Understanding the Crucial Links between Families and Schools

Supporting youth in and out of schools

Understanding the Crucial Links between Families and Schools

Sarah Fefer’s research demonstrates that family-school partnerships are essential in supporting students with challenging behaviors.

UMass Amherst College of Education Associate Professor Sarah Fefer

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.”

Associate Professor Sarah Fefer

Less than a decade after joining the UMass faculty, Fefer has had a significant impact on the college, local communities, and the field of school psychology. She is the director of the college’s Behavior Research Team and the associate director of the Center for Youth Engagement. Widely published, and in demand as a presenter, Fefer received the college’s Outstanding Teacher Award in 2019 and was named the 2019 Faculty Sponsor Champion by the Graduate Student Committee of the National Association of School Psychologists for her mentorship, support, advocacy, teaching, and dissemination of best practices.

After earning her doctorate from the University of South Florida, Fefer began moving toward a career as a clinician, interning at the May Institute in Boston, working with kids with traumatic brain injury and autism. But when she saw an opportunity to apply for a faculty position at the UMass College of Education, she leapt at the chance to land her dream job.

Fortunately, the faculty position allowed Fefer to pursue both scholarship and practice. During her first two years at UMass she completed her postdoctoral training hours at the university’s Psychology Services Center with the School Outreach Team and completed her certification as a behavior analyst. 

Since completing the postdoc, Fefer has co-led the School Outreach Team—now in the College of Education—along with Dr. Sara Whitcomb. Having completed the tenure process in 2019, Fefer is now taking the final steps to become a licensed psychologist as well. “It’s very important to me—as someone who decided to go into this role of trainer right after my own training—to stay connected to current practice and ensure that I am gaining experience in schools that I can draw on to teach my students,” she notes.

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. 

Karen Harrington and Sarah Fefer hold the $50,000 grant check from Health New England

Fefer’s current project began on a small scale with Lawrence Elementary School in Holyoke, Massachusetts. She and school staff members had implemented a program called HOT DOCS (Helping Our Toddlers, Developing Our Children’s Skills), a seven-week proactive behavioral parent training curricula. At first they had no funding to undertake outreach and provide childcare, food, and translation, and they weren’t able to reach as many families as they had hoped. To address this, they obtained a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, which covered these costs and enabled them to meet their goals.

With this initial success, Fefer pursued more funds to expand the project. She applied for and won a grant from Health New England—part of their Where Health Matters Grant Program, which awards five $50,000 grants to nonprofit community organizations annually to advance the health and wellbeing of vulnerable populations living in Central and Western Massachusetts. Entitled “School-Based Family Education to Promote Positive Mental Health for Children and Families,” Fefer has extended the program into more Holyoke schools and into the Springfield Public Schools as well. 

The funding has also allowed Fefer to expand the program options for families. They now include two one-session workshops teaching parents how to structure the home environment to promote positive behavior and how to resolve behavior problems when they happen. “The hope is that this initial introduction to the positive behavior support concept will help to motivate families to opt into a more intensive program like HOT DOCS.” In addition to HOT DOCS, she’s also using Practiced Routines, a more individualized approach that includes online modules.

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.

Sarah Fefer speaks to a colleague at her desk

One of the interventions that Fefer developed with the Behavior Research Team and colleagues throughout the country is Positive Parent Contact, a proactive method to enhance partnership and communication between teachers and parents of students with behavior problems. The intention was to create low-demand strategies with high reinforcement to ensure teachers can use them in the busy context of public schools. 

The intervention asks teachers to engage in twice weekly positive contact with selected parents of students with challenging behavior. They look for positive behavior and then report that to the parents by whatever form of communication they prefer. The pilot data, which is being published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions, demonstrates a clear link between the communication from teachers to parents and on-task behavior in the classroom. “We showed that student behavior was affected positively by the communication between teachers and parents, which was a surprising and exciting finding,” Fefer explains. “We often think we need to do an intensive intervention with kids with behavior problems that directly targets the child, but our data demonstrated that perhaps just building the partnership is an important first step for students.” 

Fefer has also hypothesized that this type of communication-based intervention may increase buy-in for families who need more intensive programs. “If that relationship is already strong between the teacher and the parent because of these positive contacts, perhaps parents will be more willing to partner with school staff to engage in evidence-based interventions provided  by the school.”

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.