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ACE Study Drives Change at Gladstone Elementary School

ACE Study Drives Change at Gladstone Elementary School

Erika Nelson at John Wetten Elementary

Teacher Erika Nelson meets with a student in the Skills Learning Center at John Wetten Elementary.

Rafael Otto contributed content and photos for this story.

At John Wetten Elementary in Gladstone, Oregon, a new classroom called the Skills Learning Center (SLC) offers students a calming environment for working on self-regulation skills. It features quiet music, soothing lighting, and a series of stations with calming activities like breathing exercises and fidgets.

Erika Nelson, a teacher at John Wetten with a mental health counseling background, works with students one-on-one to identify and regulate their emotions, learn how to use the space, and improve behaviors and habits.

The SLC is just one aspect of a multi-year strategy in the Gladstone School District to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). ACEs fall into three categories: abuse, neglect, and family/household challenges. The ACE Study, conducted from 1995 to 1997 by Centers for Disease Control and Kaiser Permanente, involved more than 17,000 adult participants and found that childhood trauma can lead to a lifetime of negative health outcomes. The study also found that ACEs are common, with almost two-thirds of participants reporting at least one ACE and more than 20 percent reporting three or more ACEs. [Read More: A Brief Explanation of ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences]

When Gladstone Superintendent Bob Stewart first heard about ACEs, he wondered how a public K–12 school could satisfy rigorous academic requirements while working to mitigate childhood trauma. He had already spent time investigating causes for absenteeism in his schools and learned that many other factors such as poverty, mental illness, and domestic abuse, were affecting how kids learn.

Stewart brought his staff to a healthcare symposium featuring Dr. Vincent Felitti, a lead investigator on the ACE Study. There he realized the significance of understanding the long-term impact of childhood trauma. “We knew there were issues in kids’ lives that were limiting their ability to access education,” Stewart said, “but we didn’t understand the lifetime reach of it.”

The ACE Pyramid connects ACEs to development of risk factors over time.

Stewart and his team spent a year studying ACEs and how to address them in a K–12 setting, searching for schools or districts that might be leading the way. In 2012 Gladstone—along with six other districts across Oregon—received grant funding to form the ACEs Collaborative and Stewart set out to change how his schools addressed trauma.

Initially, Gladstone tried to focus on kids with a higher number of ACEs. But that proved difficult, because high ACE scores don’t always manifest with visible behavior issues. “Kids that have multiple ACEs in their life don’t necessarily exhibit bad behavior,” Stewart said. “The reality is, many people with high ACE scores can also be very high-achieving.”

Stewart also realized that helping a small number of children might not create a significant and lasting impact on his schools. “We realized that before we ever get to intervention strategies, we’ve got to look at what we need to do for kids that gives all kids the best chance to be successful at school,” Stewart said.

Stewart and his staff stepped back and reframed: Treat every child as if they had a high ACE score. “That became an ‘aha!’ moment for us,” he said.

Building a Culture of Care

At John Wetten Elementary, Wilson and her team focused on creating a school environment that was welcoming, safe, inclusive, predictable, and full of respect. She worked with a psychologist to help develop daily structure and made sure training extended to every staff member. Called the “Culture of Care,” the concept has extended to all four district schools: the Gladstone Center for Children & Families, John Wetten Elementary, Kraxberger Middle School, and Gladstone High School.

While the Culture of Care looks different in each school setting, the foundation is the same across the district. “The Culture of Care is built on relationships, it’s built on predictability, it’s built on safety,” Stewart said, because children who experience trauma at home tend to need those elements in their daily routine.

Principal Wendy Wilson from John Wetten Elementary says routines, relationships, and regulation are the cornerstones of the Culture of Care. “Routines help establish reliability, predictability, and the feeling of safety,” she said. Relationships help each student feel valued and know they are genuinely cared for. And regulation—learning about the fight or flight response, practicing strategies for settling down into their “learning brain”—helps students understand and talk about their emotions in a healthy, productive way.

A student in the Skills Learning Center at John Wetten Elementary.

A student works with fidgets and manipulatives in the Skills Learning Center at John Wetten Elementary.

