Mind the gap: watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as experiential learning

Can watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood be a way into mindfulness practice? Guest blogger Mary Harrison, PhD, LICSW, IMH-E, explores the contrast between our busy contemporary lifestyles and the slow pace of the beloved television program.

By Mary Harrison, PhD, LICSW, IMH-E®

Mary Harrison

In the early days of 2020—a time that seems both recent and incredibly distant—I wrote a blog post about why Mr. Rogers still matters to people. The post seemed to resonate with readers at the time and has continued to do so during the upheaval of the past year. I’ve tried to think through why that might be, and I keep coming back to the idea of slowness.

You might have heard of the slow movement and related ideas like “slow food” and “slow work.” We’re often told we need to slow down, practice self care, check in with our loved ones, and find balance. This all sounds appealing, but at a time when we are inundated with news and images and updates and advice, it is difficult to actually slow down, to practice some of those coping strategies that are constantly pressed on us.

For some of us, the COVID-19 pandemic did enable—or enforce—a slower lifestyle. Some of us have found it possible for human connections to flourish over Zoom, even having regular conversations with friends and families in a way that we were never able to before. I can also recall some lovely moments of in-person connection, chatting with neighbors from afar or with fellow mask-wearers at the grocery store across a polite six feet of space.

But are we actually experiencing the physical sensation of slowness? Are our minds ever quiet? My body and mind seem to have forgotten what it means to slow down and just be, or to give something my full attention and let my mind wander in deep thought. Quiet nothingness is a time during which we can feel emotions, form new thoughts, slow our heart rates, make connections. But such slowness can seem very elusive.

The beloved children’s TV personality Mr. Rogers moved at such a slow pace that it seems to me almost painfully so at times. In our world of clickbait, tweets, and text chains, connections happen quickly. And then we move on—quickly—to the next thing, and the next.

Fred Rogers on the set of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood with puppets Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl

Mr. Rogers’ whole way of being was different. His well-known shoe-and-sweater-swapping routines were predictable and deliberate. The way he spoke allowed for words and ideas and questions to hang in the air for consideration. Frankly, watching old episodes initially drives me nuts. It’s the same as sitting for silent meditation after an absence of practice. It creates an instant need for mental list-making and physical fidgeting.

Sitting with an old Mr. Rogers episode is an invitation to visit a past version of ourselves. This past self didn’t always scramble to see who just texted or scroll to see who just posted. Perhaps this past self was five years old, home sick from school, and eating chicken noodle soup and saltines. This past self was comforted by a favorite Mr. Rogers Neighborhood episode in which he visited the crayon-making factory. Or perhaps this past self was the parent of a preschooler searching for something that their child could watch that didn’t involve a screeching cartoon character.

Watching Mr. Rogers is experiential learning for a more mindful, slower way of living. Start an episode as an adult and you will be reminded of familiar sights and songs. The nostalgia might feel sweet as you settle in for a whole episode.

But I wonder if at some point you will start to feel waves of a different kind of emotion. Urgency? Boredom? Irritation? Perhaps one of these labels will fit this itchy feeling, or maybe you’ll just experience it as a nagging “I need to be doing something” train of thought. When I tried this exercise recently, this was exactly what happened to me. Adding to my unease was a sense that I wasn’t proud of having these thoughts and feelings.

But like silent meditation or any mindfulness practice, there is a gap period before your body can actually slow down, before your mind can actually grow quieter. It’s uncomfortable. Other tasks beckon. Other things need tending. You tell yourself this is “good for you” because it’s a “healthy form of self-care.” You will yourself to sit and be quiet.

Here’s where I’ll advocate for watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as a form of meditation. It works because he keeps you company; he talks and walks you through this uncomfortable gap period. Fred Rogers’ familiar routines and soothing cadence can dim our inner fluorescent lights and set the stage for the slowdown. Tolerating the transition from constant stimulation to slowness and silence is easier with Mr. Rogers, because he is already there. He is just ahead of you, waiting for you in that more intentional place. All you have to do is let go of the conscious or unconscious habit of responding to the call of half-finished tasks and buzzing notifications.

You can take the train to the land of make-believe, but in your case, it is from a place dominated by the crush of worries, tasks, and FOMO (fear of missing out) to a place of slowly untying shoes and zipping up sweaters. You can shed the layers of responsibility in favor of a safe learning experience. And all the while, your body can slow down, your mind can quiet, your heart beat can reset, and you can actually find yourself experiencing moments of just being.

Mr. Rogers can help us mind the gap between our fervent efforts at keeping our heads above water and living at a more natural pace. What are the benefits of slower living? For one, new ideas have space to come to light. We can experience a deeper level of exhale. Our human bodies can be open to the energy and light of others. Our children need this for learning; we need it for surviving and thriving.

I invite you to revisit Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood when you can. Observe yourself as you watch an episode: your mind, your heart, maybe your restlessness, maybe your longing for the next thing. I invite you to join Mr. Rogers for the full episode and see how you feel as it unfolds. See how you feel by the end. Transitioning to his slower pace just might remind you how it feels and leave you longing to experience such slowness again soon.

Early childhood education in the age of COVID-19: Part two in a series

Program Quality Specialist Hannah Riddle presents new information on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the early childhood education sector.

By Hannah Riddle de Rojas, Program Quality Specialist

In a previous post, Program Quality Specialist Hannah Riddle de Rojas explored two important ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has affected child care providers: financially and operationally. In this follow-up, she addresses the coronavirus’ ongoing toll while looking toward a stronger future for the sector.

