A 5-YEAR-OLD WHO NEEDS TO LEARN SOME LIMITS

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
A 5-YEAR-OLD WHO NEEDS TO LEARN SOME LIMITS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My son is almost 5 years old and an only child. He loves to talk and interrupts quite often. My husband and I have brought it to his attention numerous times and talked with him about taking turns when speaking, but we have yet to see much improvement. Is it just the age or is there more we should be doing?

Our other concern involves the relationship between our son and another child at school. The two of them have been in preschool together and friends for a couple of years. The other child has begun acting out in negative ways and sometimes tries soliciting others to join in the behavior. When our son has been the target, we have suggested he tell the other child that he does not like the action(s) and then walk away. He is comfortable with walking away (although the other child often persists) but doesn’t want to say anything that might hurt the other child’s feelings. I don’t want to discourage his compassion for others but don’t want him to feel unable to stand up for himself either.

We would like to know how to speak with our son better about both issues.

A. Five years old is indeed an age when children want to intrude, partly to test their new found power over others — adults and peers. The other, more subtle reason for the irresistible urge to break into parents’ conversation arises from what Freud called the “Oedipal” struggle. Children this age want to possess each of you as their own, and may have trouble putting up with the intimacy of your speaking together.

Of course, parents must insist on their need to be in close touch, and a child this age shouldn’t be allowed to interfere, for his sake as well as yours. As much as he wants to interrupt and have you all to himself, he’d feel terrified and out of control if he succeeded! An only child may have an even more difficult time learning that he doesn’t need to be the center of everyone’s attention. He can be adored but not arrogant.

You are right to want to help him, but I sense from your language that you and your husband may feel torn because you find his interruptions hard to resist — maybe even precocious? No matter how compelling he makes himself, if you can consistently insist each time that he wait his turn, you will be teaching him to value other people’s significance.

This kind of sensitivity is priceless, and sometimes seems almost like a lost art. And it sounds as if you are afraid an only child may not have the opportunities to learn to value the rights of others as one would in a larger family, but there isn’t any reason why he can’t. You can start helping him develop this valuable social asset by labeling each interruption: “You are interrupting now. It’s Daddy’s turn. After he’s finished, we will be ready to hear your idea. Meanwhile, Daddy’s idea came first.”

Don’t let a single interruption slip by without doing this, or you’ll be giving him a mixed message — sometimes it’s OK to interrupt, and sometimes it isn’t. It may seem like discipline, but it is in an important cause — learning how to value others, and to listen as well as just to talk. He does sound exciting and it must be intriguing to hear all his ideas. You can reassure him that if he waits his turn you’ll be sure to listen to what he has to say.

Second question: I am not sure what “negative ways” you refer to, but most children at this age begin to “try their wings.” It’s a way of both testing the system and of learning an important goal, how to stop themselves when their wishes are getting out of hand. They may be used to hearing parents say, “I have to stop you until you can stop yourself.”

But at this age they must find out for themselves whether or not you still will, whether or not you still can. For your boy, living vicariously through his friend’s troublemaking may be a safe and appealing way to try this out. Of course, he’s both attracted and repelled. All the other 5-year-olds are, too.

Although you may prefer to say it as all the other child’s fault, if you can face his role in the “negative ways,” you’ll stand a better chance of helping him understand what he’s up to. Let him know that all children are bound to be curious about “getting into trouble,” even though they know they shouldn’t.

You might ask him “How do you feel when you do  “bad stuff’?” With this question, you are not condoning the behavior, but helping him to realize that he feels both excited and guilty if he would go too far. Becoming aware of these guilty feelings is not unhealthy, but instead, a powerful motivation to keep himself under control. His friend may be silently asking the others to help him take this kind of perspective on his mischievous urges and to learn to stop himself.

Walking away, as you suggest, is one way to handle these situations. But as a close friend, he may be able to find other ways to help his friend that will allow him to stand up for himself. “I don’t want to get into trouble. And I don’t want you to either. Because we’re friends.” Warn him that his friend may thump his chest in response, “Scaredy cat! No one’s gonna catch me!” Your son can still stick up for himself and say, “That’s no reason to do bad stuff!”

At this age children should know that breaking rules will lead to punishment. But recognizing the reasons for obeying for rules for their own sake is a whole new world. They will both be learning together, the good and the bad. Then your son can be proud of himself — as a friend, not as a victim.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

CARTOONS; AND ROCKABYE, BABY

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
CARTOONS; AND ROCKABYE, BABY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. A fond recollection I have from around the age of 5 was of my mother coming down the street, returning from work, and my calling out to her, loudly but lovingly, “Mammy Yoakum, Mammy Yoakum,” whom you might recall (age permitting) was the pipe-smoking mother to Al Capp’s “Little Abner.”

Cannot tell you how long that had gone on, nor how long it continued nor why. Someone smarter than I might use the word transference in a long sentence. All I know is that for several years she was my Mammy Yoakum.

A. And of course every little boy wanted to be her L’il Abner! I did. What a delightful memory! Why ruin it by psychoanalyzing it? Your mother sounds great, that she could accept the teasing of being called “Mammy Yoakum,” and that you remember her and your boisterous welcome the way you do.

I surely remember L’il Abner and the Al Capp comic strip, as will some of our readers. It is fun to have you respond to our other reader’s question with your own wonderful childhood memories. Sometimes comic strips seemed to carry so much meaning, and other times they didn’t seem to mean much — except that one could picture the whole country sharing the same experience every Sunday morning.

My grandchildren have replaced them with video games, and they aren’t the same. Their video games seem to be reflecting the ominous, dangerous world we have created for them. It makes me sad, and I’d like to return to Mammy Yoakum and Lil Abner and Daisy Mae! Wouldn’t you?

A recent column recommended a rocking chair as a parents’ helper at a child’s bedtime. Here a mother also endorses good rocking tonight.

Q. My younger daughter never had to be told to go to bed when very young: When tired, she would voluntarily go to their bedroom and fall asleep. The older was so tightly wound that she could not fall asleep unless held. Even by grade school she was still having difficulty falling asleep, and would keep her sister awake chatting.

It was at that point that I brought the rocker into their bedroom and began reading to myself while they fell asleep. I read quite a few books that way that otherwise I would never have gotten around to. Eventually they got the knack of relaxing and didn’t need help anymore. This worked very well for us.

A. It always amazes me that two children in the same family — same genetics and same environment — can be so different. I admire your restraint, and your ingenuity.

