RMC’s OTD Program awarded grant to study early childhood adversity in Native American community

Billings, Mont., May 18, 2020 - Rocky Mountain College’s Occupational Therapy Doctorate (OTD) Program has received a Montana IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence Award that will initiate an occupational therapy sensory program to increase positive behaviors in children who express sensory processing and/or behavioral difficulties due to early childhood adversity. The RMC OTD Program will collaborate with Montana State University, Bozeman on this pilot research project. Other sensory programs have promoted self-regulation in children, but  no prior study has examined the use of sensory behavior-adjustment methodology in an American Indian community.

OTD program Director of Research, Dr. Delisha Patel, Ph.D., and Program Director, Dr. Twylla Kirchen, Ph.D., will collaborate with Dr. Alexandra Adams, Ph.D., M.D., Director of the Center for American Indian Rural Health Equity at MSU-Bozeman to conduct a single-case research study. The results of the study will direct a longitudinal, sustainable study at an Early Head Start program in a Native American community in Montana.

Because of adverse early childhood experiences, some children respond to stimuli differently than those who were not exposed to adverse pre-birth conditions.

“Normally, a child receives all the sensory information, processes it, and generates an appropriate response,” Dr. Patel said. “Kids with behavioral conditions process sensory information differently, often generating an inappropriate response. These kids can develop behavioral issues, such as the tendency to hit other kids, scream, or throw tantrums. Occupational therapists can modulate those behavioral challenges. For example, if the process of waiting in a library line is stressful, they can do a simple jumping exercise beforehand to modulate their sensory processing, which can change the behavioral outcome and allow them to be more cohesive with other kids.”

Occupational therapy is all about meeting individuals and families where they are and then coming up with meaningful strategies and interventions to help them. The research team will partner with the community to integrate Native American culture, including song, dance, and food, into the study. A community advisory board will be formed with parents, tribal leaders, and Early Head Start administrative staff to help incorporate a culturally-appropriate sensory program into their pre-school education.

“Sensory programs are trial and error,” said Dr. Patel. “For some kids, a 10-minute walk or jumping session on a sensory pad is all it takes. Others may require different therapies. Most of the grant funds for this study will be used to purchase sensory pads, swings, and other equipment that will stay with the community, to be used by other children year after year. We hope this collaborative research pilot and longitudinal study will demonstrate how hands-on sensory therapies can benefit preschool-aged children as well as their families, teachers, and community.”

RMC OTD students will participate in the study, along with Dr. Patel, Dr. Kirchen, and Aimee Roberts, OTD pediatric adjunct faculty member. Initially scheduled to begin this spring, the project has been temporarily delayed due to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. In the interim, a team of six RMC OTD students have begun studying the cultures of the tribes residing on the reservation where the study will take place. They’ve completed a preliminary analysis from prior visits to the Native American community, and meetings with Early Head Start teachers, tribal leaders, and the children’s caregivers.