At John Wetten, days begin with morning meetings where kids gather to exchange greetings and participate in activities that help them settle into the school day. “Whatever they came from at home, this sends the message that we’re in school and ready to learn,” Stewart said. During these meetings, kids as young as kindergarteners learn how to recognize and regulate their emotions so they can be successful in their school day.

The school has also added “calming corners” to their classrooms with fish tanks, dim lighting, soft music, and bean bag chairs to create a space and resource for children dealing with difficult emotions and behavior. Any student can go to a calming corner in their classroom at any time, but they cannot be sent there as a result of behavior issues. The calming corner is used as a resource rather than a punishment.

John Wetten expanded the Culture of Care by adding the Skills Learning Center in the fall of 2018, an additional layer of support for kids who are displaying behavior issues in class.

When a teacher refers a student who might need help, Vice Principal Buchanan, SLC teacher Erika Nelson and a team of teachers work to better understand reasons for the child’s behavior, history of behavior issues, and any additional context. Some of the students referred to the SLC have caused “room clears”—meaning their behavior (throwing desks, tearing things off the wall) necessitated clearing the other students out of the room for safety. Many of the students had numerous disciplinary interventions last year due to their dysregulated behavior.

The Zones of Regulation help students identify emotions when they arrive at the Skills Learning Center.

Once a student is referred to Nelson, she schedules 20-minute sessions each day to orient them to the routine and tools. The students engage in a routine that consists of a sensory path (jumping, wall push-ups, hopping, etc.) and then one regulating station that has specific calming tools such as a light table, dark space, fidgets, fish tank, sand, or rice. They end their routine with yoga, breathing exercises, and a brief Zones of Regulation lesson at the learning table.

Students learn about the Zones of Regulation with Nelson, a tool and curriculum that locates their emotional state in one of four zones: Blue, Green, Yellow, or Red. After spending time in the SLC, the goal is to return to the Green Zone where students should feel happy, calm, focused, and ready to learn.

Assessing Results

Two months after the SLC opened, Nelson said they are seeing results. None of the 18 students who were using it had caused a room clear and the number of disciplinary referrals had dropped. Students also reported sharing their learning about the Zones of Regulation and tools they were using with their parents.

Gladstone’s Culture of Care has also reduced behavior problems, improved attendance, and improved test scores in both English Language Arts and math.

As Stewart and his team continue to improve their approach to addressing trauma and understanding ACEs, they’ve met with district leaders from around the state to share what they have learned. All the district representatives involved in the initial cohort of districts from 2012 have said the focus on ACEs has been a “game changer” for their schools.

A student wraps up his time in the Skills Learning Center and prepares to return to his classroom.

“It’s difficult to make system changes,” Stewart said, “and very few school districts do it. But every one of the seven districts have said this work leads to real systemic changes.”

Stewart believes that understanding ACEs and working to address it through an approach like the Culture of Care could be transformative for many more schools. He is working to develop a set of best practices and, eventually, wants to build a model that can be scaled to schools across Oregon and the country.

Additional Resources

A Brief Explanation of ACEs: Adverse Childhood Experiences

Superintendent’s State Crusade to Help Schools Help Students of Trauma

The Adverse Childhood Experiences Study: How are the findings being applied in Oregon?

 

Listen to our story about John Wetten Elementary

Strengthening Bonds Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Young Children

Strengthening Bonds Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Young Children

Strengthening Bonds Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Young Children
In part I of this two-part story on mothers at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, we learn about two programs operating within the prison, Head Start and Nurturing Healthy Attachments, that help mothers and their young children form strong and healthy bonds.

Learn more about three mothers who participated in the program in Part II of this story.
Jessica Houser was trying to change her 9-month-old daughter’s diaper, but her baby wouldn’t stop screaming. Jessica got frustrated, then upset.

She remembers being on the verge of tears when a gentle voice came from over her shoulder: “You could label her feelings.” Jessica was skeptical: “I was thinking, what’s that going to do? But I said something like, ‘You look mad or frustrated.’ And she literally immediately stopped crying and took a deep breath,” Jessica says.

