The Intersection of Practice and Research
JMU Students Work in Local Schools to Research ADHD
It didn't take long for Heather Davis to find her niche at JMU. She was just a freshman when she learned about the Alvin V. Baird Attention and Learning Disabilities Center during an orientation field trip with a group of new psychology majors.
A year later, she is participating in a federally funded research project that yields information about adolescents with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and effective treatments. "I love to work with children, and [the Baird Center] really seemed to be making a difference in the lives of children," Davis said. "So it seemed like a perfect fit."
Three days a week, Heather visits Montevideo Middle School in McGaheysville to work with a group of three girls before classes begin. Together, they organize class notes, review homework assignments and talk about the transition from elementary school to the more chaotic and demanding atmosphere of middle school. Her goal is to teach the girls organizational skills that will help them excel in school, but these school-day interventions are part of a bigger project that measures how adolescents respond to different types of behavioral treatments.
JMU Students Learn Hands-On
"The type of hands-on research that I get to do as an undergraduate is incredible," Davis said. "Much less as a sophomore!"
Many other undergraduate and graduate students are engaged in meaningful research at the Baird Center, said Dr. Steven W. Evans, director of the Baird Center. "We make an effort to involve them in the work from conception down to the details. This means they aren't only participating in the routine tasks but are seeing the big picture and can understand why a project is set up the way it is," he said.
For Davis, that means doing everything from visiting a local middle school to attending a weekly seminar focused on current ADHD literature. Some of Evans' students are also able to participate at national conferences in places like New Orleans and Boston and work in small groups to look at budgets and grant proposals.
"They consider research questions and learn to secure the external funding that is required for large projects," he said. "All of this helps the student examine why a career in this field is exciting."
One former student, Leigh Buckley, sparked JMU's successful Learning Leaders Program, which pairs JMU students who have learning disabilities and ADHD with local elementary-school children with similar learning disabilities. Buckley was a sophomore in 2001 when she pitched her Learning Leaders idea to the Baird Center board. The program was up and running the next semester.
Engaging Community Schools
Although local parents and teachers were once hesitant to participate in this type of hands-on research, their feedback is mostly positive now, Evans said. "The principal at Montevideo Middle School was the first to open the doors for us. It went very well, and since then we've been able to work in nearly every local middle school. This year, we plan to increase our presence to 10 high schools thanks to a federal grant," Evans said.
ADHD affects about 2 million children in the United States, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, This means that in a classroom of 25 to 30 children, it is likely that at least one will have ADHD. Among NIMH's many recommendations for parents and teachers is a list of "simple behavioral interventions" matching those used at the Baird Center: maintain a routine every day, organize needed everyday items, and use homework and notebook organizers.
While the routine may sound easy, "you really have to think on your toes," Davis said. "You have to be one step ahead of the students you are working with. This is difficult to accomplish without a great deal of practice."
One-on-One with Local Kids
Davis' supervisor this semester was Kathryn Van Eck, who graduated in May with a master's degree in psychological sciences. Van Eck described the typical child's binder as "falling apart with wrinkled papers for all classes stuffed into random sections of the binder." She set up organizational systems where courses were separated and assignments were listed in a notebook.
"An added frustration for these students is that missing assignments and poor organization often create conflict between parents and students and between teachers and students," Van Eck said. She requested initials from teachers comfirming that the student had accurately recorded all necessary assignments. "This procedure opens up the lines of communication between student and teacher," she said. Van Eck and Evans also worked with the students' parents to help them with the challenges associated with raising teenagers with ADHD.
In the fall, Van Eck will enter the doctoral program in clinical psychology at the University of South Carolina. She credits her experience in the Baird Center with helping her build the specific skills necessary to pursue her research interests. "It really showed me the importance of working at the intersection of practice and research," she said. "It is at this intersection where it is possible to find practical, feasible methods for providing treatments that work."
Published May 2008