Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Commentary: Building Community Laboratories for Experimental Studies

Academic journal article School Psychology Review

Commentary: Building Community Laboratories for Experimental Studies

Article excerpt

It is a fact of life for persons living in the most impoverished urban settings that mental health services are few and far between, and when available, only weakly implemented or partially received. This is because ordinary life in these communities is challenged by comparatively higher levels of uncertainty and chaos for adults, youth, children, and families. Similarly challenged are their friends, neighbors, educators, and caregivers. High population density; low income; sizeable distances and inability to travel; fear of crime; substance abuse; changes in housing patterns, program funding, and local politics; discrimination; high rates of turnover in program staff and administrators (mental health and public school); and school closings in impoverished urban community settings are only a few of the challenges to the very notion of the provision of mental health services that are effective, accessible, and sustainable. Further, these circumstances pose significant challenges to conducting research on alternative mental health practices of sufficient quality and rigor necessary to pass standards of peer review!

In their article, Atkins, Graczyk, Frazier, and Abdul-Adil (2003) describe a series of interrelated studies seeking to provide school-based mental health services in urban settings that were affected by and shaped to address these challenges. Lessons they learned break new ground by addressing four prototypical "urban" challenges: (a) limited access to children and families in need of services, (b) limited effectiveness of current practice to impact children's academic and behavioral outcomes, (c) difficulty engaging indigenous community resources to foster sustainability of services, and (d) interagency collaborations to better focus scarce resources to achieve greater impact.

In this work, one sees an effort to conduct research on evidenced-based practices in ways that sustain and support continued use over time and that maintain collaboration (e.g., Burns & Hoagwood, 2002). The larger scientific issue addressed in this work is the question of exactly how educational and mental health scientists should go about creating conditions in impoverished communities necessary to the conduct of experiments designed to improve practice, such that studies can be conducted with rigor. Creating such conditions for the conduct of experimental studies, I believe, should be viewed as what is commonly known among scientists as "building the laboratory."

Laboratories, of course, are the unique environments that scientists use to conduct experiments, wherein experimental science is recognized to be the best way to discover "cause and effect" relationships (Shadish, Cook, & Campbell, 2002). Community-based laboratories, like those used in "bench sciences" are places were participants are willing to participate and the problem conditions of interest to the scientist may be found in abundance. Unique to educational and mental health intervention research, community-based laboratories are places where people actually live, go to school, work, and recreate; and wherein, they have a personal interest in what "goes down" in the community and for what reasons.

The Juniper Gardens Children's Project (JGCP) in Kansas City, KS is a long-standing community-based laboratory where behavioral, educational, and mental health related research has been successfully conducted since 1964 (Greenwood, 1999; Hall, Schiefelbusch, Hoyt, & Greenwood, 1989). The JGCP serves the northeast community in Kansas City, KS, a community where the problems (the risk factors) operating in urban communities are abundant. Some of the reasons for its longevity and success are those mentioned by Atkins et al. (2003). JGCP qualifies as a laboratory not only because it is a place that has the problem conditions of interest, but because of its mission, design, and record of collaboration with university researchers. It is a place that is welcoming to research that attempts to test the effects of solutions to problems in educational and mental health practice. …

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