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Supporting Young Families: The Role of Social Network Analysis


Young parents, especially teen parents, must depend on a network of support and multiple services to raise their children, achieve educational and financial goals, and keep their families healthy. Resources for expectant and parenting teens and young adults may come from many directions: supportive housing, child care, and employment services, to name a few – but often there is no clearly identifiable system that coordinates these efforts.

Pathways to Success, an initiative of the New York State Department of Health, aims to better connect parenting teens and young adults to key resources in Buffalo, Rochester, and the Bronx. The initiative funds one community college and one public school district in each community, with technical assistance provided by the BCTR’s ACT for Youth Center of Excellence. Specifically, ACT staff members Amanda Purington, Dora Welker, Divine Sebuharara, Mary Maley, Christy Heib, Jane Powers, and Heather Wynkoop-Beach have all played important roles on various parts of this initiative.

While Pathways grantees had a good sense of available services, coordinating these services to best serve youth in need was a daunting challenge. ACT staff recognized that social network analysis could be used in these communities to both create a distinct picture of existing networks and identify ways to strengthen collaborations.

Social network analysis is a set of methods for examining social structures and relationships within a network. Using the PARTNER social network analysis tool (created at the University of Colorado Denver), ACT staff worked with grantees to build customized online surveys and analyzed results in order to better understand collaborative activity within grantee networks and possibilities for new connections.

To define their networks, all the Pathways grantees were asked to compile a list of organizations with whom they already have relationships, or would like to be connected. ACT staff then developed PARTNER-based surveys tailored to each community. Next grantees distributed the surveys to their network lists, encouraging participation. Finally, ACT staff quantified the results, creating a visual representation of how the different organizations are -- or are not – connected.

ACT maps visual

These example maps show a city's grantees' (yellow dots) network with all collaborations (top) and then those at the "networking" and "coalition" levels of engagement.

Using the survey results, ACT staff created two types of network maps for the Pathways to Success initiative. The first map illustrates the level of collaboration. “Networking” is the most basic level: members of the network are aware of one another and may have informal relationships, but do not make any major decisions together. Networking is followed on the continuum by cooperation, coordination, and coalition, with collaboration at the highest level – when all major decisions are made collectively. The second map depicts frequency of contact among organizations. “Higher” and “more frequent” are not always ideal or feasible. The maps help spur discussion of what level of collaboration and frequency of contact would best serve young families in each community.

Three network indicators are also included in the analysis: 1) density -- the number of network ties relative to the total number of possible ties – which demonstrates the overall cohesiveness of the collaborative, 2) degree centralization, which refers to how well connected the members of the network are collectively, and 3) the level of trust among the members as a whole. For example, one community network had an overall trust score of 78%, indicating that a majority of responding organizations reported high levels of mutual trust. In addition to these whole network indicators, many other metrics can also be examined for each of the organizations in the network.

To discuss the findings, ACT for Youth held “data dialogue” sessions with grantees in each community. The network maps clarified where communication and collaboration are strong, and where there are opportunities to help the community better serve expectant and parenting young people. Some grantees were surprised that while their community was rich in resources, those resources were not being evenly accessed. Grantees also recognized a lack of coordination among certain organizations, resulting in some members of the network “doing the same job many times over.” Other grantees realized the need to focus on strengthening and building community systems to include organizations that may not have completed the survey, but should be at the table. For example, one group was surprised when they noticed that their county health department and a home visiting program had not responded to the survey, prompting the grantees to think about strengthening connections to include these valuable resources in future conversations.

Following these initial sessions, the grantees are holding meetings with their networks of community organizations. These meetings mirror the first data dialogue session, but allow an opening for the larger community to discuss how they can strengthen relationships in the entire network, bring others to the table, decrease duplication of services, and take steps to bridge gaps.

For the Pathways to Success initiative, this first implementation of the survey will serve as a baseline for the communities. ACT for Youth will help grantees administer the survey annually, documenting change over time, including stronger relationships among the vital organizations within each community.


ACT focus group studies connect policy makers with youth voices

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Since its inception in 2000, the ACT for Youth Center of Excellence (COE) has sought to enhance efforts to promote the health and well-being of adolescents. As an intermediary funded by the New York State Department of Health (NYSDOH), the COE aims to connect research to practice by applying knowledge about what works in prevention and youth development in communities across the state. But the sharing of information is not a one-way street: the COE also collects wisdom and data from the field, which in turn is used to inform policy and practice.

One illustration of this process is the COE's recent youth focus group study. The COE has often been called upon by the NYSDOH to conduct focus groups on topics of interest in adolescent health, specifically so policy makers and decision makers can hear directly from youth in New York State (NYS). The focus group findings have been incorporated into funding announcements and media campaigns, and used to develop new sexual health initiatives. Recently, the COE partnered with grantees who are working in the field of teen pregnancy prevention to conduct focus groups with youth in order to understand how adolescents think about “family planning,” as well as identify barriers to their accessing reproductive health services. This study was driven by the fact that while significant numbers of adolescents are sexually active, there has been a decline in adolescent use of publicly-funded family planning services, a fact that has been observed nationally as well as in NYS. Major findings from this focus group study support those documented in national studies:

  1. teens want to prevent pregnancy, but they have misconceptions about and negative views of birth control methods; and
  2. utilization of family planning services can be improved by attending to several factors including teen perceptions of stigma, discomfort, and lack of privacy.

