Oct. 8, 2021
UCalgary researcher teams up with community champion to support kids and families
There is a dream amongst the researchers of the world. That their life’s work may lead to a change, shift, or improvement in the way the rest of us experience our time on this planet. For many, drawing the line between investigation and outcomes can take years, possibly with few tangible connections. For paediatrics professor Dr. Suzanne Tough, PhD, on the other hand, all it takes is a drive around town.
Tough and her research team at the Owerko Centre in the University of Calgary’s Cumming School of Medicine are a decade into a study that’s been following 3,000 Calgary families since their children were new babes. Their goal with the All Our Families study is to continually expand our understanding of supports families need to thrive, including those related to maternal well-being, mental health and child development.
“When I started in this area, we didn’t really talk about the mental health of a primary care giver, like mom,” says Tough. “We talked about child development, and challenges families have when a parent has a mental illness and requires clinical care. However, we have learned there are many parents who need resources or community support to cope with challenges in their own well-being, or their child’s.”
Throughout it all, Tough’s goal has been to find ways to immediately translate her work into change. She has partnered with several community organizations including the United Way, Calgary Libraries, Calgary’s school boards, the police service and health providers.
Helping families, one book at a time
“One place our work has complimented one another is Calgary Reads,” she says. “They have connections through working with community that can help inform my work. On the flip side, they are highly interested in using evidence from our research to better shape their programming.”
One collaboration throughout their 20-year partnership involved looking for ways to help children transition to kindergarten more smoothly.
“We were interested in understanding from the All Our Families data the characteristics of children who didn’t have self-regulation skills by kindergarten,” she explains. “We knew Calgary Reads, through their broad community reach, could help parents understand what they can do to help their children be more ready.”
Steacy Collyer, founder and executive director of Calgary Reads, says it was a win for everyone.
“Self-regulation is not a well-behaved child,” she says. “It’s a complex set of skills. When Suzanne’s group started to see a correlation between preventative strategies and better self-regulation outcomes, we were able to translate their findings into colourful, approachable, creative tools for families to use.”
Collyer says, as a small non-profit, Calgary Reads has little in the way of research funding. Working with Tough has allowed them to learn more about the community they serve.
“Suzanne gets that research has to be translated in order for the community to benefit.” Collyer says. “Suzanne was able to embed in her cohort surveys some of the questions we had around literacy practices, then feed back the data to us such that we could develop new programs.
“Only when we develop those deep reading abilities do books use their power over us and change the way we think."
National recognition shines new light on her work
Early in her career, Tough’s work focused on pre-term births and threats to early childhood development. Across two decades, it has morphed into an ongoing, community-focused way of seeing not only how Calgary’s families are faring but how to help shepherd them toward better outcomes.
“The inspiration comes from a real desire to see how we can use what we learn in science to help decision-makers make the best use of resources to help families,” she says. “So many people share common goals. We can get the best possible answers by learning how to work together.”
In September, Tough was one of three researchers from the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute newly elected as Fellows of the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences. Honoured by the decision, Tough says she is hopeful for the exposure it will bring to the importance of helping parents and children thrive and, in time, to policy shifts and community investments to further support parents and their little ones.
The University of Calgary is driving science and innovation to transform the health and well-being of children and families. Led by the Alberta Children's Hospital Research Institute, top scientists across the campus are partnering with Alberta Health Services, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Foundation, and our community to create a better future for children through research.
Suzanne Tough is a professor in the departments of Paediatrics and Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine, and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health, the Alberta Children’s Hospital Research Institute (ACHRI), and the Owerko Centre within ACHRI.