Instead of blowing up at the older, more tightly strung girl, you found a way to set quiet limits on her difficulty in falling asleep. Your quiet, unreactive presence was more impressive than words would have been. It said to her, “I’m here and I will stay with you until you can learn how to calm yourself down.’

Your measured response physical presence, without holding or rocking — signaled to her: “I can’t do it for you but I can keep you company.” Your quiet presence was just enough to encourage her to keep on trying as she struggled to find her own ways of calming herself.

Learning how to calm herself down is a difficult problem for such a high-geared little person. And yet, it is necessary, as an adjunct to learning how to sleep through the night. We all come up from deep sleep to light sleep every three to four hours through the night.

A child who is temperamentally so reactive is likely to come to full awakening every four hours. Unless she can learn how to help herself relax and find her own way back to sleep, she may grow up unable to sleep through the night. But your ability to leave it to her to find her own pattern of relaxing, will equip her to handle every rousing with her own way — rocking, hugging herself, shifting positions, sucking a thumb — of getting herself back down into deep sleep. Your rocking chair and books were a therapeutic way of letting her solve her own problems in getting to sleep.

One of the biggest challenges of parenthood is this delicate balance between doing just enough for the child and leaving the child just enough room for her to learn and reach new heights. What makes this even more complicated is that the balance is different from one child to the next, and within the same child it is always changing as the child develops. Bravo!


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

 

 

WHEN A 3-YEAR-OLD BITES HER TWIN

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WHEN A 3-YEAR-OLD BITES HER TWIN
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I am a stay-at-home mom of twin girls, age 3 and 1/2; a son, almost 2, and am expecting another little boy in March.

When my girls were around 2, one of them would bite the other. The roles were consistent: One was always the biter; the other was always the victim. I initially reacted the way most parents probably do, with scolding, time outs, etc. None of these responses was effective in stopping the behavior. It was especially distressing to me because of the unique, special relationship of our twins. They love each other so much and clearly demonstrate it all the time — I had a hard time seeing one hurt the other.

All of this biting began when I was trying to give them a little more independence. By age 2, I thought they needed to begin to learn to play and do some activities without me always right there. I set up a play area near the kitchen where they were close by me when I was doing other things. When I really determined to figure out what was going on, I spied on them and realized what was causing the biting.

My little victim is a big tease! She could quietly do something to pick on her sister (which I, in the next room, would be unaware of). Sister would object and try and get her to stop – but the pestering would continue.

With limited communication skills, the only way she could get it to stop was with a bite! Then I would come running when I heard the crying. I was able to explain, “You love your sister and don’t want her to be hurt. Look at the owie you gave her. When she does something naughty, you yell for mommy and I’ll help you. Be as loud as you want! That way mommy will know and I can come help you.”

This worked beautifully for our family. I was concerned it would turn the biter into a “tattletale.” But it didn’t. She only used her “yelling for mommy'” weapon when she really needed it. Soon their communication skills with each other advanced to the point where they only need my intervention on rare occasions. They remain best of friends, yet still have a healthy independence and enjoy playing with other kids, too.

A. Your letter shows how much you have learned about sibling relationships from your careful observation of your twins. First of all you’ve discovered that when, as a parent, you try to figure out who’s to blame, you’re usually wrong! Second, you saw how each twin was taking a different role in their relationship, yet how each had their turn at being victim and victimizer. Third, you saw how siblings handle their ambivalence about their own growing independence.

As you gave them more room to play on their own, they managed to draw you back in by attacking each other. And finally, you learned from your mistakes as a parent– the best way for any of us to learn. You saw that time outs and scolding weren’t working, and questioned your approach and what was really going on. Then you went back to really look again — observing children’s behavior is the only way to really understand them as individuals, and of course you couldn’t really figure out what to do until you did.

To your great credit, you avoided taking sides, and focused on strengthening their relationship. Your strategy of inviting the twin who bit when teased to come to you for help may actually have prevented either of the children from becoming tattletales. After all, a tattletale is not a child who innocently goes to an adult for help when she can’t defend herself against another child. A tattletale is a child who uses this situation in order to win special favors or a preferred role from an adult.

The way you treasured your children’s special closeness — so unique and precious in twins — was bound to keep you from reinforcing this child’s cries for help with unhealthy favoritism. You gave the biter know two very important messages: (1) that you trusted she could give her biting up and that you knew she wasn’t “bad” and (2) that she didn’t have to go on being a victim to her sister’s teasing. And by giving that child an alternative to biting, there was little incentive left for the teaser to tease her. Bravo!


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

WHEN A MOTHER BATHES WITH HER 3-YEAR OLD SON

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
WHEN A MOTHER BATHES WITH HER 3-YEAR OLD SON
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I like to think I am not a prude yet it bothers me that my daughter-in-law bathes with her 3-year-old son. She started this practice when he was born and it has continued. She is in the bathtub with him and of course they are naked. My son states she did this with her older son (not by this marriage) until age 5 until my son put a stop to it.

If sex roles were reversed and it was my son in the bathtub with a 3-year-old daughter I feel this would be considered taboo.

A. Your daughter-in-law bathes with her 3-year-old son and it bothers you. But you don’t say exactly why. You say that it would be “taboo” for a father to do the same with his 3-year-old daughter. Is it the double standard that bothers you? Or that what your daughter-in-law is doing might be taboo, too? You may be worried about what bathing together means – about the mother, for the child and for their relationship. It is not unnatural for parents to bathe with their infants, and it may be easier to hold them and wash them when there are no worries about getting wet too. Getting out of the tub with a slippery baby in your arms is a challenge, and a hazard, unless there is a dry adult with a dry towel to whom the baby can be carefully handed. Splashing together, playing with rubber ducks and plastic tugboats, or just watching the water as it sloshes and gurgles down the drain are innocent ways to be together. What really matters is what is going on in the bathtub between the mother and child, and for each of them.

By the time a child is 3 or 4, he may be more interested in exploring the differences between his body and others. At that point, an adult’s nudity can be too much, too stimulating, and daunting to the child who is just becoming aware not only of gender differences and related anatomical ones, but also of how small and dependent he really is.

Bathing with a sibling who is no more than a few years older (with a parent nearby) allows a young child to learn about differences without the over-stimulation that adult nudity might entail. But stopping the bathing with the parent can be harder to do and harder for the child to understand once it has become important and compelling to him. This may be the case by 3.

