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… 🙂

Helping the Helpless: Adverse Childhood Experiences, Trauma, and Ways Forward

We can all sit and wring our hands about the impact of adverse childhood experiences (ACES) on children’s brain development and future trajectories, but what can we DO about it? As I’ve continued to track down and review research on familial substance use disorder, trauma and resilience, I’ve been curious about both programs which address the needs of preschoolers directly, and programs which help to train the people who work with children and families impacted by SUD.

Today was my lucky day! I interviewed two amazing women who are actively working to support children and families affected by trauma, in very different ways. Hearing their perspectives and insights placed the empirical research I’ve been doing into a real-world context and I look forward to processing the many layers of wisdom I encountered and framing them within my still burning research questions: What do early childhood educators need to know about substance use disorder in order to better meet the needs of the young children they work with AND: what role does stigma play in how these children and their families are included in our field’s embrace of diversity?

Tricia DeYoung is a Trainer at Familylinks, an agency which provides comprehensive mental and behavioral health services to families in need throughout Southwestern PA. Drawing on her extensive background working with the Boys Town Family Model, and the Sanctuary Model, Ms. DeYoung provides training to social service personnel and educators on many issues related to trauma, and trauma-informed care.

During our interview, I asked Tricia what she wished that people could understand about trauma. She pondered for a moment, and then replied: “It’s really two-pronged: 1) Trauma can result from a singular event…it doesn’t have to be chronic. This singular event can also change the way the brain functions. And, 2) People who have experienced trauma process things differently. It’s not a choice. Their brains work differently.”

Liz Wasel is the Child Development Specialist and Volunteer Coordinator at Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program where mothers can live with their children while they are in treatment. Each family has its own apartment, and while the mothers engage in a rigorous treatment program during the day, their children either go to school, or, attend Liz’s wonderful child development program on site. Drawing on her early intervention background at DART (Discovery, Intervention, Referral and Tracking), Liz, her co-workers and volunteers provide children 8 weeks to 5 years with a caring, safe and developmentally appropriate early childhood environment based on their individualized needs.

I asked Liz, towards the end of our interview, what is the one thing she wished people could know that might reduce the stigma of substance use disorder and truly start to effect change. She thought for a minute and then stated: “I wish they could understand that no one wants to be an addict. No one chooses this disease.”

As I move forward with my research and my project, I wonder: what would YOU, as early childhood professionals and parents, like to know about working with young children impacted by substance use disorder and trauma?

WHAT’S HAPPENED TO PLAY? CALL 911!

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

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

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How will YOU promote play today?

Puff the Magic Dragon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Importance of “What If?” Thinking

It seemed, at first, like an odd coincidence. An article titled “The Dragon’s Message Still Delivers a Punch” popped up in my Facebook newsfeed this morning. Just last night I had been searching for versions of Puff the Magic Dragon, to use as background music for a presentation on pretend play I’m working on.

To me, the song has always represented the loss of imagination that, sadly, often comes when children start to school. This seems so much more pertinent now than it did when I first heard the song in the 60s. But the writer of this article frames the song more broadly: as an anthem not so much about children, or our country’s lost innocence, but rather, about our lost vision.

Without a vision, there is usually no reason to do the hard work to make change a reality. Without imagination, there is no vision. Can imagination develop without play? I don’t think so…

And there’s the problem. It is pretend play that gives children rich experience with “what if” thinking. Isn’t “what if” thinking what all of our great leaders, and scientists, and artists, and teachers have been so good at?

What if we lived in a world without racial discrimination? What if we could eliminate cancer? What if our children didn’t have to grow up in poverty? What if we understood how to develop resilience in ALL children?

What if…we let children play?

Celebrate Dr. King’s dream by imagining your own “what ifs.” And then, come up with one small action you can take to start the transformation of your “what if” into a reality. Please share your visions in the comments below! Thank you!

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?

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

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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!

What is resilience?

When I first saw this clip a few weeks ago, I thought it was a fantastic representation of resilience! But what IS resilience, and how do we promote it in the children we work with?

In their NAEYC article on resilience, Peter Pizzolongo and Amy Hunter share the American Psychological Association’s definition of resilience as “the ability to adapt well to adversity, trauma, tragedy, threats, or even significant sources of stress.” They mention research that identifies factors related to infant temperament, like being easy-going, affectionate, and active, as predictive of a child’s resilience. Factors such as a young child’s willingness to ask for help when needed, and an emerging sense of humor have also been shown to be part of this valuable trait.

Sounds good! But how do we GET it?

The Devereux Foundation identifies three primary protective factors involved with resilience:

1) Attachment/Relationships: which refers to the child’s ability to promote and maintain mutual, positive connections with other children and significant adults.

2) Initiative: the child’s ability to use independent thought and action to meet his or her needs.

3) Self-Regulation: the child’s ability to to express emotions and manage behaviors in healthy ways.

Devereux has a great poster that highlights specific behaviors in children that demonstrate these factors..check it out here!

I consider myself a pretty resilient woman. Although I’ve been blessed with much, I’ve also had my share of trauma over the last few decades and have been able to keep riding those waves of change. What was it about MY early childhood years that allows me to keep bouncing back? Here’s a quick pictorial tour of the protective factors my family offered me that I am SURE helped to promote my resilience!

Protective factor #1: Attachment and Relationships

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I was born with the kind of temperament that made it easier to form a relationship with me (although I doubt that my sweet Mother would call her plunge into motherhood with me easy!). Temperament is inborn; I got lucky!

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I had lots of chances to play with other children: neighbors, children of my parents’ friends, like little Frankie here, and relatives.

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Even after my sister was born, I got lots of attention from both my Mother, and my Dad,

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and I was the apple of my grandfather’s eye (first grandchild and all that)!

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Protective Factor #2: Initiative

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My parents were attentive, but gave us lots of freedom to explore and play independently.

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They encouraged us to try new things (no, golf did not become my passion…).

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They allowed both my sister and I, who are very different, to follow our own interests…

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And encouraged us to imagine and pretend and become our dreams.

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Protective Factor #3: Emotional Regulation

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My parents both acknowledged our feelings, and helped us to work through them, even as young children. In this photo, my dad is helping me to do what the nice man with the camera is asking me to do, which I obviously didn’t want to at age 3! (No, I am not an artist either…)

And the result of this support? TA DA! A beaming little artist on her way to resilience!

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I’m sure many of you have read of Albert Bandura’s experiments with Bobo the Clown…you remember: we see a young child pounding on poor Bobo after seeing a grad student model aggression? Well, here’s a great example of emotional regulation when all of the protective factors are in place! A good day for little Stephanie AND her pal Bobo!

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What protective factors can you think of that have impacted your own life? And more importantly: What have YOU done with the children in your care to promote resilience? (and no, you do not have to breakdance on a hopscotch game! But if you WANT to…or THEY want to…remember that part about developing a sense of humor! 🙂