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.

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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

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!

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

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?

A Hand FULL of ACES: The Plight of Young Children Living with Substance Use Disorder

What do you think of this? This info graphic summarizes a major and ongoing longitudinal study about how these adverse childhood experiences continue to impact people throughout their lives.

Notice that substance use disorder (SUD) tops even physical abuse in the percentage of children impacted. Add to that the statistical probability that, like other ACES, familial SUD often, though not always, entails additional ACES, such as abuse and neglect, and the impetus to address the needs of these children begins to take on paramount importance. Because the more ACES, the more likely it is that the individual will struggle with mental, emotional and physical challenges FOR THE REST OF HIS/HER LIFE…