A colorful stack of cloth masks on a table

As SARS-CoV-2 began spreading in the United States in early 2020, the virus’ impact on child care—a sector that was already in crisis—was immediate. Fortunately, funding to support child care providers was included in coronavirus relief bills at the federal level as early as March 2020.

  • On March 27, 2020, Congress provided $3.5 billion to states to shore up the child care sector as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act.
  • On December 21, 2020, Congress extended some of the relief measures included in the CARES Act, passing a new stimulus bill which allocated another $10 billion to the early education field.
  • On March 11, 2021, Congress passed the American Rescue Plan, which includes a $39 billion investment in early childhood education.

Despite Congress’ actions in 2020, financial problems for this chronically underfunded sector remained. Congress’ latest allocation of funding is cause for optimism, and it comes at a critical time. After more than a year operating amid the COVID-19 pandemic, child care providers continue to experience constant change and much adversity. Data from a nationwide survey conducted by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) portray a stark financial reality. As of December 2020, when NAEYC released the survey results:

  • 56% of child care centers “were losing money each day they remained open,” and
  • 44% were “confronting so much uncertainty” that they couldn’t say how much longer they would remain open.

Poignantly, 42% of survey respondents said they had taken on personal debt to buy supplies for their programs, and 39% said they had used money from their personal savings accounts to do so. All of this is against a backdrop in which day-to-day operations are more expensive because of a need to purchase additional cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment as well as, according to 60% of respondents, additional personnel costs when providers or their family members test positive for the virus.

Providers have also made dramatic changes to day-to-day operations in response to new regulations. Daily cleaning and disinfecting routines have been dramatically extended. Stuffed animals have been removed from classrooms. Providers are encouraged to enforce mask mandates for all children ages two and above. A source of stress for providers and families both is the knowledge that a provider may have to close abruptly for weeks if a staff member or a child tests positive for COVID-19. Another stressor, of course, is the looming question of closing permanently. In Minnesota, 63% of respondents to the NAEYC survey reported that they knew of more than one child care provider in their community that had closed for good.

One such provider is Hopkins Early Learning Center (HELC) in Hopkins, MN, which closed its doors on December 18, 2020. Due to the pandemic, the program experienced an unsustainable combination of lower enrollment and increased operational costs. I spoke with Jamie Bonczyk, then the executive director of the program, in September 2020 for an earlier blog post on this topic. I got back in touch with Bonczyk in the wake of her program’s closure to ask if there was a message she’d like to share about the impact of COVID-19 on the child care sector.

“My one thing I would like people to know is that we were a fragile industry before the pandemic,” said Bonczyk. “And we have the opportunity to build back stronger by addressing the ‘big three’: access, affordability and quality.”

When HELC closed its doors, 22 educators and staff lost their jobs and the community lost access to 117 spaces for high-quality child care. At a time when Minnesota is experiencing a child care shortage—the most recent estimate I have seen suggested that another 40,000 spaces are needed to meet demand in greater Minnesota—such loss hits especially hard, especially for parents and their employers.

After publishing that earlier blog post, I heard from Courtney Greiner, director of Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool in Esko, Minnesota. She wrote about her experience and that of her employees.

“The teachers that work here are amazing, kind, showed up when others didn’t,” she wrote.

“They risked their health, their family’s health, and did it for the right reasons. […] They knew what they were doing was making a difference, and I hope that that doesn’t get lost when this is over. I hope that it isn’t forgotten that they showed up so that the essential workers could also show up. [The teachers] were caring for [essential workers’] most precious family members so they could take care of everyone else’s sick family members, so that food could be stocked at the grocery store, so that gas stations could be open, so the mail could go out, so the country could continue to run. Without these caregivers, where would the kids go while the essential employees were working?”

Courtney Greiner, Director, Mini Mos Child Care and Preschool, Esko, MN

Greiner’s viewpoint is compelling during the COVID-19 pandemic, a time when many of us have used phrases like “essential worker” for the first time. Throughout the pandemic, I’ve come to realize the truly interconnected nature of our society. While our culture tends to prioritize individualism, the many ways in which I depend on others in my community have become clearer.

Of course, Greiner’s words will still apply when we get “back to normal.” Our need for high-quality child care will still exist, as it always has. I hope that we fulfill Greiner’s vision by remembering the dedication of child care professionals who continued to do their jobs so that, as she wrote, the country could continue to run. I hope that we hold onto our acute awareness of the value of their work. And I hope that policymakers seize the opportunity that Bonczyk identified—the opportunity to build the child care system into something better than it was before the pandemic.

Thinking through “how” and “why” when beginning reflective supervision: Q & A with Tracy Schreifels

Module author Tracy Schreifels, MS, LMFT, IMH-E® (IV), shares her reflections on building the new self-study module “A Guide for the Guide: The ‘How’ of Reflective Supervision.”

Tracy Schreifels, MS, LMFT, IMH-E® (IV), is a therapist, reflective consultant, and Executive Director for Ellison Center, a non-profit early childhood mental health agency in the St. Cloud area. Schreifels teaches in the marriage and family therapy program at St. Cloud State University and is the co-chair of the Advisory Board for the Minnesota Association for Children’s Mental Health – Infant and Early Childhood Division. In addition to teaching CEED online courses, Schreifels authored two of CEED’s self-study modules: A Guide for the Guide: The “How” of Reflective Supervision and The Plot Thickens: Reflective Supervision for Groups. In this Q & A, she discusses A Guide for the Guide.

Tracy Schreifels

Who would benefit from enrolling in this module?

