UM Professor Receives Grant to Collaborate with Arlee School District to Research and Develop Interventions for Culturally Responsive Mental Health Intervention Among American Indian/ Alaska Native Youth.

$200,000 grant to support UM Professor Dr. Jingjing Sun’s examination of the pathway from a universal Social Emotional Learning (SEL) program to enhance mental health among AI/AN children.


Missoula – American Indian / Alaska Native (AI/AN) populations have higher rates of mental health disparities than the rest of the US population. According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the second leading cause of death in 2014 for AI/AN youth was suicide. So far there is little understanding of a culturally responsive approach to address this issue. Thanks to an American Indian/ Alaska Native Clinical and Translational Research Program (AI/AN CTRP) grant, Dr. Jingjing Sun, an Assistant Professor of Educational Psychology in the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education’s Department of Teaching and Learning, will examine Social Emotional Learning (SEL) interventions for AI/AN children and develop culturally appropriate trainings.

The AI/AN CTRP is a joint partnership funded in cooperation with the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It has three primary goals in reducing health disparities within Native communities, fostering research for healthier communities, and creating equitable research collaboration. It has funded 15-20 investigators annually through Development Awards, Pilot Awards, Diversity Awards, and Community Grants, and most recently the Early Stage Investigator (ESI) Career Awards, all of which have served tribal communities in Alaska and Montana. Dr. Sun was selected as one of the two awardees for the ESI Career Award, after having successfully completed a development award last year.  

This grant presents a unique opportunity to truly engage the community and school district in developing each phase of the study. Working closely with her collaborators since the initial CTRP Development Award, Drs. Anisa Goforth and Lindsey Nichols, Dr. Sun is working with children, educators, and parents/caregivers of Arlee, Montana, a Native community on the Flathead Nation.

Guided by her mentorship team that includes Dr. Dorothy Espelage from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Dr. Douglas Kominsky from Montana State University, Niki Graham from the University of Montana, and a community advisory board composed of educators, tribal leaders, school administrators, and mental health professionals from the Arlee School District, Dr. Sun and her research team is developing a culturally appropriate, multi-layer SEL program through Community-Based Participatory Research that includes SEL trainings for children, educators, and community members.

Research completed during this ESI Career Award will inform the basis for designing and conducting mental health interventions through SEL with other Native American communities in Montana. This project seeks to improve the understanding of SEL, especially a comprehensive program that draws upon Native traditions and values and encompasses multi-level training for children, educators, and parents/caregivers, on AI/AN children’s mental health development.

Dr. Adrea Lawrence, Dean of the Phyllis J. Washington College of Education said, “This award recognizes Dr. Sun’s strong potential as a promising young investigator and her dedication to equitable and sustainable community-research collaboration. The grant will help us better understand the critical role that culturally responsive social emotional learning practices can play for children in schools and their communities.” 


The Phyllis J. Washington College of Education shapes professional practices that contribute to the development of human potential.  We are individuals in a community of lifelong learners, guided by respect for knowledge, human dignity, and ethical behavior.  To advance the physical, emotional, and intellectual health of a diverse society, we work together producing and disseminating knowledge as we educate learners.

To learn more about SEL interventions or the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Montana, contact Jingjing Sun, Assistant Professor, Phyllis J. Washington College of Education, Department of Teaching and Learning, 406.243.4285,