“Kids don’t need us to fix everything; they need us to witness it”: Kristin Irrer on social-emotional development

Kristin Irrer

Kristin Irrer, MS, IMH-E®, has more than 20 years’ experience supporting children, their families, and those who care for them. A provider of reflective supervision, she is deeply invested in expanding access to reflective supervision and embedding this practice within infant and early childhood systems, including access for professionals in administrative roles. Irrer teaches our online courses Understanding Early Social-Emotional Development Using an Infant Mental Health Lens (UESED), Part 1 and Part 2, as well as RIOS™ 1: Using the RIOS™ Framework for Reflective Supervision. She is also the author of our self-study module Why You Matter: Professional Use of Self. We sat down with Irrer to learn more about the process of reformatting UESED into a two-part series. She also talked about what she hopes participants will gain from the course.

Who do you see as the main audience for the UESED courses?

KI: Typically participants work in the infant and early childhood field, but one exciting thing about this course is that the information has really broad application. People who work in any role that supports young children will find this course relevant to their work, whether they are educators, social workers, early interventionists, or administrators, for example. Some participants have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree; others have a master’s degree. Many participants are looking to refresh and reconnect with what they know about their field; others want to learn more about the most up-to-date science. If participants want to take their learning further, these courses can also be applied toward the Supporting Early Social and Emotional Development credential. The credits gained through this coursework can also be applied to obtain or renew Infant or Early Childhood Mental Health Endorsement through the Alliance for the Advancement of Infant Mental Health.

UESED has been reformatted into two 5-week sessions, as opposed to a single, 13-week session. Why break the course into two parts?

We felt the 13-week commitment was a barrier to some students, so we retooled the course to be more accessible. We put a lot of thought into restructuring the coursework to better fit the needs of our busy students. The five-week courses are intended to help students digest the content in a more manageable timeframe. Additionally, we reframed the content to include more self-reflection. You will find more reflective prompts in the course, such as, “This week, casually observe someone in your environment who is interacting with a child aged 3 or under.” We encourage participants to start a journal and write down their thoughts, but they aren’t required to share them. Slowing down and deepening our understanding is an important theme of this class. We hope the two-part series will feel supportive to the very busy participants who are balancing many roles and expectations.

What does it mean to look at social-emotional development through an infant mental health lens?

Infant mental health by definition refers to how well a child develops socially and emotionally in the early years. So when we talk about social-emotional development from an infant mental health perspective, it’s wrapped up in the context of a relationship with an attachment figure and embedded in the culture and community in which the child develops. We are not exclusively looking at the child, we are noticing the whole dyadic system. Relationships are the cornerstone for all young children’s learning. When we are using an infant mental health lens with our work, this concept becomes the centering point for understanding social-emotional development.

You mentioned that a relationship with an attachment figure is key to infant mental health. What is attachment?

Attachment is our emotional bond that connects us to our important people. Infants bring something to this developing system just as adults do: it’s a two-way street. It’s the interactions between an infant and an important adult, over time, that allow the child-and-caregiver dyad to form emotional bonds and a felt sense of connectedness.

The foundation for attachment starts when a baby is born: when the baby displays hunger cues, does someone respond? How do they respond? When the baby fusses, does someone come and figure out what they need? Through these everyday interactions, over time, the baby is learning: “If I cry, does someone comfort me?” In the infant and early childhood field, we sometimes call this interactive behavior of the caregiver and child “serve-and-return.” Through these back and forth interactions, babies learn whether their needs will be met and whether an adult will show up–even if they don’t get the baby’s needs right every time. This attachment relationship becomes our roadmap of how to be in the world with others. Our primary attachments are alive in all of us, even as adults.

What does it mean to say a child is “securely” or “insecurely attached”?

Securely attached infants learn to trust that adults will respond to them and take care of their needs.They experience adults who are sensitive and are attuned to their bids for interaction. Adults can behave in ways that allow the child to feel more secure or a little more anxious or insecure in the relationship. If a person develops an insecure style of attachment, it can take one of three forms: avoidant, ambivalent, or disorganized. Children who we would consider to be in the “insecure” categories of attachment relationships experience adults who are less consistent, nurturing, or responsive to their needs. Children then adapt their own behaviors to get their needs met. Most of us in the field can’t “diagnose” attachment styles, but we most certainly can notice parent or caregiver and child behaviors that give us good information about the attachment relationship.

