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Amid pandemic, study examines how families cope with shared space

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    Apart, all together:  Two students who attend a Department of Defense Education Activity school in Vicenza, Italy, complete classwork from home through digital learning, April 28, 2020. {em}Photo courtesy DOD{/em}  
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At first, Virginia’s stay-at-home order appeared to signal the end for Danielle Dallaire’s spring research program.

“My first thought was I was going to have to put everything on hold,” said Dallaire, a professor of psychological sciences at William & Mary.

Danielle Dallaire

Dallaire’s research examines children’s social and emotional development in the context of risk. Since coming to William & Mary in 2006, she has actively researched how children cope with the risk of parental incarceration.

“My research primarily takes place in schools, jails and prisons,” she said. “Access was totally shut down, so I told myself I would just have to take a step back from research. But after I got out of initial crisis mode, the fog lifted and I realized that I could conduct research remotely on the impact of stay-at-home orders on families.”

Dallaire and her colleague Daniel Gutierrez, assistant professor of counselor education at the William & Mary School of Education, launched a study of parents of school-aged children. The team is conducting an online survey on how families are coping during the COVID-19 pandemic, and offering resources on what parents can do to support their children’s mental health.

Gutierrez’s work focuses on issues related to the treatment and prevention of mental health disorders, including access to counseling services and the effectiveness of interventions. Much of his research has delved into the strategies that help people overcome challenging life circumstances. In the context of a global pandemic, he hopes to uncover clues that will point to the types of supports that will be most helpful for families.

Dallaire and Gutierrez are two of the founding members of the Thrive Community Group – a gathering of researchers dedicated to helping make communities better through community-engaged research and services.

“We understood that this pandemic is impacting everyone differently,” Dallaire said. “For example, the families that I usually work with, who have a loved one who might be incarcerated, they are going to be dealing with different types of stressors than some other families.”

Dallaire says the study was inspired by ongoing work by a research group at the University of Oxford. The project Co-Space Study: Supporting Parents, Adolescents and Children during Epidemics examines how children and their caregivers are handling the stress of a pandemic and sheltering in place.

The survey-based study asks questions that relate to family life and relationships, overall health and wellbeing, parenting, psychological symptoms and generally coping with living through COVID-19. Dallaire and Gutierrez adapted the questions to address specific conditions affecting families in the greater Williamsburg area.

“I looked at what they were doing and thought those are the types of questions I want to address,” Dallaire said. “We also had our own set of questions, which related to concerns that are unique to our community – like the high number of families who work in tourism-based and service industries. The specific economic conditions of our community were important to address.”

Daniel GutierrezThe survey addresses the current economic landscape, with questions about employment status, income and whether anyone in the home has been impacted by COVID-19. It also tackles the physical landscape, with questions about the layout of the home and how many people are sharing that space. The survey also contains questions that gauge child and parent stress and anxiety.

“The questions are designed to be thought-provoking,” she said. “We want you to step back and realize ‘well, actually, my heart has been racing a little bit more lately.’ We’re hoping there is some personal value for people as they really consider how they have been feeling.”

The survey had over 100 responses in the first week. So far, preliminary findings indicate the top three stressors for parents are work, their children’s screen time and their children’s education.

Despite the high level of education among survey participants (with 54 percent reporting a post-graduate degree and 27 percent having completed a bachelor’s degree), 38 percent of respondents reported not being able to support their children in their schoolwork.

“For some of us subjects like middle school math are something we haven’t thought about in a very long time, and a lot has changed,” Gutierrez said. “When you couple how long it has been since we have been faced with this material and all the stressors of being in a crisis, including the pains of technology, it can be really challenging to feel confident that you are leading your child down the right road.”

Dallaire said early results indicate 52 percent of parents report that their children are spending at least two to three hours on school work per day.

“As a parent, you don't really know how many hours your kids should be doing actual school work,” Dallaire said. “That’s stressful because you don’t have a reference point.”

Parents also reported that their children’s top COVID-19-related concerns were fear that a family member would catch it, that they will catch it and that they will fall behind on schoolwork.

“These findings can be really useful moving forward if this crisis continues into the fall,” she added. “We are getting a sense of how parents are coping, the stress they report for themselves and their kids. We are able to see how people in this community are struggling and that allows us to find the best way to target that and get valuable information to families.”