These findings are outlined in a recent COE publication, Youth and Family Planning: Findings from a Focus Group Study, which is part of the Research fACTs and Findings series. In addition, the COE has also presented findings to practitioners who work in the area of teen pregnancy prevention, adolescent sexual health, and reproductive health services. By connecting these results directly with those working in the field, the COE is able to reach a wide audience of practitioners, policy makers, and educators who can use the information to inform practice.

(0) Comments.  |   Tags: ACT for Youth    adolescence    focus group    Research in Translation    sexual health   

Community input in the formation of Rachel Dunifon’s Role of Grandparents study


Rachel Dunifon’s research program, The Role of Grandparents in the Lives of Adolescent Grandchildren, would not have come about if it weren’t for the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Educators with whom she works in her parenting program. They are the ones who made Dr. Dunifon aware of the prevalence of grandparent-headed households, who told compelling stories about the families in their communities who are in this situation, and who made her realize what a rich area this would be for research. Based on the knowledge Dunifon gained from the field, she embarked on a multi-year research project, funded by the William T. Grant Foundation, on grandparents raising grandchildren. Dunifon worked with CCE and other community educators to develop the research questions, to bring together focus groups to increase her knowledge of the issues facing such families, to pilot test study instruments, and to recruit participants in the study. The interviews took place in CCE offices throughout the state. The cycle is ongoing as Dunifon is producing a series of fact sheets based on the results of her research, which can be used by educators in their work with families in which grandparents are raising grandchildren.

Receiving input from practitioners and community members to inform research is a crucial step in practicing translational research to insure the studies done are relevant in community settings. As shown by this example, connecting with community educators can raise awareness among researchers about important and relevant issues. The resulting research is then easily translated back into resources useful to the community, as it was developed based on community input from the start.

The fact sheets from this research can be found on this page.


Complementary Strengths launches new measure for youth program participation


Translational research includes developing and validating new measures that can be used during efficacy and effectiveness trials and in implementation research. It is ideal if these measures can also work as evaluation tools in real world programs. The Complementary Strengths Research Partnership worked with New York City after-school (out of school time) programs to develop and validate a new scale that community-based programs can easily use to assess the quality of youth participation. Complementary Strengths can also use the scale to test the efficacy of the setting-based intervention it is developing.

A review of the research literature demonstrated the need for a new way to measure youth participation. Much assessment of program participation looks only at how much time youth spend involved in program activities or at how many different types of activities they join, rather than at the quality of their experiences. Findings from the Complementary Strengths Study and other studies suggest the important role experiences of high-quality program participation have on young people’s healthy development, but the field lacked a validated short scale for measuring participation quality as experienced by youth. Youth participants, program staff, and researchers worked together to develop and fine-tune items for use in the new scale. Work to develop the measure included a number of phases - a pilot study involving 98 youth, a longitudinal exploratory study involving 329 youth, and use of the new tool in a program evaluation project now underway.

Research team members Jennifer Tiffany, John Eckenrode, and Deinera Exner-Cortens recently published an article spelling out how the new 20-item scale was developed. The scale is now available for programs and researchers to use in their own evaluations, program improvement efforts, and studies of youth development practices in community settings.

The overall scale encompasses four subscales measuring Personal Development (7 items), Voice/Influence (4 items), Safety/Support (4 items), and Community Engagement (5 items). In addition to measuring these key elements of youth engagement in programs, scores on the scale are significantly correlated with measures of social connectedness and sexual health promotion. A technical description of the measure is available here.

The Complementary Strengths Research Project is supported in part by award #R21NR009764 from the NIH/National Institute of Nursing Research and by USDA grant #NYC-323442-0219950. The content of this report is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institute of Nursing Research, the National Institutes of Health, or the USDA.



The TCI:SAFE Project

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Evidence based programs often tout the importance of implementing their program with fidelity. But what exactly does program fidelity mean? How do community agencies know when they are (or are not) implementing with fidelity? As part of the Residential Child Care Project, (RCCP) the Therapeutic Crisis Intervention: Study About Fidelity and Effectiveness (TCI: SAFE) project, aims to answer this question to ensure effective implementation of the TCI system in real world use. Widely used in residential child care and schools settings in both the U.S. and abroad, the TCI system presents a crisis prevention and intervention system designed to assist organizations in preventing and de-escalating potential crises, managing acute physical behavior, reducing injuries to children and staff, teaching staff how to help children learn constructive ways to handle crisis, and creating a learning organization.

To explore fidelity, the TCI: SAFE project collected information about TCI implementation through case studies with 5 individual agencies. Project staff then built a “TCI fidelity assessment tool” designed to document an agency’s implementation of core TCI system components. Early versions of the tool were tested by both agency and Cornell staff, resulting in a multi-item assessment that rates progress toward implementation (from no action to fully met) of core TCI program components such as leadership, clinical participation, training, supervision, and quality assurance. The TCI fidelity tool provides objective information that helps agencies reflect on their practice and improve how well they implement the TCI system. The tool can also be used to feed back information to the TCI developers so that they can improve the program. Finally, the tool will facilitate research efforts that explore how TCI implementation relates to outcomes of interest (e.g. reductions in use of restraints, improved child coping abilities, treatment goals being met). In these ways, the TCI SAFE project reflects many points along the translational research cycle. For more information, see the RCCP web site.


(0) Comments.  |   Tags: RCCP    Research in Translation    TCI: SAFE