Tracy Schreifels: This module is designed for professionals who are preparing to provide reflective supervision, either as supervisors or as consultants. In order to work as providers of reflective supervision, professionals should have a solid foundational understanding of the principles of infant and early childhood mental health. They should also be receiving ongoing reflective supervision. This module will help them marshal that knowledge and experience to transition to providing reflective supervision.

This module would also be useful for those who are moving their reflective supervision practice to a virtual format. I’d add that even when one has been providing reflective supervision for a while, revisiting the topics in this course could be helpful in refining that practice.

What reflections did you have while building the content for this module?

I always enjoy getting back into the literature around the dynamic and growing field of infant and early childhood mental health. As I explored the content and topics for this module, I found myself reflecting on the ways in which I initiate reflective supervision with those to whom I provide it. Reviewing content also made me more intentional and more aware of why I do what I do when I am getting started with a new supervisee. So although this module is called “The ‘How’ of Reflective Supervision,” I thought a lot about the “why” as well!

Preparing this module also prompted me to look back at how I learned to provide reflective supervision and how much the field has changed since that time. When I was being mentored on providing reflective practice, there wasn’t much research that we could draw upon to guide that process. It is amazing how much the field has grown in the past 10 years!

What drew you to the work that you do?

I was drawn into this field through amazing mentors. I have always had a passion for working with young children, so I earned a degree in child and family studies and worked as a preschool teacher. At one point, the agency I worked for as a teacher brought in a reflective consultant to support us in our work. I looked forward to our monthly sessions, but when the grant funding ended, so did our reflective practice. I decided to go to graduate school to earn my master’s degree in marriage and family therapy. I knew that I wanted to specialize in the field of infant and early childhood mental health. 

What are the top three takeaways that you hope students come away with from your module?

First, I want participants to leave this module with more competence and confidence in establishing reflective supervision as a supervisor or as a consultant.

Second, I hope that those providing reflective supervision can find comfort in the rupture and repair process that happens in these relationships.

Third, I hope that offering virtual reflective supervision will feel less daunting with the supports and resources offered in the module.

Would you like to share any additional thoughts?

We are never done learning. Professionals need the supportive relationships that are developed in reflective supervision. Those relationships support the professionals themselves as well as the children and families they work with. I hope that module participants enjoy the content and allow themselves to reflect and process as they work through it!

“Relationships set the stage for interactions”: Q & A with Ashley Midthun

Have you ever wondered what a classroom observer is looking for, or what sets high-quality classrooms apart? Find out in this Q & A with Program Quality Manager Ashley Midthun, MS.

Ashley Midthun, MS, is a program quality manager at CEED, where she has worked for more than eight years. In her work, Midthun uses the Classroom Assessment Scoring System (CLASS®) tool to observe and assess learning environments; she also trains others to use the CLASS®. In addition, she serves as the CLASS® Anchor and conducts monthly webinars for CLASS® Coaches through the Online Learning Community. In this Q & A, she explains how classroom observation works, what sets high-quality learning environments apart, and what parents and professionals should know about classroom quality.

Ashley Midthun

What drew you to the early childhood field?

Ashley Midthun: I have had the joy of working at CEED for the past eight and a half years. During my undergraduate career at Iowa State University, I worked with children in various settings—hospital, child care, shelter, and school. Those experiences solidified my passion for serving children. After working as an Early Head Start teacher, I decided to pursue a dual early childhood teaching licensure and early childhood master of science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. During that phase of my education, I learned how much I love the link between assessment, research, and the quality of care children receive. That’s why, upon completing my degree, I looked for a position that encompassed all three components and was fortunate to land at CEED.

Your work involves using the CLASS® tool as an observer and a trainer. Talk a little about how being a classroom observer works. What are you looking for? 

The CLASS® is a valid and reliable tool that is used around the world to help determine and enhance classroom quality. “Valid” means that the tool measures what we are intending to measure. “Reliable” means that the tool (and observers who use it) will yield consistent results over time. The CLASS® was created by Robert Pianta, PhD, at the University of Virginia, who incidentally completed his doctorate in psychology at the University of Minnesota. All of our PreK CLASS® observers here at CEED go through extensive training. We learn to use the CLASS® tool in a way that maintains a high level of reliability. We actually exceed the reliability standards set by Teachstone, the company that oversees the CLASS tool. 

As a CLASS® observer, I visit classrooms with an objective lens focused on interactions. Specifically, I look for ten dimensions of classroom quality that are set out in the PreK CLASS® tool. I write detailed and specific notes about what I observe in the classroom within a 20-minute cycle. I then spend ten minutes scoring the cycle and repeat the process up to three more times. The CLASS® emphasizes interactions between all the adults in the classroom and the children in their care. Notable interactions include teachers and children communicating in a positive way, teachers asking children to explain their thinking, and children’s ideas being embedded into classroom activities.

In my role as a CLASS® trainer, I tailor the information I deliver based on the trainee’s role within early childhood education. So, for example, trainings can be tailored to teachers, coaches, administrators, or directors. They can also be generalized to an entire program. They can be customized to meet the specific needs of an individual classroom or program. Training other early childhood professionals to use the CLASS® tool is one of the highlights of my work. The opportunity to share a tool that can improve the classroom environment and have lasting, positive implications for children is such a joy.

What can we learn from teachers who oversee high-quality classrooms?

Interactions matter. Specifically, positive, supportive, encouraging interactions make a difference in children’s long-term social-emotional development. Ultimately, these interactions support high-order thinking skills, such as analyzing situations or showing resilience. 

