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Sylvia Epps: Structure for Success

Sylvia EppsAs an undergraduate from a small East Texas town, Lecturer Sylvia Epps never considered earning a master’s degree, let alone embarking upon advanced doctoral work that would lead to teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Yet, today, not only is she doing postdoctoral work that examines how afterschool activities affect the well-being of low-income children, but she is also teaching two graduate courses at HGSE, one focusing on the effects of poverty from birth to adolescence, and the other on adolescent development.

For her postdoctoral work, Epps has studied approximately 750 children, aged 6–18, whose parents participated in the New Hope Project, an antipoverty experiment in Milwaukee that tested the effects of work supports for low-income families. Additionally, Epps has begun to examine the health disparities of low-income children as part of a National Institute of Health (NIH) two-year grant, which will repay 50 percent of her student loans.

“The work I’ve done thus far as a part of New Hope project has focused on examining mediators of the impact of poverty on child well-being, but the NIH study will extend this work to take a closer look at risky behaviors that are associated with health disparities,” she says.

Epps, along with other investigators of the New Hope Project, has conducted longitudinal studies using New Hope data to examine children’s participation patterns over a period spanning eight years. The overall influence of New Hope on children’s environments outside the family was strong and positive. Children in New Hope families were more likely to participate in structured out-of-school activities as they got older. Other findings indicate that activity participation was related to children’s psychosocial adjustment, social behavior, and satisfaction with their friendships. Previous research has indicated that children who are less engaged in out-of-school activities have lower academic achievement, exhibit more problem behaviors, and struggle with socioemotional problems, than those who are involved in activities. In addition, Epps says that activities can teach children teamwork, organization, responsibility, behavior control, and time management skills.

Epps knows firsthand how participating in activities can impact a child’s life. She spent a short time in poverty during her transition from childhood to adolescence, during which she became very involved in afterschool activities.  “I tried to participate in everything,” she says, listing a range of activities including drill team, theater, and student council. By the time she got to college, Epps related to the stories she read about as she studied human development.

Epps, who credits some of her own success to sticking with afterschool activities, says that a student’s intrinsic motivation and social behavior, as well as their parents’ parenting behaviors are important indicators of whether a child chooses to get involved. From her work, she finds that family routines are perhaps most important. “Life for many low-income families is unpredictable and changes day-to-day because of unconventional work schedules,” she says. “If children don’t have a predictable afterschool schedule, they may have to forfeit activities altogether. Family routine is one way to support participation because it helps children make decisions about how to fit activities into their family regimen.”

While Epps believes that most parents understand the value of structured activities, there are many barriers low-income parents face that prevent their children from becoming involved. For instance, low-income parents often cannot afford the fees and expenses for uniforms, and their work schedules may make it difficult or impossible to transport their children to and from activities.  Nevertheless, Epps suggests that communities can inform parents about the importance of routines through newsletters and community support initiatives to get and keep children active. Beyond having a regular routine, Epps says it is equally important to remember that children are often surrounded by positive peers within these structured settings.  “We know structured activity settings are positive, but how can we increase low-income children’s participation rates and keep them engaged?” she asks.

Ultimately, Epps wants to discover strategies to buffer the effects of living in a low-income environment by getting and keeping children involved in structured settings. “I want to map barriers and then design an intervention to increase participation rates with those barriers in mind,” she says. “My greatest hope for my research is to identify and breakdown barriers to settings and environments that can improve the life chances of children living in poverty.”