Research from the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences is getting widespread attention. Take a look at some of our faculty’s latest work and where it has turned up around the world.

How Happy Couples Argue

In marriage, conflict is inevitable. Even the happiest couples argue. And research shows they tend to argue about the same topics as unhappy couples: children, money, in-laws, intimacy.

So what distinguishes happy couples? According to “What are the Marital Problems of Happy Couples? A Multi-method, Two-Sample Investigation,” a study published last August in Family Process, it is the way happy couples argue that may make a difference.

“Happy couples tend to take a solution-oriented approach to conflict, and this is clear even in the topics that they choose to discuss,” said lead author Amy Rauer, associate professor of child and family studies and director of the Relationships and Development Lab in the College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences.

Rauer and three colleagues observed two samples of couples who describe themselves as happily married. Fifty-seven of the couples were in their mid- to late 30s and had been married an average of nine years; 64 of the couples were in their early 70s and had been married an average of 42 years.

Couples in both samples similarly ranked their most and least serious issues. Intimacy, leisure, household, communication, and money were the most serious, as well as health for the older couples; couples in both samples ranked jealousy, religion, and family as the least serious.

When researchers observed couples discussing marital problems, all couples focused on issues with clearer solutions, such as the distribution of household labor and how to spend leisure time.

The couples rarely chose to argue about issues that are more difficult to resolve. And Rauer suggests that this strategic decision may be one of the keys to their marital success. Instead, to the extent it is possible, focusing first on more solvable problems may be an effective way to build up both partners’ sense of security in the relationship.

Researchers also found that couples who were married longer reported fewer serious issues and argued less overall. This is consistent with previous research suggesting that older partners’ perceptions of spending less time with each other may lead them to prioritize their marriage and decide some issues are not worth the argument.

In other words, couples may want to choose their battles wisely, according to Rauer.

School Psychologists Develop Intervention to Reduce Hallway Disruptions

Speeding up hallway transition times may be the key to reducing hallway disruptions by elementary school students. School psychology researchers in UT’s College of Education, Health, and Human Sciences recently developed and tested a game-like intervention that successfully reduced disruptions by up to 74 percent.

The intervention, which was implemented with three classes of students in grades one through six at a summer school program, rewards classes of students for quickly transitioning from one room or activity to another during breaks between class periods.

“Hallways are daunting spaces for teachers,” said Christopher Skinner, professor of school psychology and co-author of the study, which was published in the Journal of Positive Behavior Interventions. “Being quick in transitions helps significantly reduce inappropriate behavior.”

In the study, which was led by Associate Professor Merilee McCurdy, students were timed for one class transition a day (for example, from the gym to an academic classroom). A goal time was selected before the class and explained to the children. If the class met the goal time, a letter was awarded at the end of the transition and placed on a Velcro board in the classroom. By the end of the week, classes had the chance to earn five letters.

“The letters were P-A-R-T-Y, in that order,” Skinner said. “After successfully meeting the transition time for a fifth day, classes were rewarded with a 20-minute party with snacks and games.”

If there were any disruptions by students—either stepping out of line, yelling, hitting, or running in the hallway—during a transition, classes were penalized by having five seconds added to their time.

“One student who misbehaves could risk the reward for the rest of the group,” Skinner said.

On top of a notable reduction in disruptive behavior, class transitions were much quicker. Relative to baseline transition times taken before the game was introduced, each class showed a decrease ranging from 91 to 172 seconds.

The reward in such interventions must meet at least two criteria to reap the desired result for teachers.

“It must be a bonus rather than an expected part of the class day. And it must not involve a punishment. If the reward is a game of dodgeball, there are going to be children who don’t want to play,” Skinner said.

In other words, if the students dislike the reward, they may not try as hard in the class activity.

Natural Play Spaces Can Benefit Children’s Health

Playgrounds that mimic the natural environment have physical and mental benefits for preschool children, according to a study published last month in Children, Youth, and Environments and coauthored by UT professors.

The research project set out to redesign the outdoor play space at a Knoxville Head Start facility—a preschool program for children from low-income households and their families—to include features inspired by natural green spaces and forests, and to learn how the changes impact children’s play patterns. The incorporation of natural elements in playgrounds was shown to positively influence children’s motor skill development and physical activity and to enrich the preschool curriculum.

“The addition of garden spaces can be used to cultivate reading, math, and science skills,” said lead author Mary Jane Moran, professor in the Department of Child and Family Studies. “Creating functional outdoor spaces for children can be very cost-effective through donations, community partners, and hard work by all involved.”

The playground used in the research was overhauled in 2014 by a team of 40 volunteers. Some of the playground’s metal equipment, including a seesaw, chin-up bars, and spring rocking toys, was replaced with logs, boulders, and a dry creek bed. Garden boxes were also installed, along with trees and a pergola for shade.

Researchers then used direct observation and other tools to collect data on physical activity levels, which allowed them to quantify the benefits of the new playground. The analysis of this data will be part of a different study.

The project was a collaboration between the Department of Child and Family Studies and the Department of Kinesiology, Recreation, and Sport Studies, as well as the Early Learning Center for Research and Practice and Knox County Head Start.

These stories have appeared in media outlets in Knoxville, New York, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, the United Kingdom, Australia, France, Spain, Russia, and Finland.

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