By Hyun Namkoong

Jackie Zaldivar was at the end of her rope with her rambunctious 9-year-old son who had trouble following directions.

Like any parent of an unruly child, Zaldivar says that there were some days when she would want to give up.

As an employee of Burlington Pediatrics, Zaldivar worked out of the same building as Debbie Kennerson-Webb, a licensed behavioral specialist on Project Launch’s Early Childhood Mental Health team.

Zaldivar had heard that Kennerson-Webb worked with parents and children and finally decided to ask her for help with her son.

Zaldivar says that Kennerson-Webb taught her the principles of the positive parenting program, commonly called Triple P, a program that helps families learn positive reinforcement for good behavior and better ways to discipline children rather than just yelling or sending them to their rooms, or worse.

“Debbie has been a lifesaver for my family,” Zaldivar said. “She gave us ideas on how to discipline him properly.”

Project Launch helps families like Zaldivar’s by providing support to promote healthy relationships between parents and their children. The program targets early-childhood and parenting styles because of the fundamental role those early years play in the well-being of people’s lives later on.

Integrating services

The Early Childhood Mental Health teams of Project Launch are nestled in two of the largest private pediatric clinics in Burlington, Kernodle Clinic Pediatrics and Burlington Pediatrics.

Project Launch follows a two-generation Family Centered Medical Home model to provide services that meet both medical and non-medical needs of children and parents.

Billboards around Alamance County advertise Triple P parenting help. Photo courtesy of Project Launch

A navigator of the team locates community resources to get non-medical needs of children and parents met. Shannon Huffman, a navigator, connects parents to agencies that help them secure housing, obtain food stamps or enroll in Medicaid.

The Family Centered Medical Home model isn’t so much a place as it is an approach to providing integrated services that reduce the stigma of seeking help for mental illness and allow for improved access to care and treatment follow-up.

“[I help] make sure their basic needs are met,” Huffman said. “Most people don’t think that they can ask about those kinds of things at their doctor’s office.”

Oftentimes, things like a shortage of cash, unemployment or parental strife can increase the stress level in a family to the point where children act out and parents overreact. But identifying parents who need help getting resources is tricky because not every parent is willing to disclose those kinds of needs to their health care providers.

To circumvent this dilemma, Project Launch heavily advertises Triple P in Burlington with posters in schools and the health department and on billboards.

Huffman said that Triple P is a way for families with or without resource needs to get connected to Project Launch.

“Everybody has tantrums. Even families without resource needs have tantrums,” she said.

Project Launch provides all of its services for free through the support of the federal grant, eliminating the financial barrier that often prevents people from obtaining follow-up care.

Project Launch director Martha Kaufman said that the funding was supposed to end this fall but was extended for another year.

Huffman said that it’s great the team doesn’t have to worry about billing and finances, freeing them up to spend more time with patients, visit them in homes or even accompany parents to parent-teacher meetings.

The idea is that money spent now saves down the road. A growing body of research shows that good, healthy parenting is the strongest predictor for higher academic achievement and better social and emotional functioning for children.

Other research is finding that people who go on to higher education and who have strong social support end up having fewer chronic diseases and improved health outcomes overall.

Proving the value of prevention

While a fundamental principle of public health is to prevent illnesses rather than treat them, Kaufman said that’s something that’s rarely done in child and mental health.

“There is a huge need everywhere for prevention services,” she said.

Kaufman said that Alamance County has a great network of interconnected services. “The piece that was missing from the framework was preventing children from needing those services,” she said.

But the push within the public health world and funding agencies to fund projects that have measurable outcomes and results makes it difficult to implement preventative-health interventions.

Interventions that target early childhood as a way to prevent sickness and death have outcomes that can be difficult to measure and evaluate in the beginning stages of a program. And even if those outcomes are easy to measure, getting the data to prove it takes decades.

“As you can imagine, change takes time,” said Katie Rosanbalm, a research scholar at Duke University’s Center for Child and Family Policy. “[That’s] very important to remember and take into consideration whenever you evaluate any kind of program.”

In the meantime, Zaldivar said, her son doesn’t come home with red warning cards from teachers anymore and he’s now in the academically gifted program at school.

Project Launch is “so wonderful,” she said. “[It’s] available for all types of families that need help.”

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Hyun Namkoong

Hyun graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill Gillings Global School of Public Health in the health behavior department and she worked as the NC Health News intern from Jan-Aug 2014.