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Marti Erickson holding her granddaughter

U child development expert Marti Erickson and her granddaughter, Clara. Erickson kicked off the four-part 2006-07 Lessons From the Field series on attachment theory in October. "A researcher who studies children and families has a responsibility to give something back," says Erickson, and the series allows that to happen.

Two-way street

Statewide series on children's mental health exchanges knowledge from research and practice

By Stephanie Wilkes

Brief, March 28, 2007

Hundreds of children's mental health experts are expected to gather in Coffman Union at the U's Twin Cities campus on March 29 for a workshop on attachment theory. But--based on the overwhelming response to a related workshop last month--the real turnout will be hundreds more statewide, participating through Internet and interactive TV at 35 host sites. They will include not only researchers and clinicians but parents and other health professionals.

Attachment refers to the enduring tie that forms between a child an another, usually a parent. The medical director of child and adolescent psychiatry at St. Cloud Hospital Behavioral Health Services, Read Sulik, will be the key presenter. Edward Taylor, associate professor in the School of Social Work, will be the respondent. It will be the third of four workshops in the 2006-07 Lessons From the Field series sponsored by the University's Center of Excellence in Children's Mental Health (CECMH).

"A workshop series like this has not been done before--not using this type of technology and not with this level of involvement in greater Minnesota," says CECMH coordinator Cari Michaels. "We have been really overwhelmed by the interest in this--which has been a great surprise. People all over the state are clamoring for this information."

Lessons From the Field is a series of events throughout the academic year where researchers and practitioners can inform each other about what's working well in the field, says Michaels. It's a place to bring people together to talk about crucial issues, creating a dialogue between the University and community members.

Center of Excellence in Children's Mental Health

CECMH was created as part of President Bruininks's Initiative on Children, Youth, and Families. Launched in May 2003 and formally established in January 2004, the Center strives to bridge the gap between research and practice in the area of children's mental health.

Lessons from the Field began during the center's first year. Events were held on various topics "to get a feel for what was happening out in the field," says Michaels. Fetal alcohol syndrome and the impact of maternal depression on children were just two of the topics.

Michaels came to CECMH in January 2005 and was joined by associate program coordinator Ellen Lepinski in February 2006. They decided that a more formal, sustained series based on a major theme would offer more in-depth discussions.

Each workshop features a key presenter--either a researcher or a practitioner--who gives an in-depth presentation on the topic. The presenter is followed by a panel of respondents with related expertise. If the presenter is a researcher, practitioners respond abut how that research applies to their practice. If the presenter is a practitioner, researchers identify why that practice might be effective based on their knowledge of the research. This exchange is at the heart of Lessons From the Field.

The importance of attachment

The idea to focus on attachment came primarily from evaluations completed by participants at previous CECMH events. With the involvement of several other organizations, the center chose attachment theory and research as the theme for the 2006-07 four-part series.

"We were really just responding to a need that had been addressed by members of the mental health community," says Lepinski.


Learn more about the 2006-07 series in progress, including the third workshop, "Inter-Relationship Between Attachment and Other Mental Health Concerns," March 29.

The first event of the year, in October, introduced the issue of attachment and created a framework for the workshops to follow. The key presenter was Marti Erickson, developmental psychologist and director of the Harris Programs in the University's Center for Early Education and Development and cochair of the President's Initiative on Children, Youth, and Families.

Erickson was chosen because she's been involved for many years in attachment research and applying that research. Her early work in residential and in-patient child psychiatry fueled her desire to work proactively to help prevent mental health problems. She also strives to bring about systems change to address family and community factors in children's mental health.

"I provided the basics on what attachment is, how it develops, how it shapes later development, and what we need to consider if we want to increase the likelihood that children will have the foundation of a secure attachment," says Erickson.

The second event, in February, focused specifically on disturbances of attachment in early childhood, with Tulane Universitiy's Charles Zeanah as the key presenter.

