Athens, Ga. – A $3.4 million grant from the National Institute of Mental Health will allow researchers at the University of Georgia to translate a community-based program focused on harnessing the strengths of rural African-American families and communities into a computer-based model for in-home delivery.
“This grant will allow us to move the Strong African American Families program to the next step,” according to Velma McBride Murry, chief investigator and a professor of child and family development in the UGA College of Family and Consumer Sciences.
The SAAF program is based on research conducted by Murry and her colleagues to determine why some African-American children who grow up in difficult circumstances-single-parent families and poverty, for example-succeed despite those circumstances. Their findings pointed to the importance of youth self-discipline and identified particular parenting behaviors that reduce youth risk behaviors. Some of those behaviors are universal-maintaining close and positive parent-child relationships, for example-whereas others are racially specific, such as dealing with discrimination.
After developing a curriculum designed to enhance parenting behaviors that reinforce positive youth development, Murry and her colleagues began a longitudinal study of SAAF that has included the participation of more than 650 families since 2001.
Currently, SAAF families meet in group settings. For part of each session, the parents and youth meet separately and later, the two groups rejoin for further discussion. During each of the seven sessions, participants are led by facilitators through discussions and role playing that address a variety of issues.
“In most programs of this type, participation rates are about 30 percent,” Murry said. “We have more than 65 percent of our families attending five or more of the seven sessions. They come to the sessions even though they have complicated lives. For example, many of our SAAF participants work varying shifts at their jobs.”
In part, this recognition of life’s complexities inspired Murry to explore converting SAAF into a computer-based form.
The current program, Murry noted, is resource intensive. “It requires a lot of personnel and capital, including the staff to recruit families and to encourage them to attend. Transporting this group-based model into a technology-based model may provide a way to eliminate many of the barriers that currently prevent some families from taking advantage of SAAF.”
Working with colleagues at the University of California at Los Angeles who have converted other programs to CD-ROM, Murry said the computer-based SAAF program will still include much of the group-based dynamics.
“Because we’ve videotaped our community group-based sessions, we can draw on those videos in order to give those using the computer-based program the sense of being a part of a group,” she said. “One of the strengths of SAAF is gaining information from other parents or other youth. We hope to be able to mimic as much of that as possible in the technology translation.”
The research is designed to include participants who will use the interactive computer-based program, those who continue to participate in the community, group-based program, and a group who will receive videos to watch on their televisions without interacting with the program material.
“The goal is to determine which modality is efficacious in changing the behaviors we want to change,” Murry said. “Can we maintain the same level of efficacy that we achieve through the community group-based programs?”
If so, the computer-based program will provide new opportunities for families to be exposed to family-based interventions, she said, including a way for more fathers to participate.
“One of the barriers we’ve faced has been getting fathers involved,” she said. “Fathers tend to view parenting classes as being for the primary parent, usually the mother. We hope the computer-based model, since it will be used in the home, will make it easier for the fathers to join the mothers in going through the Strong African American Families program.
“If this program is successful, it’s a way of reaching a lot of families with limited resources,” she added. “It’s also beneficial in that you can review past sessions as refresher courses, which is something that’s not really possible in a community-based program.”
If the computer-based model proves to be successful, Murry said she sees it being used in a variety of settings.
“This program would change the way a variety of professionals work with families,” she said. “It could be used in various settings such as faith-based organizations and programs that focus on physical or mental health issues.”