Dr. Amiya Waldman-Levi, a clinical associate professor and director of scholarship and research in the OT doctorate program, top, simulates a strength-based approach to promoting parent-child play that seeks to overcome adversity and support children’s health and development.

By Dave DeFusco

As the COVID-19 pandemic and poverty-related stress increase the need for social-emotional support for children and families, a team of specialists led by Katz School professor Amiya Waldman-Levi has created a strength-based intervention program that aims to improve children’s development through playful interactions with their parents.

The program, Promoting Health Through Play Opportunities (originally Playing Playfully Teacher Group Training Program but renamed when parents and parent-child OT sessions were added) seeks to foster the ability of parents and children to improve their use of coping skills and overall resilience in the face of adversity. Specifically, the program provides tools for helping parents become change agents in their child’s life through the promotion of healthy play opportunities within the family.

Dr. Waldman-Levi is a clinical associate professor and director of scholarship and research in the Katz School’s Occupational Therapy (OT) Doctorate program. With the aid of a $7,500 Provost research grant, she and her team will conduct a series of telehealth group and individual sessions in Spanish and English with parents and children from diverse backgrounds.

“We’ll look at the parent’s ability to support their child’s development through playful interactions,” said Dr. Waldman-Levi, “and we’ll show ways parents can be creative, flexible and adaptable to meet their child’s needs.”

Joining Dr. Waldman-Levi are Dr. Mindy Garfinkel, clinical associate professor and assistant program director in the Katz OT program, Dr. Lola Halperin, an assistant professor at Sacred Heart University, and Dr. Danette L. Brown, an adjunct professor at Mercy College and program director for the federal Head Start program.

“We think that the program will be effective in improving parent-child relationships,” said Dr. Waldman-Levi, “and children’s social-emotional functioning.”

Research has shown that while children play, they develop the language, cognitive and social skills that contribute to good academic performance. Play can also help children regulate their emotions, give them a sense of control over their lives and ultimately help them feel safe.

Katz Occupational Therapy Doctorate students, who are trained to become scholar-practitioners, will also participate in the project by collecting data, carrying out telehealth-based interventions, evaluating outcomes and helping disseminate the program’s results.

“Through a student-centric, inter-professional and transformative education, our students are engaged in faculty-generated scholarship to build their skills in becoming leaders in the field and their communities,” said Dr. Garfinkel.

Previous research has shown that children from low-income and underserved families are at greater risk for developmental delays compared with children from middle-income families, and that children’s behavioral problems, executive functioning, literacy and academic skills are related to how effectively they play with their peers. Federally funded intervention programs targeted at improving child-teacher or child-parent relations, children’s behavior problems or pre-academic performance have yielded favorable results.

“We want to get across to the parents that it’s okay to have fun with their children, to be silly, to make mistakes and learn from them,” said Dr. Waldman-Levi. “That isn’t obvious to many adults because not everyone has the time or the tendency to be playful. We want parents to feel confident in helping their kids grow and to develop the language, social and cognitive skills necessary for constructive engagement with the world.”

In June, Dr. Selma Botman, provost and vice president for academic affairs, announced the 2022-2023 grant recipients for the Provost Faculty Research Fund, which provides grants up to $7,500 for material support and academic encouragement. The provost’s initiative invests over $100,000 annually for new research and to support faculty in innovative intellectual pursuits.

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