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Brenna Bry, Ph.D.

Dr. Brenna Bry receives the Prevention Science Award

At the 22nd Annual Meeting of the Society for Prevention Research held in May 2014, Brenna Bry, Ph.D., stepped up to receive the Prevention Science Award in recognition of her outstanding contributions to advancing the field of prevention science. This award is granted to an individual or team for a significant body of research that has applied scientific methods to test one or more preventive strategies. “I was totally surprised,” Dr. Bry said about learning of her nomination, “and so excited to be chosen and recognized by my peer group.” Among the previous award winners are some of the most accomplished and widely known prevention scientists, such as David Hawkins, Bill Vega, Denise Kandel, Rick Price, Denise Gottfredson, Shep Kellam, William Beardslee, and Tom Dishion. “I could not have it by myself,” she reflects, “I felt overwhelming gratitude to the people whose shoulders I stood on.”

Brenna Bry

Born in the Midwest, Dr. Bry grew up outside Chicago and Buffalo. After graduating from high school outside Chicago, she attended college in Ohio. Dr. Bry graduated from the University of Missouri-Columbia with her doctorate in clinical psychology and spent the first part of her career working as a psychologist in a college counseling setting. In this role, Dr. Bry came to several critical realizations that would ultimately lead her the next stage in her career, one that now defines her as a world-renowned prevention scientist.

Dr. Bry recounts the formidable challenge of treating problems once they had already developed, particularly in the case of substance abuse. Additionally, she reflects, “there weren’t enough practitioners to go around. We could better use our time by preventing problems.” Dr. Bry thus turned her focus to the group of people at risk, whom she could target to address the precursors of problems, using larger groups of people with less intensive interventions. Her mantra became serving larger groups of people, using less intense interventions, to change the trajectory of their lives.

Dr. Bry set out on her prevention work in the indigenous college settings where she worked. She started a mentoring program at Monmouth University, which she continued to implement at Livingston College with the students admitted through the Education Opportunity Fund (EOF) program. Dr. Bry became a hired employee of EOF as she developed her brainchild for an achievement mentoring program to serve these at-risk students.

Dr. Bry’s commitment to data-based decision making and program evaluation from early on are what gave momentum to her work in prevention science. And despite the unconventional nature of her work, the colleges were very receptive.   “Because I was trained as a scientist practitioner, trained to objectively examine the results of my work,” Dr. Bry explains, “I got permission from the school and did a randomly controlled study of my work with EOF students, to find out whether or not the academic mentoring program would lead to better success.” Using an experimental model, Dr. Bry formed two groups based on a waitlist-control design and, indeed, found positive differences to support the benefits of her achievement mentoring program.

Dr. Bry reflects on her growing commitment during this time to dedicate her career to prevention activities. She describes a watershed moment that occurred the week of the assassination of Marin Luther King, Jr. At that point, Dr. Bry decided to focus her career to preventing problems among youth vulnerable to not actualizing their potential, providing them with greater opportunity.

After working at Livingston College for three years, a golden opportunity fell in Dr. Bry’s lap. “It was 1973,” she reflects, a time when “it was unheard of for any community organization or school system to allow a randomly assigned, controlled trial to take place. But I heard of a job that would allow me to do a randomly assigned controlled trial in the community.” This position entailed developing a generalizable substance abuse prevention program in both a suburban and urban middle school in Monmouth County and evaluating its outcome. At that time, substance abuse had gotten to the suburbs, and the board of drug abuse services, including one psychologist and one medical doctor, set aside funding with a mandate to do a randomly assigned, controlled trial. “We doctorates can be very valuable in our communities if we volunteer on a board,” notes Dr. Bry, tangentially, “being on a board of directors is a very influential position.” Given her penchant for preventing problems among the high-risk and her scientist-practitioner orientation, Dr. Bry left her college counseling position and grabbed the offer to work with Monmouth County.

With her services enlisted, the board decided to roll out a program immediately. “I said I need some time to read the literature and see who the at-risk kids are,” Dr. Bry recalls, “but the freeholders told me, no. I had one month to get the program off the ground.”

Dr. Bry describes how her initial activities in the field were patterned after a public health approach. Based on her knowledge from a disease prevention class about medical risk factors, she hypothesized that children showing risk factors in the seventh grade would be more likely to use substances by their high school senior year. Further, she reasoned, reducing risk factors at an earlier stage would result in less drug abuse later on. What were these risk factors? Dr. Bry identified the key factors of student motivation (attendance and grades), student behavior, and family foundation. To identify at-risk students, Dr. Bry counted how many of those risk factors students had, and she selected those with two of the three factors to be in the study.

