It’s a Family Affair: Kids Living with Substance Use Disorder

After seeing this video (produced as a public service message by the Finnish organization Fragile Childhood), what person in their right mind would even THINK of drinking or drugging excessively around their kids??? Hmm…well…probably NO ONE: IF alcoholism and addiction were a matter of willpower, as so many in our society believe them to be. In fact, alcoholism is a chronic, progressive disease of the brain for which there is no known cure. It impacts many aspects of the patient’s thinking and communication, compounding treatment challenges. Even in recovery, the alcoholic and addict is still subject to relapse; the treatment and recovery processes themselves are arduous and put a strain on both the patient and his/her family.

And the kids in the family? According to The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, children living with substance use disorders are often surrounded with unpredictability and chaos. The parent’s behavior fluctuates from loving and kind to hostile to withdrawn to… crazy. Rules may be nonexistent or inconsistent. Children love and worry about their parents, but may be angry that they don’t stop using. A wide range of other stressors may co-occur, such as abuse, domestic violence, mental illness, unemployment and financial problems, homelessness…all of which make keeping friends, doing well in school, and staying physically and emotionally healthy very hard for COAs (Children of Alcoholics/Addicts).

With this information in mind, it’s a no brainer that there should be lots of programs available to support young children living with substance use disorders, right? Actually: no…there are not. While there ARE lots of substance use prevention programs that are targeted to kids, most focus on middle and secondary students, who are at greater risk for using and misusing drugs and alcohol in the immediate future. Given what we know about the development in early childhood of two critical and related protective factors against SUD, resilience and executive functions, wouldn’t the best time to help children avoid taking that first drink or drug be when they are preschoolers?

In order to get some insight into why my hours of searching for these “no brainer” early childhood programs turned up so little, I contacted Ms. Tina George, MSW, Coordinator of the Student Assistance Programs at Caron, one of the premier drug and alcohol treatment facilities in the country. Ms. George provides Student Assistance Program Training across the east coast and is an approved Lead Trainer for the Pennsylvania Department of Education. Student Assistance Teams are mandated in every public school in Pennsylvania, and are comprised of teachers, guidance counselors and administrators who are a “primary vehicle to address students’ behavioral health needs and concerns. SAP identifies and links students to behavioral health care education, programs and services in the school and community to address students’ barriers to learning due to a social, emotional or mental health concern or problem” (as per the Pennsylvania SAP site). Caron provides a three-day training session for SAP team members, which focuses on the kinds of skills, knowledge and dispositions team members need in order to address substance misuse prevention, as well as other issues.

Effective programming for younger children focuses on making healthy decisions and behaving in healthy ways (PATHS is an example of an age-based program which targets the development of alternative thinking strategies for children from preschool up). Cognitively, preschoolers are less able to discriminate between a parent having a beer with dinner and parental alcohol abuse because young children often overgeneralize as they construct meaning.

But then, Ms. George raised another issue: money. Funding for prevention programs is available for public schools, although the sources for this money are less prevalent than they were even a few years ago. However, as with so many other important aspects of EARLY care and education, funding is tight to nonexistent. It is the parents who pick up the tab for not only tuition but also any additional programming child care centers offer. And extra funds for programs to address the needs of young children living with addiction are hard to come by.

Imagination on the Move is committed to addressing this gap. Check out our new and growing Resources section for links and readings related to young children living with familial substance use disorders and please comment below if you know of other useful tools that will help the teachers of these children better meet their needs. Thank you!

Girl in the Tower: Rapunzel’s Resilient Sister

dotti Canary Prince

The Canary Prince, by Silvia Dotti*

Folklorists tell us: it’s not about the hair! Instead, what makes Rapunzel a story told around the world is the motif of a girl locked away in a tower. And far from passively sitting around and being victimized by the witch who holds her captive, SOME girls in the tower demonstrate tremendous courage, intelligence and resilience (see that post, and this post, and also this post, for more on the protective factors for resilience).

