Throughout my career my scholarly interests have focused on the prevention of behavioral, health, and mental health problems and promotion of positive outcomes among children and adolescents. In pursuing these interests, I have conducted research on the psychosocial functioning of at-risk youth, and have published a number of articles and book chapters on the delivery of school-based preventive services. My work includes empirical and theoretical scholarship aimed at developing scientific understanding of risk and resilience factors in child and youth development. It also includes integrative scholarship aimed at professional audiences, where the goals are to synthesize cutting-edge information about preventive services and disseminate it to those in the position to apply this knowledge in schools and other settings where they work with children. Within the broad field of prevention, my scholarship has focused primarily on adolescent pregnancy and parenthood and the delivery and evaluation of school-based preventive services. My work in both of these areas has emphasized the role of contextual influences on the developmental trajectories of children and adolescents.
Adolescent Sexuality, Pregnancy, and Parenthood
Adolescent pregnancy and parenthood have long been recognized as serious social problems. Despite recent declines, adolescent pregnancy still occurs in the United States at disproportionate rates compared to other developed countries. Moreover, adolescent childbearing is associated with a variety of negative outcomes for young mothers and their children. Adolescent mothers are more likely than their peers to drop out of school, rely on public assistance, be unemployed, and experience psychological distress such as anxiety and depression. Pregnant adolescents are less likely than older women to obtain adequate prenatal health services, and are more likely to deliver pre-term and low birth-weight babies. Ultimately, their children are at risk for a number of developmental problems including cognitive delay, school failure, and aggressive behavior. In this context, I am interested in promoting positive outcomes for adolescent parents and their children, and preventing sexual risk-taking among adolescents.
Motivated by the first goal (prevention of negative outcomes for adolescent parents and their children), I conducted several studies aimed at increasing our understanding of the psychosocial functioning of pregnant and parenting adolescents. Two studies explored adolescents’ use of social and health services. Rhodes, Fischer, Ebert, and Meyers (1994) found that very frequent service use and inconsistent service use are both indicative of psychological distress among pregnant and parenting adolescents. Meyers and Rhodes (1995) found that adolescents’ experiences with health services vary as a function of setting characteristics. Taken together, these results suggest that social and health service agencies represent a convenient point of entry for helping adolescent mothers, but the existing infrastructure is inadequate to meet the needs of all potential clients. Two additional studies explored the interpersonal functioning of this population and revealed that various problems in close relationships (e.g., social strain, history of sexual victimization) are predictive of psychological distress among adolescent mothers (Rhodes, Ebert, & Meyers, 1993; 1994). Within the field of prevention science, social support is often viewed as a strength or asset, but these findings indicate that in fact, some adolescent mothers experience their existing social networks as a major source of stress.
Motivated by the second goal (prevention of adolescent sexual risk-taking and pregnancy), I have devoted considerable scholarly attention to the topic of sexuality education and pregnancy prevention. A recent collaboration with colleagues at ISU investigated trends in sex education and communication among adolescents (Sprecher, Harris, & Meyers, 2008). Our data revealed that between 1990 and 2006, adolescents reported receiving increasing amounts of information about sexuality from the media, peers, and professionals. This finding points to the potential importance of professionals as sources of accurate and age-appropriate sex education.
In order to capitalize on this potential among school-based professionals, I have published a number of articles and chapters aimed at disseminating up-to-date information about school-based sexuality education and prevention services (Meyers & Landau, 2000; 2002; Meyers, 2004; Meyers, Landau, & Sylvester, 2008; Walcott, Meyers, & Landau, 2008; Meyers, Sylvester, & Landau, 2010; Sylvester & Meyers, 2010). Since this is a culturally and politically sensitive topic, it has been a challenge to produce high-quality scholarship that is balanced and avoids offending potential readers. In this area, scientific findings cannot be applied in the same ways in all contexts. For example, a highly effective method for the prevention of pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections according to research findings (distributing condoms in schools) is not politically feasible in all communities. Thus I have endeavored to present a range of intervention options with research support, and proposed a model of needs assessment and program evaluation that any community interested in preventing adolescent pregnancy could use to identify the most appropriate prevention strategies given the local context.
Delivery and Evaluation of School-Based Prevention Services
This approach to needs assessment, intervention selection, and evaluation is consistent with the ecological model of school consultation that my colleagues and I proposed several years ago (Meyers, Meyers, & Grogg, 2004), and further elaborated in a chapter for the Handbook of School Psychology (Meyers, Meyers, Proctor, & Graybill, 2009) and a forthcoming article in the Journal of Educational and Psychological Consultation (Meyers, Meyers, Graybill, Proctor, & Huddleston, 2011). The model emphasizes public health principles and preventive service delivery. My interests in school-based consultation and prevention are complemented by several of my teaching and service activities. For example, I have been actively involved with training school psychologists to deliver school-based mental health services through the practicum and consultation courses I teach. My commitment to graduate training in these areas is exemplified not only in my teaching activities, but also in my scholarly contributions in the areas of consultation training (e.g., Meyers, 2002; Meyers & Coleman, 2003) and consultation research (Meyers, Truscott, Meyers, Varjas, & Collins, 2008).