The voice in her ear was parent coach Carmen Slothower, who works at the Head Start preschool at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, a women’s prison in Wilsonville. The on-site Head Start is one of the few of its kind in the nation. Children with incarcerated mothers in minimum security come twice a week for three and a half hours. During that time, the parents are with their children in the classroom, and they get constant help from Carmen, the teacher, fellow moms in the program, as well as a parent advocate.

Jessica was five weeks pregnant and two days clean and sober when she was arrested. She delivered her baby while incarcerated at Coffee Creek and got to spend 24 hours with her first and only child before returning to prison.

Despite the challenges, Jessica says she and her now 4-year-old daughter have a loving and healthy relationship. She credits that to the support that Head Start offers as well as Nurturing Healthy Attachments, an innovative pilot program at Coffee Creek that combined the on-site Head Start program with an eight-week targeted group therapy session for moms through a world-renown program called Circle of Security, which is designed to help parents understand their child’s needs and respond in a way that promotes the formation of healthy bonds. The pilot project also included parent coaching and innovative classroom tools to help manage difficult parenting moments.

Incarcerated Mothers, Torn Families
Between 1980 and 2014, the number of women in state and federal prison increased by more than 700 percent. That means a jump from just over 26,000 women in prison and jail in 1980 to more than 222,000 in 2014, according to The Sentencing Project. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have children under age 18, according to the same report.

In 2007, nearly 150,000 children in the U.S. had a mother who was incarcerated, according to a study by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The same study identified that 64 percent of moms in state prison had custody of their children before their arrest. And 42 percent of mothers who are imprisoned were single parents before their arrest.

Having an incarcerated parent is difficult for any child, but because mothers are often the primary parent, it can be devastating for children of incarcerated mothers. Many children go into foster care; 58 percent of mothers have no visits from their children while they’re in prison, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures report, “Children of Incarcerated Parents.”

“The literature shows that incarcerated women are likely to be single mothers who are undereducated and have a history of drug and alcohol abuse, poverty, victimization, and other trauma,” says Glen Cooper, one of three founders of Circle of Security, an early intervention program aimed at increasing attachment and security. Circle of Security is one of three programs that were combined to create Nurturing Healthy Attachments, the pilot program.

“The accumulated burdens of these hardships make even minimally adequate parenting extremely difficult,” Cooper says. Add in incarceration and separation, and Cooper says it’s easy to see how it leads to another generation of incarceration.

Research has shown it’s most critical that young children develop stable, healthy attachments with parents and caregivers to reduce long-term negative effects of parental incarceration. The NCSL report suggests maintaining regular, meaningful contact between incarcerated parents and their children as well as improving inmates’ parenting skills, yet few states have programs or policies to ensure that occurs.

That’s why the Head Start at Coffee Creek and Nurturing Healthy Attachments are so critical, Cooper says.

“Helping these mothers develop nurturing bonds with their children benefits both the parents and the children,” he says. On one hand, incarcerated moms are incredibly motivated by having a sense of connection, purpose and self worth, which all come from having a positive relationship with their child, he says. And a sense of safety and security with a parent “is correlated with far-reaching positive outcomes” for the child, he says.

History
When Coffee Creek was built in 2001, the Oregon Department of Corrections partnered with Head Start to open one of the first Head Start offices co-located with a prison. Traditionally, Head Start is for children ages 3–5, and younger children attend Early Head Start. This program combines the two to allow more mothers and children to participate. The center, which is run through Community Action of Washington County, is licensed to serve up to eight children. Their mothers must be in minimum security (Coffee Creek has both medium and minimum-security areas) and have fewer than four years remaining on their sentence, Slothower says. In addition, the children must live within one hour of the prison and have a caregiver willing to drive them to and from school two days a week.

During those school days, the mothers join their children for hands-on activities, outside play and family-style meals. Slothower helps the moms navigate day-to-day challenges of parenting with practical and loving guidance, and there are two parent advocates who take turns in the classroom to provide additional support.

In 2017, Sherri Alderman, vice president of the Oregon Infant Mental Health Association and a Developmental Behavioral Pediatrician, began to develop a concept for a pilot project that would layer in additional parenting supports to help the moms build a strong, healthy bond with their children despite incarceration.

