An Online Relapse Prevention Tool for Adolescent Substance Abusers

ID: HHSN271201400075C
TERM: 09/14 – 09/17

Gaming technologies offer an innovative way to advance substance abuse treatment and relapse prevention. Computer game-based aftercare may represent the next step in relapse prevention for adolescents. The enhanced motivation and engagement associated with game play should translate into greater investment and practice time, and in turn, result in significant functional gains for adolescents. Active participation with interactive training software has been found to dramatically increase engagement and skill development beyond passive instructional methods (Boyer et al., 2008). The hands-on experience and practice in virtual environments can effectively support instructional objectives, particularly for more complex skills such as coping and navigation of high-risk situations (Corbett, Koedinger, & Hadley, 2001). Further, engaging multiple sensory modes (visual, auditory, experiential) during training enhances the software’s ability to reach different types of learners and to promote greater retention and applicability of presented information over time (Gordon, 2004; VanLehn, et al., 2005).

This Phase II project developed a novel, dynamic e-training software product through which adolescents in substance abuse recovery can receive adaptive relapse prevention education and aftercare support. This project accomplished four technical objectives: (1) fully developed the program software, incorporating feedback from iterative testing with expert consultants, to include six modules comprising introductory and closing modules as well as four coping skills modules with instructional lessons, interactive practice exercises, and skill-building games; (2) developed a web-based Help Center featuring both a User Guide and a Parent/Provider Guide to provide support and training; (3) conducted a two-month staggered-entry RCT Pilot Clinical Study with nine adolescents in substance abuse recovery to evaluate the benefits and effectiveness of the program; and (4) finalized the program for broad-scale commercial release based on findings and evaluations from the pilot study.

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Chief of Research and Learning Content


Dr. Childress obtained her PhD in psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Prior to coming to 3C Institute, she served as a research associate and a postdoctoral fellow in the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill working on a longitudinal imaging study aimed at identifying the early markers of autism through behavioral and imaging methodologies. She has 19 years of autism research experience, during which she has examined the behavioral, personality, and cognitive characteristics of individuals with autism and their family members. Dr. Childress also has experience developing behavioral and parent report measurement tools, coordinating multi-site research studies, and collecting data from children and families. She has taught courses and seminars in general child development, autism, and cognitive development at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.


  • autism
  • early development
  • behavioral measurement
  • integrating behavioral and biological measurement


  • Postdoctoral fellowship, Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities (Institutional NRSA-NICHD), University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • PhD, developmental psychology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • BS, psychology (minor in sociology), University of Iowa

Selected Publications

  • Elison, J. T., Wolff, J. J., Heimer, D. C., Paterson, S. J., Gu, H., Hazlett, H. C., Styner, M, Gerig, G., & Piven, J. (in press). Frontolimbic neural circuitry at 6 months predicts individual differences in joint attention at 9 months. Developmental Science.
  • Wassink, T. H., Vieland, V. J., Sheffield, V. C., Bartlett, C. W., Goedken, R., Childress, D. & Piven, J. (2008). Posterior probability of linkage analysis of autism dataset identifies linkage to chromosome 16. Psychiatric Genetics,18(2),85-91.
  • Losh, M., Childress, D., Lam K. & Piven, J. (2008). Defining key features of the broad autism phenotype: A comparison across parents of multiple- and single-incidence autism families. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics), 147B(4):424-33.
  • Wassink, T. H., Piven, J., Vieland, V. J., Jenkins, L., Frantz R., Bartlett, C. W., Goedken, R., … Sheffield, V.C. (2005). Evaluation of the chromosome 2q37.3 gene CENTG2 as an autism susceptibility gene. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics), 136, 36-44.
  • Barrett, S., Beck, J., Bernier, R., Bisson, E., Braun, T., Casavant, T., Childress, D., … Vieland, V. (1999). An autosomal genomic screen for autism. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics), 88, 609-615. doi: 10.1002/(SICI)1096-8628(19991215)88:63.0.CO;2-L
  • Piven, J., Palmer, P., Landa, R., Santangelo, S., Jacobi, D. & Childress, D. (1997). Personality and language characteristics in parents from multiple-incidence autism families. American Journal of Medical Genetics (Neuropsychiatric Genetics), 74, 398-411.
  • Piven, J., Palmer, P., Jacobi, D., Childress, D. & Arndt, S. (1997). Broader autism phenotype: Evidence from a family history study of multiple-incidence autism families. American Journal of Psychiatry, 154, 185-190.