Children of Alcoholics Week, 2016, By the Numbers

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We really don’t have time to sit around and wring our hands. The time to act is NOW.

“It only takes one caring and supportive adult to change the trajectory of a child’s life…” Doesn’t it make sense to give teachers, especially those working in childcare with the most vulnerable young children, the tools they need to maximize their interactions?

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.

50 Shades of Policy Change

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I started this blog because it was a requirement for my doctoral program at Walden University. But then something funny happened: I discovered that it was a wonderful way for me to share what I was learning in a more creative and playful way than writing research papers!

I have always enjoyed writing in a variety of styles. Learning about and experimenting with blogging and other social media platforms has added new colors to the palette I use to communicate with people about issues of importance. And because I believe that when people understand the big issues, they will join in the efforts to change policies, being able to communicate in multi-hued ways seems paramount to making the world a better place for children and families.

Like all genres of writing, blogging must adhere to basic tenets of communication in order to be effective. Mind Tools (n.d.) identifies these as the “7 C’s of communication.” One must be clear, concise, concrete, correct, coherent, complete and courteous.

Some of these flow naturally from a lifetime of reading and writing academic works. I am careful about both fact checking and grammar checking (the C of correctness). I spend time making my messages organized and coherent. I work at giving all the information necessary to understand an issue (completeness) and because I genuinely respect my readers, whether they are professors, or teachers, or parents of preschoolers, I am courteous.

What has intrigued me about blogging, as well as other forms of social media communication, is that I am challenged by the first three C’s: ensuring that my messages are clear, concise, and concrete. Part of this has to do with the potentially diverse readership when one splashes ideas out to the blogosphere.

I have wrestled, for example, about using the term “substance use disorder,” even though research stresses that using this term, (as opposed to “addiction” or “alcoholism” or “drug abuse”) is an important strategy to shift the paradigm about how we view the disease. I am passionate about wanting to end the stigma associated with the affliction and believe this is necessary to effect change for children and families impacted by it. But while professionals in the treatment and recovery fields are beginning to use the term, few in education have ever heard it. Where do clarity and social change intersect in this case?

Being concise has never been a strong point for me. Social media has made me revisit this. I consider how much time I give to reading a blog, or a Facebook post, even when I am very interested in it. I think then of digital natives, who were raised to point, click, and scroll their way quickly through ideas. Although I still struggle with this, I make an effort to be more brief and concise in my social media writing. I believe this has positively impacted my writing in other venues, as well.

One of the most powerful things about social media is the way that imagery is used to communicate ideas and to inspire emotions. I have discovered that using found or created visual images not only makes my blog more interesting and accessible, but also focuses my attention on using more concrete examples and images in my writing.

I believe that my academic writing and blogging on the same policy topics have begun to inform each other. I look forward to seeing how both will influence the way I approach more traditional ways of communicating with policy makers, such as letters to the editor and white papers. With such a rich and vibrant palette of communication tools, we can surely paint a better tomorrow for children, their families, and the teachers who support them.

Mind Tools. (n.d.). The 7 Cs of communication: A checklist for clear communication. Retrieved April 9, 2015, from http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCS_85.htm

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?10419622_836267009738372_5125222046397792097_n

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

Building Resilience: One Great Story at a Time

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People often ask me for suggestions of good books to read to young children. As I mentioned in a previous blog post, I’m kind of a book snob. I believe that offering children great stories, told in rich language, with intriguing illustrations is the equivalent of providing them with delicious and nutritious food…and that many of the “written to teach a lesson by well-meaning adults” books out there are the equivalent of…potato chips and pop (soda, for those of you not from Western PA!).

Here’s a list of books from Devereux’s Center for Resilient Children that will have children chewing on issues of substance, while delighting their imaginations, too! Divided into the three elements of resilience- initiative, self-regulation and attachmentBooks to Read With Your Child is a wonderful list to take with you the next time you go to the library. Most will work well in classroom settings, as well as the home.

Want to know more about how to build resilience? Here’s a short overview of simple things we can do to build that bounce in our children: Tips and Strategies That Promote Resilience.

Spring forward with BOUNCE!