“I’ve focused my career on the most vulnerable, specifically serving very young children. I’ve done research, advocacy, systems change and workforce development all related to early childhood and attachment,” she says. Through those decades of work, she’s found models that really work—including Circle of Security. She’s also a champion of the Vroom app, which parents can download for free and receive targeted, age-appropriate ideas for ways to engage with their children.

Alderman started thinking about ways to incorporate the two vastly different—yet complementary—programs. With Circle of Security, she saw a way for the moms to dig deep and change behaviors, and with Vroom she saw a way to give parents practical tips for engagement during their regular visits.

She also wanted to layer in information particularly about phases of child development, as those times can be particularly challenging for both parent and child. “We know that unrealistic parental expectations for a child’s behavior is a risk factor for child abuse—and that can happen particularly during times of very dynamic developmental growth, such as potty training,” she says. So, she included Act Early resources through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a resource that teaches parents about developmental milestones and how those drastic changes might affect their child’s behavior.

But there were obstacles: How would she transform a phone app into something the moms, who had no access to smartphones could use? And how would she meld the three distinct programs in a way that worked together?

She worked with Circle of Security creators in Spokane and Vroom to ensure the programs were compatible. She created printouts of activities and suggestions from the Vroom app. And she worked to secure the funding to create, administer and measure the effectiveness of the pilot program.

The moms who participated continued to meet twice a week at Head Start with their kids, but also participated in a weekly two-hour group Circle of Security session where they would discuss parenting issues, talk through their problems and learn about how to promote healthy bonds with their children. In the classroom, they had posters, handouts and even key rings with Vroom materials on tiny laminated cards with ideas and pictures for positive responses to difficult situations.

Though the program finished a year ago, the moms say the intense program combined with the constant, gentle coaching from Slothower has helped them transform their ideas about parenting, attachment and themselves.

Results
“This experience has completely changed everything in my life,” says Helena Bennette, a 43-year-old mom who participated in the pilot project.

“It’s a two-way street. I can’t do what I do if you’re not hungry for information,” Slothower says. “You take the information and you’re willing to try it and run with it. I’m a firm believer in that trusting relationship,” she says.

The Nurturing Healthy Attachments pilot project is finished, but Alderman says the results spoke volumes about the success of layering it in with the Head Start program. “It’s so exciting to see, first and foremost, the change that happened with the moms and their children in a two-and-a-half-month period. The evaluations supported that—there was a change.”

She says the program evaluations showed that many of the mothers in the pilot program reported that they had participated in previous parenting classes, but “Nurturing Healthy Attachments was the first one that they really felt an empathic shift,” she says, meaning the program didn’t just teach them tools and skills but actually shifted their entire mindset around parenting.

She’s working on ways the program can continue on a rolling basis to serve the needs of moms who may only be in prison for a short time. She’s also working with Coffee Creek to post Vroom activities in the prison visiting area and phone kiosks, so all incarcerated parents can benefit from the practical tips. She’s also looking at creating a program for incarcerated fathers.

“The interest and the passion is there,” she says.

Slothower says the Head Start program is working on ways to keep the moms connected once they leave the prison walls so the support continues. “We’re hoping that, as a program, we can work on ways to continue building the community and relationships when moms parole,” she says.

Cooper, the co-creator of Circle of Security, says the programs are worth every penny. “By investing in these parents now, we can reverse the cycles of incarceration and, as a society, we can reap the benefits of our efforts for generations,” he says.

To learn more about supports for incarcerated parents and programs around the country that are getting results, read our conversation with three national experts on the topic.

Results
“This experience has completely changed everything in my life,” says Helena Bennette, a 43-year-old mom who participated in the pilot project.

“It’s a two-way street. I can’t do what I do if you’re not hungry for information,” Slothower says. “You take the information and you’re willing to try it and run with it. I’m a firm believer in that trusting relationship,” she says.

The Nurturing Healthy Attachments pilot project is finished, but Alderman says the results spoke volumes about the success of layering it in with the Head Start program. “It’s so exciting to see, first and foremost, the change that happened with the moms and their children in a two-and-a-half-month period. The evaluations supported that—there was a change.”

