Month: October 2015

New Collaboratory Focuses on Research to Improve School and Child Health

A new partnership between UConn’s Neag School of Education, Office of Public Engagement and Institute for Collaboration on Health, Intervention, and Policy (InCHIP) promises to take a coordinated, comprehensive approach to promoting the health and well-being of “the whole child.”

The Collaboratory on School and Child Health (CSCH), which has become part of InCHIP, will connect relevant UConn researchers from a range of disciplines and unite them with the shared goals of conducting community-engaged research to inform healthy, safe, supporting and engaging environments for all children and translating their findings into improved policies, processes, and practices.CSCH_200px

“It can be relatively easy to check off that a school has a plan to address a particular area related to child well-being. For example, every district in Connecticut is required to have anti-bullying policies and practices in place. And in terms of pulling together all of the factors that influence student health and achievement, states generally have what is called a coordinated school health plan – but what does that mean in terms of actual practices at each school and how do you evaluate those policies, processes, and practices to understand what is working and where gaps exist for the whole child?” asked Collaboratory Co-Director Sandra Chafouleas, a professor of educational psychology and the associate dean for research in the Neag School.

Chafouleas and her Collaboratory Co-Director E. Carol Polifroni, a professor of nursing and director of the University’s Office of Public Engagement, identified the need for the Collaboratory when they first met each other a year ago and discovered they had been trying to address the same pressing, complex school and children’s health issues from different perspectives – and largely on their own.

“There are lots of people at UConn who have been doing research on schools and children’s health for a long, long time, but our work separately and individually doesn’t do what it needs to be doing. It does not have impact,” Polifroni said. “The opportunity to come together under the InCHIP umbrella to focus on health behavior change for children in order to improve their learning and quality of life will be the key to our success.”

Dedicated to the study of health behavior and health behavior change, InCHIP has a proven track record of building and supporting multidisciplinary research teams to address a variety of health problems, securing significant external funding for its research, and translating its most effective interventions into practice. InCHIP also has a burgeoning research focus on children’s health, bolstered by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity’s move to InCHIP from Yale University in January and its emphasis on childhood obesity.

ShutterStock Image
ShutterStock Image

“Establishing healthy behaviors and curbing unhealthy ones during childhood is far easier and more effective than it is during adulthood, once bad habits have become ingrained,” said InCHIP Associate Director Deborah Cornman, who will serve on the Collaboratory’s steering committee.

InCHIP and the Neag School will accelerate the development of the Collaboratory’s research program with a new, jointly-funded Dual-Principal Investigator (PI) Seed Grant competition, which will award two grants of $15,000 each to multidisciplinary research teams focused on school and children’s health. The Collaboratory also will host a networking event on the Storrs campus Nov. 12th to help researchers interested in applying for the seed grants find collaborators from different disciplines. (Click here to RSVP for the networking event). InCHIP has had success in recent years using jointly-funded dual-PI seed grant competitions to strengthen its multidisciplinary research capacity in targeted health areas including HIV, obesity, cancer, children’s health, and mental health.

The Office of Public Engagement will contribute to the Collaboratory through the establishment of valued community partners, assessment of their needs and interests, and assistance with the implementation of interventions that emphasize healthy behaviors for the whole child, Polifroni said.

Her office also will make some seed program and/or research funding available to Collaboratory-affiliated researchers through a grant it has received from the Netter Center for Community Partnerships at University of Pennsylvania. The Netter Center grant has partially funded the Office of Public Engagement to establish the New England University Assisted Community School Collaborative (NE UACSC) to conduct engaged research with and to provide training and technical assistance to area schools.

The Collaboratory is based on the recently updated U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” model which identifies the need for collaboration across education and health sectors to improve learning and health in our nation’s schools. The model includes 10 components: community involvement; counseling, psychological, and social services; employee wellness; family engagement; health education; health services; nutrition environment and services; physical education and physical activity; physical environment; and social and emotional climate. Within and across the CDC’s 10 components, the Collaboratory also will examine the influences of culture, health care disparities, and social determinants of health on children’s health and well-being.

The Collaboratory’s diverse steering committee includes UConn faculty and community members representing work related to each of the CDC model’s components for school and child health.

Husky Sport Founder and Director Jennifer McGarry, who is also a professor of educational leadership in the Neag School, is one of the steering committee members.

Husky Sport is a campus-community partnership, with both program and research components, that pairs UConn student mentors with Hartford elementary and middle school students to emphasize the importance of sports and physical activity and to advocate for good nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Now in its 12th year, Husky Sport has grown its number of community partners since its inception and broadened its scope to address different aspects of child health and well-being.

“The bottom line, what connects everything, is this: Children need caring adults in their lives,” McGarry said. “The greater the number of caring adults there are, the better. The longer those adults stay in their lives, the better. And the more those adults talk to each other about the children’s needs, the better.”

Chafouleas and Polifroni envision that, in the future, Connecticut schools will view the Collaboratory as their “go-to partner” for their research needs.

Child Care’s Role in Fight Against Obesity

Children play in a daycare setting. Image from ShutterStock
Children play in a daycare setting. Image from ShutterStock.

