ID: 1R43MH081385-01
TERM: 09/07 – 08/08

Decades of research indicate that social-behavioral deficits negatively affect adjustment and place children at increased risk for a myriad of later negative outcomes including depression, substance abuse, and delinquency. Without intervention, social-behavioral problems tend to persist and escalate over time which, in turn, may have a tremendous impact on mental health. Social skills training (SST) is supported as an efficacious method for significantly improving children’s peer relations, social behavior, and emotional adjustment and reducing risk of developmental psychopathology. Further, the efficacy of SST interventions is enhanced when training extends outside a treatment setting with practice opportunities.

The goal of this SBIR Phase I project was to extend an existing evidence-based small group SST program for children (S.S.GRIN) into the home environment through a computer-based interactive social tutoring system (ISTS). Developed through a unique multi-disciplinary collaboration between computer science and psychology, the ISTS offers tailored interactive social problem-solving exercises that parallel S.S.GRIN’s in-person intervention. For Phase I, the software user-interface, including graphic design, as well as modes of user interaction, story plot and sequence, and hierarchy of causal relations were developed. Development was built on 3-C ISD’s existing work on pedagogical agents in social stories and animation for SST. Via the ISTS, children actively solve plot-based social problems by interacting with pedagogical agents. The interactivity of ISTS is a significant technological advancement over current SST software as it allows story events to be scaffolded based on a child’s actions and goals. In addition, the ISTS reporting feature provides intervention providers with feedback regarding children’s performance to inform their in-person SST efforts. An initial feasibility test was conducted with school- and community-based child mental health professionals and with children ages 8-12 and their parents. Results indicated children’s performance on social problem solving tasks was related to their behavior and social skills as assessed through an independent standardized instrument and inter-relations were meaningfully linked to the intended task content. Parent ratings of the ISTS were positive (e.g., high quality, easy to use, positive learning experience, effective for teaching social skills). Similarly children rated the ISTS positively and stated they would like to do more of it.

Phase I findings provided the foundation for the development and testing of the complete S.S.GRIN-ISTS product during Phase II. Funding will be sought to finalize the ISTS and conduct a scientific evaluation to examine whether inclusion of the ISTS results in enhanced treatment benefits for children’s social skills, behavior, and mental health, greater generalization of skill acquisition, and higher engagement in treatment compared with S.S.GRIN alone.

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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.