She says the program evaluations showed that many of the mothers in the pilot program reported that they had participated in previous parenting classes, but “Nurturing Healthy Attachments was the first one that they really felt an empathic shift,” she says, meaning the program didn’t just teach them tools and skills but actually shifted their entire mindset around parenting.

She’s working on ways the program can continue on a rolling basis to serve the needs of moms who may only be in prison for a short time. She’s also working with Coffee Creek to post Vroom activities in the prison visiting area and phone kiosks, so all incarcerated parents can benefit from the practical tips. She’s also looking at creating a program for incarcerated fathers.

“The interest and the passion is there,” she says.

Slothower says the Head Start program is working on ways to keep the moms connected once they leave the prison walls so the support continues. “We’re hoping that, as a program, we can work on ways to continue building the community and relationships when moms parole,” she says.

Cooper, the co-creator of Circle of Security, says the programs are worth every penny. “By investing in these parents now, we can reverse the cycles of incarceration and, as a society, we can reap the benefits of our efforts for generations,” he says.

To learn more about supports for incarcerated parents and programs around the country that are getting results, read our conversation with three national experts on the topic.

Meet the Mothers Building Nurturing Relationships With Their Children at Coffee Creek

Meet the Mothers Building Nurturing Relationships With Their Children at Coffee Creek

Strengthening Bonds Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Young Children
In Part II of this two-part story on mothers at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, Oregon, we learn more about the three mothers who participated in the Nurturing Healthy Attachments pilot program and are still participating in Head Start at Coffee Creek with their children.
Learn more about both programs as well as issues facing incarcerated parents in Part I of the story.

Helena
Helena Bennette is a 43-year-old mom of two. Her youngest son is 4, and her older son is 23. Incarceration broke up her time with both of her children.

“My oldest son was almost 5 when I was arrested (the first time), and I lost 10 years of his life. That bond was broken. I don’t want to say severed, but it was pretty broken and still is,” she says.

Strengthening Bonds Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Young ChildrenWhen she was arrested, her younger son was a little over a year old. She was immediately determined to participate in any parenting program the prison could offer.

One of her biggest lessons from Nurturing Healthy Attachments: It’s the parents who need training, not the children.

“Children are going to do what children are going to do,” she says, confidently. “But there’s, like, shark music.” The other two moms with her, Jessica Houser and Steffany Silsby, laugh knowingly. Bennette describes what “shark music” means: “Some people can handle a baby crying. Other people can’t. So, we say ‘shark music’ is what makes your anxiety start to rise,” she says, calling to mind the famously ominous two-note tune from “Jaws” that indicated imminent danger. “You learn to figure out, is this really a dangerous situation that you need to stop, or is this just making you uncomfortable?”

She says she used to think children were exhibiting “bad behaviors” that warranted punishment, but the program has changed that. “That was a big shift for me. The whole concept of punishment versus helping your child organize their feelings,” she says, adding that she learned the importance of “emotional regulation” in a way that has been beneficial for her whole family.

Bennette has been eager to share what she’s learned with her mom, who is taking care of her son, and her husband, who is also incarcerated. She recalls a time when she was on the phone with her mom and her mom told her son, “Don’t throw that at me!” Bennette saw an opportunity: “I said, ‘Don’t tell him what not to do—don’t tell him don’t! Tell him what you want him to do instead. Tell him to set it on the floor.’” Her mom tried it, and to her disbelief, it worked.

Bennette says her shift in perspective has been profound. “Now I know that when my child is playing or doing something on his own and he looks back at me, it’s because I’m his ‘secure base’ and it’s filling his cup. I used to think, what are you doing over there that you’re wanting to know where I’m at?”

“This experience has completely changed everything in my life,” she says.

Steffany
Steffany Silsby was pregnant when she was arrested for drug-related charges. She delivered her youngest child while incarcerated and was able to stay with her newborn for 24 hours before sending him home with his father. “He picked him up from the hospital and had never been around a baby,” she says. The 40-year-old mom has four other children, ages 20, 18, 17, and 14. Prior incarceration also interrupted her time with her older children.She says she didn’t know much about the program when she agreed to participate. “We just knew we might learn skills to help give our children healthy and secure attachments.” That’s all she needed to know.Strengthening Bonds Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Young Children She had a lot of support from home: Her son’s father enrolled in online college courses, so he could be home with their child. He’s taken child development courses so that he knows how to be a great parent, too.

