Graduate Student Spotlight

The Research/Project Spotlight initiative features emerging research and projects conducted by CERA’s graduate students. The spotlight initiative further the mission and goals of the association by providing a structured means to enhance the visibility of the association, support the work of its members, and support knowledge mobilization efforts to better communicate research efforts and findings to the broader education community.

Breanna Lawrence (University of Victoria)

*2018 David Bateson Award Winner

Breanna

Title of Project: An Ecological Mixed Methods Study of Youth with Learning Disabilities: Exploring Personal and Familial Influences on Mental Health

Research Questions: The impetus for my research is the notable overlap and co-occurrence of mental health and learning challenges among school-aged youth. Existing research highlights associations between learning disabilities (LD) and mental health problems; however, there has been little exploration of additional variables, such as familial influences, that represent multiple levels of influence. Using a relational developmental systems theoretical framework, the overarching aim of this research was to explore the co-occurrence of LD and mental health problems, specifically symptoms of anxiety and depression among youth, and to examine familial influences.

Project Description: Using a mixed methods design, in my dissertation, I examined the influences of parent depression, parenting behaviours, family functioning, and youth social and emotional competencies on symptoms of anxiety and depression among youth with LD. Addressing two hypotheses, the quantitative Study 1 aimed to identify factors associated with mediating effects on internalized distress in 14- and 15-year-old youth with LD using secondary analysis of a cross-sectional national sample of youth and their parents. Youth social and emotional competencies and parental monitoring were found to be the most significant buffering influences in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression. The qualitative Study 2 built on the results from Study 1, to extend the quantitative findings. In Study 2, youth at the end of middle school and their parents were interviewed to gain deeper understanding about the experiences of co-occurring LD and mental health problems from a family perspective. Data analysis identified youth fatigue, youth self-efficacy, and family relationships as central themes related to the challenges youth and their families experienced. Integrating the findings of the two studies illustrated the complex psychological, social, and educational implications for youth with LD in a family context. The interplay of factors embedded in the relation between the LD and mental health problems underscores this complexity, suggesting the relation cannot be completely understood without considering the multiple levels of influences. Implications for theory, research, and practice were described with an emphasis on ecological approaches and building school-family relationships.

Next steps for this project: The next steps include continued examination of the multiple levels of influence to unpack why the relation between LD and mental health problems may be experienced by and/or impact youth in different ways. Future research will involve school-level variables and more family cases that also include siblings’ perspectives. Few school educators have extensive training in how to effectively collaborate with families, this research highlights the need to enhance family-centered practices in schools and arguably to train the next generation of teachers in ecological theory. Future research will also focus on how family-school partnerships can be better integrated into pre-service teacher education.

CERA’s impact on Breanna’s work: CERA has impacted me in several ways. The opportunity to present at a national conference is an important venue to have those wonderful and lively discussions about research! Attending other methodologically-focused sessions in CERA has been influential and inspiring for me. For example, at CSSE in Regina this year (2018), I felt very fortunate to attend an in-depth pre-conference workshop on Mixed Methods Research. These are incredibly opportunities for emerging scholars. I feel CERA does a great job at developing both an inspiring and a supporting educationally-focused research community.