachers who have an expert that they can talk with or collaborate with, such as a school psychologist or school-based social worker, are a lot less stressed than teachers who feel there is no one to collaborate with regarding immigration stressors in the school community. Teachers who perceive leaders to be silent or unaware about the impact of immigration stressors on students convey greater loneliness and stress. Additionally, there’s going to be a huge need for trauma-informed care when students are able to return to school, given the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on students from immigrant families.

Teachers that are more attuned to the communities they work with note that there is a need for more implicit bias awareness in some of their coworkers even at the early grades (pre-K to third grade).

In what way did your work as a Young Scholar result in new professional opportunities or experiences?
In November, a staffer [from Congress] reached out to me to understand a bit more about my research regarding the impact of the immigration climate and immigration stressors on school communities. I had shared the work I was doing for FCD [the Foundation] with someone who ended up getting a SRCD Policy Fellowship and worked with the chairman of the committee that led the hearing. Also, I wrote a social policy report outlining how fear and uncertainty regarding safety and family unity stemming from the immigration climate is a form of psychological violence for some children from immigrant families. That social policy report built off of my FCD [YSP] grant application. I provided testimony as a researcher on the panel with a superintendent, a pediatrician, and an immigration judge. The day of the testimony was surreal. I felt a big responsibility to make sure that I did my best to convey what I was learning and to represent the literature that was out there given the importance of the topic. What was fruitful about the follow-up questions is that they helped me get an idea of policy implications that were important to different representatives about the immigration climate.

How did YSP help to advance your career?
It gave me funding to create, to plan a trajectory that I wouldn’t otherwise have. Plus, having the social support of the other scholars to think about strategies for career growth has been helpful. As I build on my research and prepare to apply for the next grant, I will probably look to the Foundation for guidance and opportunities to speak to other people that have done this before to ensure I think about the full scope of the possibilities. There are a couple of other scholars in YSP whose research I really admire and that I built off of in order to study immigration climate in schools. Our collective work informs the work that we’re each doing. The other scholars are associate professors so they are ahead of me career-wise. It’s been invaluable to talk to them and get their guidance.

What advice would you offer to early-career researchers who are considering applying for the program?
I encourage them to apply! I actually encouraged my colleague to do it and she is actually one of the scholars this year.

I think it is an amazing opportunity, especially for underrepresented minorities to be supported in establishing their research trajectory with funding and connections to other scholars forging similar paths. 

Really take the comments you get from the review committee to heart and pay attention to where your intellectual interests are. Being flexible is important and having good mentors you can bounce ideas off of and troubleshoot with is vital.