A group of University of Connecticut researchers who study child care as an important setting to influence healthy eating habits have published a series of findings that can be used to improve child care policies and practices in order to curb childhood obesity.

All of the researchers are affiliated with the University of Connecticut’s Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention (CHIP), a multidisciplinary research center that focuses on obesity as one of its main areas of collaborative investigation.

The CHIP researchers’ findings are included in six studies published today in a special section of the journal Childhood Obesity, called “Wellness promotion in child care: Evidence to Action.” (Links to the special section articles and a related editorial appear at the end of this article). The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation funded two of the six studies through its national program Healthy Eating Research. The U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Institutes of Health, and the American Diabetes Association Foundation funded the other studies.

Because many young children spend more time in child-care settings than any other place except home, influencing young children’s diets and physical activity while in child care provides an important opportunity to address childhood obesity.

“The findings from these studies inform how out-of-home child care providers can work together with families to reinforce healthy eating and physical activity,” said Marlene Schwartz, PhD, an author on two of the studies and Director of the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, which is part of CHIP.

Five of the six studies identified areas for improvement and barriers to making progress on healthy diets and adequate physical activity levels in child-care settings. According to the findings of the new research, the following types of support are needed to help child-care providers improve diets and increase physical activity among young children:

  • Parent outreach, staff training, funding, space and equipment for physical activity, modifying cultural norms about child feeding and physical activity that are not consistent with a healthy lifestyle, and
  • Assistance with strategies to decrease levels of saturated fat and sodium in meals served in childcare settings, and to increase levels of whole grains in the meals served.

Two of the studies examined strategies to improve dietary intake, identifying promising approaches to:

  • Increase child preferences for healthy foods, and
  • Improve the healthfulness of meals in child-care centers.

One of the studies reported findings about a promising new tool to determine what preschoolers actually consume, to identify those at risk of poor nutrition and to better inform child-care interventions to promote healthy eating habits.

“Collectively, the articles encourage policymakers to see (early care and education) as a critical partner in the fight against childhood obesity and represent the current challenges and opportunities to promote nutritious eating and physical activity in young children,” said Myra Jones-Taylor, PhD, Commissioner of the Connecticut Office of Early Childhood, who contributed an editorial to the journal issue in which the studies are published.  “Through smart policy and education of children, providers, families and policy makers, we can not only address childhood obesity, but help set the stage for healthier adults later on in life.”

Other authors on the six studies include: Professor of Allied Health Sciences Valerie B. Duffy, Professor of Human Development and Family Studies Kim M. Gans, and Assistant Professor of Nutritional Sciences Amy R. Mobley.

Gans has an active National Heart Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) grant to help home-based child-care providers in Rhode Island improve the nutrition and physical activity environments of their homes.

“While improved policies are needed to facilitate childhood obesity prevention in child-care settings, there are many different types of child-care settings and one size does not fit all,” Gans said. “These articles highlight the importance of considering the unique needs of different child-care settings, such as family child-care homes, Spanish-speaking providers, and rural providers, when crafting policies and translating them into practice.”

About the UConn Center for Health, Intervention and Prevention

CHIP is a multidisciplinary research center focused on health behavior and health behavior change. CHIP, which has received more than $120 million in external funding to support its research in a wide range of health areas, creates theory-based interventions to address pressing health problems and translates its most effective interventions into practice locally, statewide, nationally, and internationally.

Links to Special Section Content:


“Early Care and Education Settings Are Vital for Childhood Obesity Prevention”

Myra Jones-Taylor


“Comparing Current Practice to Recommendations for the Child and Adult Care Food Program”

Marlene B. Schwartz, Kathryn E. Henderson, Gabrielle Grode, Maia Hyary, Erica L. Kenney, Meghan O’Connell, Ann E. Middleton


“Testing Variations on Family-Style Feeding To Increase Whole Fruit and Vegetable Consumption among Preschoolers in Child Care”

Marlene B. Schwartz, Meghan O’Connell, Kathryn E. Henderson, Ann E. Middleton, Stephanie Scarmo


“Evaluation of Nutrition and Physical Activity Policies and Practices in Child Care Centers within Rural Communities”

Jaime S. Foster, Dawn Contreras, Abby Gold, Ann Keim, Renee Oscarson, Paula Peters, Sandra Procter, Valentina Remig, Carol Smathers, Amy R. Mobley


“Impact of a Short-Term Nutrition Education Child Care Pilot Intervention on Preschool Children’s Intention To Choose Healthy Snacks and Actual Snack Choices”

Laura S. Joseph, Amy A. Gorin, Stacey L. Mobley, Amy R. Mobley


“Nutrition and Physical Activity Environments of Home-Based Child Care: What Hispanic Providers Have to Say”

Alison Tovar, Noereem Z. Mena, Patricia Risica, Gemma Gorham, Kim M. Gans


“Preschool-Adapted Liking Survey (PALS): A Brief and Valid Method To Assess Dietary Quality of Preschoolers”

MastanehSharafi, Heather Peracchio, Stephanie Scarmo, Tania B. Huedo-Medina, Susan T. Mayne, Brenda Cartmel, Valerie B. Duffy


All articles are also listed in a special section in the October issue online here: