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Postdoc Rispoli addressing challenges of teen parenthood

The vast majority of teens spend more time bargaining with their parents than contending with the challenges of becoming one. A few, however, face the realities of parenthood – and preparing their own children for preschool before even finishing high school.

With the support of a recently earned early career research grant, CYFS Postdoctoral Fellow Kristin Rispoli will gauge the effectiveness of a program she’s adapted specifically to help teens navigate their unique challenges.

Rispoli will evaluate Parents Interacting with Infants-Teen (PIWI-T), a program designed to promote parenting practices that cultivate young children’s “school readiness” – the cognitive, language and social-emotional skills crucial to academic success.

The PIWI-T program aims to strengthen parent-child interactions and relationships by building parents’ confidence, providing developmental information, and modeling effective practices. PIWI-T also shows parents how to implement strategies – such as playing with children and introducing them to books – designed to support early school readiness.

The study will recruit at least six parent-infant pairs from high schools in the Lincoln, Neb., Public School District. Participants will be randomly selected from a group of mothers who gave birth before age 18 and have children between 9 and 12 months old.

Rispoli will then analyze participants’ caregiving practices and infants’ school readiness skills before and throughout participation in the 10-week program. Participating mothers will also complete questionnaires that address their parenting styles and perceptions of their roles as parents.

According to Rispoli, previous research has found that school readiness profoundly influences the likelihood that children will reach their potential.

“School readiness skills are crucial for ensuring children’s long-term success in the classroom and beyond. Children who are unprepared for the transition to formal schooling struggle academically throughout the elementary years and are less likely to complete high school,” Rispoli said. “For these reasons, the cognitive, verbal, behavioral and socio-emotional skills that children obtain throughout early childhood are essential to support school readiness.”

However, Rispoli noted that immaturity, financial struggles and a lack of childrearing knowledge represent considerable hurdles for many adolescent parents. These factors often lead to poor parenting practices and, in turn, young children who are less prepared than their peers for the rigors of formal education.

“Adolescent parents are often marginalized in society and face personal, social and economic barriers to providing adequate supports for their children’s learning and socio-emotional development,” Rispoli said. “Deficits in language skills, cognition and socio-emotional functioning are observed in children of adolescent parents who display poor parenting, such as a lack of sensitivity or intrusiveness.”

Even so, Rispoli asserted that well-designed programs have shown the capacity to reverse this trend.

“We know from the research on early parent-child interactions that positive parenting – including parent involvement in children’s learning, sensitivity to children’s cues, and support for children’s cognitive and socio-emotional development – is associated with favorable academic and personal outcomes,” she said.

Despite this, Rispoli also reported that children’s outcomes often receive little attention from adolescent-focused parenthood programs.

“Many interventions designed to support adolescent parents focus solely on their personal outcomes, such as graduation from high school and avoiding future pregnancies,” she said. “While important, these outcomes are only a piece of the larger picture and overlook the fact that many adolescent parents lack the skills necessary to support their child’s development.”

By developing and now assessing PIWI-T, Rispoli hopes to address this deficit – and ultimately help improve the futures of children born to adolescents.

“The PIWI-T program has the potential to significantly increase teen parents’ engagement with their children and their ability to effectively support early academic and socio-emotional functioning, thereby preparing their children for a successful transition into kindergarten and ensuring they are on track for academic and personal success,” Rispoli said. “This initial evaluation will provide valuable information regarding the program’s efficacy in supporting such outcomes – and will inform future efforts aimed at further developing and testing the program on a larger scale.”

Rispoli’s project, “Evaluation of a Prevention Program to Increase School Readiness of Children Born to Adolescents,” was funded for July 2012 through June 2013 by an Early Career Award from the Society for the Study of School Psychology. CYFS Director Susan Sheridan will serve as Rispoli’s project mentor.