Let’s look at the first of those skills—analyzing situations. A lot of emphasis is placed on the curriculum and materials used in a classroom, but it’s how those things are used that makes a vital difference in children’s development. Let’s say that blocks are available for children to play with in a particular classroom. If children are never asked what they plan on building with the blocks or how they will build their structure, then the opportunity for high-order thinking is limited. In contrast, think about a teacher who not only has blocks intentionally available but also asks children to brainstorm about how they will use the blocks. By asking children to describe what they need to build their creations, the teacher helps them develop cognitive connections. 

Now let’s look at the second skill I mentioned—resilience. The relationship between a child and a teacher or provider is the foundation for the child’s perseverance in difficult moments. This is an important, but often overlooked, aspect of relationships. When children can rely on teachers’ support and guidance, they are more likely to answer challenging questions. That is because they know that even if they get the question wrong, they will not be ridiculed or ignored. Instead, they’ll be encouraged to think critically about trying again. 

Finally, relationships set the stage for interactions. Children who are welcomed daily with smiles, calm voices, and excitement are better set up to reflect those same experiences back to their peers.

What should parents know about classroom quality?

While having an aesthetically pleasing classroom environment has value, I encourage parents to dive deeper and ask questions about how teachers engage children in learning, how teachers guide children through challenging situations, and what resources are available to ensure children’s varied learning styles are recognized and supported. Teachers play a vital role in children’s lives. Experiences in early childhood have lasting impacts on children’s overall development. Using a valid and reliable assessment tool, such as the CLASS®, is important to ensure that each child receives high-quality care.

What do you like to do outside of work?

I’m currently immersed in early childhood both in my work and in my home life as a parent to a  four-year-old, a three-year-old, and a seven-month-old. Our current favorite family activity is pulling out every cushion and pillow in our house. We use them as “stepping stones” to avoid the “lava,” a.k.a. the floor! I also love to read, listen to The Office Ladies podcast, and watch past seasons of Survivor with my husband.

“People need a place for their struggles to be held by another”: Q & A with Angela Klinefelter

Module author Angela Klinefelter, MS, LMFT, IMH-E (III), discusses the concept of parallel process and why it’s applicable to all types of relationships.

Angela Klinefelter, MS, LMFT, IMH-E (III), is an infant mental health specialist and licensed teacher of parents and children. She provides parent education and home visiting for the St. Cloud School District Early Childhood Family Education Program. She also provides reflective consultation and training across Minnesota, specializing in the areas of social-emotional development of young children, the enhancement of parent-child relationships, and working with parents. In addition to teaching our online course on Working with Parents: Using Infant Mental Health Principles to Support Special Populations, Klinefelter authored the self-study module The Domino Effect: Parallel Process in Reflective Supervision.

Angela Klinefelter

Who would benefit from enrolling in this module?

Angela Klinefelter: Anybody who works with children and families can benefit from this module. The module was created with the early learning field in mind, but the content is also relevant for people who work with older children. In fact, I’d argue that it’s relevant for everyone at some level. Most concepts in infant and early childhood mental health provide opportunities for us to think more broadly about perspectives from all points of view, including our own. This is done while holding relationships in mind. This reflective lens is applicable to all relationships.

What does it mean to have a reflective lens?

Having a reflective lens is about being thoughtful, mindful, and intentional. It’s a way to transform the ways in which professionals view, wonder about, consider, understand, and respond to the families in which they serve. It’s the idea that we attend to all of the relationships within the family.

We need to feel safe to regulate our body and emotions. When parents are feeling safe and regulated, they have increased capacity to build relationships with providers. These relationships then give parents the opportunity to be reflective about parenting and their child. 

Infant mental health consultant Michelle Fallon created the “perspective pyramid.” The pyramid is a visual metaphor that helps us understand the true complexity of a system of relationships. Each corner of the pyramid represents a person within a system of relationships. 

As an example, let’s say a home visitor is working with a family where a five-year-old child is having tantrums. Using their reflective lens, the home visitor considers: “What does this situation look like through Mom’s lens? What does it look like through Dad’s lens? What does it look like to the five-year-old?” If we can have a conversation with all of the people in the perspective pyramid that takes into account their different viewpoints, we can bring everyone back to a space where we can consider what is best for the family. The facilitator—in this example, the home visitor—pulls all the different perspectives together using their infant mental health knowledge and their relationship with the parent or caregiver.

This brings us back to the concept of parallel process that we delve into in this module. If the home visitor makes the parent feel heard, then the parent in turn has greater capacity to listen to the child. And what gives the home visitor the capacity to listen and consider all perspectives? The relationship with a reflective supervisor. The supervisor creates safety and regulation in order to help the home visitor understand their own feelings so that they have the capacity to work with the family.

What drew you to reflective work in the infant and early childhood mental health field?

After graduating from college with my degree in education, I was licensed to teach Kindergarten through 6th grade. Although I’ve always been drawn to working with very young children, I was fortunate to begin my career in a combined 5th–6th grade classroom. That was also the year when my husband’s brother, who was a police officer, was killed in the line of duty. Our family tragedy occurred in January, five short months after beginning my new career. Through the chaos of that experience and the challenges of my first year of teaching, there was a student who stood out. 

With only a few days to prepare for my new job, several team members warned me about a student that would be in my class. Because of team members’ previous experiences, this student was expected to present multiple challenges. He proved to be just the opposite. He was the student who taught me that everyone deserves a chance to change their story. 

