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A Pre-K Takes On Childhood Trauma

by Melissa Bailey | Dec 4, 2013 3:55 pm

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Posted to: Schools, Social Services, Fair Haven

Melissa Bailey Photo “I want to go to my house!” protested Simon.

Bonnie Muller took his hand and plunked down on the floor. “Tell me more,” she said.

It was part of a newly redoubled effort to reverse the damaging affects of childhood trauma on kids’ brains, mental health, and life trajectories.

The scene took place at the Friends Center For Children, a private preschool that just moved into a new, 9,200-square-foot building at 255 East Grand Ave.

The center has won a grant to hire a full-time social worker to work with all teachers, families and kids at the center, which serves 55 kids from age 3 months to 5 years.

The goal is to address Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs)—instances of early childhood trauma that research shows harm brain development and make it harder for kids to succeed in school and life. The plan represents the next frontier in the effort to tackle one of the biggest impediments to children’s success in school, and in life.

The Friends Center surveyed its families and found that 70 percent of students have been exposed to one or more ACE, according to Executive Director Allyx Schiavone. An ACE is an instance or pattern of abuse (emotional, physical or sexual); neglect (emotional or physical) or household dysfunction (such as parents who divorce, suffer from alcoholism, addiction or mental illness). Exposure to ACEs creates a constant “fight-or-flight” state in a child’s brain, making it hard to stay focused in school or control impulses.

The more ACEs kids are exposed to, the more likely they are to suffer health complications and engage in risky behaviors that lead to adolescent pregnancy, addiction, attempted suicide and jail, according to a landmark study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente.

Childcare centers are “the first stop in mental health,” Schiavone said, but they’re not doing enough to intervene with early childhood trauma. Research shows that attachment to one caregiver can change the life trajectory of a child exposed to ACEs. And that teaching kids emotional intelligence can help them cope.

The Friends Center is launching two pilot programs to that end: This year, it became one of the first pre-schools to work with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence on a new method of teaching emotional intelligence to pre-K staff, families and kids. And the Friends Center using philanthropic dollars—$15,000 from the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and $25,000 from the Carolyn Foundation—to hire a full-time social worker.

The social worker will work with all kids and families at the school, not just those who have been flagged as experiencing trauma. He or she will greet families in the morning, visit them off-site during the lunch hour, and support teachers in team meetings during nap time. The rest of the day, he or she will circulate between classrooms, checking in with kids.

Just as Bonnie Muller was doing one recent morning. Muller has mostly retired after 39 years as a licensed social worker, including 30 years in North Haven public schools. She works at the Friends Center about two to three hours per week. She circulates through classrooms, working with individuals or groups of kids.

Just around noon, she stepped into a pre-K classroom of kids aged 3 to 5. She helped a couple of girls take off their winter coats. Then she caught the eye of Simon, a 4-year-old at the school. Simon (whose name has been changed for privacy) didn’t look happy. Muller noted “early signs of distress” on his face.

“You look upset,” Muller told him. “What’s going on?”

Simon took Muller’s hand and tried to lead her to the door.

“I want to go to my house,” he told her.

Muller sat down on the ground to be at his level. “Tell me more,” she said.

“I want to get my tablet,” Simon said. But he had trouble getting the word “tablet” out. Muller didn’t understand the word.

They worked through the word, Muller repeating the sounds Simon was making, until he announced: “Tablet!”

“I heard it so clearly that time,” Muller replied.

She first sought to validate his feelings: “Oh, you really want that tablet.” Then she listened.

They chatted about his tablet, and the types of computer games he plays at home.

Mid-conversation, something caught Simon’s eye. It was a small crack on the wall. Simon thought it was a spider. He asked for Muller to grab her shoe so she could hit it. She didn’t do that—but she did take note of his change in emotion. He was “engaging in the here and now,” becoming curious about the room rather than expressing a longing to be elsewhere.

By the end of their conversation, Simon had rebounded. He led Muller to his cubbyhole, where he showed her photos of his family. Then he scampered off to lunch.

Muller said the conversation helped him move from frustration—when he felt that he wanted to leave, and that an adult wasn’t understanding him—to mastery, when he communicated his feelings to her and pronounced the word in a clear way.

Whatever was upsetting Simon wasn’t necessarily trauma, Muller noted. “It could have been that he was simply hungry.” Whatever it was, she sought to give him the skills to articulate the way he was feeling and work through it.

