Fairytales and “Emotional Muscle”

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“Fairy tales show real life issues in a fantastical scenario where most often the hero triumphs…Children need to discover in a safe environment that bad things happen to everyone. Because guess what? No one in life is immune from challenges- so we need to build capacity in our children. Do we build emotional muscles so our children hang on during tough times or do we shelter our kids, protecting them, leaving them so weak they can’t handle anything requiring strength?”

(Taylor, Why Fairy Tales Are Important to Childhood, 2012)

On Bats, Trauma, and Resilience

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Last week, I found a bat in my washing machine. Really.

I had thrown in some old towels after my dog’s bath a few days before and must have gotten distracted. The next time I went down to do laundry, the lid was open and the tub still filled with water, along with the towels. I shut the lid and the washing machine did its thing. After the spin cycle, I went to put the towels in the dryer, and there was this little brown bat, shivering into the towels!

Images of my last indoor bat encounter of the close kind flashed through my mind. Several decades ago, a bat flew into my bedroom one night. I screamed, yelled, waved my arms, grabbed a broom, threw dirty clothes at it, and then lay trembling in bed, cursing my bad luck and new role as sole protector of my sleeping children. Finally, after what seemed like hours, it found its way out through the window I had left open.

This time, I talked gently to my bat, and tried to figure out how to help the poor thing. I held first a box, and then a wire bird feeder inside the tub, hoping she would be able to climb it like a ladder (no, this did not work!). I opened the basement door so she could smell the fresh air. I watched as the little bat struggled to climb up the metal walls of the machine, her claws trying to grasp the holes, and then as she slid back to the wet towels. Again and again, she tried, until at last she flew out, right past the open door, and clung to a cupboard near the furnace.  I reminded her where the open door was (helpful, huh?!), put in another load of laundry, and left. When I came back a while later, the little bat was gone. I closed the outside door.

I mused about the trauma that the little bat must have experienced: suddenly being swept into a swirling tub of water and (biodegradable!)suds, clinging to the rotating tub as it vibrated and spun through the wash cycle. And yet somehow, she survived, and persistently worked her way back to home and safety. THAT is resilience!

I thought, too, about the children who come into our classrooms, still spinning from whatever ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences) they’re living. Some tremble in a frightened heap, but others come in loud and thrashing and ready to claw their way their way out.

How can we help these kids build the same kind of protective resilience that my little bat displayed? Research tells us that there are three main protective factors for resilience: attachment, initiative and self-regulation. Could my little resilient bat have come to teach me more about these?

With Little Bat #1, who was, truth be told, probably also a bit traumatized,  I pretty much blew it. Forget attachment: no way my yelling and fierceness could have been perceived as anything THAT bat could trust or want to be around! Initiative? Absolutely not: swiping a broom at him to shove him out the window took away any ideas he might have had about how to get out (like…maybe the same way he came in???). As for self-regulation: I don’t know much about bats’ emotions, but that bat’s swooping and squeaking and diving from ceiling to floor as I tried to regulate it right out of my life didn’t seem much under his control to me!

Of course, my calmness helped with the attachment in last week’s Little Bat #2. A soft voice, and kind demeanor makes any of us feel less threatened, which is a pre-requisite for healthy attachments.

I also respected the little bat’s initiative: OK…so I thought my idea about offering her the wire suet cage was kind of brilliant since bats use their claws to climb BUT when she didn’t grab onto the idea, I let it go, too. And because I did, she figured it out herself.

Although I’m sure she was scared, of both her ride through the spin cycle and the giantess hovering around her, Little Bat #2 demonstrated remarkable self-regulation. Without a lot of flapping or fluttering, she flew to a place where she could get warmer and drier and groom and collect her wits. And when SHE was ready, she went about her business. I gave her the space to put the SELF back into self-regulation (here’s a great blog on the topic if you want to read more).

Thank you, Little Bat, for reminding me that resilience, whether for bats or young children, can emerge from what researcher Ann Masten calls “Ordinary Magic.” This is the magic that our children need and want most of all as they move from adversity to happily ever aftering.

(Little Bat print courtesy of  New York Public Library Digital Collection, a great collection that is in the public domain!)

Sometimes, “There’s A Lot of Witches…”

 

In my search for classroom strategies that can support young children living with substance use disorder (a.k.a. alcoholism/addiction), one of my “forever heroes,”  Vivian Gussin Paley, has risen like a sparkle of fairy dust above the dark clouds of this national public health crisis. Research is bearing out the power of her story- and play-based methods (check out this article from Ageliki Nicolopoulou and her colleagues for some compelling data). And, unlike many alternative curricula that focus on social and emotional learning and resilience, Paley’s model does not require expensive materials and pre-packaged training modules. Instead, pencils, markers, paper, a stage marked by masking tape, and a classroom rich with children’s literature and play opportunities are all that is required.

