KU researchers promote positive parenting through technology

KU researchers promote positive parenting through technology

Karen Henry

LAWRENCE — University of Kansas researchers are promoting positive parenting by giving cell phones to young, first-time mothers in the Kansas City area. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the CDC Foundation and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation have granted $1.6 million to KU senior scientist Judith Carta and her colleagues to study the effects of technology on reducing child maltreatment over four years. KU is only one of three U.S. institutions to win such a grant. 

The researchers think cell phones will be an effective and economical way to reach and teach mothers who are at the highest risk of perpetuating poor parenting.

Maintaining young, single, low-income mothers’ participation in parenting programs has been notoriously difficult because they often move a lot, don’t have phone service and have unpredictable schedules, said Carta, who is based at the KU Life Span Institute’s Juniper Gardens Children’s Project in Kansas City, Kan. 

Carta and her colleagues had used cell phones to collect data in an earlier study assessing parenting in young single mothers when they were struck with the potential of cell phone technology to be an integral part of parenting intervention. 

“On one particularly hot day, a young mom called the assessor to report that her baby had been so good that day — she hadn’t had one wet diaper,” said Carta. 

Luckily, it was a nurse taking the phone call, who quickly identified a severe case of dehydration and helped the mother get medical care for her baby.

Clearly, cell phones could help monitor the well-being of children and prevent child maltreatment, Carta and her colleagues concluded. 

More than 2 million cases of child maltreatment are reported each year in the United States and of these, child neglect remains the largest single category. A disproportionate number of cases of neglect occur with young mothers, who often have their own personal histories of abuse and delinquency.

“The good news is that we know how to improve parenting,” said Carta. “The bad news is that the impact on the highest risk parents has been small.”

The Kansas City study aims to test the effects of using cell phones to extend an existing home-based parenting program for mothers at high risk for child neglect called Planned Activities Training. The program helps reduce children’s challenging behavior by giving parents knowledge and skills to prepare their children for daily routines that may be problematic, such as mealtime or getting dressed in the morning. 

The cell phones and line charges, donated by AT&T, will allow parenting coaches to send daily text messages suggesting a planned activity followed later the same day with a question about the activity. The coaches will also send appointment reminders and messages of support. Mothers can call their coaches and expect a call back within 24 hours. 

Personal use of the cell phones is restricted to 200 minutes a week and 2,000 text messages a month. Phones will be returned at the end of the three-month program. 

Mothers in the cell phone group will be compared to a group enrolled in a traditional Planned Activities Training program and a control group, all with children four years of age. Mothers and children will be extensively assessed before, immediately following the program and six months and 12 months later to determine effects on child maltreatment, parenting and children’s behavior.

The project will also analyze the cost benefit of the parenting program with and without cell phones and if and how well parents followed and remained in the program. 

“Too often child neglect is addressed only when harm has already been done to both the child and the mother,” said Carta. “We need to know how to prevent child maltreatment in the highest risk groups and do it in a cost-effective way.”

Steven Warren, professor of applied behavioral science, director of KU’s Life Span Institute and interim vice provost for research and graduate studies, and John Borkowski, the Andrew J. McKenna Family Professor of Psychology at the University of Notre Dame, co-direct the project with Carta. 

The Juniper Garden Children’s Project has conducted groundbreaking research in urban Kansas City, Kan., for 43 years, including the effectiveness of early intervention with young children and families and instructional and behavioral intervention with school-aged children, youth and young adults at risk because of poverty or disability. 

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