Cracking the Code: Exploring “Mom Power” through Behavioral Coding

Changemaker Catalyst Award recipient, Lily Donald, worked as a Behavioral Coder in the Tulane Child and Family Lab, which investigates the efficacy of “Mom Power,” a therapeutic maternal intervention. Lily graduated this May, Class of 2023, with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology.

I will never forget how I felt the first time I stepped foot into a study participant’s home to collect data for my psychology lab’s research project, “Mom Power.” My heart was racing as I knocked on their front door, mentally rehearsing the script of at-home assessments. I had seen dozens of videos of these assessments throughout my training for the role, but the feeling of contributing to running the study was indescribable. At home visits are notorious for not going as planned – there are too many variables to possibly predict every outcome – one can never know what the setting will be like, if there will be any unexpected interruptions like a delivery person ringing the doorbell, an excited dog barking in the background, or a piece of technology suddenly rebooting in the middle of a visit. The possibilities are endless. The minute the family opened the door, my fears melted away. I was greeted with a toothless grin by a friendly five-year-old, and I was reminded why I sought out this opportunity in the first place. I found myself fascinated by these visits and getting more excited each time I was scheduled for a new shift.

This summer, I had the opportunity to circle back to where it all began and take my research responsibilities to the next level. But instead of watching old videos for training and going on home visits, I was now given the opportunity to watch these videos to collect a new type of data – behavioral coding. I had never coded before and admittedly was intimidated by the connotation that comes with the idea – I imagined myself staring at a screen full of 0’s and 1’s and trying to make sense of it all. But behavioral coding was not the traditional coding I had anticipated. As a Behavioral Coder for Dr. Sarah A.O. Gray’s Child and Family Lab at Tulane, I was tasked with the goal of coding parent-child interactions from home visits, using the Parent Child Interaction Rating System (PCIRS), in order to uncover new data from our current study. So instead of conducting home visits, my work consisted of watching videos similar to the ones I had participated in and observing and assigning codes to various quantitative and qualitative behaviors.

Click here to check out the lab’s website for more information!

The research focus of my lab investigates the efficacy of a therapeutic group intervention on physiological stress and mental health outcomes of low-income mothers and children, ultimately contributing to a vital exploration of the relationship between maternal trauma and parenting outcomes. As a coder, I observed parent-child interactions during the home assessments in both a free-play task, in which the mother and child play together as they normally would, and a purposefully stressful puzzle task. I analyzed and coded the behaviors of the mother, the child, and the interaction between the two, looking for specific markers in categories including but not limited to maternal sensitivity, intrusiveness, language quality and amount, stimulation of cognitive development, child attention levels, mood, and joint attention. Coding parent-child interactions both before and after the group-based clinical parenting intervention enables us to gather more extensive data, which is essential in ending the cycle of trauma and ensuring healthy outcomes for children.

Snapshot from a promotional flyer for ‘Mom Power’ from Tulane Child and Family Lab Website which lists some of the meaningful, positive outcomes past participants have experienced after the intervention.

Being able to analyze the data that I once helped collect has been nothing short of fascinating. In my coding role, I can observe the interaction between the mother and child from a different perspective than when I was sitting in the room with them. Now, as I watch these interactions on a screen, getting to hit rewind if I notice something striking or ambiguous, I am without the distraction of what my next responsibility is in ensuring the visit runs smoothly. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to experience two different, but vital sides of our study – the data collection and data analysis.

The “Mom Power” curriculum utilizes a Tree metaphor to illustrate how parents create a secure base and safe haven for their children, enabling them to explore and connect as they grow.

My role as a behavioral coder for the Tulane Child and Family Lab has allowed me to be part of a team that is promoting positive change for the New Orleans community of mothers, and one day beyond. This opportunity served as an invaluable stepping stone in my research journey, enabling me to grow as a researcher and expand my skill set. These enhanced skills are key in unlocking the doors to further research pursuits in graduate school, ultimately equipping me to be a changemaker in this field and to directly contribute to the betterment of the lives of children and families in need. By venturing into new territories in the child and family research world, I was able to dig deeper into my passion and curiosity for the field and gain a more profound understanding of the population for which I am aspiring to be a changemaker for in the future.

Our lab’s principal investigator, Dr. Sarah A.O. Gray, and I!