Take the princess in Italo Calvino’s Italian version, The Canary Prince (also available in picture book format by Eric Jon Nones). It is her stepmother who convinced her father to stick her in the tower, where the girl wants for nothing except…well…freedom and companionship. A witch notices that a passing prince is entranced with her, and, feeling sorry for them both, gives the princess a magic book. When the princess turns the pages one way, the prince transforms into a canary, who can fly up to her window sill. When she turns them the other way, he becomes a man, and a great friend for the lonely girl. Talk about the power of the written word! AND what kind and competent helpers can do to give you hope!

When step-mommy dearest discovers that the canary who visits the tower daily is actually an enchanted prince, she sticks pins on the window sill to put an end to the princess’s joy. Instead of swooning at the blood, this quick-witted princess thinks on her feet, and using great self-regulation skills, immediately flips the pages of the magic book so that the mortally injured canary will fly back to where his men are waiting for him, transform into the prince, and can be carried home and cared for.

But that’s not all! No! She is beside herself with worry and so rips her sheets and makes a ladder so she can escape (good initiative and problem-solving, princess!). Off into the dark forest she goes, and hides in a tree, where she overhears witches talking about the one elixir that can save her prince’s life. She travels to his kingdom, disguises herself as a doctor, and convinces the king that he should let her into the royal chamber where the prince lies dying. Through persistence and careful attention to detail, she discovers the elixir and cures the prince (who of course doesn’t recognize her since, well…she IS in disguise). When the overjoyed king offers her “all the wealth in the kingdom,” the doctor/princess asks only for the prince’s coat of arms, his standard, and his bloodied yellow vest as her reward.

Back she goes to her tower, a bold, resilient heroine! BUT: what’s this???? That wretch the prince rides by and thinks SHE is the one who tried to kill him! He’s MAD and gives her the stink eye before riding past. Does she weep and wail and plead? Heck no. She whips out the book and flips the pages so he has no choice but to turn into a canary and fly to her window sill. She flips the pages again, and he turns into a very irritated prince. But when she shows him the vest, and tells him what she did to rescue him, he believes her at last, and recognizes his one true love. And of course, they live happily and resiliently ever after!

Critics of sharing fairytales with children often point to the stereotype of sighing princesses who are only fulfilled by marriage to their Prince Charming as sexist and outdated. Indeed, the Disney versions of many familiar tales often play into this. But the rich variants of our favorite stories embedded into other cultural traditions often show us very different, and far more resilient, heroines and heroes.

THESE are the models who can engage our children’s imaginations. These are the cunning, brave, and kind characters who continue to sneak into children’s own make believe and stories, even when well-meaning adults offer politically correct alternatives.  These are the heroes who draw kids into a magical world where, no matter how overwhelming the challenges, resilience ensures a happy ending.

Intrigued about how Rapunzel and her resilient Italian sister in The Canary Prince can be shared with young children in a way that fosters THEIR resilience? Stay tuned for an upcoming series of posts on using fairytales in the classroom, starting with Rapunzel! Each story will feature a treasure chest of sparkling ideas, all designed to help you wave the magic wand of fairytales to nurture resilience in a child-centered environment!

*Many thanks to artist Silvia Dotti for giving me permission to use her beautiful image! Check out her magical renderings of fairytales and other literature on Etsy!

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.



2princess Alice on phone
Frost on play

What’s the solution? Here’s what the doctors prescribe…

But when we say “play,” what exactly do we mean?

OK, so maybe kids enjoy it. And doctors and neuroscientists and psychologists and educators say it’s important. But does anyone else? Why, yes, as a matter of fact! Watch what the United Nations has to say about play…

Play . . . because our future depends on imaginings . . .

Gopnik quote

How will YOU promote play today?

We built this baby….

I’ve been watching my neighbors build their garage over the past year. First, there were months of preparation: planning what they hoped it would look like and the kind of space and functionality it would offer; interviewing contractors; choosing the proper materials; talking; looking over sketches…To me, as an outsider, this was mostly invisible, although I cheered them on as they shared snippets as we talked over the garden fence.

Then, late this fall, the work began. A highly skilled team of construction workers came every day, and as my dog and I watched out of the window, they carefully dug the footer, and laid a foundation. Day after day, the workers were there, and, to be honest, I didn’t really SEE much progress. Most days, if my dog hadn’t gone crazy barking at the trucks coming and going and the sound of power tools, I wouldn’t have known they were doing anything.