Much of my work in the area of school-based prevention and health promotion has focused on full-service schools. These are elementary and secondary schools that address children’s needs holistically, integrating a variety of expanded health, mental health, social, and educational services (e.g., Bucy, Meyers, & Swerdlik, 2002; Meyers & Swerdlik, 2004). The model assumes children’s academic success is contingent on their social, emotional, and physical wellbeing, and that many of these needs can be addressed conveniently and efficiently through school-based service delivery. Traditionally, school psychologists have spent their time assessing students referred for special education. My colleagues and I have argued that a broader role for school psychologists that more fully utilizes their skills in mental health service delivery (e.g., psychotherapy, consultation, prevention, program development and evaluation) could be realized through full-service schools (Meyers & Swerdlik, 2003; Swerdlik & Meyers, 2004; Laudau, Meyers, & Pryor, 2005).
The full-service school concept is consistent with a growing body of evidence suggesting that schools can enhance children’s emotional wellbeing, adaptive functioning, and academic achievement through preventive interventions that target Social and Emotional Learning (SEL). These interventions complement instruction in traditional academic subjects by teaching skills such as perspective taking, emotion management, and social problem solving. During my recent sabbatical, I collaborated with colleagues from the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL) on a large-scale review project focused on experimental and quasi-experimental research evaluating the effectiveness of school-based SEL programs. In this context I developed detailed rating criteria, applied these criteria to dozens of evaluation studies, and wrote evaluation summaries for individual SEL programs. CASEL plans to publish this review as a consumer guide for researchers, educators, and policy-makers seeking to identify high quality, evidence-based SEL programs to use in schools. My collaborators on this project are recognized as leaders in the SEL field in Illinois and nationally. I anticipate that the review will have a widespread and long-lasting impact on future research, policy, and school-based practice in this area. We presented preliminary results of this work at the American Educational Research Association (AERA) conference this past spring (Meyers & Ji, 2011; Ji & Meyers, 2011), and when the review is finished, we plan to submit a manuscript based on the project for publication in a refereed journal.
Our initial findings indicate that although the quality of SEL evaluation research varies, several excellent studies have been conducted, and numerous school-based interventions have solid empirical evidence supporting their impact on key SEL outcomes. Characteristics of the best research in this field include use of experimental designs, appropriate inferential statistics, assessment measures with established psychometric properties, multiple or blind informants, and systematic monitoring of treatment fidelity. Thus one way to support and improve the quality of future research in this area is to develop and evaluate new measures of children’s SEL skills. To address this need, I recently conducted a study evaluating the psychometric properties of several SEL measures for preschoolers. Results indicated that direct measures of children’s social problem solving, emotion recognition, and self-regulation had moderate to excellent test-retest reliability (.60 to .95) and moderate concurrent validity (.3 to .6) with teacher reports of similar constructs. This study has been accepted for presentation at AERA next spring.
During the past ten years, my research endeavors have reflected a growing, integrated focus on school-based prevention and SEL evaluation research. In the fall of 2010 I was invited to develop a proposal to evaluate the effects of Jumpstart, a widely used early literacy intervention delivered by college student volunteers to economically disadvantaged preschoolers. I have since obtained external grant funding to support this project, and the evaluation study is currently underway. Although Jumpstart’s primary focus is academic, the intervention also addresses social and emotional development and overall school readiness. Thus my expertise in school-based prevention in general, and SEL evaluation research in particular, helped position me to design a study that will assess Jumpstart’s influence on skills related to SEL in addition to early literacy. Although the current project is a one-year study, I plan to follow up with additional research examining the effects of Jumpstart on specialized populations such as English Language Learners and children who do not attend formal preschool programs. I am also interested in studying the effects of Jumpstart on participating preschool teachers and college student volunteers.
Throughout the past decade, I also consulted on a grant-funded project to expand and improve mental health services to children in Livingston County, IL. My role was to evaluate the effectiveness of service system changes over the next three to five years. One of the project’s goals was to introduce preventive SEL programming into schools throughout the county. Drawing upon my expertise in this area, I consulted with the project directors on the selection of an evidence-based intervention. I also applied my knowledge of SEL research to the evaluation design for this piece of the initiative.
Finally, I completed work on a book chapter related to parents’ impact on the developmental trajectories of children at risk for serious mental health problems (Meyers & Berk, 2012). This project extends my work in prevention beyond the school system to include a focus on the protective influences of supportive family contexts, and interventions designed to promote these influences. Together, these projects reflect my interests and expertise in understanding the preventive impact of supportive contexts on children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. Through these and future scholarly activities, it is my goal to continue contributing to the knowledge base on prevention services and their effective implementation, as well as other protective influences in children’s lives.