For the mother, this might just be an innocent way of relaxing and being close. But it may be, as you seem to be suggesting, that she is driven by some deeper need that would interfere with her being able to watch her child’s cues, and respect them if this were too much for him.

What can you do? As a mother-in-law, not much – unless you have strong reason to believe that the mother is clearly causing the child harm. Then, it would be your duty to talk about this with your son. If he were unwilling to take action (as he did with the older child) then you could present your concerns to the child’s pediatrician for further investigation, and reporting to child protective authorities if warranted.

But if all you really know is that they are bathing together, then all you can do is gently test out your son’s position on this. More than that might make him think that you are trying to interfere with his relationship with his wife. This could easily backfire and push him away from you, without helping the child – if the child needs help. We doubt your daughter-in-law would be ready to hear you address this intimate issue directly. You might, though, have a general and sympathetic conversation about the challenges of letting a child grow up, and of keeping up as a parent with a child’s changing needs.

If you are asking us to decide if you are a “prude” or not, we can’t. We’re not sure what that word means to you, but think that you are entitled to decide for yourself about your level of comfort with family.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

PARENTS: DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
PARENTS: DOING WHAT COMES NATURALLY
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. I live overseas and looked into all the parenting books, French and English. Yours were the only ones that showed deep faith in the mother and the child. Can you tell me where you got this confidence? Your guidance helped us through those youngest years and played a large role in helping me raise two wonderful, outgoing and sweet kids.

A. Where did my faith in mothers – and in fathers and children – come from? During my 50 years in practice, I saw more than 25,000 families. They taught me most of what I know. From them I learned that parents are the experts on their children, and that we pediatricians and other professionals had better listen to them.

Except in the rarest of cases, parents want to do well by their children. We professionals may not always recognize the positive intent behind parents’ actions – and if not, we need to look again. Sometimes, for example, we may think parents are harsh with their children. Instead, we may be witnessing parents who live in a tough world and are doing their best to prepare their children to be tough enough to handle it.

For humans to survive, nature had to set things up so that parents would make all kinds of sacrifices – ones they never dreamed possible – to keep their fragile new babies alive. Attachment is a powerful biological process. Even a baby’s gaze or cry stimulates changes in certain hormone levels in both parents that help ensure their nurturing responses.

Parents also must innately know pretty much everything they need to, if they’re going to protect their young. If parents needed books, TV shows or the Internet to raise children, we’d never have made it this far.

Fortunately, new parents are naturally primed to take in everything they can about the vulnerable new beings for whom they are responsible, and babies are designed to draw parents in and give them all kinds of information about how they’re doing.

Parents learn how to become parents by trial and error. They are guided by their babies’ behavior, which actually shapes theirs – right from the start. Some people still think that babies are lumps of clay that parents just shape. But babies guide their parents through their own responses, showing them when they get something right or wrong.

I wouldn’t have much confidence in parents and children if biology hadn’t set them up to be so skilled at caring about and learning about each other.

Sometimes when humans try to improve upon nature, we make things worse. During the 1950s, medical science thought that women would do better giving birth while under general anesthesia. Then we learned that babies were anesthetized for days afterward, interfering with their job of teaching their parents what they needed and when – and sometimes even interfering with their breathing.

Next, medical science teamed up with industry to recommend that breast milk be replaced with formula. But breast milk’s special properties could not be reproduced – the antibodies it contains to fight infection, or the way it varies the kinds and quantities of fats within it as the baby grows. Breast milk adjusts to the baby’s changing nutritional needs.

More recently, infant “brain-stimulating” toys have been marketed to parents. Yet nothing is more stimulating for babies than their parents’ ever-changing voices and faces.

Then there are the rigid baby carriers that interfere with the development of babies’ muscles and balance that takes place when their parents carry them against their own bodies.

Perhaps most concerning right now are the smart phones – and the new behaviors and beliefs that go with them about the feasibility and even importance of multitasking. When parents are talking or texting or checking their e-mail, they may not take in the subtle, ongoing messages that their babies’ nonverbal behavior is sending – about what parents need to know to keep growing in their parenting role.

I still have as much confidence in parents and children as ever, but they must not be misled to think that anything can replace what they do naturally to grow together as a family.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

6 YEAR-OLD WHO WON’T EAT MEAT

NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
6 YEAR-OLD WHO WON’T EAT MEAT
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

Q. My 6-year-old son will not eat meat, chicken or cheese. Is half a peanut-butter sandwich, one yogurt and one glass of milk enough protein for a day? He eats plenty of fruits and several vegetables.

A. A few simple rules apply to nutrition and growth.

A child whose height and weight stay on his growth curve at each checkup is consuming enough calories.

For example, a child who has always been at the 25th percentile for weight on the standard growth chart should continue on that percentile over time. If he drops below it, he may not be eating enough calories, or may have a medical problem interfering with growth. A child’s height is determined not only by nutrition but also by his parents’ height.

Children are naturally programmed to seek the foods they need for healthy growth and nutrition. Processed foods that are unnaturally sweet, salty or fatty undermine that ability.

Around the world, a robust variety of healthy diets balance human needs with local foods. These diets typically include different kinds of foods. Many cultures have developed diets with small amounts of meats (the most costly protein source) and larger amounts of vegetables and grains.

Children’s taste preferences mature and broaden with time. A child who rejects a food early on may learn to like it later. Many children need to be presented with the same food up to 15 times before they’ll even try it.

Children’s interactions with the adults who feed them also drive what and how much they eat. Parents’ sense of urgency about feeding their child can backfire. A child is bound to react to pressure by becoming even pickier.

The menu can turn the kitchen into a battlefield. But healthy eating is more likely when mealtimes are relaxed occasions, with no pressure about food.

If the otherwise healthy child doesn’t like a particular food, he’ll just have to eat what’s on his plate or wait until the next meal.

A child’s nutritional requirements vary by age, gender, height, weight, metabolism and activity level. Protein requirements also depend on total daily calories.

Eating enough calories every day allows a child’s body to use proteins for growth instead of breaking them down to provide energy.

Milk, yogurt and peanut butter all contain proteins, as do eggs. Alternative sources include soy foods (soy milk, tofu, tempeh and ice cream). Children who don’t eat meat, fish, poultry, eggs and dairy products may need 1 to 9 grams more of protein per day than those who do.

Check with your pediatrician about your child’s protein requirements.