The program that she crafted involved weekly student mentorship, geared towards helping the students do better in school and stay out of trouble. She also added communication with parents in order to provide the parents with more of a connection with their children’s schoolwork. A challenge of this work, she points out, was finding data that could be obtained in a school setting to use as correlates.

In what is now recognized as a remarkable accomplishment, Dr. Bry brought the concept of risk factors to the field of drug abuse. “I did it for pragmatic reasons,” she states unassumingly. “I had an impact on the field in two ways: identifying the kids with risk factors and developing programs to address those risk factors. In her later writing, she also identified protective factors, which serve the opposite function.

In the next phase of her work, Dr. Bry sought the help of paraprofessionals, as she was seeing 40 students a week, in addition to her research duties. She learned that there were students at Monmouth County’s community college who needed placements in the field—students who could help her with this project.

It was a stroke of luck when Dr. Bry was asked to give a colloquium presentation at the Rutgers PhD program in clinical psychology.  At her colloquium, Dr. Bry presented on the randomly assigned controlled trial and the process of collecting information on risk factors. “I wanted to show them the advantages of using paraprofessionals, and I wanted to recruit a researcher,” she recalls. And she succeeded—a doctoral student, Neil Bien, asked if she would supervise his doctoral dissertation while he evaluated the first year of my program. Subsequently, with the formation of GSAPP, Dr. Bry was approached to teach a course. When asked what course she would like to teach, she responded that she would teach program evaluation.

Dr. Bry’s tenure as professor and success as prevention scientist have gathered speed around her focus on data-based decision making and program evaluation. She attributes this fact to the “accountability movement” that has taken center stage in public policy and practice. In the mid-1990s, when the federal government decided to provide guidance to schools on drug abuse programs, people were concerned about how to find programs that work. For instance, as Dr. Bry likes to point out, people were asking, “How do we know if midnight basketball is effective?” The Department of Education thus decided to provide funding only to programs that had an evidence base. People turned to the literature to see which programs had data supporting their effectiveness, and they found Dr. Bry’s program, which had been published in 1982. Dr. Bry recalls this phase as a turning point in her career. “Until then, I had been sending out my manual to people without asking for any feedback in return. But then I started getting calls from people saying, we found your program on the list of identified programs.”

Dr. Bry’s Behavioral Monitoring and Reinforcement Program (BMRP) is an “elegantly simple, but powerful, program” that is implemented by adult mentors who work in schools. The program is geared to helping sixth through ninth grade students who are at risk of dropping out of school. By reaching them in a school environment, this program has access to the students at risk in a natural setting and targets academic failure and behavior problems simultaneously.  The outcomes of BMRP are powerful and obvious. After two years of the program, students show increased attendance, improved academic performance, and decreased behavior problems.

The theory of change that underlies the BMRP considers youth’s problems as learned habits that can be changed, and views failures as skills not yet learned. These core principles are evident in the program emphasis on mentoring.Adult mentors are assigned over a two-year period to students at risk of failure. Every week, the mentor interviews one teacher about the designated students, using the questions: What does their current behavior look like? What did the student do well last week? What would the teacher like to see the student do? What would that look like?

Mentors also attend weekly meetings and share written records with the student (e.g., report card, attendance report, or weekly report form). The focus on student meetings is to change habits and teach new skills. In a standardized process of change, mentors praise what their students are doing well, elicit student views on teacher feedback, choose a small step to change, plan specific steps realistically and anticipate potential barriers to success, rehearse, and follow up the next week. Mentors meet weekly for twenty minutes with their assigned students individually or forty minutes in small groups. Mentors also contact parents once a month with positive feedback. Weekly emails are sent to remind mentors to complete their Weekly Online Mentoring Survey (WOMS). Who can be a mentor? Specific competencies are required, including the ability to put teacher feedback in behavioral terms, come up with praise, focus on the youth, and ask open-ended questions. Other requisite skills include active listening, motivational interviewing, goal-setting, and implementation planning.

The outcomes of BMRP are powerful and obvious. After two years of the program, students show increased attendance, improved academic performance, and decreased behavior problems.

