Building resilience

The latest edition of Research That Matters, "Passion & Promise," explores how the UW College of Education is approaching the biggest challenges in education with a spirit of possibility. The following story about the College's research examining resiliency and African American girls in the foster system also appears in the online version of the magazine.

Today, College of Education Associate Professor Janine Jones is one of the top translational researchers in the nation on building resilience in children of color. She’s also a leader in developing culturally relevant approaches to help school psychologists work effectively with all children. Her latest study, a pilot which aims to help African American middle school girls in foster care improve their social and emotional health, is representative of her work during the past decade.

But as a student just beginning her Ph.D. studies, she had an experience that almost ended her career before it began—and profoundly shaped the career she has today. Jones failed an essay test. Throughout her entire education, this was something that had never happened. At first, she asked some fellow students to compare their work and results to hers. Everyone ended up confused, because they all agreed her work was up to par.

So Jones went to her professor for help. She hoped he could explain what she had done wrong and how she could improve her results in the future.

“He said what I was asking for was the equivalent of the parent of a ‘mentally retarded’ child coming to him and asking how to fix their child,” Jones said. “He also added, ‘there’s nothing I can do to help you.’”

From Devastation to Determination

Jones left her professor’s office devastated and humiliated. Fortunately, she was stopped on her way out by the department’s administrative assistant, who saw her distress and asked what was wrong.

When Jones explained, the woman invited her into her office, shut the door, and told her something even more shocking than what had just happened. “He does this to every black student,” the woman explained.

“I left that office broken,” Jones said. “I felt intellectually inferior, like I could never earn a Ph.D. But after what that woman told me, and talking it over with my family, I turned around and became determined. And my determination was that I was not going to let that happen to anyone else in any way, shape, or form if I could help it.”

Jones ended up being the first African American to graduate from the program, blazing a trail that others have now followed.

Seeing Strengths

“That experience drove me to speak for people like me, and help people to see what our gifts are, to see our strengths,” said Jones, who also directs UW's School Psychology Program. “And if they can see that, then we can move forward and break down these patterns.”

Jones said one of the most common of these patterns is called implicit bias. Implicit bias refers to people’s unconscious snap judgments about others based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class, or other factors. The danger for children, Jones explained, is that they often end up believing and internalizing these biases, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of underachievement and failure.

Foster kids, in particular, deal with a lot of implicit bias, along with other kinds of trauma, according to Angela Griffin, educational director for Seattle-based Treehouse, the state’s largest foster care advocacy organization, which is partnering with Jones and hosting the study.

Treehouse served more than 7,000 foster kids throughout Washington State last year, and is currently on track to achieve its ambitious goal: seeing foster kids graduate at the same rate as the general population by 2017.

“Foster kids experience trauma the instant they’re taken from the home,” Griffin said. “That trauma is exacerbated as they’re transitioning from home to home and school to school, and going into environments that may not be culturally responsive.”

The Struggles of African American Girls

“We’ve collected data looking at the demographic breakdown of our kids in terms of their attendance, their behavior, and whether they’re not on track to graduate,” Griffin said. “One of our educational specialists has specifically identified concerns for African American girls who’ve been placed in Caucasian homes. They’re struggling with their identity. They’re struggling with everything from how they take care of their hair to how they look. They’re trying to identify who they are and figure out their place in society.”

Jones agrees. “There are a lot of things going on developmentally for all girls at the middle school age. But with girls who are African American, there’s also a struggle with ethnic identity development. That’s why I picked African American girls for this project. These girls are constantly dealing with reminders that they’re not measuring up, and not seen in the same ways as everybody else.”

For the study, Jones and her team of graduate students, along with support from a Treehouse educational specialist, will work with two groups of six to eight girls. Each group will meet for 13 weekly 90-minute sessions at Treehouse.

The team will adapt versions of two established, evidence-based curricula in hopes of strengthening the girls’ resilience, sense of kinship with the other girls, coping skills, and ethnic identity. “Our intent is that the program will help build a sense of belonging and academic engagement at school,” Jones said.

The first curriculum is called Sisters of Nia. Jones said it’s rare in that it was developed specifically for African American girls. It focuses on rites of passage, community building, and helping create a sense of ethnic identity. “Each session builds on the session before, and builds community in a way that few curriculum do,” Jones said.

The second curriculum is called MindUp. “MindUp is focused on building and practicing mindfulness skills,” Jones said. “Kids learn how their minds work, how they think, how they can influence their cognition. It also teaches skills to cope with stress.”

To get a sense of the specific effectiveness of each curriculum in this context, one group of girls will work with the Sisters of Nia curriculum first, then move on to the MindUp curriculum. The other group will do the opposite. To measure impact, the girls will fill out questionnaires at multiple times throughout the study.

“We want to look at patterns of academic performance, social-emotional levels, changes in ratings of depression, and ethnic identity over time,” Jones said. Jones said she’ll look at the study’s overall results through the lens of the “acculturation” construct developed by John Berry of Queen’s University in Ontario.

“Basically, acculturation is how a person responds to a culture that is different from the one they’re being raised in,” Jones explained. “Some people adopt the majority culture. That’s assimilation. Others stay within their minority culture, and don’t accept the majority. That’s called separation. Those who try to adopt both cultures are said to have an integration style. The last, called individualism (also referred to as marginalization), is when individuals don’t adopt either.”

Jones said her theory is that girls who adopt either the separation or integration acculturation styles should be more successful socially and emotionally. Those who try an assimilation style, giving up their ethnic identity entirely, often end up not fitting in or measuring up to the norms of the majority, while those who choose individualism can face isolation and outright hostility.

“The best possible outcome of this study, from my perspective, would be that we can show that culture matters. That when we focus on the whole child from a positive, culturally responsive perspective, we can enhance resilience in the kids,” Jones said. “My theory is that for these kids who have trauma histories, that when we simultaneously build ethnic identity, and also build mindfulness and social-emotional coping skills, that they’re going to be more centered, and more able to be engaged and focused in school.”

Hope for the Future

“My hope is that we will learn this approach is effective for our girls so we can replicate it in other communities,” Griffin said. “We’re starting in Seattle, but where we see the greatest issue with ethnic identity development for our African American girls is actually on the Eastside. We’re also starting to serve more kids in the tribal areas. We’ve been working quite a bit with undocumented minors, who come here from all over the world. There’s such a need for an approach like this with all these different youth populations. This is a start for us. Our hope is that we can expand.”

Jones, who is self-funding the pilot study, agrees. “I want to do it on a larger scale. The coolest thing in the world to me would be if we could take this through a couple of groups, and then do more groups with kids who aren’t in foster care and show the same outcomes. It would be great to connect with larger communities—to be a voice to show how important it is to address ethnic identity for all kids who’ve been disproportionately affected by institutionalized racism. I want what I do to be practical—things that people can do every day and think about every day.”


Dustin Wunderlich, Director for Marketing and Communications