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Dr. Falon Smith

The UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention has awarded to Dr. Falon Smith, MS, PhD, a planning grant of $5,000 to conduct a research project on early care and education needs in racially and ethnically minoritized communities. Dr. Smith is one of two recipients of the 2023 HPDP Planning grant program, which is designed to assist UNC researchers in carrying out pilot projects related to health promotion/disease prevention research. “Understanding Early Care and Education Needs in Racially and Ethnically Minoritized Communities: Guilford County Café” uses a novel, participatory approach to address inequities in early care and education programs.

Over 60% of children under the age of five attend childcare regularly in the United States. High-quality early care and education (ECE) has been shown to reduce health disparities related to race and socioeconomic status, as well as foster lifelong success. However, racially and ethnically minoritized (REM) communities have less access to high-quality ECE opportunities compared to predominantly white communities.

Go NAPSACC is an online, evidence-based change management system developed by the Children’s Healthy Weight Research Group that helps ECE settings improve the health of young children. With Go NAPSACC, ECE educators improve their practices and policies across seven content areas (breast/infant feeding, child nutrition, farm to ECE, oral health, infant/child physical activity, outdoor play/learning, screen time). Since its launch in 2014, Go NAPSACC has reached nearly 10,000 ECE programs in 22 states. On average, ECE programs that use Go NAPSACC improve self-assessments by 10%, creating healthier policies, practices, and environments.

Despite its extensive scope, limited information exists on how Go NAPSACC can better support REM communities. Additionally, few studies engage REM communities to understand their needs and address those needs in ECE settings. “Given it’s potential to reach and improve the quality of care provided in ECE programs across the nation, it is critical that we ensure Go NAPSACC’s uptake and implementation do not further inequities and broaden gaps in quality care,” says Dr. Smith, the Project Manager of Go NAPSACC. “To ensure mitigation of these inequities, we must understand the needs of and work collaboratively with REM communities.”

In this study, Dr. Smith will conduct an in-person listening session and focus group with ECE providers in REM communities in Guilford County, North Carolina, to understand and reduce inequities they may face. Approximately one-third of the population in Guilford County is Black, and the county faces challenges as about half of the children are born into poverty. Ready for School, Ready for Life (Ready Ready) is a ten-year initiative spearheaded by funders, such as the Duke Endowment, to improve opportunities for young children and their caregivers. In the coming year, Ready Ready will focus its efforts on ECE workforce improvement strategies, driving home the importance of engaging with ECE educators now to better understand their needs.  Dr. Smith will recruit 12 ECE providers from Guilford County who primarily serve REM communities for a listening session and will later select a subgroup for a focus group.

Dr. Smith hopes to understand their unique challenges, priorities, and successes to develop culturally relevant and equitable strategies for improving children’s health in these communities. The study will use the World Café model to conduct listening sessions. This method for communing helps create an inclusive environment, where participants feel more comfortable sharing their experiences, insights, and collaborate to generate new ideas. Insights gathered from the sessions will inform the development of Go NAPSACC enhancement strategies, ensuring its effectiveness and relevance in promoting health and well-being among children in underserved communities. “Our first goal of this project is ensuring that participating ECE educators in Guilford County feel valued, heard, and respected as equitable partners throughout the project,” Dr. Smith shares. “We hope to take away immediate action steps to improve Go NAPSACC’s practices and learn from their expertise and experience to better inform the direction of work supporting ECE programs in the future.”

Dr. Falon Smith joined HPDP as a Project Manager in 2017 and is the Managing Director of Research Dissemination with the Children’s Healthy Weight Research Group, where she serves as Project Manager for the Go NAPSACC program. During her time at the Center, she focused on developing and spreading evidence-based health practices for Early Care and Education programs nationwide. Dr. Smith holds a Doctorate and Master of Science degree in Exercise Science from the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina.

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