For years, I have used Vivian Paley’s storytelling/storyacting/storyplay pedagogy in my own classrooms, with magical results. Not only did the children’s stories help to build strong literacy skills; they also became the tapestry of our classroom community, where ideas were explored, conflicts resolved, and compassion developed.

The video above highlights this magic, in the words of some of the children who participated in a pilot project in the Boston Public Schools. Have a (deep) listen. If you are interested in learning more about this amazing project, check out their weebly, Boston Listens, for more videos and resources.

And keep coming back here as well, as I explore different aspects of this child-centered pedagogy! It offers treasures for all children, and, perhaps, a unicorn’s ride to resilience and executive functions for those who are the most vulnerable.

 

Does everybody get a happy ending?

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I love fairy tales. I always have and I always will. But although I wrote my master’s thesis on fairy tales and children’s social and moral development, I never expected to stand on the brink of my dissertation, wondering about the essential question that fairy tales ask: who gets the happy ending?

One of my delights in the past year has been the discovery of Once Upon a Time, the hit TV series. I don’t have cable, but on the recommendation of a friend, I started to watch the show on Netflix while I rode my exercise bike (no spoiler alerts, please: I’m only up to Season 4!). As classic fairy tale heroes and villains dance between the Enchanted Forest and the present-day in ever-surprising plot twists, the issue of whether only heroes get to happily ever after dominates.

This seems relevant to me, as I continue to learn about the impact of substance use disorder (SUD, also known as alcoholism/addiction) on very young children. These children may come into their preschool classrooms looking more like fierce dragons and raging beasts than kind and courageous heroes. While the family disease affects children in many different ways, it can often result in challenging behaviors, including aggression, lack of trust in adults, and self-regulation and attention difficulties.

Statistically, we know that young children with challenging behaviors are expelled from preschool at a higher rate than older students: up to three times as often as their K-12 brothers and sisters!  How’s that for putting the villain’s mask on a four year old at risk for mental and physical health issues, including SUD, as an adult?

What would happen if early childhood teachers began to use the magic of neuroscience to develop the resilience and heart that every hero possesses…in all children? The battle between good and evil may play out in fairy tales, and even on the world stage, but in the preschool classroom, there is plenty of room for a host of good guys.

Here’s to a commitment to doing our best to ensure that every child has a shot at the happy ending s/he so richly deserves.

Once Upon A Statistic: Why all early childhood educators need to know about ACES

In honor of Childhood Mental Health Awareness Day, and Week, we offer a video and some powerful graphics about (ACES) Adverse Childhood Experiences…

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Want to read a great article that outlines not only the history of this landmark study but also the implications? Check out The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study — the largest, most important public health study you never heard of — began in an obesity clinic.

Early Childhood Mental Health: It’s STANDARD in PA!

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There is a lot of concern in the early childhood community about the decline in play and the diminished focus on social and emotional development in early learning environments. I share this concern. My research on the relationship between social and emotional development in young children and their later physical, cognitive and mental well-being (see here and here, for example)has made me even more passionate about the need to preserve play and relationship-based early education.

BUT: I am not going to point the finger just at NCLB or Common Core. Pennsylvania’s Learning Standards for Early Childhood were recently aligned with the state’s Common Core Standards for K-12. They are RICH with standards that promote resilience, executive function, self-regulation and healthy social and emotional interactions. 2014 Pennsylvania Learning Standards for Early Childhood Infants Toddlers COVER2014 Pennsylvania Learning Standards for Early Childhood PreKindergarten COVER

So why are teachers, and parents, so focused on just the Literacy and Math and Science standards? I believe it is because they are not aware of 1) the importance of early childhood mental health as a predictor of later academic and life success; and 2) the existence of these “forgotten” standards.

To that end, I am planning a social media campaign on Facebook, Pinterest and Twitter, as well as through this blog, that will highlight the many standards that truly develop those parts of the brain we need to stay emotionally healthy and socially competent throughout our lives. With the 2014 Standards a requirement for all PA STARS childcare/education facilities as of July 1, 2015, the time is now to start playing with them and discovering their hidden treasures!

I am targeting early childhood teachers, administrators, and parents. The number one reason teachers give about why they don’t include more play in their preschool and kindergarten classrooms is: “The parents demand “real” work!”