Children’s daily nutrition guidelines:

“The Pediatric Nutrition Handbook,” edited by Ronald E. Kleinman, M.D., offers these daily nutritional guidelines for 7- to 12-year-olds:

  • 24 to 32 ounces per day of milk or other dairy products. 1/2 cup of milk can be replaced with 1/2 to 3/4 ounces of cheese, or 1/2 cup of yogurt, or 2 1/2 tablespoons of nonfat dry milk stirred into other foods the child likes.
  • 6 to 8 ounces per day of meat, fish or poultry are recommended. 1 ounce of meat, fish or poultry may be replaced with 1 egg, 2 tablespoons of peanut butter, or 4 to 5 tablespoons of cooked legumes such as peas, beans or lentils.
  • 3 to 4 servings of vegetables (each one about 1/4 to 1/2 cup) per day should include a green leafy or yellow or orange vegetable.
  • 1 medium-size portion of fruit or 4 ounces of fruit juice (avoid added sugar, corn syrup or high-fructose sweeteners).
  • 4 to 5 portions of grain (especially whole grain) products such as bread (1 slice equals 1 portion), cereal (1 cup equals 1 portion), pasta, macaroni or rice (1/2 cup equals 1 portion), crackers (5 pieces equals 1 portion), English muffins or bagels (1/2 equal 1 portion), corn grits and the like.

Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.

Presence and Perspective

Perspective

Presence and Perspective By Murielle DiBiase, M.D.

In the chaos of the world we are living in today I find the challenge that rises to the top of my heap across settings and interactions with others of all ages is to be present and consider the perspectives of others. We are so inundated with the stressors of everyday living complicated with all of the Covid chaos that it’s a true challenge to stay in the moment and even consider the perspectives of others.

In my work in the field of Early Care and Education, I have many opportunities to engage with families, children, professional colleagues, teachers, and a wide variety of support staff involved as educators in this phenomenal field. We know that parents/family are children’s first “teachers”. Everyone involved in the classroom dynamics has an impact on the foundation of learning for each child in their care. We are all “cognitive coaches”, incidentally as well as intentionally, for every child we connect with, even for those we come to know in utero. It’s simply amazing to consider that the first 3 years of our lives are known to be the time in our lives that we will learn at an extraordinary pace like no other time in our entire lives. This, to me, magnifies the importance of intentionally being present as much as we possibly can across settings and ages for all to truly benefit from the interaction.

As I engage in the work of coaching educators to elevate the quality of their engagement with children, there are frequent conversations about taking a child’s perspective in the moment given any number of daily situations we encounter. As adults, we often make unintentional assumptions about children’s perspectives… “When you push your chair away from the table, you’re telling me you’re all done with snack.” (said to an 18 month old) I had to wonder if that was so or was this child merely experimenting with cause and effect given the moment… Just as unintentionally, we often forget that young children are just beginning to understand their world and are learning things like self-regulation. They are truly novices at social engagement and are new to the concept of emotions. They learn what they are living with no regard to “right or wrong” ideations at such a young age. Understanding a young child’s perspective is key to quality engagement. The more we learn, the more we are able to support learning for our youngest human beings.

This is all food for thought, which might shift our perspectives a bit. We don’t know what we don’t know and we do the best we can with what we do know at any given time in our lives. Thank goodness we have a lifetime to learn and grow and there are so many opportunities for us to do so! Learning is a work in progress, not an aim for perfection…

Favorite Resources:

Ted Talks : Jun Li, Fred Rogers (Google these individuals for more resources)

ZERO TO THREE 
Brazelton Touchpoints Center
Connection Parenting, Pam Leo (Google her for more resources to her credit)

Creative Connections LLC
Murielle S. DiBiase, M.Ed.
PO Box 15
Palermo, Maine 04354
207-931-6615

Polyvagel Theory

Eye Contact with baby

Polyvagel Theory By Mark Rains, Ph.D.

How can parents help soothe stress in infants and build their capacity for attachment, self-regulation, social engagement, and resilience? Of all the many ways to understand this, one article that transforms how we look at relationships and stress response systems is “Neuroception” by Stephen Porges1. Published in Zero to Three in 2004, it remains timely; applicable to current problems with traumatic or “toxic” stress, childhood protective factors, and prenatal substance exposure, as well as classic infant mental health challenges with temperament, attachment, parenting, etc. It also introduces concepts of personal and social stress management that support coping with the psychosocial and professional challenges of COVID care.

Neuroception involves how the brain senses safety or threat through (primarily) visual, auditory, and tactile cues in the social environment and organizes responding. A complementary article by Porges, also in Zero to Three [1993], focuses on Interoception2, a “sixth sense” response to internal physiological cues. Both social and internal inputs are linked via the vagus nerve to multiple response systems. The multiple roles of this nerve and its contribution to Social Engagement Systems of parents and infants are elaborated within a Polyvagal Theory of stress response3.

Basically, polyvagal theory refers to (1-6):

  1. the general variety of inputs and outputs of the ventral (front) and dorsal (back) branches of the vagus nerve in the parasympathetic Autonomic Nervous System (ANS),
  2. the involvement of the ventral branch of the vagus in communicating (receiving and expressing) cues of safety and threat within interactions in the Social Engagement (i.e. Safe to Friend 4) System.
    In conditions of safety, the ventral vagus regulates the ups and downs of:
  3. mobilization without fear for action (waking, food gathering, defense, etc) by inhibiting and disinhibiting the sympathetic arousal branch of the ANS, especially heart function, and
  4. immobilization without fear for physical maintenance (sleeping, digesting, lactation, intimacy, illness recovery, etc.) by dorsal branch of the vagus and release of oxytocin.
    In conditions of significant or life-threatening stress:
  5. mobilization with anger/fear leading to dominance of ventral vagus by sympathetic arousal and limbic system overriding cortex (“losing your head”), i.e. Fight/Flight systems OR
  6. immobilization with fear involving physical shutdown by dorsal branch of vagus nerve, i.e. Freeze/Faint systems, going into shock, loss of blood pressure, etc.

In other words, with safety the parasympathetic ventral vagus nerve regulates both the sympathetic ANS and the parasympathetic dorsal vagus, as it balances waking and sleeping, gathering food and digesting it, engaging socially and withdrawing for reflection, energetic sexual activity and safe intimacy, child protection and lactation, etc. When this homeostatic balance is overwhelmed and sympathetic ANS or dorsal vagus is unregulated, an individual is vulnerable to physical and/or mental health problems.