Simon, who sometimes screams and cries in school, has made a lot of progress this school year: “He’s using language” now, instead of withdrawing. Through the expression of feelings in language, he “pressure gets out.”

The Friends Center is currently searching for a social worker who could do Muller’s work full time, and work more extensively with families and staff. Schiavone said the center is looking for someone with experience in early childhood trauma, and experience working in a classroom setting, not just one on one.

The person will work with all kids at the fast-expanding school. Until this year, the center served just 18 children in the basement of the New Haven Friends meetinghouse. This fall, the Friends Center expanded to a full-fledged daycare in a new facility. By Jan. 22, it will serve 55 kids from birth to 5 years old, according to Schiavone. Next fall, it plans to add a second pre-K class of 23 kids, bringing the total to 78.

Kids are accepted on a sliding tuition scale. Families pay 12 percent of their income, up to $18,200 for infants and toddlers and $16,000 for kids aged 3 to 5. The average tuition per family is $7,500, Schiavone said. Tuition is subsidized by the state school readiness program, the New Haven Daycare program, Care4Kids, and private donations.

Kids at the daycare likely won’t have Muller as their full-time social worker, because she has retired from full-time employment. Muller said she sees a great benefit in adding a full-time social worker to the staff. Someone who’s in the schools frequently will be much better equipped to understand the nuances of every kid, develop the relationships with them, and make sure they don’t leave without learning key emotional intelligence skills, she argued.

Mood Meter

Also this fall, the Friends Center launched a pioneering relationship with the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. The center has developed a method called the RULER approach by which everyone in a school—kids, parents, teachers, administrators—is trained in a common language and system to enforce emotional intelligence skills, such as how to recognize and express emotions. Since 2005, over 500 school organizations around the world have implemented the RULER method, according to the Yale center’s staff. (Click here to read more about the method and the center.)

So far, the RULER approach has yet to penetrate into preschools—or schools inside New Haven, except for a few charter schools.

This fall, the Friends Center became one of the first preschools to partner with the Center for Emotional Intelligence on a RULER approach for pre-K, according to Susan Rivers, deputy director of the center. The work stems from a grant the Yale center won from the federal Institute for Education Sciences to extend the RULER approach into preschool.

“Preschool is new for us, which we’re really excited about,” Rivers said.

The center chose the Child Care Learning Center in Stamford as a “lab school,” Rivers said. Now it’s piloting the approach in a handful of preschools. The rollout of RULER is a two-year process. It starts with training adults. Then the adults teach the kids. Schiavone kicked off the process by attending a training for educational leaders run by the Yale center.

The first change to hit the classroom has been the “mood meter.” The meter has two axes: “energy” and “pleasantness.” Kids now come in the classroom, reflect on their mood that day, and place a photo of themselves on the graph accordingly. It’s a first step to help students recognize and express their emotional states.

Schiavone said the Friends Center already had strong systems in place to discuss and address emotions. She called the mood meter a “fantastic tool to articulate what we’re doing.”

Next, Schiavone plans to send staff to a series of RULER workshops led by the Yale center. She said they may be coordinated with school readiness staff at the New Haven public schools. That would be the first time the Yale center has partnered with New Haven public schools—an omission that Yale’s new president, Peter Salovey, has resolved to address.

“We’re very hopeful that that [partnership] will come to fruition,” Rivers said.

Schiavone said she hopes the Friends Center becomes a model for other preschools interested in addressing early childhood trauma and emotional intelligence.

Rivers agreed with Schiavone that there’s a huge unmet need in preschools to address social-emotional needs.

“The training we require of early childhood educators is so varied and mixed,” Rivers said. The Friends Center is accredited by the National Center for the Education of Young Children. But other childcare centers have “very few standards,” Rivers said. “That’s really unfortunate.”

“It’s such an important developmental period,” Rivers said.

Muller agreed the stakes are high.

“Many kids are showing up to kindergarten not ready to learn because of their emotional state,” Muller said.

“If children go into kindergarten without [emotional intelligence] skills, they either withdraw or they act out,” Muller said. “If a child is feeling disregulated, they are not able to use their cognitive skills” in school. That turns into “problem behavior,” which can get a kid booted out of school, even at a young age—and create a snowballing effect of problems.

Muller said early childhood educators have the opportunity to stop that trajectory early—and put kids like Simon on the right track.

“I was very satisfied with our conversation,” Muller told Simon before leaving the room. “You seemed like you got really satisfied, too.”

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