Our relationship began as I threw this student’s very large behavior report file from the previous year in the garbage, right in front of him. I wish I could say that I was being relationally intentional. The truth was that I had not had time to sort through the previous teacher’s files. The student responded with the following: “Thank you for saving my dignity.” Then he returned to his seat. That was the moment I realized I had much more to learn about understanding people than I had ever imagined. He made me think so much more deeply about relationships. I will forever be grateful he was in my class.

Relationships are my passion. Reflective practice promotes relationships. This work honors the parents and practitioners who are doing their best with what they have to improve outcomes for their families and communities. People need a sense of felt safety, more understanding, and a place for their struggles to be held by another without judgment. It just helps. Don’t we all want stronger families? They make the world a better place.

What’s the top takeaway that you hope students come away with from your module?

Understanding the parallel process is a way to increase your capacity so that you are able to continue the emotionally charged job of working with families. Because we are human, our hot buttons get pushed. Our buttons might have to do with the cleanliness of a home, a yelling parent, or an inability to nurture a young child. We may remain stuck and unable to see the parent through a different lens. Our reaction may project judgment for reasons that make sense. The parallel process reminds us that in order to strengthen the parent-child relationship, we also must consider our relationship with the parent. By doing that, we reach the child. Embracing reflective practice provides an opportunity for professionals to regulate around experiences with families—and perhaps, to reignite your sense of passion and purpose.

More news about our self-study modules.

The pandemic’s biggest impact on children? How it affects adults

Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, wraps up her series on the pandemic’s impact on young children by looking at how adults’ stress levels affect children.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Alyssa Meuwissen

Parents and caregivers have a lot to think and worry about during the COVID-19 pandemic. I’ve written about parental concerns around lack of socialization and novel experiences, as well as questions about mask-wearing and increased screen time. I’ve provided some research-based information that I hope will ease parents’ and caregivers’ minds and help them make the most of children’s interactions with them and with others in these challenging times. However, my biggest child development concern actually relates to how the pandemic is affecting us, the adults. 

Experience-expectant processes: what really matters right now

Relationships with adults are, by far, the most foundational component of healthy child development. Children rely on responsive interactions with their caregivers to build brain development. Relationships with stable, nurturing adults create a buffer for children from the negative impact of stressful or traumatic events.

A young child looks out a window with their hands placed on the windowpane

Will children be impacted by the stress their parents and caregivers are feeling?

My short answer: The good news is that “good enough” parenting really is good enough. You do not have to respond to your child at every moment, and you can continue to nurture and grow your relationship even through instances of conflict. That is true even when the adult is the one who loses their cool. 

What is concerning is that for some families, the pandemic creates substantial barriers to high-quality parent-child relationships. The stress of losing a job, housing, or food security; the loss of social support; increased depression and anxiety—all of these factors have the potential to negatively impact the interactions that children have in their homes.

Similarly, for children in child care or early education settings, stress on providers is known to negatively impact positive relationships with children and even increase the likelihood of expelling children from programs. When professional caregivers are overwhelmed due to ever-changing policies and concerns about finances and job stability, it impacts the care they can provide to children. Also, as children re-enter schools and child care after interruptions caused by the pandemic, providers will be challenged to support children with less experience in social situations and more early life stress than they had previously. 

This is most concerning for:

  • Families already experiencing poverty or other major stressors
  • Families with existing mental health concerns
  • Families dealing with racial injustice and discrimination

What can we do to mitigate concerns?

In order to stop the pandemic from hurting the development of young children, we must support the adults who are caring for them.

  • As parents, we can intentionally repair relationships with our children when needed.  While they don’t need to know details, it’s OK for them to know that you are stressed and that sometimes you get impatient or mad, but that it’s not their fault and you still love them.
  • For parents, staying connected with a social support group and doing what you can to support your own mental health is important, but in many situations can only go so far.  Policies and programs that can directly address the major stressors in family’s lives (e.g., financial insecurity, mental health concerns) are needed to ensure that children are given a chance to thrive. 
  • Similarly, people who work in early childhood care and education need to be given the practical and emotional support necessary for them to continue to serve children and families under high stress. Policies and programs need to be put in place to ensure providers have access to the knowledge and skills necessary to support children. They must also have adequate time and support to meet the demands of their job.  
  • For those who work in early childhood education, reflective supervision is a growing professional development practice that can provide emotional support and an outlet for the stress that frontline professionals are subject to. You can download a free e-book from the Reflective Practice Center at CEED to learn more about the benefits of reflective supervision.

Selma Fraiberg, a pioneer in infant mental health, once said that working to promote healthy development in young children is “a little like having God on your side.” Children have an amazing ability to grow and thrive in a huge variety of circumstances. Yes, the pandemic is affecting children’s lives here and now, limiting their opportunity for peer interaction and a variety of experiences, but this year will only be one block in building their development. 

At the same time, the pandemic can affect child development by disrupting the nurturing relationships between children and their caregivers. This is both COVID-19’s most significant potential threat to child development and the most difficult to address, because it requires a commitment from policymakers to support both families and the child care and education systems that they depend on. As we continue through what we hope are the final months of the pandemic and look forward to the recovery phase, let’s make sure to focus on giving parents and caregivers the support they need to be there for their children. 

The middle ground: supporting children’s brain development during the pandemic

In part two in a series, Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, shares tips on supporting young children’s brain development despite lifestyle changes due to the pandemic.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Alyssa Meuwissen

Parents and caregivers are understandably concerned about how our changed lifestyle amid the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting children. In my previous post on the subject, I explained how I categorized some of parents’ most common questions based on a theory of brain development that breaks learning down into experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes. Experience-dependent processes can occur anytime in life. (In other words, if your two-year-old is missing out on peer interactions right now, don’t worry: she can catch up next year.) 