Health and resilience involve accurate sensitivity to threat cues and flexibility in response. Problems result when persons see threat in safe situations and miss threat in stressful situations and/or when their mobilization or immobilization with anger or fear is chronic and less flexible. Polyvagal theory adds another lens to viewing current problems in self- and social-regulation: the importance of safety, the role of social engagement system in communicating and managing safety, and dysregulation that follows lack of safety.

The Social Engagement System develops within the attachment relationship between infant and parent and continues through adult interactions. Social engagement involves muscles of face and head, available in infancy, before development of extremities.

Following are some of the highlights:

Social Engagement

with Safety

(higher vagal tone, more flexibility)
• Make eye contact
• Display contingent facial expressions
• Vocalize with appealing inflection and rhythm
• Modulate middle-ear muscles to distinguish human voice more efficiently
• Problem solve
• Safe Touch, Massage
• All the above contribute to Attachment and to Soothing stress before it becomes toxic

Disengagement

with Danger

(lower vagal tone, less variability)
• Eyelids droop
• Positive facial expressions dwindle
• Voice loses inflection
• Awareness of human voice is less acute
• Sensitivity to others’ social engagement behaviors decreases
• Chest (crisis) breathing

Porges (2004)

There is a YouTube video that depicts the role of social engagement system in soothing stress and relationship development https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=zcz2Towvf8A. Spoiler alert: It portrays a father attempting to comfort the cries of his infant daughter. Their facial expressions mirror as he becomes stressed and she continues to fuss. He contacts her mother by cellphone where she is shopping in a grocery store and mother tries a variety of attempts to connect with and entertain her daughter via the cellphone screen, unsuccessfully. A grandmotherly figure in the grocery store appears to wonder, “What is going on here? How ridiculous to think technology could replace human interaction.” Nothing works.

The father then picks up his daughter with safe touch, brings her up to make eye contact with his safe face; all of which soothes her upset and catches her interest, and they eventually calm and connect. Its poignancy brings tears to mother’s eyes, perhaps gratified to see father and daughter’s capacity to join her in parenting. Both father and daughter were able to utilize their social engagement systems. Although it’s not clear that the producers of the video clip were thinking beyond “Technology will never replace love”, it seemed to me to illustrate social engagement well.

Polyvagal theory adds another lens to viewing current problems in self- and social-regulation. Heart Rate Variability (HRV) is a measurable biomarker of flexibility in ventral vagal regulation of heart function. Heart rate rises and falls with respiration. I won’t attempt to go into detail about this, beyond noting that it is one of the ways of studying the tone (high or low flexibility) of the ventral vagus in a variety of physical and mental health problems. Porges (2004) proposes that faulty neuroception (ability to switch effectively from defensive to social engagement strategies) may contribute to autism, schizophrenia, anxiety disorders, depression, and Reactive Attachment Disorder. Infants may learn defensive behaviors with frightened or frightening caregivers, which may then be ineffective or costly within safe environments.

For example, in infants exposed prenatally to substances and experiencing withdrawal symptoms as neonates, sympathetic arousal may be dominant, resulting in difficulty with parasympathetic functions of eating and sleeping and being comforted.5 Caregiving within the Eat, Sleep, Console program6assists in regaining sympathetic/parasympathetic balance, supported by medication to manage sympathetic arousal. Massage has been helpful in vagal tone of premature infants, enabling better weight gain. 7

The social interaction and communication challenges associated with autism spectrum difficulties8 are another area of research on polyvagal theory where intervention increases eye contact, vocalization, and anxiety; sensitivity to stimulation, etc. It doesn’t cure autism, but addresses some of the challenges, which might lead to a vicious cycle of withdrawal, behavioral difficulties, etc.

Turning to the parental role in the social engagement system involves parents being able to regulate their own emotional state and sense of safety, in order to be a safe partner interacting with their child. After ensuring that the child’s “alert system” is not hyper- (“wired”) or hypo- (“tired”) aroused and that the child’s “alarm system” is not activated by internal (interoception) or psychosocial (neuroception) threats, a parent can communicate safety within the parent-child social engagement relationship by providing nonverbal (right brain) relationship cues and utilizing developmentally appropriate language (left brain).9 Synchrony in the parent and child social engagement systems supports resilience. As the child develops beyond infancy, neuroception of safety is needed for verbal communication or executive functioning to be successful. Infant mental health interventions can model and provide safe social engagement by therapists to support safe parent and child interaction.

Parallel to the experience of parents, providers of healthcare and social services experience both vulnerability and opportunities for resilience, managing exposure to stress, utilizing professional coping strategies, practicing personal self-care, and experiencing organizational support. In particular, social engagement through teamwork and mutual support can help maintain resilience and reduce feelings of unmanageable threat. Unfortunately, this has been limited during COVID, in which distancing and masking undermine social engagement opportunities. When such social connection is not available, individual practices can help ‘jump start’ vagal tone through a variety of portals to the ventral vagus nerve. These include:

  1. Confident (diaphragmatic) “belly-button-breathing” (e.g. four count inhalation and six count exhalation), which is an alternative to crisis (chest, up-and-down) breathing.
  2. Massage, safe touch, which renews vagal tone.
  3. Vocalization (e.g. singing, chanting), which can engage the cranial nerve regulating the trachea and, together with diaphragmatic breathing, stimulate the ventral vagus nerve.
  4. Auditory stimulation which renews the balance in sensitivity to voice frequencies that can be dysregulated after exposure to danger frequencies, e.g. with soothing music in the range of voice frequencies (e.g. classical stringed instruments) or specially programmed music (Safe and Sound Protocol10) to stimulate middle ear functioning and flexibility.

Using such vagal stimulation strategies to achieve or renew a parasympathetic state of Safe to Friend provides a foundation for confidence and other cognitive coping strategies. This is built into a series of “Resilience Stretches”, which help recover from, manage, and prepare for psychosocial stress; like physical stretches prepare for physical activity.11

Research into these areas is still at early stages in many respects, at promising to evidence-based levels. As polyvagal theory has gained popularity12 , interpreters (myself included) may stray from science or evidence base, promoting short cuts to social engagement with oxytocin, vagus nerve stimulation, quick fixes, etc. I recommend sticking close to the source and staying up to date with the evidence base.

