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… 🙂

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As I’ve been thinking about writing this (required) post all week, I thought, honestly, of taking the easy way out. I’ve been immersed all semester (and beyond!) in learning about the impact of substance use disorder on families and children. I’ve spent the past two weeks immersed in sharing what I’ve learned in both a formal academic paper, and a multimedia presentation. Why not just post the presentation on this blog, and call it a day?

And then…TODAY, I attended the PAEYC (Pittsburgh Association for the Education of Young Children) conference, where I was presenting on pretend play and executive function (see here and here for earlier posts on this).

AND…when I looked at the conference offerings last night, I discovered that, for the FIRST TIME, at least in the few years I’ve been paying close attention, there was actually a workshop on working with families in recovery from substance use disorder! I was excited! And of course, I attended.

This (all too short) one hour workshop, “Recovering Families: How Addiction and Recovery Impact Children” was presented by Beth Bitler, Program Director of the PA Family Support Alliance, and Bob Brinker, Parent and Community Educator for Family Services of Western PA, Parent WISE Program. It highlighted for me a number of things that I had learned this semester about my challenge that I had forgotten to include in my presentation and paper! And more importantly, it affirmed something for me: there is interest and a desire to learn about SUD in the early childhood community!

Here is a list of some of the things this workshop reminded me of:

1)The organizations involved were working with substance use disorder because their primary focus was child abuse: Between 80 and 85% of families involved with child protective agencies are impacted by SUD.The research on trauma pertains to these children and families. Further, a significant majority of adults suffering from SUD report having been physically or sexually abused as children. One government report cited astounding numbers: according to many studies, between 55% and 99% of female drug users in treatment reported having been sexually and/or physically abused before the age of 18! And this was in 1998…This cycle has been found to be based in part on the changes in brain architecture that occurs with trauma.All the research I read mentioned this. When I mentioned empathy and compassion in my presentation: this is one reason why.

2)While there are certain characteristics that in general may be found in the parenting styles of families affected by SUD, each substance (e.g. alcohol, cocaine, opioids)has specific behavioral effects, and so have specific impacts on parenting behaviors and family dynamics. As with so many other topics we’ve discussed this semester, this one reminds us of the importance of not painting with that broad brush stroke…

3) While recovery is obviously the goal for ALL families, research shows that many parents leave treatment and are committed to their own recovery, partly in order to regain custody of their children. However, when their children are reunited, many parents then relapse; the stressors of working on both their own continual recovery AND the typical challenges of parenting are often too much for the fragile early stages of recovery. The presenters’ programs were focused on offering continued support for recovery WHILE offering parenting support and skill-training. This seems so important for those us in the field to know and remember: many parents who go to treatment are parenting sober for the first time when they come out. How can WE support them, and their children?

4) As I’ve mentioned, the early childhood community doesn’t seem to be talking about SUD. Imagine my surprise when this workshop had over 50 attendees!!! (My workshop reeled in a big eight!). The numbers verified the interest and the many questions that were asked represented a thirst for information about this disease and how it impacts children and families.

One of the things that has resonated with me throughout my most recent Walden course readings is that, as a profession: we want to get it right. We want to ask the tough questions and delve into the hard issues of bias, and stigma, and the challenges that face so many of the children and families we work with. We all want to do the next right thing, even if it is uncomfortable, because we are committed to making the world a better place, one child and one family at a time.

As I was talking with one of the workshop attendees, we shared how important we thought these topics were for our work. “Why aren’t we talking about addiction all the time?” she mused.”When we know how high the stakes are, what are we waiting for? Do you think it’s because people are ashamed, or scared?”

I don’t know. But I’m glad I’ve had the chance to think about this issue within the context of the family, culture and our society this semester. It has forever changed my thinking about the insidious role of bias and micro aggressions and how they can damage our own best efforts, if we aren’t brave enough to face them head on, and do something about them.break the silence

The Lobster in the Pot: Or…why I’m writing this blog!

We’ve all heard the story about the frog. You know the one: Once upon a time, there was a frog. The bird, or fox, or witch wants to cook him and eat him for dinner. But Frog is smart. When he is put in boiling water, he leaps out immediately and hops away as fast as his legs will carry him. So, his hungry nemesis decides to trick him, and invites him to swim in a large pot of cool water. Frog loves it! He has so much fun swimming around that he does not notice that gradually the temperature of the water is rising, as the fire beneath it heats up. By the time the water reaches boiling: it is too late to escape. Poor Frog is cooked! And frog legs are on the menu of the bad guy.

This metaphor has been used for all kinds of political, and social purposes; google it and be amazed by its prevalence in the cultural fabric of our society. Never one to want to be cliché, I’m offering an alternative image: that of the LOBSTER (mostly because a brilliant friend of mine posted great pictures of her children’s creative costumes on Facebook).

Children living in families where substance abuse occurs are like the lobster. The pot of water where they swim is the only home they’ve ever known. They don’t know that other little lobsters don’t have to watch Mommy fall asleep from her pills BEFORE she puts her baby lobsters to bed, and that some Daddies actually remember their promise to take their lobster kids to the park, rather than deciding to spend the weekend at the bar. The little lobsters adapt, and their behaviors and thinking help them to “normalize” all the dysfunction they are immersed in.

Until… the chaos becomes too heated and those protective mechanisms quit working. And that’s when things reach the boiling point for our little lobsters. They begin to act out in school, stop learning, withdraw from their friends, and, if statistics are to believed, are at high risk to begin using drugs and alcohol themselves as young adolescents.

How do we help these little lobsters stay safe? According to some estimates, one in four children lives in a home affected by substance abuse. Do the math. In your class of twenty 4 year olds, you may have five children at risk. We have learned ways to keep children physically safe: Call Childline if there is evidence of abuse; don’t let them leave with a parent who’s been drinking. But what can we, as early childhood educators, do to protect children’s developing brains from the toxic stress of living with this family disease?

Stay tuned. Imagination on the Move will explore research-based resources that will help build resilience and keep these children out of hot water as they play, create, and channel the phenomenal power of their imaginations.