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Ann Marie White Community Update Address

15 April 2020 |


On behalf of the Children’s Institute staff, I am so proud and honored to be here to share with you the work of the staff and board, contributions of our Cotiere awardees, and recognize the many partners who share in the work of this mission – and how we come together to advance our current mission of equipping and supporting those who work with children to ensure the success of every child.

With over 60 years of programs and services that are grounded in decades of child development research, theory, and practice, we transform evidence and ideas into solutions that increase the opportunities for every child’s success – with a special emphasis on social emotional development.

I’m excited to share this time together to reflect how we got here and where we are going now and also to begin to get to know each other better as we share the labor of love of ensuring the success of every child.

For those of you that know me,  across the duration of my professional life and the focus of my prior 15 years at the University of Rochester leading up to my engagement at Children’s Institute, know of my deep passion and commitment to the many core functions at Children’s Institute that advance this mission.

I believe we all need to learn from, integrate and mobilize both local and academic knowledge. In our efforts, we marry the deep learning from research, evaluation, practice, and lived experience in pursuit of essential ingredients that foster children’s social, emotional and cognitive growth, health and mental health, and well-being, holistically.

So what are those essential ingredients that become genuine growth relationships for children? Where have and do we now focus our coming together to boost growth and development of children, holistically as we strive for all the places where children live, love, laugh and learn to be spaces that honor children, and their fullest potential?

Emory Cowen, the founder of Children’s Institute and a founding father of the field of community psychology, decades ago forged a summary of how to engage in effort to provide comprehensive wellness, in contrast to still prevailing approaches that focus on fostering one aspect of a child’s growth, as the relevant focus of their work with a child. 

Long ago, he recognized the interdependencies of health, mental health, education, and how history and other contextual features profoundly influence children’s growth and development through the provision of five essential ingredients:
a) Form wholesome relationships early in life where mutual nurturing is trusted to occur; help children continue to have positive relationships that foster a sense of one’s history, identity, group belonging, where safety, security and responsive emotional sharing are supported. Create settings that help children know they are heard, valued and connected, and where they can experience unconditional, positive regard.
b) Help children acquire age-appropriate competencies through learning and relationships. In other words, be strength- focused and enhancing in our engagement with children
(c) Engage in settings that promote adaption (help one learn to manage change, respond to novel occurrences, make meaning and create coherence)
(d) Foster empowerment, one’s agency and ownership, where qualities reinforce autonomy and self-determination
(e) Help children acquire skills and relationships to cope with life stressors. Do not wait to boost settings, adults and children themselves when needed to prevent barriers to growth getting worse (protect children’s development as good stewards)

He also recognized the diversity of lives and communities and that sustaining our efforts to promote all children’s growth and wellness meant mobilizing and embracing this diversity and community resources already present. Each child has his or her own “pond ecology”. Thus, in working to promote comprehensive wellness, one’s approach starts with identifying local strengths and assets present in that pond that support growth, such as a community’s schools’ or barbers, and to work to boost the resources already present in the child’s ecology where growth could occur, inclusive of unique differences, resources, strength, and values.

To me, this pond ecology idea extends further: rather than insert foreign “teachers” into a pond who then deliver what they think “you should know” and how to learn – aim to work “with”, to facilitate together growth with the resources already present within every context children are involved in, and thus be working responsively to the different experiences, privileges, strengths and barriers…in each pond.

These ideals for how to create foundations that put children’s growth first are not far from traditions found globally in other communities known to put children first. Take for instance, the Masai tribe.

“Kasserian ingera” is a traditional greeting members would always say to another. It means “and how are the children?” In so doing, it acknowledged the high value that the Masai place on their children’s well-being. Even warriors with no children of their own would always give the traditional answer, “all the children are well,” meaning peace and safety prevail, the community’s priorities of protecting the young remain, and its members are tuned to this responsibility. “All the children are well” means that life is good - the daily struggles of existence do not preclude proper caring for their young.

Given strong relationships, integrated supports of children across a community, basic needs, safety, belonging, instruction/guidance and value of learning in one’s cultural traditions are lived experiences function as an ecological vaccine for children’s growth, a genuine growth-centered context, then this goal places adults also at the center of the work. Children’s growth is dependent on parents, teachers, providers, health professionals and their inheritances. 

So, as adults, we must come together and connect our vast bodies of knowledge to drive best action. But we all need help to be present in this way for children, in being our best selves for children.

The essence of this work goes much deeper – anyone who works with children must be ready to hold dearly a sacred trust – they care for the deepest purpose – to help those families provide an abundant life, and keep families’ traditions alive and relevant that foster this resiliency. Anyone who works with children are invited by families to hold their most dear, cherished, delightful; asked to keep safe, and be a relationship that fosters in children a sense of value and deep purpose, to be hope-bearing, and restoring.

