November 15, 2002

McWilliam named to lead Child Development Center

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Robin McWilliam wants to take Vanderbilt’s Child Development Center to the forefront of research in the United States. He assumed the leadership role earlier this year. (photo by Dana Johnson)

McWilliam named to lead Child Development Center

After a successful career at one prominent university, Robin McWilliam, Ph.D., decided to make a move to another. Prior to accepting the position of director of the division of Child Development and professor of Pediatrics at Vanderbilt, McWilliam had spent his entire academic career at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, both as a student and later as an investigator in the renowned Frank Porter Graham Institute that focuses on research of young children and their families.

McWilliam notes that there has been a fair amount of crossover between UNC and Vanderbilt and that many of the investigators at both universities were well known to one another. A former colleague of McWilliam, now a faculty member of the Peabody College, alerted him to the newly open position of division director.

Although he was very happy at UNC and had spent two decades building his career as a researcher in early intervention, coming to Vanderbilt allowed McWilliam an opportunity to work in a medical context, an opportunity he was eager to explore. Although well known in the academic field of child development research, McWilliam had not worked within a medical environment. Discussions with Dr. Arnold Strauss also influenced his decision to leave a job he loved and head west to Vanderbilt.

“I was completely impressed with Arnie Strauss with his commitment to community responsiveness and his dedication to doing things in a family-centered way,” McWilliam said.

In addition, after meeting the team of the Child Development Center (CDC), McWilliam recognized the skill and talent of the staff of the division.

“I knew I’d be moving in and joining a good group of professionals,” McWilliam noted.

He has ambitious plans that all stem from two basic philosophies: First, recognizing the value and importance of the family of a child with a disability, McWilliam wants to see the CDC adopt a family-centered, not child-centered, approach. Second, as valuable as it is to establish a reputation in the field of academic research and understanding of disabilities, it is also important to be responsive to the community of professionals working with children and families. Many of the changes McWilliam hopes to make are based on the need to provide valuable guidance both to individual families and the community as a whole.

Upon his arrival, McWilliam began meeting with all levels of the CDC staff, gaining an understanding of the current operation and gathering input for ways to improve it. McWilliam formed task forces to study and make recommendations for improvements in both the efficiency and quality of the services of the CDC.

The most ambitious initiative McWilliam plans to tackle is improving the efficiency of clinical operations, reducing patient waiting lists, allowing more patients to be seen daily, and getting more involved in follow-up and interventions for children and families. One indicator of the cultural change going on in the division is that he has asked the staff not to use the terms “patients” or “cases” to refer to children and families.

McWilliam also wants to see an increase in outreach efforts. The CDC currently has an extensive autism outreach program, TRIAD, the Treatment and Research Institute for Autism Spectrum Disorders. McWilliam would like to see other areas follow the autism model for community outreach.

Training of students, including medical students, in neurodevelopmental and behavioral problems in children is also an area of focus. McWilliam is exploring innovative training strategies to ensure that future pediatricians are well trained in development since the most common questions pediatricians answer are about development and behavior. Additionally, McWilliam hopes that more pediatricians will choose developmental and behavioral pediatrics as a subspecialty.

McWilliam feels that early intervention services from birth to age 3 are key areas, requiring improvement.

“We’re trapped in a structure in Tennessee that is really expensive and not the best thing for little kids and their families,” McWilliam explained. “We want to change that.”

Finally, McWilliam plans to increase the amount of research being conducted through the CDC. He notes that TRIAD director Wendy Stone, Ph.D. has amassed impressive research in autism and hopes to see other areas follow. McWilliam himself is bringing three areas of research on which he has focused: child engagement, family-centered service delivery, and integrated services research. He hopes to continue the expansion of research in his division.

“Dr. McWilliam’s extensive research experience and expertise in best practices for young children with developmental challenges will serve the division well,” said Stone. “I am excited about the new directions we will be taking under his leadership.”

McWilliam’s ideas on service delivery for early intervention continue to draw attention. In October, he delivered a presentation at the Colorado 11th Annual Early Childhood Institute on interviewing families of children with disabilities. In November, McWilliam spoke at an Indiana statewide conference on early intervention. The model of service delivery McWilliam recommends is gaining popularity.

McWilliam admits that he might face some bumps in the road as he begins to implement changes at Vanderbilt, noting that it is human nature to resist change. However, he is excited about his new role, viewing the challenges as opportunities make a difference.

“This job was an opportunity to bring the medical context of Vanderbilt, the backing of the administration, and the knowledge of the existing staff together to take the division to the next level.”