We know that all families want the best for their children. I think that if parents and educators better understand that those discussions over who is going to be the princess and who is going to be the puppy in the dramatic play area address multiple learning standards AND may serve as protective factors for later substance use, depression, and anxiety disorders, they will be more on board with facilitating the deep learning that comes with play.
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Facebook is a great forum because it is so widely used by individuals, schools and community organizations. We “like” and share visual images, and let’s face it: children doing interesting things are right up there with kittens as viral material! It is my hope that if people find the images compelling, they’ll think about the standards and the overarching message: that early childhood mental health is the same as early childhood social and emotional development and…that it’s “standard” in PA.

Pinterest is another social media platform that is well suited for images with text. Many teachers use Pinterest for lesson planning and I’ve discovered that my most frequently re-pinned images are those having to do with mental health.
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Finally, there’s Twitter. I must admit: I’m not much of a tweeter. The 140 character limit makes it a challenge for me! But I recognize that many people DO tweet, especially younger people and…policy makers. Ultimately, it’s important that this message gets to them as well. Plus: with these photos, all I have to do is add the hashtag #ECMHisStandardinPA, and the character restriction is a non issue!images-1

Each of these forums has advantages, and disadvantages. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage is that like anything in social media, the images need to be captivating, and current, and frequent, in order to go viral. They should also represent a wide variety of ages and cultural, linguistic and ability backgrounds to be meaningful. I am hoping to recruit others to help me both gather images and pick up the idea and fly with it.

There are the technical issues as well: I’m pretty sure that all pins have to be part of a website (so..this blog), and I’m not sure if photos that are tweeted can be memes (i.e. have text on them), or if photos like that even get “re-tweeted.”

I have decided to add a copyright notice to the bottom of photos, not to protect my own rights to the idea (it’s supposed to go viral, after all!) but to protect the kind parents and children who have given me permission to use their photos in this campaign (yes, written permission has to be obtained for each of these…).

Finally, there’s the bigger issue with using social media: does it trivialize the important issues? Certainly, different groups of people use social media for different purposes, and there are many advocates and activists who use it to effect social change. But there are also those who will like and share because they are entertained, and who may not even pay attention to the standard, or the message of early childhood mental health. Would this be different if I put a website or phone number or email address related to the Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation Project in PA on the memes? I don’t know…
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I look forward to your thoughts and…if you have any pictures of children playing that you’d like to share with the world for a worthy cause… 🙂

Here a Policy, There a Policy, Everywhere a Policy: Trying to Understand the Policy Maze and How It Impacts Early Childhood Mental Health

For the past eighteen months, I’ve been investigating the issue of familial substance use disorder (SUD)and its impact on very young children. I have looked at the issue from a variety of perspectives, including protective factors such as resilience; risk factors, including the co-existence with other ACES (Adverse Childhood Experiences); stigma; programs that address trauma and strategies which nurture executive function skills; and research on the ways that families impacted by the disease function. One of the things that has continued to amaze me is how little focus is given to these children in early childhood settings, and the lack of training about SUD offered to teachers.

Over the next few months, I’m going to be taking a closer look at how policies might impact this challenge to our society. Specifically, I want to examine the policies related to early childhood mental health in my home state of Pennsylvania: what are the policies, who made them, and how are they implemented on the state, region, county and child care center/school levels? What is the relationship of these policies to similar policies on the national and even international level?

I am also very curious about the role that communication plays in the dissemination and implementation of these policies. Although I am active in the field and attend many meetings and conferences, I have to admit that I was unaware of the existence of this early childhood mental health system in my state until very recently. Why is this, and how could this affect the impact of these policies on the lives of children?

I would like to better understand how policies made by different agencies can interact, or not, when brought to bear on the challenge of young children’s mental health. For example: how does the early childhood mental health research on the importance of social and emotional development, and resultant policies, relate to the new Early Learning Standards, drawn from the more academic Common Core? What happens when two policy sets collide?

And finally, I am very interested in taking a deep look at the policies which determine what content related to early childhood mental health and familial substance use disorder are required in teacher education programs in my state. I have examined approved course syllabi and programs of study at both two year and four year institutions of higher education. However, I have not gotten into the nitty gritty of what the law actually says, specifically. Nor am I familiar with advocacy efforts at the state level to address potential gaps in the educational programs of our preservice teachers.

It may be that I will not have the time to explore all of these issues within the confines of my current class. However, I can already tell that my inner Policy Wonk has been called to life, and I look forward to learning as much as I can!