Take Home / Take to Work points:

  • In addition to Fight/Flight and Freeze/Faint responses to
  • Adverse Experiences, there is a Safe To Friend system of social engagement to manage stress with resilience.
  • This system is ready to begin from birth and is developed within safe, stable, supportive attachment interactions and relationships.
  • Vulnerabilities in the Social Engagement System may contribute to a variety of physical and psychosocial health problems.
  • There are multiple portals to renew safety at a personal level of neuroception and interoception and at a social level of protective factors for parents and professionals
  • With professional/personal/organizational resources, Infant mental health specialists can bring their own social engagement systems to safe, healing, growthful, interactions with parents and children.
  • Ongoing research will contribute to better understanding of the potential and limits of the preceding points

  1.  Porges, SW. (2004) Neuroception: A Subconscious System for Detecting Threats and Safety.  Zero to Three, 24:5,19-24.  (Downloadable from www.stephenporges.com )
  2.  Porges, SW. (1993) The Infant’s Sixth Sense: Consciousness and Regulation of Bodily Processes. Zero to Three 14(2), 12-16. (Downloadable from www.stephenporges.com )
  3.  Porges SW (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York: WW Norton.
  4.  There are a variety of abbreviations for describing the Social Engagement System in contrast to “Fight/Flight, Freeze/Faint” systems, e.g. Tend and Befriend, Rest and Refresh, Friend, etc.  I am proposing “Safe to Friend” as a psychophysiological state, which an individual may reach through social interaction or personal activities.
  5.  Jansson, LM, DiPiero, JA, Elko, A and Velez, M. (2010) Infant Autonomic Functioning and Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Drug Alcohol Depend. 109(1-3): 198-204.
  6.  Grisham, L. et al. Eat, Sleep, Console Approach: A Family-Centered Model for the Treatment of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome. Adv Neonatal Care. 19(2):138-144.
  7.  Field, T. (2019). Pediatric Massage Therapy Research: A Narrative Review. Children (Basel), 6(6): 78.
  8.  Porges SW, Bazhenova OV, Bal E, Carlson N, Sorokin Y, Heilman KJ, Cook KH, Lewis GF. (2014). Reducing Auditory Hypersensitivities in Autistic Spectrum Disorder: Preliminary Findings Evaluating the Listening Project Protocol. Frontiers in Pediatrics. Doi:10.3389/fped.2014.00080
  9.  Rains, M. Contact mainerains@gmail.com for handout. Brief video illustrating Brain in Palm of Hand    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evikiqovSVw
  10. https://integratedlistening.com/ssp-safe-sound-protocol/
  11.  Rains, M. 2022. “Resilience Stretches” Contact mainerains@gmail.com for copy.
  12.  Porges SW & Dana D (2018).  Clinical Applications of the Polyvagal Theory: The Emergence of Polyvagal-Informed Therapies. New York: WW Norton.
  13.  See also a wide variety of YouTube videos featuring Stephen Porges.

Social Emotional Learning

Maine Association for Infant Mental Health

Social Emotional Learning

Social Emotional Learning (SEL), what is it? Why is this so important for growth and development within a child’s life, and why are schools, communities embracing this now as our world continues to go through changes. Some changes are known, and some are unknown as COVID continues to be present. I wanted to start off my writing with this poem that I feel captures SEL very well.

I am going to address the definition of SEL, the importance of SEL, myths of SEL, along with the impact of SEL for children and long-term effects of SEL and social development. Then I will finish with providing tools that can be useful in cross over into the classroom.

Social Emotional Learning (SEL): The set of skills, knowledge, and behaviors involved in understanding and managing emotions, setting positive goals, feeling empathy for others, engaging in relationships, and solving problems. Through SEL both students and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to manage their emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, reciprocate empathy for others, and make thoughtful decisions. These are crucial life skills.

There are 5 components of SEL which are, social- awareness, self-awareness, emotional management, responsible decision making and relationship skills that students need to succeed in every area and stage of their lives.

This is a collaborative relationship between students and adults as they acquire and apply the knowledge, skills and attitudes to manage their emotions, achieve personal and collective goals, reciprocate empathy for others, and make thoughtful decisions which are the core concepts of CASEL, (Collaborative for Academic, Social and Emotional Learning). This requires teaching, and providing supports that can be utilized by educators, administrators, social workers, or anyone who is a part of a student’s life.

SEL focuses on the interconnectedness of school, family, and community to create environments that emphasize safe, trusting relationships and intentional curricula and instruction. SEL can build on issues around inequality and inspire young people and adults to have a voice and share their thoughts and feelings in continuing to foster healthy, thriving and equitable communities.

We all need authentic relationships that are trust worthy and build confidence in students to try new things, encourage open sharing of ideas, and to be themselves with their peers. This gives them permission to be who they are and feel that they matter.

Solid relationships are important for learning, as well as to provide healthy outlets for students to express negative emotions and feelings. The past 20 months living with COVID-19, we have all had feelings of depression, anxiety and restlessness triggered by COVID-19.

An understanding of SEL will help with building external relationships, though the most important relationship any student will develop at any point in their lives is the one they have with themselves.

SEL builds relationships using five interrelated sets of cognitive, affective and behavioral competencies, defined by CASEL.

These competencies are as follows: Self-awareness, social-awareness, relationship skills, self-management, and responsible decision-making. These can be used for any situations a school or community may be going through.

Self-Awareness: The ability to understand one’s own emotions, thoughts, and values and how they influence behavior across contexts. This includes capacities to recognize one’s strengths and limitations with a well-grounded sense of confidence and purpose. Such as: • Integrating personal and social identities • Identifying personal, cultural, and linguistic assets • Identifying one’s emotions • Demonstrating honesty and integrity • Linking feelings, values, and thoughts • Examining prejudices and biases • Experiencing self-efficacy • Having a growth mindset • Developing interests and a sense of purpose.

Social-Awareness: The ability to understand the perspectives of and empathize with others, including those from diverse backgrounds, cultures, & contexts. This includes the capacities to feel compassion for others, understand broader historical and social norms for behavior in different settings, and recognize family, school, and community resources and supports. Such as: • Taking others’ perspectives • Recognizing strengths in others • Demonstrating empathy and compassion • Showing concern for the feelings of others • Understanding and expressing gratitude • Identifying diverse social norms, including unjust ones • Recognizing situational demands and opportunities • Understanding the influences of organizations/systems on behavior

Relationship-skills: The ability to establish and maintain healthy and supportive relationships and to effectively navigate settings with diverse individuals and groups. This includes the capacities to communicate clearly, listen actively, cooperate, work collaboratively to problem solve and negotiate conflict constructively, navigate settings with differing social and cultural demands and opportunities, provide leadership, and seek or offer help when needed. Such as: • Communicating effectively • Developing positive relationships • Demonstrating cultural competency • Practicing teamwork and collaborative problem-solving • Resolving conflicts constructively • Resisting negative social pressure • Showing leadership in groups • Seeking or offering support and help when needed • Standing up for the rights of other.