Silsby says one element of the program that really helped were videos from Circle of Security that demonstrated a mom’s exaggerated facial expressions as she tried to soothe a crying baby: “’Stop crying! Do you want this? Do you want this?’ From a baby’s perspective, that’s super overwhelming. So, we’ve learned to be where we’re not trying to change their emotions. They’re teaching us to acknowledge the emotion and label the feelings” rather than try to shut the feelings down, she says.

The videos used in Circle of Security help illustrate parenting challenges through different perspectives, which all the moms agreed helped them see parenting in a whole new light. And through the therapy-style setting, they explored their own beliefs, roles, and actions.

“We talked about why we were having a hard time doing that based on our own past and our own parents. And then learned how to let your children feel—it’s not about trying to make them stop crying, but to let them feel that it’s OK to cry. We try to figure out what the need is—sometimes my son just needs help organizing his feelings,” Silsby says.

“But we learned that 30 percent of the time you have to just get it right to have a secure attachment,” Silsby says. “I was like, Yes! I can get an F and still be a good parent!”

Steffany and Helena, who both have older children, say the program has also helped them repair relationships with older kids with whom they never had a secure attachment due to previous addiction and incarcerations.

“I was in a visit with my older son and I put my hand on him. I watched his cues to see if he flinched or pulled away—anything that would be a sign. And he didn’t. I felt really good. And then I said, I’m really touchy feely but I want to make sure that’s OK with you,” Silsby says. “He said, ‘that doesn’t bother me,’” she recalls. Silsby said she had never previously thought to check in with her kids about what level of physical affection they were comfortable with before going through the program.

She says another important thing she’s learned is the concept of “rupture and repair.” “I had a moment where my son was throwing rocks. We talk about being firm but kind—and not moving into mean. Well, when I get scared or mad, sometimes I move into a mean tone of voice. I’m working on finding my firm mom voice,” she says. But in the moment when her son was throwing rocks, her “mean mom” tone startled and upset him.

“I felt really defeated. I said to him, ‘I’m not mad at you. I love you when you’re ready to come back,’ and when he came back, I said, ‘I’m sorry that when I got mad, I yelled.’ He was like, ‘That’s OK, mommy!’ And then Carmen came and said, ‘there’s your rupture and repair!’ Those moments are super cool,” Silsby says.

Silsby’s son is also a biter—something she used to think was just bad behavior. “But I noticed that he chews on stuff as part of his emotional regulation. I thought, why don’t I find him something he can chew on?” When she gave him a special toy designed for chewing he was so excited that he asked to take it home with him so he could always have it.

Her son is getting ready for kindergarten in the fall. His dad scheduled visits to kindergartens in the area and Slothower volunteered to attend with him to help the first-time dad determine which school would be the best fit.

Silsby says her and her young son’s healthy bond is sustaining for her. “The type of bond that I have with my child now is so important. I don’t foresee being able to break that again. It’s just too important now,” she says.

Jessica
Jessica Houser experienced two firsts at the same time: She had never been incarcerated and she had never been a mom. She delivered her daughter in prison and, since her husband was also incarcerated, she sent the newborn to live with a friend.

When she learned about the Nurturing Healthy Attachments, Houser was excited, even as she didn’t know all the details. She knew the program could help her connect more with her daughter and would involved studying videos of parent-child interactions, then analyzing them as a group. She signed up, eager to do anything while incarcerated to improve her parenting and ability to connect with her daughter.
Houser says before the pilot program, she used to scrutinize every interaction with her daughter: “How is she going to be as an adult if I do this when she’s two?” was something that would go through her mind after a negative interaction. It was stifling.

Strengthening Bonds Between Incarcerated Mothers and Their Young Children“It’s really reassuring to hear that. Just get it right 30 percent of the time—no one is perfect,” Houser says.

