FPTR Scholarship Funds Research in Children With Cerebral Palsy

It has been less than a year since Sarah M. Schwab, PT, DPT, was awarded a Foundation for Physical Therapy Research (FPTR) Promotion of Doctoral Studies (PODS) I Scholarship. Already, the physical therapy community is recognizing Schwab’s work in transforming physical therapy care in children with cerebral palsy (CP).

Schwab’s 2019 Promotion of Doctoral Studies (PODS) I Scholarship is funding her project titled, “An Investigation of Upper Extremity Perceptual-Motor Behaviors in Children with Cerebral Palsy.” This award was funded through the American Physical Therapy Association (APTA) Scholarship Fund.

This Fall, Schwab will present some of her research findings at the Ohio Physical Therapy Association virtual LEAP (Linking Evidence And Practice) Symposium. LEAP will be a day-long program that will showcase clinical or scientific projects through a series of LEAP Talks, platform lectures and poster presentations. Schwab will be participating in a platform and educational session.

Schwab was just awarded a 2020 PODS II Scholarship. We checked in with Schwab to see how here research has progressed and been impacted by COVID 19.

How do you think your research will change or inform clinical practice in populations with motor disabilities/impairments? 

My research explores the role of contextual factors in shaping motor behavior in individuals with motor disabilities. These factors are thought to be the greatest causes of chronic illness and disability but are widely understudied.

My work investigating grip control in children with cerebral palsy, for instance, found that children can flexibly adapt grip control in response to changing task demands. I found an attenuation of grip impairments as task demands became more unpredictable. Traditional physical therapy service delivery models sequence interventions from more predictable to more unpredictable with the underlying assumption that more predictable tasks are easier. The results of my work, in combination with previous work in neurologic disability, challenge this sequencing of interventions. Unpredictable tasks (or addressing predictable and unpredictable tasks together) may be a more appropriate starting point in improving motor performance on certain tasks in individuals with neurologic disabilities.

Most recently, I have been exploring the role of contextual factors in children with CP in relation to child-caregiver interactions. Physical therapy examination of child-caregiver interactions is important—caregivers play a major role in advancing their child’s functional independence. However, we face barriers to assessing these interactions; namely, we do not know what the components of a good interaction are. In a highly collaborative endeavor, we were able to identify candidate indices of effective caregiver support specifically related to movement coordination between and children with CP and their caregivers. This is the first critical step in more widely incorporating assessments of child-caregiver interactions into practice and the eventual development of interventions to modify these interactions. 

How has your FPTR funding impacted your research/education?

FPTR funding has allowed me to work with a wonderfully talented group of researchers in an interdisciplinary lab—I work with psychologists, engineers, philosophers, athletic trainers, speech-language pathologists, and fellow physical therapists. Such an environment enriches my research and challenges my thinking. It has transformed the way I study movement and treat impaired movement. I am grateful to FPTR for supporting my interdisciplinary studies, and their recognition that such an approach to post-professional education can advance the profession.

Has your research been impacted by COVID 19? If so, how have you adjusted? 

Our lab, like many others, has shifted focus to many online and web-based studies. We are also working to use this time to code and develop programming frameworks so that when we do get back in the lab, we will be very prepared to start collecting data again. I have been able to complete unfinished projects and systematically plan future work. This is such a unique time, highlighting many healthcare disparities and issues within our profession. I am working with my collaborators to identify meaningful and sustainable ways to move the profession forward, specifically in the areas of research and education.


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