Self-Management: The ability to manage one’s emotions, thoughts, and behaviors effectively in different situations and to achieve goals and aspirations. This includes the capacities to delay gratification, manage stress, and feel motivation & agency to accomplish personal/collective goals. Such as: • Managing one’s emotions • Identifying and using stress-management strategies • Exhibiting self-discipline and self-motivation • Setting personal and collective goals • Using planning and organizational skills • Showing the courage to take initiative • Demonstrating personal and collective agency.

Responsible-Decision Making: The ability to make caring and constructive choices about personal behavior and social interactions across diverse situations. This includes the capacities to consider ethical standards and safety concerns, and to evaluate the benefits and consequences of various actions for personal, social, and collective well-being. Such as: • Demonstrating curiosity and open-mindedness • Identifying solutions for personal and social problems • Learning to make a reasoned judgment after analyzing information, data, facts • Anticipating and evaluating the consequences of one’s actions • Recognizing how critical thinking skills are useful both inside & outside of school • Reflecting on one’s role to promote personal, family, and community well-being • Evaluating personal, interpersonal, community, and institutional impact. www.casel.or/what-is-SEL

There are also benefits to social emotional learning in the classroom which includes improvement in school and classroom climate, increases student motivation for learning, teaches problem-solving skills, helps student set and meet goals, and reduces behavioral issues in the classroom. These skills teach study skills and habits, along with opening the door to discuss more about mental health needs, and moving past thinking, “what is wrong with you”, to “what happened to you”. There are many more benefits to SEL and classroom climate.

An important skill that SEL teaches and encourages is empathy, (understanding what another person is feeling), as this builds on conscious decision making and if students can have a sense and understanding of other’s feelings and emotions, then negative responses can decrease, and positive response increase. This builds in having more of a compassionate, kind, school environment. The more that empathy can be present and modeled, the more children will see and begin to also choose these approaches. Being able to understand and show empathy, can help in decreasing acting out behaviors, and build on developing and growing a conscience for all children. There is research noted that the impact of social-emotional learning runs deep. SEL is shown to increase academic achievement and positive social interactions, and decrease negative outcomes later in life. These competencies help individuals throughout their lives. This study found that teaching social emotional learning to kindergarteners leads to students being less likely to live in public housing, receive public assistance, or to be involved in criminal justice system according to Child Trends.

SEL teaches young students how to cope with everyday disappointments as well as deep cuts of trauma. “Students can better respond to the effects of trauma by developing social-emotional competencies. The brain’s neuroplasticity makes it possible for repeated experiences to shape the brain and even reverse the effects of chronic stress,” says Susan Ward-Roncalli, a Social-Emotional Learning Facilitator for the Division of Instruction with the Los Angeles Unified School District. For our most at-risk students, who live in poverty and/or who may witness or experience traumatic experiences, SEL is an extraordinary tool for repairing the damage and for building lifetime coping skills.

There are many tools available for all grades to address social emotional learning and here are some websites that maybe helpful in building your library of social emotional learning tools.

https://www.doe.k12.de.us

https://mylearningportal.org/?redirect_to=https%3A%2F%2Fmylearningportal.org%2Fchoose-your-program%2F

http://csefel.vanderbilt.edu

https://www.hmhco.com/blog/social-emotional-learning-activities-teach-students-tobe-the-best-version-of-themselves

Sel4Me | Registration & Login This is a great resource if you are teaching SEL in the class as there are options for every grade and videos to accompany the lesson.

What is nice about social emotional learning is that you can design a curriculum based on the needs of the classroom culture and build on each learning point. Taking each core competency and developing activities for each one will help children develop those skills and continue reinforcing from each grade to the next. It is encouraged to assess the culture of the classroom and structure your activities to address this culture and focus on building from these skills in developing new ones for your students.

Social Emotional Learning can be fun and rewarding as students are embracing their strengths, similarities and differences in building the best version of themselves, and we are all a part of this and can continue to be for a very long time.

Julia Macek, LCSW
Behavioral Health Specialist
Aroostook County Action Program

Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation in Children

Maine Association for Infant Mental Health

Supporting the Development of Self-Regulation in Children
By C. Michael Sandberg, MA

Recently the world of early childhood education has once again been echoing with terms like self-regulation, executive functioning, and social skills. This is a welcome moment! Not that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and literacy are not important, but, rather, that it is once again being realized that success academically, socially, and personally is more dependent on these “soft skills” than it is on the content of the knowledge being taught and learned!

Flavell in 1977 called these skills “one of the really central and significant cognitive-developmental hallmarks of the early childhood period.” Their importance has been well demonstrated by several recent studies that followed children over time. In one, done in New Zealand, 1037 kids were followed birth to 32 years. They were looking specifically at what they call self control, certainly one of what might today be called the executive functions. They defined self control as being willing to delay gratification, able to control your impulses, and able to modulate your emotional expression. Even though some of the study’s participants improved their ability to control themselves over the period of the study, they did find that self control at older ages could be largely predicted by self control at 5. Children were first measured at 3-5 with a 90-minute scored observation. They were scored again in their preteen years. In adulthood they were evaluated for several social, health, and financial outcomes. Their heath score was a composite of their cardiovascular health, respiratory system health, dental health, sexual health, and their inflammation status. They found that self control at 5 was highly predictive of improved finances, better physical health, lessened levels of substance dependency and fewer interactions with the justice system. They also found it to be predictive of better decision making in the teen years. Higher self control children were less likely to become pregnant as teenagers or to leave school early. They also had significantly fewer interactions with the authorities. They were also able to do an analysis comparing the differences using social situation as a child and IQ with those found using self control and they found that self control was a much better predictor.1

These kinds of results have been found by several other long-term studies.2 Interestingly these findings echo the findings of studies of the impact of quality early childhood programming such as that done of the High Scope programming evaluated by the Perry Preschool Project. There, even though the initial finding of improved IQ washed out over time, the children still had improved outcomes in terms of social, academic, and financial success. It could easily be argued that what they had gained was improved executive function. 3 For me, these are important findings because the children failing and being expelled by our schools and preschools are mostly being excluded because of poor self-regulation skills. 4 At the same time most researchers and educators agree that most executive function skills can be taught.

