Faculty Research Spotlight – Dr. Amie Grills

Photo by Frank Curran for Boston University Photography

Dr. Amie Grills is the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development Associate Dean for Faculty Affairs & Research and a Tenured Professor of Counseling Psychology and Applied Human Development at Boston University. She is a licensed clinical psychologist and researcher, who specializes in anxiety/stress, trauma, and related childhood difficulties (e.g., depression, behavioral difficulties). In addition, she has expertise in the development and evaluation of cognitive-behavioral assessments and interventions, including those conducted using web-based designs.

Dr. Grills’ work has examined the roles of peer (e.g., bullying and friendship quality), familial (e.g., parental anxiety and stress), and academic (e.g., achievement, attention) variables on the development of youth internalizing difficulties (e.g., anxiety, depression). Dr. Grills has also conducted research on risk and resiliency factors among individuals exposed to traumatic events, and she is co-developer of a web-based intervention for women who have experienced sexual assault. Most recently, her research has focused on a large-scale randomized clinical trial, investigating the relationship between reading difficulties and stress/anxiety, as well as systematically studies efforts to improve reading performance and reducing anxiety. This project has been the culmination of over 15 years of collaborations with researchers from the University of Houston and the University of Texas-Austin (UT), combining her experience in children’s anxiety with her colleagues’ experience with struggling readers. Drawing from her expertise delivering evidence-based, cognitive-behavioral treatments with anxious children, Dr. Grills developed the “Strong Students Toolbox,” which was then adapted to teach these important skills in 5-10 minute mini-lessons. It was critical that these skills be taught in a way that involved brief, applied, and engaging lessons in order to maximize instructional time on academic components. This adapted program was then integrated with an evidence-based reading intervention (Strategies/Skills) developed by Dr. Sharon Vaughn at UT. With a team of collaborators at UT and BU, Drs. Grills & Vaughn manualized this fully integrated program for elementary school children who were identified as struggling with reading. The combined reading/anxiety program is being compared with a program that includes the reading component with math practice and classroom business as usual in 3rd-5th grade children in the greater Austin area.   

What is a favorite finding or story from your work, and why is it your favorite? 

In the work I am currently focused on, my favorite stories have been about the ways teachers and students continue to use anxiety/stress program content outside of the intervention. For example, teachers who are implementing the intervention tell us that the students will talk about an exciting session to their friends outside of class. In some examples we have heard, students have shared different stress reduction techniques they learned with friends at lunch or in another class. In other examples, we have heard from the teachers themselves that they find themselves applying the strategies in their own lives. This has been really exciting for us to learn about because it confirmed that the students are both enjoying the lessons we developed but also applying them, and feeling confident to share the strategies with their peers. It also made us realize that the teachers too could benefit from the program, and that they may then more continually utilizing its components more broadly (in their classrooms or home!).

What is an important implication of the work you do? 

Anxiety and stress are really common, even in young kids, so I consider the most important implication of our work to be that we can reach more kids with actual evidence-based approaches that they can use to manage those feelings. At present, finding and/or affording a qualified therapist who has received training in cognitive-behavioral therapy can be really challenging. By bringing these skills to kids in schools and via teachers who can deliver the lessons and also weave the underlying principles into their classrooms and broader lessons, we have an opportunity to make a real impact on a much broader range of youth. In addition, we hypothesize that for struggling readers, helping them alleviate stress may be beneficial in such a way that they are able to focus more on their reading instruction and generally improve their reading skills over time.

Where is your research headed?

The study’s second cohort was suspended after receiving the first year of intervention due to school closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. We are continuing to collect assessments to inform broader questions and for comparing with the first cohort of students who were able to receive the planned two full years of the program. We are also hoping to add a third cohort once the pandemic has ended. We have submitted a grant that would also allow us to conduct an expanded trial of the program in order to better understand its efficacy. More broadly, we are considering whether to conduct a similar trial integrating the Strong Students Toolbox into a mathematics intervention for students struggling in that domain, or whether to consider mechanisms for delivering the program within general education classrooms (e.g., as part of morning meeting and then woven throughout the day).