Faculty Spotlight: Helena Duch, PsyD

Helena Duch, PsyD, is a child and school psychologist and an Assistant Professor in PopFam. An implementation scientist, Dr. Duch’s work focuses on the design and evaluation of preventive interventions in community-based settings. Her research focuses on early childhood determinants of long-term health and positive development and the translation of these findings into effective community-based interventions that address developmental and health disparities in minority children. Duch has worked domestically and globally with large international agencies serving vulnerable populations. In recent years, she spearheaded the development of “Getting Ready for School,” an innovative pre-K curriculum that engages both teachers and parents in promoting school readiness. The curriculum has been implemented in 30 classrooms in New York City. Bilingual in Spanish and English, Duch holds a master’s degree in developmental psychology from Columbia University’s Teachers College and a doctorate in child and school psychology from New York University. Her research and views have recently been reaching a broader audience thanks to her published essays in such widely read publications as The Hill and the Washington Post.

What are your roles and responsibilities at Mailman and beyond?

I have a traditional faculty appointment—I teach, I do research, and I mentor students. I co-teach “Trends in Child Development” with [Assistant Professor] Cassie Landers. The class focuses on how to integrate child development principles into child interventions in the health, nutrition, and protection sectors, among others. One of the exciting things about the course is that it bridges local and global perspectives. Cassie works predominantly in a global setting and I work predominantly in the U.S. Together, I think we show how universal many of the most important early childhood interventions are. As of this semester, I am also co-teaching “Methods in Program Evaluation,” which I will be teaching on my own next fall. I am really excited about [this class] because a lot of what I do in my research is program evaluation, and it is a very good exercise for me to put this work into a teaching framework.

Can you tell me about some of your recent research projects?

My research focuses on what we can do early in life that will diminish disparities in health and development for young children and set them on a trajectory of success. I house this work in the EPAC (Early Childhood Parents and Children’s) Lab. A big focus has been the Getting Ready for School project, which is an early education intervention for preschool children. A lot of programs have worked to support teachers in building children’s skills, but young children spend a lot of time with their families. We wanted to develop a program that would support the classroom and parents equally and by doing so, maximize what is happening in school. The program combines an integrated curriculum targeting early literacy, math, and self-regulation skills, with the comprehensive approach of involving both classroom teachers and parents.

I understand that you are also doing further research on how parents can best be engaged in this program.

We recently got a grant from the Heising-Simons Foundation to systematically study the parent engagement component of Getting Ready for School. Typically, a program of this kind would offer parent workshops, but we started branching out, and we now we have a matrix of ways through which parents can support school-based learning. For example, we surveyed parents and found that 70 percent are online daily with Facebook, so we started a private page for parents where we share information with them. We also send text messages to parents sharing child development tips and fun things that parents can do to reinforce what is happening at school. It could be something as simple as going on a numbers hunt while taking a walk. We are doing this research using an experimental design; we currently work in four preschools and have eight intervention classrooms, eight controls, and a total of about 200 kids in the intervention. Our preliminary work is showing that we are getting parents more engaged [in the Getting Ready for School program], but the real test will be whether kids do better in the long run.

Are there other projects you are excited about?

There are a couple of new projects I am really excited about. We have a visiting faculty member, Erum Mariam, from BRAC University in Bangladesh—she loves Getting Ready for School and is about to incorporate parts of the program into a new initiative she is launching in Bangladesh. It’s a good example of the universality of early childhood work. I am also engaged with a team of folks on a project that is developing a home-visiting intervention that targets dads. Fathers have [historically] been forgotten in child development and our field is just beginning to remedy that. We are now working to use a curriculum that has been very successful in helping incarcerated fathers interact with their kids during visiting hours. We hope to use this curriculum to work with fathers and also with mothers and fathers together as part of Early Head Start programming in New York City and in Washington, DC.

I understand that you have been selected as a Columbia University Public Voices Fellow. Can you tell me what this entails?

The Columbia Public Voices Fellows is a one-year program [that helps underrepresented experts publish Op-Eds in leading media outlets]. It has been very rewarding. My first piece appeared in The Hill just after the [U.S.] government released recommendations on routine screening of pregnant and postpartum women for depression. I had some very strong ideas about how those efforts should be expanded by investing in mental health services for new mothers in pediatric clinics. It’s a model that’s already being used successfully at Montefiore [Hospital] in the Bronx. My second piece appeared in the Washington Post. In that article I shared my concerns—both as a clinical psychologist and as a parent—about the ways in which presidential candidate Donald Trump is helping to normalize bullying and negative behaviors as acceptable forms of interaction, instead of modeling positive, self-regulatory skills that eventually help children lead successful, well-adjusted lives.

How did you become interested in child development and public health?

I am from Barcelona and I went to college in Spain. We don’t have a four-year college system before graduate work like in the United States. We specialize right away, so I became a clinical psychologist. After four years there, and as young as I was, I realized I knew nothing and I got a fellowship to earn my masters [in developmental psychology] at Teachers College. I wanted to work with kids with autism. While at Teachers College, I worked at the Rita Gold Early Childhood Center and I became fascinated by normative child development and what factors make some kids do better than others, so when I graduated I went to work at Head Start. I spent two years there as a parent coordinator and then many more as a psychologist after I got my doctorate. I became very interested in research and in being able to intervene more systematically on behalf of young children. I kept getting involved in research studies and [Head Start Director and PopFam Assistant Professor] Carmen Rodriguez was gracious enough at some point to suggest that it would make more sense for me to [carry out this work as a faculty member]. While I am more focused on research these days, I know that my years of clinical work deeply inform the way I approach both my research and my classroom teaching.