Houser has been sending her husband all the parenting information she can so he can learn, too. At one point, he asked Jessica about a visit he had with their daughter in which she repeatedly knocked over the tower they were building out of blocks: If I tell our daughter not to do something and she does it, he asked, is she being defiant? Jessica recalls telling him: “A tower is a pretty inviting thing for a kid to knock over. It’s not necessarily defiant.” Instead, she said, think of it as their daughter being playful and doing what toddlers do.

Houser says the pilot program has also helped her mom, who transports Houser’s daughter to and from Head Start while she and her husband are incarcerated. “My mom is really open to hearing how this works. And she’s noticing: My daughter has a need rather than my daughter is being ‘bad.’”

“I haven’t been a mom outside of prison. Having that constant coaching along the way has been so helpful. I don’t know what I would be like without this,” Houser says.

“It’s crazy to say, but because I’m incarcerated, I have gotten this opportunity to be a really great parent. If I had been pregnant, doing what I was doing, I can’t say what kind of parent I would have been,” she says. “Now I know I can be a good parent.” She said she’s noticed her bond with her daughter grow stronger gradually over the last year, when she participated in the pilot program.

To learn more about supports for incarcerated parents and programs around the country that are getting results, read our conversation with three national experts on the topic.

 

Brain Development Series, Part I

Brain Development Series, Part I

Brain Development Series, Part IScientists and parents know that young children’s brain development is critically important—and researchers learn more every day. Children experience their most profound cognitive, social, and emotional growth in the first eight years of life. Children’s Institute has put together a series to share educational resources and the latest news from experts about young children’s growing brains and how their caregivers can support and nurture this growth.

In this series, we’ll highlight what parents, caregivers, teachers and others can do to support optimal brain development, as well as the latest information on kids’ growing brains.

Below is part 1, on children’s brains from birth to age 3. Read it, watch the videos, and please let us know what you think!

Brain Development Series, Part I
By the time children reach their third birthday, their brains are 80 percent developed. And a baby’s brain produces a million neural connections each second. The quality of children’s early experiences during this crucial period of growth sets the foundation for all future learning. When young children have a stable, loving environment and nurturing caregivers, their brains are primed for early learning experiences that cultivate social, emotional and academic skills for lifelong success.

Brain Development Series, Part I

 

1. Learning begins at birth. In the first three years of life, the brain develops at its fastest. Babies’ brains are primed to respond to everyday loving moments, from affection to comfort to play. These moments help wire the brain, building the architecture that’s critical for language, relationship development, literacy, reasoning skills, and more.

Take action: If you have or care for a child, take time to play. Babies and young children can often become laser focused on simple objects—encourage it, talk about the object, or sing a song about it!

Learn More: Nurturing Healthy Development from Birth, a video from Zero to Three

Brain Wonders – Zero To Three Magic of Everyday Moments from ZEROTOTHREE on Vimeo.

2. Brain development is about relationships. Relationships build the foundation for development. Consistent, engaging interactions with parents and caregivers strengthen young children’s brains. When parents and caregivers appropriately respond to young children’s babbling, cries, facial expressions, and words, children learn essential communication and social skills that they will build on for a lifetime.

Brain Development Series, Part I

Take action: Talk and babble with the children in your life, respond with love when they cry, and help them understand the world by narrating the day. Caring for a young child can be challenging, especially when they’re hurt or sick—or throwing a tantrum! Research shows that being consistent and loving is among the most important things you can do.

Learn more: These informational sheets, organized by age, are based on research from the National Academy of Sciences.

3. The brain’s architecture is built through experience. Complex skills like reading are built on a foundation of a child’s natural curiosity and learning early fundamental skills. Those early skills include attentiveness and recognizing letter sounds. And babies practice all those skills when they’re being read to.

Take action: Read to the children in your life! Attend free library story times or read-and-play groups, or just tell them stories throughout the day based on what interests them.

Learn more: This video from Zero to Three explains how reading to your baby can promote the development of vocabulary and reading skills.

Loving Literacy – Zero To Three Magic of Everyday Moments from ZEROTOTHREE on Vimeo.

