Teaming up for healthy kids in First Nation communities

(Edmonton) Four First Nation communities are collaborating with University of Alberta researchers on the First Nation Child Development project. This collaboration, over the past two years, has looked at healthy child development from a community perspective. Community partners provide crucial guidance and knowledge that contributes to the success of this project. This collaborative project is also giving valuable research training and experience to students at Yellowhead Tribal College (YTC) and graduate students at the U of A.

The project is a community-based research partnership between four Yellowhead Tribal Council communities, the Community-University Partnership for the Study of Children, Youth, and Families (CUP) in the U of A’s Faculty of Extension, and Yellowhead Tribal College.

Students gain practical research experience

Tyson Frencheater, Jeannie Paul and Garett Strawberry are students from the college who are assisting with the project.

Last fall, these three students, along with eight others, enrolled in a community-based research course offered at the college and developed in collaboration with CUP. After completing the course, Frencheater, Paul and Strawberry joined the research team as student research assistants. This gave them hands-on experience with the data collection, analysis, interpretation and communication processes in the project.

Paul, also a U of A student in the Faculty of Native Studies, was surprised to learn how practical community-based research is.

“This is all research but you wouldn’t think so. I find it different from researching a paper. This is really hands-on and catches my attention. The researchers encourage your input here and ask for your interpretation,” she said.

Seaneen O’Rourke, dean of programs at Yellowhead Tribal College, sees benefits of the project for the college and its students.

“This project made sense for YTC because the students are also community members. It provides them the experience of engaging with the community and doing research,” said O’Rourke. “It is giving them experience they can put on their resume and then gain more senior experience. If any of them choose to do graduate work, it is such an advantage.

“These types of partnerships are really important for YTC because it will help us develop research capacity,” O’Rourke added. “We are not a research institution as such, but a small institution that offers certificates and diplomas on our own. This kind of research strengthens and develops existing relationships between the college and the communities.”

Helping communities strengthen support

The research, led by CUP assistant director Rebecca Gokiert, looks critically at traditional forms of early childhood development assessments and explores ways to include the unique aspects of community values, cultural context and spirituality that are important in raising healthy young First Nation children.

Both Strawberry and Frencheater think this project will help their communities strengthen supports for healthy child development.

“There’s culture that is being lost. This measurement will show that some of the kids need to learn in certain areas—especially the language,” said Strawberry.

“This project can benefit the children by possibly taking our native tongue to the next level. It’s kind of been lost for generations,” said Frencheater. “It will help focus on bringing tradition back to the communities and on finding mentors to support children who will be the next generation.”

Collaboration and learning for the students is a two-way street. Graduate student researchers on the project have gained knowledge from the YTC students.

Tristan Robinson, a U of A human ecology graduate student and research assistant on the project, says she feels her time spent on this project is invaluable.

“The students give so much insight into things I had no idea about. They always bring in a focus that the rest of the research team doesn’t have. We put a certain academic focus on [the project] and they bring us back to a community focus,” said Robinson.

She thinks the findings from this project will give the communities their own tool to strengthen parent and teacher engagement in the learning process. “It’s about engaging their children differently and getting the community involved as a whole in the learning process,” she said.

Robinson has enjoyed her time working in the communities. “Working with the elders helps ground me if I want to go forward in working with communities, to make sure I always have that perspective,” she said.

The student research assistants have just completed their positions and have moved on to additional coursework toward their degrees and summer employment opportunities. The research team will be analyzing a new round of assessment data over the summer and will look for new opportunities to engage Yellowhead Tribal College students in the fall of 2013.