Changing Adult Behavior To Improve Child Outcomes

26 Aug

Pancakes for breakfast.

Pancakes for breakfast.

Imagine this…You are 4 years old and nestled in your cozy pajamas gently waking to the smell of pancakes and eggs cooking on the stove.   You slowly rise as your mother calls you down for your favorite breakfast.  You enter the brightly lit kitchen greeted by a kiss and hug from your mom and a “how did you sleep?” from your dad.  You eat breakfast together then mom heads to work and you and dad have a few minutes to read your favorite picture book together.  Dad then gets dressed for his job and you pick out your favorite shirt and pants to wear to pre-school.   Dad drops you off at your classroom and you beeline for the Legos because they are your favorite thing to play with your best friend.  Dad waves goodbye after he talks to your teacher and says “pick you up at 5.”  You spend the day playing, reading, eating, napping, building Legos, coloring, painting and being silly with your friends.

 

Now imagine this…You are 4 years old and are waking up to a silent house.  You go to the empty kitchen that makes you shiver because the landlord will not fix the broken furnace. Your mom is sleeping because she had to work the late shift.  You open the refrigerator where you pull out a bottle of soda and grab some cereal.  There is not a lot of cereal left because your older brother gave it to you for dinner the night before.  Your brother then yells at you to get dressed because he has to walk you to your neighbor’s house.  Your neighbor is a really nice person who loves children but doesn’t know what to do with you all day.  They want you to behave and not make a lot of noise so they tell you to go watch TV, which you do until your brother picks you up on his way home from school.

 

Now believe this…these two very different “scenarios in the life of a 4 year old” happen every day in our community.  And I’m pretty sure we all can guess which 4 year old is going to have greater opportunities to become a successful, productive, healthy, contributing member of society.  We have been shouting it from the rooftops that the first five years of a child’s life are critical to brain development. We tweet, we Facebook, we write letters to the editor, we speak to anyone who will listen!  Why do we do it?  Because we care about the children of Central New York.  We advocate for them because they can’t advocate for themselves.  Because we know that in order for our community to have less crime, a better educated workforce, healthier citizens, and economic prosperity we have to build a strong foundation.  This foundation starts to form the second a child is born and in truth it is developing in-utero.

But how can we create better foundations when we know that so many of the children in our community are living with toxic stressors that prevent that critical brain development from occurring?   These stressors or “brain development blockers,” include poverty, violence, abuse, neglect, drugs, and mental illness.  These are the things we all know exist but often find difficult to confront.  In the city of Syracuse 67% of children under the age of five live in poverty.  In Onondaga County 20% of families with children under the age of five live below the federal poverty level.  Many of these children are also dealing with the other toxic stressors putting them at huge disadvantages from the beginning of their lives.  The statistics are overwhelming and I have often heard it said that these problems are too big to tackle.  In reality aren’t they too big not to tackle?  This is a battle for our future. 

 

Now I’m not naive.  I don’t think we can wave a “magic paradigm shift wand” and solve these societal problems.  But I am intrigued by the work of the folks at Frontiers of Innovation (FOI) at the Harvard Center for the Developing Child.   FOI is a “community of more than 400 researchers, practitioners, policymakers, philanthropists, and experts in systems change from across North America.  The goal of FOI is to bring about substantially greater positive impacts for vulnerable young children whose needs (or the needs of their caregivers) are not being fully met by existing policies and programs.”

 

FOI is currently exploring 3 methods of improving outcomes that involve protecting children from the impacts of toxic stress.  One method that is of particular interest to Child Care Solutions is skill building of adults who care for vulnerable children.  Like the neighbor in the second scenario above, many caregivers are well intentioned but they often lack the skills, experience and knowledge to improve the outcomes of the children in their care.  This skill building is not accomplished by simply providing information or support; it is accomplished through modeling decision making and appropriate techniques for caring for children. This theory forces agencies like ours to examine the way we train child care providers and parents.  We cannot be “passers of paper,” instead we have to use our knowledge and resources in a “boots on the ground” method of demonstrating and modeling the appropriate methods of interacting with and caring for our community’s children. Fortunately we have been doing this for some time, albeit in a limited way.  But the challenge is to bring this modeling to the scale necessary to create societal change.  It requires funding to support our trainers, support from policy makers and community leaders and the desire to truly start changing outcomes for our children. 

 

Now imagine again that you are the child in the second scenario above.  The caregiver has done “skill building” with Child Care Solutions.  Our trainers visited the home and modeled activities and practices that are easy to implement.  Now instead of your neighbor telling you to go watch TV, she has a set of building blocks in the living room and the TV is off.  She has a healthy snack waiting for you because she knows you might be hungry.  After your snack you go outside for a walk and count the number of objects that are the same colors as the blocks you played with. When you come back you get to color and talk about the things you saw on your walk.  These are simple changes, but they have to be taught and modeled for many adults.  Don’t these small changes make the future seem a little brighter though?

 

For more information on the research of the Frontiers of Innovation

Visit http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/multimedia/videos/

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