In this installment, I’ll address aspects of the pandemic that I think fall into a kind of middle ground. These aspects alter the environment that the developing brain is set up to learn from. That means they can cross the line into affecting experience-expectant processes and so are areas of potential concern. The good news is that adults can act to mitigate these experiences so that they don’t affect children in the long term.

Will babies be affected by seeing adults wearing masks?

Beginning at birth, babies prefer to look at faces—even drawings of faces or face-like shapes—above all else. It’s clear that they’re biologically programmed to seek out faces and that caregivers’ emotional expressions provide crucial information about the world around them. Adults in public places are now wearing masks, making their faces distinctly less face-like, and hiding our mouths, which are the most obvious indicators of smiles. 

A woman wearing a face mask holds a baby

My short answer: Babies are incredibly resilient. They can probably learn a lot in whatever time they have with unmasked adults. It’s unlikely that sometimes seeing adults, including primary caregivers, in masks will have a great impact on children’s development—although babies may notice and even show some distress. However, children who spend long hours in settings with masked caregivers may not be getting critical input that the developing brain expects and relies on. I don’t know of any research at this time that can point to how much unmasked time is enough.

This is most concerning for: 

  • Children who spend long hours in child care settings with masked providers
  • Young babies who don’t have the vision and cognition to process the variety of environmental cues that toddlers and preschoolers do
  • Children with developmental delays or difficulties with emotion regulation or perspective-taking

What can we do to mitigate concerns?

  • Make sure that adults who live in babies’ households (so they don’t need to be masked) know the importance of face-to-face time. Every minute counts in terms of eye contact, facial expressions, and talking to your baby.
  • For those who must be masked when interacting with babies, there are clear masks available that allow others to see your mouth when interacting with you. The ClearMask is one version that has been approved by the FDA and is being recommended by the Florida Association for Infant Mental Health.

Will the increase in screen time harm our children?

Like most parents working from home, I have used screens more than I otherwise would to occupy my toddler. A lot of parents I know worry about this, and with good reason, as children’s brains do not expect to sit and passively consume blinking lights as a main source of stimulation. There is evidence that too much screen time can affect children’s ability to pay attention and regulate their own behavior. However, we also know that the content chosen matters greatly, and that children can learn academic and social skills from high-quality TV and games.

My short answer: This depends on dose and content. Screen time has the potential to be harmful for children if it takes away their opportunities to play, be active, and engage in other types of thinking, or if they are watching shows that are violent or not age-appropriate.

What can we do to mitigate concerns?

  • Choose programming intentionally that will promote cognitive and social skills. With limited opportunities to play with other children or experience new ideas and places, the content kids view on screens is likely shaping their world view now more than ever, and we can use that to our advantage! PBS has great shows for young children–Daniel Tiger, Mr. Rogers, Sesame Street, and Elinor Wonders Why are a few that are designed to teach children academic and social skills. Khan Academy has a free app with age-specific games. Search the internet for videos about any of your child’s interests, from how a garbage truck works to live streams of baby polar bears.
  • Be involved in screen time. I know that often, the whole point of screens is to have a chance to do something else. But if you watch a show with your child every once in a while or even just catch the first or last few minutes, you’ll glean enough to help children apply lessons from the show to their own life. 
  • Set limits and be consistent. Make the limits reasonable given your current situation so that you can stick to them; it’s OK if this looks different than it would in non-pandemic life. Children will be less likely to have meltdowns if they can expect that screens are used during a specific time of day for a certain length of time.

My next post in this series will explore my greatest concern about children’s development during COVID-19: the pandemic’s impact on adults.

Will our kids be okay? Parents’ concerns about the pandemic’s effect on children

Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, tackles some common parental concerns about the lifestyle changes forced by COVID-19.

By Alyssa Meuwissen, PhD, Research Associate

Alyssa Meuwissen

As the pandemic has dragged on over nearly a year now, I’ve had to adjust my expectations for a return to “normal,” along with everyone else. There’s now a light at the end of the tunnel as vaccines are distributed. Nevertheless, many parents of young children have lingering concerns. The years from birth to five are recognized as a foundational period for child development. Children in that age bracket will have spent 20% of that important period in this altered pandemic life. How will it affect their long-term development?

Normal behavior or pandemic problem?

In my personal experience, it has been hard to sort out normal behavior from the pandemic’s influence. When my younger daughter, now six months old, was six weeks old, my husband contracted COVID-19. Because he was instructed to self-isolate within our home, the only adult face our daughter saw for three weeks was my own. When our baby was 12 weeks old, her grandmothers began providing child care for her and our older daughter. Our baby was very fussy and often cried when she looked at her grandmothers closely. How much of that was typical stranger anxiety and how much was due to her experience in the pandemic?

We didn’t go to any playgrounds for a few months. After playgrounds reopened, another child approached my two-year-old daughter and said, “Hi.” My daughter cried. How much of that was her naturally shy personality and how much was due to the pandemic?

For a few months, my two-year-old was obsessed with Daniel Tiger. Most of her pretend play revolved around things she saw him do: fly a kite, buy shoes, make an obstacle course. She even started using words from the show, like “grr-ific” and “tiger-tastic,” in conversation. Was this simply a two-year-old’s enthusiasm? Or was it because it had been so long since she’d gone to a library, a grocery store, or a restaurant—much less seen friends in person—that she no longer had vivid personal recollections on which to base her pretend play?

