Educators working to counteract childhood adversity often find themselves waging a two-front war: building the capacity for attention and self-control in both children and their parents.
Childhaven and other groups in Washington state’s Innovation by Design Initiative are trying to break intergenerational hardship by fostering such executive-function skills as focus, impulse control, decisionmaking, and resilience in adults and children at the same time.
“Many of our children come from homes where their parents were also raised in environments with toxic stress and trauma,” said Vicki Nino Osby, the senior vice president for program operations at Childhaven, a therapeutic early-learning center here. “It makes it doubly difficult for parents to impart good executive function when they themselves have none.”
It’s well established that warm, supportive relationships with adults, particularly parents and teachers, can buffer the effects of stress on children’s social and cognitive development.
In an ongoing study of self-regulation in the Seattle area, not connected to the Innovation by Design Initiative, Liliana J. Lengua, a psychology professor at the University of Washington here, found children in stressful and high-poverty environments had less self-control.
She also noted in the study that supportive parenting blunted those effects, however, and that children with better self-control drew more positive reactions from parents.
“Parents help their children develop self-regulation skills,” Ms. Lengua and her colleagues found, “and as children develop these skills, they elicit different types of parenting.”
Changing the Approach
Nell Robinson, the parent-skills training manager at Childhaven, knows that firsthand. She works with caregivers from teenagers to grandparents and extended-family members. Several parents already have lost custody of one child and are fighting to hold on to another.
As part of a Childhaven pilot project that uses games to build executive function in students and their caregivers, Ms. Robinson is also training eight of the center’s parents in ways of building executive function through playing the games with their children at home.
In a quiet observation room at Childhaven this month, Ms. Robinson used an earbud microphone to coach Marjory Jones through her first program session with her nearly 3-year-old son, Tyrell.
Tyrell and his mom, both of whose names have been changed to comply with privacy rules, played with clay for a few minutes before Ms. Jones attempted to switch to drawing. Tyrell crowed, “Ta-da!” when she traced the outline of her hand in crayon and grinned when she offered to do the same to his hand.
But Tyrell soon went back to his clay, while his mother repeatedly cajoled, “Come play with me. It’s my turn to pick what we do, and I want to draw.”
By the end of the session, Ms. Jones was visibly irritated. Ms. Robinson, listening from the observation room, started to smile when Ms. Jones said, “Wow, you are great at cleaning that up,” but then winced as the mother added, “I’m really surprised.”
After the session, Tyrell went back to class while Ms. Robinson talked with Ms. Jones about what had happened and walked her through a base survey designed to identify stress about parenting.
“Yes,” Ms. Jones answered to the questions: “Do you know your child loves you?” and “Do you think he learns most things quickly?” But, she added, “He doesn’t do things as quickly as I expected.”
To the question, “Do you feel you’ve given up your life for this child?” she said: “Sometimes I do.” Her voice tightened. “I never get a break except when he’s here.”
Ms. Jones said she does try to follow parenting tips provided by the center. “I read stuff, but then I forget it, and it doesn’t work right,” she said.
Tyrell’s mother will attend 15 more half-hour coaching sessions over 16 weeks, learning how to play games with her son, to recognize and deal with her own stress, and to pick up on more of his cues.
Learning to play together has already reduced stress for Wences Ramirez and his son, Diego, 4, who were the first duo through the training program.
Mr. Ramirez, an entrepreneur with a heavy workload, came in having some difficulty connecting with his son and stepdaughter.
“His challenge in the beginning,” Ms. Robinson said, “was ‘my relationship with you isn’t strong, so I don’t follow through on setting a clear limit, follow through, and have an expectation.' "
Overcoming Impact of Adversity on Learning
After weeks of learning new games and playing them with his son, Ms. Robinson said, “He’s paying attention to [Diego’s] cues, being more open to provide encouragement. What’s interesting to me is this dad has begun to make his own connections.”
Earlier this month, Mr. Ramirez had a pregame huddle with Ms. Robinson on how to introduce Zingo, a memory game using basic addition.
“You play by the rules, but if he gets stuck, get stuck with him,” Ms. Robinson advised. “It’s not about inserting your goal. ... You really want to praise him about the skills he’s showing—memory, reasoning.”
Mr. Ramirez echoed her view. “The praising helped a lot; it helped our relationship,” he said. (He added that he had even developed better relations with his 100 employees because he has started responding to workers’ requests for feedback rather than thinking they were “fishing for compliments.”)
He suggested several different approaches to the game, things he thought Diego would like and places where he thought the boy might get frustrated. “I’m so excited to try it,” Mr. Ramirez said.
Ms. Robinson said learning to play the games gives parents and children an opportunity to grow together. For Diego’s dad, “a light didn’t sort of go on—it went pow!” she said.
Ms. Osby agreed, adding that the goal of the intervention is to use building the parent’s and child’s individual executive-function skills to also build their relationship.
“You’ve got dad moving from handing a phone app to the child in the back seat to calm him down,” she said, “to thinking ahead and creating a pattern that’s engaged” with his son.
Also as part of Washington state’s innovation initiative, Ms. Lengua will begin working this fall with the six-county Educational Service District 112 to teach mindfulness strategies to parents attending play groups at three of the district’s Early Head Start centers in the Vancouver area, according to Corina McEntire, the professional-development manager for the service district.
After the interventions, Ms. McEntire said she will work with the 22,100-student Vancouver school district to follow the students and track the long-term effects of executive function on their academic readiness and social ability.
“It’s wonderful to be able to partner so closely with researchers to take what they are finding and apply it to what we are doing on the ground,” Ms. McEntire said.
A version of this article appeared in the January 30, 2013 edition of Education Week as Parents Get Training to Support Children