When there is a good product on the market, word gets out. Since its debut, Dr. Bry’s program has been adopted by numerous school districts. Given the widespread usage of Dr. Bry’s program, it has acquired several names, including Early Secondary Intervention Program (ESIP), Preventive Intervention, Behavioral Monitoring and Reinforcement Program (BMRP), Achievement Mentoring Program (AM), and Mentoring for Achievement Program (MAP). In fact, the Achievement Mentoring Program (AM) was named a model program by the National Dropout Prevention Center. Dr. Bry attributes this to the fact that her program meets very strict data and outcome criteria, including data from a randomly assigned, controlled trial with five years follow-up that showed statistically significant outcomes.

Bry Belfast
Dr. Brenna Bry and her team in Belfast

Bry Dublin
Dr. Brenna Bry and her team in Dublin

How did a program that was developed for the Monmouth County Narcotics Council find its way to Ireland? It was around springtime of 2010, Dr. Bry recalls, when she was at the Blueprints prevention program conference, and she received an email from someone who wanted to take her out to dinner to learn about her program. This person, it turned out, was part of the delegation from Ireland looking for an evidence based program to solve the problem of “early school leaving,” also known as dropouts, among Ireland’s youth. They wanted to choose a prevention program from the list of evidence based programs, with the goal to disseminate it to every school in Ireland.

Watch these videos of Dr. Brenna Bry speaking to Archways about the Mentoring for Achievement Programme (as the program is known in Ireland.)

Launch of program 1

Launch of program 2

The MAP program was launched on Tuesday October 5th 2010 in Ireland by Archways. This Video was made by Archways in Ireland.

The Mentoring for Achievement Programme (MAP)

While the prospect of “going international” is exciting, the long-distance factor presents a challenge, in that Dr. Bry is not attuned to the mechanics of the Ireland school system and the way it is designed, managed, or governed. For instance, how are decisions made in their system? What happens after secondary school? On the flip side, a wonderful asset when working with Ireland has been its organization created to spread Evidence-Based Interventions around Ireland. This organization takes responsibility for finding schools, orienting staff, providing trainers and technical assistance, and collecting outcome data. Whereas Dr. Bry’s role in the U.S. includes everything from program development to technical assistance, data collection, and consultation, the primary role she assumes in Ireland is to oversee the fidelity of data.

As her vision for the future of science and practice, Dr. Bry sees her program as a model for implementing innovations in schools. A program, she believes, must be incorporated into the regular services of the school – institutionalized – and not just something new that drops in for a year or two. “If a school decides to adopt my achievement program, I would want my program to be among the array of program that the school offers as part of the routine services that they have for children who need that support. The second characteristic is that someone is in charge of overlooking the quality of the program and making sure it meets standards."

“I always wore the hat of scientist. Even though I was in practice, seeing clients in an office hour after hour, I always wore my scientist hat, looking for the evidence that I’m making a difference." Dr. Bry refers to her “scientist hat” as “probably the most consistent of my career decisions.” Indeed, given her training as a scientist practitioner, “I always wore the hat of scientist. Even though I was in practice, seeing clients in an office hour after hour, I always wore my scientist hat, looking for the evidence that I’m making a difference. I gave everyone who came in an MMPI and would compare the profiles with previous people I had seen, in an actuarial way. I was in the scientist community, and I assumed scientists were looking over my shoulder.” But that did not interfere with her approach to community work. “Then I also learned from being out in the community that they were interested in case studies. As a scientist, I know that n =1 doesn’t tell you about generalization. I learned how to talk to people in two different communities about my work. Rather than exploit that people could be influenced about a dramatic case study, I wore my scientist hat and made sure to tell them only about representative case studies.”

Dr. Bry’s message for GSAPP students resonates strongly with her career: Data are what matter now, and evidence supporting program outcomes is what really matters now. Because the many decisions in intervention are being made based on scientific data, it has become increasingly important for practitioners to be good consumers of scientific data. She points out that it is important to know about the lists for preventive interventions, which agencies and schools are actually using in order to decide what programs to adopt. Ireland, for instance, turned to those lists in order to address the problems they had.

The Prevention Science award acknowledges Dr. Bry’s leading role in the field and celebrates her lifetime achievements in advancing the development of evidence-based prevention strategies. As a world-renowned scientist practitioner, she serves as an icon, visionary, and leader. As a venerated faculty member and professor at GSAPP, she serves as a teacher, mentor, and inspiration.

By: Chana Crystal