The third event, this week, is devoted to the relationship between attachment and other mental health concerns.

"It's important for people to understand that attachment is an important issue, and it is a concept that we still do not completely understand," says Taylor. "We need to stimulate federal and state funding to support better studies on exactly what attachment is and how those children who are suffering from problems of attachment can be better treated."

"Lessons [From the Field] gives us the foundation...for a very large partnership," says Taylor.

Taylor is currently working with the State of Minnesota on an evaluation of evidence-based practice in children's mental health clinics, exploring how it is being used and the outcomes in clinic settings. He says clinicians are overwhelmed with the number of patients and have limited access or time to read updated research information. He stresses the importance of providing clinicians with straightforward information they can apply to their everyday work. He sees Lessons From the Field as a step toward meeting that goal.

"This series sets the stage for work that equally involves the community and the University," says Taylor. "While right now Lessons is operating on a small scale, it gives us a foundation for this to become a very large partnership that involves a shared investigation into these important topics."

Beyond the metro

CECMH originally planned to host Lessons From the Field on campus, but staff members changed their minds after receiving many requests from greater Minnesota. It proved a wise choice: the first event involved 25 host sites, and that number has already grown to 35. The February workshop drew 1,100 participants, 300 on campus and 800 more statewide.

"It's been a challenge to get the technology to work," Michaels admits. "I think we have the people and the interest more than we have the technology worked out."

At the beginning of this year, CECMH relied on video stream technology to broadcast the workshop to host sites. Now a second option is offered--interactive television (ITV), which is often used for distance learning courses at universities. For tomorrow's event, about a third of the host sites have opted for ITV.

"[The technology] is creating a two-way street between the community and the University," says Michaels. "It is not just a talking head on a screen. Instead, the community can participate by e-mailing questions and providing feedback. It has brought about a dialogue."

Cari Michaels Ellen Lepinski
CECMH staff members Cari Michaels, coordinator (top), and Ellen Lepinski, associate program coordinator. Photos courtesy of CECMH.

To plan to run a series of events for over a thousand participants is a larger undertaking than Lepinski and Michaels initially anticipated. Lepinski functions as the events planner, coordinating the speakers and events on campus while staying in constant communication with the host-site coordinators. Michaels participates in planning the series to ensure it fits with the broader goals of CECMH. She is also exploring fund-raising options to help meet the center's growing need.

Due to time and staffing constrictions, CECMH has been able to host only one site per community. Since each site holds a limited number, Lepinski estimates that, with current resources, the series will cap out around 1,200 participants.

"We've even received requests to get involved from 12 surrounding states and Canada," she says. "They've seen it on the Internet and are really interested in participating."

The level of enthusiasm and interest has prompted Michaels to make the series a priority within the center's goals and activities.

"Promoting this pattern of communication between researchers and practitioners, as well as the University and the community, is a goal we set for the series, and it is definitely a goal that is being met," says Michaels. "Our main goal for the future will be outreach, trying to fulfill all the requests we have received by working on our technology. We are seeking a sponsorship to start broadcasting over satellite so the events will be more widely available at a much higher quality."

On a broader level, Michaels views the series as an essential part of CECMH and hopes to continue developing lines of communication.

"It's so common that the direction of communication from the University is one way, especially with a large university like ours, where people are used to giving out knowledge without finding ways to create that important dialogue," says Michaels. "In this series, researchers are learning from clinicians, parents, and others about what needs to happen in future research to better inform practice."

Erickson agrees. She stresses the importance of applying the research and practice to those who really matter: the children.

"I believe that a researcher who studies children and families has a responsibility to give something back," says Erickson. "What better way to give back than to use the information to promote practices and policies that are grounded in solid research and are likely to improve the health and well-being of children and families in our communities?"

Stephanie Wilkes is a junior in English and linguistics and a communications intern in the Office for Public Engagement. If you have questions or comments, please e-mail