4. Negative experience can have an adverse effect on brain development. Children exposed to prolonged neglect or abuse, extreme poverty, parental substance abuse, severe maternal depression, or violence in the home or community can experience toxic stress. Toxic stress causes the body’s stress response to stay elevated, disrupting young children’s brain development. Toxic stress can lead to behavioral and developmental problems with lifelong effects.

Take action: There is no shame in asking for help. In Oregon, there are programs to help families experiencing abuse, poverty, and other factors that contribute to toxic stress. Dial 211 in Oregon for help finding health and social services, including housing, food assistance, child care, and more. Relief Nurseries are an excellent resource for families who struggle with risk factors of abuse.

Learn More: Here’s a video from the National Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children in the U.K. about stress and the developing brain.

Here’s more information on toxic stress from Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child.

5. Healthy brains thrive with stability. Young children who live in stable homes free from prolonged negative experiences including economic stress are better able to develop and thrive. When children who have been exposed to stressful environments receive loving and responsive caregiving, they can generally recover from trauma.

Take action: Get help if you need it (see above). If you are in a position to help, you can advocate for local, state and national policies that support families, or volunteer to help families in your area.

Learn more: Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child has a wealth information on the subject, including childhood resilience.

Relief Nurseries help families stay together

Parenting young children can be challenging for anyone. But for parents who struggle with substance abuse, lack of work, housing insecurity, a history of abuse, or a number of other factors, being a supportive parent can be even more of a challenge.

That’s where Relief Nurseries help. Relief Nurseries offer a mix of intervention and prevention programs and services to meet the needs of children age 0 to 6 and their families. Unique to Oregon, there are 31 Relief Nursery sites around the state run by independent nonprofits, serving nearly 3,000 families a year.

“We really look at the whole family,” says Mary Ellen Glynn, executive director of the Oregon Association of Relief Nurseries. That means free programming for children from birth to preschool that’s both therapeutic and educational, weekly at-home visits for parents, supplies like diapers and clothing, and assistance navigating the system to attain affordable housing, food assistance, education, and more.

“We know there are incredible developmental milestones in the first 5 years,” says Tim Rusk, Executive Director of MountainStar Family Relief Nurseries in Central Oregon. “That includes attachment, social-emotional learning, and a foundation for learning for the rest of their lives. If parents and families are distracted by issues like domestic violence, food insecurity, or housing insecurity, they have a harder time meeting their child’s needs.”

Relief Nurseries help families stay together

 

Relief Nursery programs and services work: “After a family has been in our program for more than six months, about 85 percent of them require no further involvement with child welfare,” Glynn says. In a 2011 study by Portland State University, they found 98.5 percent of children enrolled in Relief Nurseries between 2008-2010 avoided foster care and were able to live safely with their families.

Those are big results from a program that started 40 years ago as a project of the Junior League of Eugene. There were a growing number of child abuse cases in the community, so the Junior League began providing respite care for at-risk parents in a church basement. Since then, the model has expanded across the state into a nationally recognized network of independent nonprofits.

Glynn says there are many ways families connect with Relief Nurseries. “Some self-refer, others are referred by pediatricians and programs, others by child welfare. Our philosophy is that the door is open and there’s no wrong way to enter,” she says.

When a family enters the Relief Nursery program, they work with staff members to create a plan. “It’s all individual goals,” Glynn says.

Children attend Relief Nurseries based on their age and family goals. Babies usually visit the therapeutic class setting with their parent or caregiver once a week, and a session will typically have three teachers for every six infants. Toddlers may visit twice a week and attend class with three teachers for every 8 pre-kindergarten students.

The same teachers conduct the home visits, which Glynn calls the “secret sauce” of the program. Having the teacher visit the home means they can talk to parents in a constructive way about their individual child’s development, parenting tips, and the family’s needs in a way that supports the whole-family model.

Glynn says the nonprofit Relief Nurseries both help end the cycle of abuse and neglect, and helps kids from at-risk families be ready for kindergarten.

“The goal is to get those pieces in place so the family is strengthened and the child is ready for a successful K-12 career,” she says.

For more information about Relief Nurseries, visit www.oregonreliefnurseries.org. To learn more about Mountain Star, visit http://mtstar.org.

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