While most evaluators use teacher reporting to assess self-regulation skills, (the most responsible researchers recognize that there may be bias included in these ratings and evaluate the ratings across different ethnicities and SES (Socioeconomic Status) to guard against as much as they can), there is interestingly one evaluation method in relatively common use. It evaluates cognitive flexibility in 3-5 year olds by using cards featuring different attributes. There are different shapes, such as bunnies and turtles, and among each shape there are also two different colors. Children are asked to sort the cards by shape and then to switch and redo the sort by color. What is being evaluated is their ability to let go of the old references and switch to the new one. Most 3 year olds struggle with this change, while most 5-6 year olds can easily shift. This method, known as the dimensional change card sort, can separate the age at which children are able to succeed and show that cognitive flexibility is used as an indicator of emerging self-regulatory skills. 5 For me, this is reminiscent of Piaget’s work with classification and it may demonstrate a link between cognitive and social skills!

For a while, people also thought the marshmallow experiment conducted at Stanford could become an assessment tool. The method tried to evaluate the ability to delay gratification by tempting children with a marshmallow, while promising them a second one if they could wait about 15 minutes before eating it. While the researchers reported good predictive power of later success, when people tried to replicate the experiment controlling for SES, they found SES had a higher impact than any maturity measure. The kids, who could wait, were those who had not experienced scarcity!

In order to decide what we need to be teaching and come up with teaching methods, we need a more specific definition of these executive or self-regulation skills. They include the ability to monitor and manage emotions, thoughts and behavior via impulse control, maintaining attention and focus, filtering distractions, emotional regulation, problem solving, and prosocial behavior. When we know what we are trying to promote we can both appreciate and protect it when it is happening and know more about how to create situations that will enhance the learning of those skills.

Interestingly, even fetuses have some self regulation skills. We know that because their activity level often varies dependent on the mother’s activity and mood. After birth, many newborns also illustrate their ability by turning away to take a break after an intense social interaction. They know how to shut down in the face of too much stimulation! So we are not starting with a blank slate. Reading last month’s piece on perinatal psychology might give you some ideas on how to support higher skill levels even before a baby is born!

Once they are born, what can we be doing! We can help children learn that their emotions can be regulated. We do that by allowing them to become upset, and then intervening when they are no longer able to regulate and coregulating them through our calmness and nurturance. We do it by honoring when a child needs a break and waiting for them to come back online before proceeding. We do it by recognizing when they are losing focus or becoming too frustrated to continue and then supporting their efforts and directing their attention back to what they were working with. We do it by scaffolding their explorations (Tools of the Mind, a Vygotsky based curriculum has been shown to be very effective at building self-regulation skills for those children who are starting further behind. It was less effective for those who already had higher skill levels6).

The first key to all of this is that if we expect children to learn self regulation skills, we as the adults must model those skills and remain centered and calm. It is only when we are calm that we can use our support to calm children. How can we give teachers and caregivers the supports that allow them to be present and listening most of the time? When teachers become stressed by their jobs, they may react with frustration and anger to misbehavior in the room, leaving the children who are acting out feeling alone, without an ally. As allies we are engaged in trying to assist children in meeting their goals for themselves, while doing so in socially acceptable ways. When you see yourself getting that kind of support it is easier to let go of the emotionality of the moment and to begin to use and improve the functioning of your thinking brain. Mark Rains, a board member of the Maine Association for Infant Mental Health and a psychologist, suggests that when children lose it (Flip their lids to use Dan Siegel’s expression), they need us to help them feel safe, connected to others, help them learn language to talk about feelings, gradually support their ability to see the patterns in behavior, before we can expect them to be ready to plan better actions.7

In general, we have to ask, how can I support the child’s autonomy and self-regulation rather than working to control them. As one example, if we have a child who is struggling with entering groups and tends to charge in and destroy things, what method can we come up with that might help them learn the skills needed. Could we ask them to try something new and then sit down with them to play alongside the group they want to join, without ever asking to join (the child who has poor executive functioning will often be told no if she or he asks to join a group)? Soon the child will be playing with the other children, and depending on their play skills you may have to remain and continue to support their involvement, or you may be able to leave. Later we could talk about what had worked and give them another tool (By the way, this may have to be repeated multiple times before it begins to take).

How can I help them learn to evaluate risk and make decisions? Instead of saying, “No that isn’t safe!” could we ask about where they would be landing the jump and do they want to land on that? That can be followed with, “well how could we make it safer.”

Executive functioning can be built better, and if it is, children are likely to be better citizens and parents when their time comes. Join me in trying to learn more about how to do this every day.

References:

  1. Moffitt, T. E., Arseneault, L., Belsky, D., Dickson, N., Hancox, R. J., Harrington, H., Houts, R., Poulton, R., Roberts, B. W., Ross, S., Sears, M. R., Thomson, W. M., & Caspi, A. (2011). A gradient of childhood self-control predicts health, wealth, and public safety. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 108(7), 2693–2698. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1010076108
  2. Jones, D. E., Greenberg, M., & Crowley, M. (2015). Early Social-Emotional Functioning and Public Health: The Relationship Between Kindergarten Social Competence and Future Wellness. American journal of public health, 105(11), 2283–2290. https://doi.org/10.2105/AJPH.2015.302630
  3. Heckman, J., Pinto, R., & Savelyev, P. (2013). Understanding the Mechanisms Through Which an Influential Early Childhood Program Boosted Adult Outcomes. The American economic review, 103(6), 2052–2086. https://doi.org/10.1257/aer.103.6.2052
  4. Gilliam, W. S. & Shahar, G. (2006). Preschool and child care expulsion and suspension; Rates and predictors in one state. Infants and Young Children, vol. 19, No. 3 p. 228.
  5. Zelazo P. D. (2006). The Dimensional Change Card Sort (DCCS): a method of assessing executive function in children. Nature protocols, 1(1), 297–301. https://doi.org/10.1038/nprot.2006.46
  6. Blair C. (2016). Executive function and early childhood education. Current opinion in behavioral sciences, 10, 102–107. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2016.05.009
  7. Rains, Mark. “‘Getting It Together’ Healthy Start Community Forum.” YouTube, YouTube, 21 Oct. 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=evikiqovSVw.