It’s difficult to imagine a time when Zoom calls and livestreaming weren’t the norm. When people needed to work, they went into the office. When students needed to learn, they went to school. When Ph.D. candidates needed to write their dissertations, they went into the field to conduct research.

Prior to the beginning of the pandemic, Emily Barry ’22PhD was living in Houston, TX, completing her school psychology internship and planning her research study. It was a dream placement, she said, as the school district gave her the chance to provide therapeutic services to the full spectrum of children, adolescents, and adults (thanks to an after-hours family clinic). It also offered the optimal setting to study ways to support teachers in maintaining positive relationships with their students, building on research she had completed with Professor John Hintze.

“I wanted to challenge myself,” says Emily. “I’m from Massachusetts, so going somewhere different was part of that experience.”

Then, the pandemic derailed everything.

“I had to reevaluate,” said Emily. “My project required a lot of observation in the classroom.”

Emily Barry and fellow students having a conversation at a table.
Emily Barry speaking with fellow students in the School Psychology Ph.D. program.


 “I wanted to continue to develop my research identity."

In need of a new project, Emily returned to Amherst in the summer of 2020. She began working with Associate Professor Sarah Fefer on an Institute of Educational Sciences-funded research grant to examine the efficacy of a small group intervention for middle school students called the Well-Being Promotion Program, which was developed by Shannon Suldo and her team at the University of South Florida. The only catch was that the research study needed the program to be administered in-person, and the state of Massachusetts had decided on remote learning for the fall of 2020.

Northampton’s John F. Kennedy Middle School wasn’t phased, however. They wanted to think outside of the box to see if there were creative ways to support students’ mental health that didn’t depend on in-person learning.

“The Well-Being Promotion Program had never been done remotely before,” said Emily. “But Northampton said, ‘we want to meet the needs of our students, and we think this will be a good fit.’”

Photo of alumna Emily Barry.
Emily Barry '22PhD

Emily began documenting the process of adapting an in-person wellbeing program to a virtual one. She met with JFK’s social emotional learning team  on a weekly basis, offering insights into how to adapt exercises and explanatory guidelines. She also collected data about what JFK staff thought was working in their small group Zoom sessions, what challenges were posed by technology, and students’ attitudes about the program.

The end result was a litany of material documenting the entire process of adapting the research-supported Well-Being Promotion Program into an entirely new delivery format. In other words: the perfect data pool for a doctoral dissertation.

“I set myself up for success purely out of curiosity,” explained Emily.

One of the keys to Emily’s research is that it provides a concrete reference point for similar types of in-person support services to be translated to virtual formats.

The Well-Being Promotion Program itself is of note, too, Emily said, as it uses a more contemporary, holistic mental health framework.

“Often we think about negative indicators like anxiety, depression, and mood disorders, things that are challenges that people experience,” she said. “But, there are also positive indicators like feeling satisfied with your life, individual flourishing, things that we want people to experience.”

With this framework in mind, Emily’s team didn’t screen students for negative indicators at all. Rather, they asked students to rate their current life satisfaction and emotions, looking for potential for growth within the positive indicators.

“It’s the direction school psychology is moving,” said Emily. 

She credits the support networks within the College of Education with grounding her throughout the dissertation process. Fefer was instrumental in guiding her through the final stage of her degree.

“It was great to have a thought partner,” said Emily. “She brought a different perspective, but all the while kept me in the driver’s seat.”

After Emily defended her project, she went to lunch with her father. There was a serendipitous moment of everything coming full circle, she said.

“He brought a piece of paper that I had written on in middle school,” Emily said. “And it said, ‘I want to be a psychologist.’”