In each of these cases, there were likely normal developmental forces at work interacting with the experience of living in a pandemic. There’s no way to know “what might have been” had there been no pandemic. But as parents, we naturally worry about what our children have lost and grieve for this year of their childhood as we had pictured it for them.

Two children wearing cloth masks sit on stairs

As a parent and child psychology researcher, I think it’s important to address parents’ concerns. But I also know it’s important not to get too stressed out about things that won’t matter in the long run. I’ve identified some of the biggest concerns I’ve heard from parents regarding the pandemic’s effect on children. Based on my personal experience and my training as a developmental psychologist, I’ve sorted these concerns into three categories.

  • The first category includes pandemic-related circumstances towards which developmental science suggests children will show resilience. I’ve addressed these questions below and provided some tips for parents and caregivers.
  • The second category includes legitimate concerns, but ones that we as parents and caregivers can affect positively in the near term. I’ve addressed these in the second post in this series and provided some additional tips.
  • The third category includes major causes for concern. In the final post in this series, I’ve explained why addressing these serious problems will require collective effort, rather than individual actions.

Experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes

The framework that has helped me create these categories is a developmental concept that describes how genes and environment interact to result in learning. In a 1987 paper, William Greenough and colleagues suggested that humans learn through what they called experience-expectant and experience-dependent processes

Experience-expectant processes are based on information that the brain expects to be present in the environment and that we are genetically prepared to take in. This includes sources of information that are universally present in typical development, such as vision or language. If babies are not exposed to these sources of information during a specific time in their development, their brain will prune away the neurons that would typically be devoted to processing them. Experience-dependent processes, on the other hand, are what allow humans to learn a huge variety of skills. Our brains are not “hard-wired” to learn hockey or chess; we can learn these skills at any time in our lives. This kind of learning involves forming new synapses rather than pruning neurons.

Experience-dependent learning: Don’t worry, our kids will catch up

In this section, I’ll address two of the most common concerns I’ve heard from parents.

Will the lack of peer interaction harm my children? 

My short answer: There’s no “critical period” for learning social skills. If a child misses out on some things at age two, she can learn them next year at three. While the transition back to frequent, large-group peer interactions might be uncomfortable and require adult support, kids will bounce back. I don’t predict many long-term effects on personality or on children’s ability to make friends.

What can we do to mitigate parents’ concerns?

  • Focus on interactions with the people in your household. While your child may not get to interact with as many same-age peers as they normally would, they can learn a lot of skills interacting with siblings and parents. Talk about and model skills like taking turns and using “please” and “thank you.”
  • Try short Zoom playdates with planned activities. It’s harder for toddlers and preschoolers to carry on a conversation when they can’t physically interact, but they can have a dance party, do a show and tell of their toys, or play games like “Simon Says.”
  • Silver lining: This situation is making siblings (if your child has them) more essential playmates than they otherwise would have been! 
A family of two adults and two young children play Monopoly

Are children suffering from a lack of stimulation?

My short answer: While trips and activities are certainly enjoyable and enriching, all the experiences needed for supporting brain development in young children can be done at home. As a parent, I completely understand that it’s daunting (and repetitive) to be stuck inside all winter with your kids. But as long as children are given the opportunity to play, they are doing the necessary work of childhood.

What can we do to mitigate parents’ concerns?

  • If staying at home gets boring, try thinking about different categories of play: pretend play, gross motor, fine motor, music and dancing, construction play, and playing games. Try to promote a mix of these each day. 
  • Remember that your perspective is different from your child’s. To them, reading the same book over and over again is a great opportunity to learn and understand. In their playroom, they may visit the farm, the fire station, and the moon all within 10 minutes! 
  • Acknowledge your own sadness about what might have been, but try to reframe another day at home as another day to engage in high-quality play.

Children have grown up in an infinite number of different conditions across history, location, and culture. As a middle-class parent in the United States, I have an “ideal childhood” in mind for my children, but I also know that I am part of a generation whose expectations tend toward intensive parenting and over-involvement. Sometimes, I think about the things that my children are missing out on, like playgrounds, museums, birthday parties, and holiday celebrations. I feel sad about the loss of fun experiences and about the delay in forming positive relationships and discovering my family’s traditions. However, I don’t worry about their long-term development. In many other environments, it’s very normal for children to spend their early childhood at home with one or a few caregivers.

In the next post in this series, I’ll tackle parents’ questions that fall into a kind of “middle ground”: research confirms that they are real concerns, but they also have real solutions.

Honoring the “unique cultural diamond” in each of us: Q & A with Barbara Stroud

Barbara Stroud, PhD, shares insights into how she developed self-study modules on Tackling the Elephants in the Room 1: Exploring Issues of Cultural Humility and Privilege and Tackling the Elephants in the Room 2: Unpacking Implicit Bias and Moving from Equity to Justice.

Barbara Stroud

Barbara Stroud, PhD, is a licensed psychologist and California-endorsed Infant, Family and Early Childhood Mental Health Specialist and Reflective Practice Facilitator Mentor. Stroud authored two self-study modules: Tackling the Elephants in the Room 1: Exploring Issues of Cultural Humility and Privilege and Tackling the Elephants in the Room 2: Unpacking Implicit Bias and Moving from Equity to Justice.

Stroud provides private consultation and training to the birth-to-five service community. She is also a founding organizer and past president of the California Association for Infant Mental Health and has authored several books, including How to Measure a Relationship: A Practical Approach to Dyadic Interventions, now available in Spanish. Additional resources can be found on Stroud’s YouTube channel and website

Who do you think would benefit from enrolling in this module?

