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 The parent’s behavior fluctuates from loving and kind to hostile to withdrawn to… crazy.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!

Why Fairytales for Professional Development?

9b57d13d65c35e119135a76fd476536bI haven’t posted for quite a while, but it is not because I haven’t been thinking and writing about resilience, and Story, and the impact that substance use disorder has on young children. My journey for the past 18 months has been along the long and often dusty, desolate road of Dissertation, and it is only now, when the end glitters in the distance like sunshine on a magic crystal, that I think I can come back to this project of the heart.

I have learned so much, and am eager to start sharing some of the specific ways that fairytales resonate with the “ordinary magic” of the protective factors of resilience (as Dr. Ann Masten describes them). But first: why fairytales? What on earth do they have to do with kids living with substance use disorder and how the pickle do I expect these ancient tales of magic to help teachers???

I recently recalled for the first time in years a comment that one of my constructivist heroes, the late, great Dr. Harry Wachs, said to me when I told him that I wanted to use Kohlberg’s moral dilemmas with the adjudicated teens that I was working with: “But Stephanie: they will be able to see right through that…and tell you what they think you want to hear, rather than what they believe.” That set me off on a quest that resulted in using fairytales to discuss moral judgment and reasoning with these adolescents, all of whom had displayed questionable judgment, or they wouldn’t have been in residential treatment.

I believe that teachers (and all of us) are often stuck in our preconceptions of what is “right” or “appropriate” etc. and that fairytales offer a degree of separation that helps us to dig into our own prejudices, without fear of censure when we are being genuine. Social equity work of ALL kinds requires exactly this: it is a challenge to achieve that self-awareness and clarity without raising defenses.

We can all laugh at Jack being a smart aleck, and cheer when Beauty ignores her father’s edicts, or do fist pumps when Hansel and Gretel trick their parents…but when these children are in our classrooms, we call out their “challenging behaviors” without taking into consideration the context of the child’s life, or the characteristics of resilience that they are demonstrating. Hopefully, raising teacher awareness about the impact of SUD, as well as the “ordinary magic” of resilience, in a way that is playful and accessible, will help them better meet the needs of the children they work with.

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!