What would be some symptoms of disorganized attachment?

Disorganized attachment refers to a situation where rather than being a source of comfort, the adult in the attachment relationship is a source of alarm. The adult’s behavior is too unpredictable or scary for the child to grow to trust them. This way of being leaves the child in a constant state of fear. Typically trauma is embedded in disorganized attachment styles.

Attachment relationships influence how children treat others and how they expect others to treat them. Outside the context of their family, children who experience a disorganized primary relationship might display extreme behaviors that look like escalation, disorganization, fear, or anger. These children may be unable to go to an adult for help, because their expectation is that adults cannot be trusted and may harm instead of help.

A major theme in the UESED courses is the idea that we adults bring our whole selves–including our trauma and our relationship history–to our interactions and relationships with children. This is true of parents and caregivers and it’s also true of those of us who work with children. This is an important piece that we tend to overlook when we are solely focused on a child’s development, and it allows us to think more deeply about social-emotional foundations and developmental milestones. We can remind ourselves, “Adults are part of this developing emotional system, too.”

Can an attachment figure be someone other than the child’s parent or primary caregiver?

Yes! We call these secondary attachment figures. I think it’s especially important to talk about them in the context of the stress, upheaval, and trauma that COVID-19 has caused in many families’ lives. Who else is important in our children’s lives, besides their parents or primary caregiver? Along with primary attachments, these other significant relationships hold important potential to buffer stress for children. This also speaks to the fact that we need to do a better job at supporting child care providers and others who work with young children, because their emotional selves show up in those important secondary attachment relationships.

You mentioned that the information in this course is applicable even for people who don’t work directly with children.

Absolutely. It is important that supervisors, policymakers, and administrators continually consider children’s perspectives and emotional experiences. Again, adopting that lens means taking into account the fact that social-emotional development is something that happens in the context of a relationship. This is tricky, because a relationship is difficult to see, target, talk about, or put a number on. But take a moment to wonder: what if supervisors and administrators, even though they’re sitting at desks instead of standing in a classroom, bring this lens into their work? They have the capacity to make decisions with the knowledge that anything they do affects relational outcomes for kids, from filling in forms to determining funding. What a powerful lens to hold for babies and families!

This is the crux of what I hope people get out of the class: the notion that social-emotional development is dependent upon relationships. Armed with this understanding, you can more deliberately be a foundation for social-emotional growth and development, no matter your role in the field. Prioritizing early attachments that play a crucial, lifelong role in our overall development is essential for healthy outcomes for babies.

Is social-emotional development different during pandemic times?

A lot of us have questions about how all of this is affecting kids emotionally. Learning about brain development is a big piece of this class. And I like to reassure people that brains are still developing during the pandemic!

We know that at baseline children will continually work to make sense of their experiences in the world, usually through play. This is especially true in times of uncertainty, change, and stress. I’ll give you an example. My four-year-old was playing tag with neighbors’ children. They were playing “COVID tag.” I asked him, “How does that go?” He said, “Well, if you get tagged, you have COVID, and you sit down. The only thing that can rescue you is the vaccine. You have to get tagged by the vaccine to get up and play again.” This was such a great illustration of my son and his friends using social games as a framework for making sense of the confusing times we are experiencing. Kids have wonderful abilities to sort through their significant emotional experiences and make sense of them.

I think one message of this course is that you don’t have to necessarily “fix” social-emotional development, even under stressful circumstances like a pandemic. By just showing up and being with children, noticing them, you are supporting children’s development. This is true of adults, too, by the way. This is really the magic of what relationships give us. One of the biggest predictors of our capacity to be resilient is our primary attachment styles. In other words, the responsiveness that adults show to our emotional needs influences our level of resilience. Kids don’t need us to fix everything; they need us to witness and be with them in it. This simple act boosts their social-emotional development.

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