Barbara Stroud: I think this content is valuable for any provider who works with children from birth to 10 years old and with families of children in that range. Our culture influences our identity development, supports ego functioning, and informs our relationships. We live our culture; it is an integral part of all of us. To deny another’s cultural identity or homogenize oneself and others as “all the same” is to deny oneself. Each child and each adult should be honored as the unique cultural diamond that they are in the world. My hope for participants in these modules is that they will see the cultural diamond within themselves and seek to discover it in others. 

Did you have any unexpected realizations while building the content for this module?

When working in the context of relationships, our feelings matter. We cannot truly examine issues of social injustice, equity, and implicit bias through the limited lens of cognition. These issues affect us all on multiple levels: somatically, emotionally, and cognitively. When we attempt to neatly place power, privilege, and social inequity in a cognitive box, we do a disservice to the topic and to ourselves. 

That’s why I realized that I needed to design these trainings to engage participants physically and emotionally. The modules had to “tackle the elephant in the room” from a multifaceted perspective. They needed to include somatic experiences, emotional responses, and reflective narratives.

More news about our self-study modules.

“There is always room to grow and learn as a supervisor”: Q & A with Una Majmudar

Module author Una Majmudar, MSW, LCSW, IMH-E®, shares top takeaways from the module Hand in Hand: Joining Administrative, Clinical, and Reflective Supervision Roles.

Una Majmudar, MSW, LCSW, IMH-E® is clinical director in the Division of Children, Youth, and Families, at The Health Federation of Philadelphia. She co-created the module Hand in Hand: Joining Administrative, Clinical, and Reflective Supervision Roles with Brandy Fox, LCSW, IECMH-E®, director of cross-sector IECMH initiatives for the Pennsylvania Key. In this Q & A, Majmudar shares her top takeaways from the module and reflects on what drew her to a career in infant and early childhood mental health.

Who is the main audience for your module? Who might benefit from enrolling?

Una Majmudar

Una Majmudar: This module was designed for supervisors who are balancing multiple roles. It will best suit supervisors who have some working knowledge of reflective supervision or who are already providing some reflective supervision. The goal of this module is to help them effectively integrate reflective tasks with other administrative or clinical tasks.

This module will also appeal to those who are looking to enhance their supervisory skills by adding reflective supervision. Program directors can benefit from this module by gaining insights that will make them better equipped to supervise and support managers who are balancing multiple roles. Our goal for this module is to challenge participants to think about the importance of reflection in all aspects of supervision.

What realizations did you have while building the content for this module?

The process of building this module made me reflect on so many things, including gratitude. I am profoundly grateful to those who developed reflective supervision and to those who have mentored me over the years and continue to do so. I am grateful that I work for an organization that believes deeply in the professional development of their staff. 

I remember interviewing for my first job out of graduate school, and I was reminded that the supervision you receive will be the most important aspect of your job. I hope that one day,  reflective supervision will be available for all providers in the infant and early childhood mental health field because it is absolutely best practice. The work we do is deeply meaningful and impactful. We “hold” so many infants, young children, and their families “in mind.” As supervisors, we are holding our supervisees in mind also. The notion of being held in mind by another, as described so eloquently by Jeree Paul, is the essence of our work. May we all do it with great care for those we hold—and for ourselves.    

I especially want to honor the memory of one of the pioneers of reflective supervision, Rebecca Shahmoon-Shanok, LCSW, PhD (1943-2020). Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of participating in many trainings and workshops facilitated by Rebecca. She has left a lasting impression on me as a clinician and supervisor. I will forever be grateful for her gentle, humble mentorship of myself and others in this field. You will see Rebecca highlighted in several videos in this module, and I hope you will feel the same way.  

What drew you to social work as a career and to work with young children in particular?

Why do we do the work that we do? That is always a question that involves a lot of reflection! I started my social work career working with teenagers in a residential setting and I always wondered about their early years. Graduate school confirmed for me that attachment and child-parent relationships were where I wanted to focus my career. Ultimately, my passion for Infant Mental Health clinical work really took off when I had opportunities through work to attend Zero to Three conferences. I learned about the work of Alicia Lieberman, who developed child-parent psychotherapy. 

There is something very special about witnessing the intimacy of a child-parent relationship and about supporting the dyad as they navigate and learn about each other. I am always humbled to be given the opportunity to hear stories and support journeys that promote healing. Impacting how a young child experiences the world and the relationships around them is by far the best investment we can make for our future. Sometimes that means helping to heal intergenerational traumatic experiences, and sometimes it’s as simple as supporting a family as they move into their first stable home.

What are the top three takeaways that you hope participants learn from your module?

First, reflective practice is the foundation of all aspects of supervision. Second, no matter where we are in our professional lifespan, getting support through reflective supervision or peer reflective supervision is crucial. Third, there is always room to grow and learn as a supervisor. We hope you find that spot where you can push yourself beyond your comfort zone.  

Do you have any additional thoughts you would like to share?

I’d like to say to participants that I hope this module is just a beginning for you. I hope that those who embark on this learning find themselves curious and able to be vulnerable. Doing this work is hard, challenging, rewarding, and healing all at the same time. Learning is a lifelong process during which we must be willing to reflect on ourselves, our work, our relationships. Always remember that as Jeree Pawl wrote, “How you are is as important as what you do.” Good luck, and have fun!

More news about our self-study modules.