Understanding the Crucial Links between Families and Schools
College of Education Associate Professor Sarah Fefer recalls the moment she discovered school psychology as a University of Vermont undergraduate. “It was like this magical thing that allowed you to work with a full range of people in terms of adults and kids, although all focused on the wellbeing of children.” Not only was it a way to combine her passions for psychology and education, it would allow her to help expand mental health services to all children and families. “I wanted to work with all kids, not just those with the privilege to get connected with mental health services and have insurance pay for those. That’s what school psychology is all about—we access kids in school.”
Many parents would come to us and say, ‘Wow, they say there’s no manual on how to raise a kid, but you just gave us the manual. You taught us all the things we wished we had known when my child was born.’
In her research and scholarship, Fefer focuses on strategies supporting students with disruptive behavior across home and school contexts. Her most recent work specifically looks at family-school partnerships—how schools can foster partnerships and how that partnership can create positive outcomes for all students, but especially students with challenging behaviors.
Fefer’s interest in family-school partnerships stretches back to her graduate school work, where she led trainings for parents. She found it extremely reinforcing as a clinician to see parents begin to understand why their child might be engaging in challenging behavior, and develop the skills to address it. “I absolutely loved it. I saw such positive effects. Many parents would come to us and say, ‘Wow, they say there’s no manual on how to raise a kid, but you just gave us the manual. You taught us all the things we wished we had known when my child was born.’”
During her work as a graduate student and now a professor, Fefer consistently found that schools struggle with how to engage families that have students with challenging behaviors, and how to teach them effective skills. In response, Fefer has developed research to determine the best ways for schools to engage hard-to-reach families and what programs work best for different families in different contexts.
We showed that student behavior was affected positively by the communication between teachers and parents, which was a surprising and exciting finding.
The programs give parents skills to understand behavior from a functional perspective. “We’ve seen in our preliminary work that we are decreasing parents’ feelings of stress around parenting a child with challenging behavior by equipping them with this process for figuring out why their child behaves that way and then what to do about that,” Fefer explains.
One of Fefer’s important contributions to the College of Education is her creation of the Behavior Research Team, which she based on the model developed by fellow school psychology faculty members Sara Whitcomb and Amanda Marcotte. The team includes doctoral and education specialist graduate students and some undergraduates who earn credit for their participation.
We often focus on behavior in school—not connecting the dots to home.
On the strength of her research, Fefer earned a coveted spot as a family research scholar with the UMass Center for Research on Families in 2018-2019. The year-long interdisciplinary faculty seminar provides concrete skills for successful grant submission, peer and faculty feedback on their developing proposals, individualized methodology consultation with CRF faculty and renowned experts, and guidance on funding sources.
Fefer was also selected for a 2019 National Institute of Mental Health Child Intervention, Prevention, and Services (CHIPS) Fellowship. CHIPS is an interdisciplinary training consortium, created to bolster mental health research in the areas of intervention, prevention, and the provision of services for children and adolescents. The fellowship provides a $2,500 travel award to attend two national meetings or visit with out-of-town mentors, as well as a five-day, intensive institute at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri.
In her short time in the field, Fefer has not only taken great strides in her research, she has also taken a leadership role in making family-school partnership part of the national conversation in school psychology. “We often focus on behavior in school—not connecting the dots to home.” Within the National Association of School Psychologists, Fefer co-chairs the School, Family, and Community Partnering Interest Group and she is one of several school psychologists among special educators and academics involved in the Family-School-Community Alliance through the National Center for Positive Behavior Support.
Fefer’s goal for her research is to expand her work considerably. She’ll pursue funding to examine the impact of the Positive Parent Contact intervention and school-based behavioral family education programming in larger-scale research projects involving significantly more schools and families.
Having some really strong, well designed studies that demonstrate, empirically, the positive outcomes of implementing family-school partnership programs and the importance of this work is where I hope to continue to make a contribution over the long haul.