Then, suddenly, this week: walls went up. A roof was trussed. The building took shape. I was shocked. How did THAT all happen?

And I thought about how similar the process is to quality early childhood care and education. So much has to happen before we “see” the results. But without that careful planning and foundation building, baby’s brains won’t offer the solid architecture necessary for lifelong learning and healthy living.

Below you’ll find a detailed infographic about what building a baby’s brain can produce, one neural network at a time.

What will you do today to build a baby’s brain? Because really: if we can spend months planning and building the foundation of a garage, don’t our children deserve at least that much? Doesn’t our society, too?

early childhood development

The Power of Story (OR: Once Upon An Executive Function…)

It’s true. I’m a children’s book snob. I was “that teacher” who ranted against the story-less drivel that was supposed to teach my first-graders phonics. If a book doesn’t touch heart, mind and soul, I pretty much don’t care if it’s got pretty pictures or is on the bestseller list or targets the “at” family like no other. Children deserve Story, with a capital S. They need Story not just to learn literacy, but to learn life.

And so of course, as I started to research young children living with substance use disorder, I went straight to children’s literature. What I have found so far ranges from ok-ish, to bleccchhhh. Now, I haven’t read these with any kids, and, who knows, children living with this disease might connect with them. However, most fell into the category of books that were written for a purpose, rather than to tell a story (or to impart information, a whole other genre). Here’s a sample bibliography from the Betty Ford Center, which is where I started my search.

This got me thinking. What kind of “real” books would touch vulnerable children’s hearts and help them to feel part of something bigger, something warm, something authentic? What kinds of books could offer them ways of building resilience as they wrestled with the here and now? I mean, isn’t that what good literature DOES?

Take the beautifully illustrated Al and Teddy, by Neil Waldman (who, in addition to being an artist and author, founded the Fred Dolan Arts Academy in the Bronx). The video clip above touches on its visual appeal, but the story, of two brothers living in a less than perfect urban world, offers insight into power: the power of art and the imagination to solve problems, the power of sibling attachment, the power of forgiveness, and…the power of change. It is a real story that touches on real pain, which, don’t kid yourself: children experience (read about the author’s childhood experience which inspired the book in “The Story Behind the Story”). Yet it does so in a way that is respectful, grounded and magical…all at once. (AND…there’s a Teacher’s Guide that has engaging and standards-based classroom activities for different ages, too!).

Soon after I discovered Al and Teddy, I ran across a wonderful resource from Ellen Galinsky’s Mind in the Making team. It is a list of 42 Books and Tips That Promote Life Skills related to Executive Function.

I will admit: I was skeptical. Was this another listing of cutesy books about focus, self-control, perspective-taking and challenges, written by some thinktank of neuroscientists and educators…rather than by authors with stories that burned to be told?

NO! It is a resource, divided by both Executive Function Life Skill and age (birth-2, 3-5, 6-8) of classic and new children’s books which have both critics’ and children’s resounding stamps of approval as great STORIES. It includes books like The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Making Connections), and The Snowy Day (Self-Directed Engaged Learning), The Carrot Seed (Focus) and Knuffle Bunny (Taking on Challenges). Each book is linked to a downloadable Tip Sheet which has suggestions for specific ways parents and teachers can talk with children as they read the book, and how this actively and intentionally promotes each facet of brain development. The Tip Sheets are also available in Spanish.

This resource is evidence-based. It promotes the executive function skills that are foundational to not only academic success but to social competence and resilience. It’s free (see here for a discussion of why this is so critical when looking at programs that would benefit young children living with SUD) And: it gives busy teachers and parents another reason to share great stories with children.

My amazing (adult) daughter discovered a treasure when we were shopping in December. Duck! Rabbit! by Amy Krouse Rosenthal isn’t on Mind in the Making’s list, but I think it offers a lighthearted way to talk about perspective-taking with children. Take a look at the trailer, and let me know what you think! (There’s even a Teacher’s Guide to go with it!)

How do YOU use children’s literature to develop executive function skills and resilience? What books can we add to this growing list? Please comment below or join in the conversation on our page on Facebook!