So, in our next striving to work with and as part of a broader community family, to keep children healthy, thriving and dev. on track, we must combine evidence into a triple braided cord comprised of:
a) evidence from our science disciplines
b) age-old wisdom and traditions found within families as part of their expertise derived and passed down across generations from their own lived experiences, and at the same time be
c) active listeners to children who are adapting to new realities adults are often not aware of, and help children enter into worlds created by adults,as author Richard Scarry does.

As adults, we must then aim to grow to be aware of our own mental biases that cause us to not see and respond to children and families experiences that are different from our own. For instance, due to differential treatment and biases related to one’s intersecting identities of race, gender, age, health status, geography. Some children may have eaten, some not; some may have slept, some not, some might have seen danger; some not.  We don’t walk in their shoes to know – but we know we can’t assume. So, we must be engaging intentionally in reflective practice to see our blind spots/where we judge or make attribution biases about a child’s “behavior.” We must seek to understand even how we ourselves benefit from such “othering” or how we are continue to maintain policies that sustain systemic disadvantage – to better come together in common pursuit of this mission. 

This means continuing to align our efforts to be centered around seeing and supporting how families themselves seek to grow their own children’s strengths and successes in ways we may never have imagine ourselves (despite facing hope-sucking experiences such as poverty, colonialization, post-slavery effects and persistent racism, and other socially present challenges to complete wellness).

As the bumper sticker says “stuff____ happens” and in surviving, one passes on the learning when experience threats to their wellness or traumas (adverse experiences) in one way or another.

For instance, one response is to try protect their children from the harms they have confronted and survived (by teaching them to survive if similarly confronted – with perhaps some hyper-vigilance). Our bodies might pass on w/o us knowing: we can’t control what our bodies have learned and responded to in terms of stress’s effects and we can pass effects of stress on to the next generation – and affect birth outcomes.

Part of the ecological vaccine to toxicity of stress then are those traditions within families and their trusted agents that protect or that help transform trauma into resiliency, rather than transfer trauma to the next generation. These traditions known to protect is our next frontier in the pursuit of comprehensive well-being for children-- sustaining and identifying these culturally-based family strengths through the same ways Children’s Institute always has, through collaborative action in real settings, inquiry about the action, and review of evidence. 

I am excited for Children’s Institute, as it grows its coming together directly with having parents-support-parents, through its Rochester Area Parent Program (RAPP). We know families’ have naturally-occurring culturally-based strengths that build children’s social emotional health, and these can come together with how social emotional health is developed and enriched in schools, out of school settings, and care settings. 

That the RAPP strengthens the resources of parents and reduces behavioral concerns of children, through teaching in ways developed with, and responsive to, culturally and economically diverse parents, is a success of the sort that we will strive to sustain. We also seek to ground our work in culturally sustaining pedagogical approaches to ground learning in the ways of life communities have adapted, that provide resilience when they have been, and continue to be, damaged and erased through institutions and systemic biases such as racism. 

As we work for equity in social emotional development – we seek to identify bright spots where teaching becomes a way of sustaining—rather than eradicating – the cultural ways of being of communities of color – as they foster these social emotional health and learning.

For instance, in our Systems Integration pilot – we are working to bridge faith community leaders and family members, with and mental and behavioral health promotion, protection and recovery, by teaching through the sacred scriptures family’s honor. 

One scripture we have focused on is the story of Mephiboshev in the book of Samuel – who became lame when fleeing out of grief and for his life after his grandfather and father (King Saul and Jonathan) were killed, and lived in a far away place of deprivation (LoDebar). In this story we teach how children can inherit the losses and scares of their family, and the self-loathing that ensued for Mephoshev, until King David sought him out and restored him to the Kings’s table. This lesson opens up dialogue about trauma, and awareness of mental health in a manner tied to where families find strength traditionally. It describes restorative practices akin to what we seek to foster in early childhood development centers and classrooms – e.g.

Genemarie Van Wagner shared a story recently of a child care center where a boy on a climbing structure squashed little girl’s finger and held it; rather than saying sorry – are you hurt? Check in…and pain seen and valued, and feelings restored. 

When such reflective approaches or behavioral supports are fostered, in adults, parents and early childhood professional staff, we find, through continued support of these qualities, children’s behavior health referrals diminish.

In our behavioral supports for children program with five early learning and care settings in Rochester, referrals for individual child behavioral consultation decreased from 37 children in 2016-17 to 31 in 2017-18 to 11+ in 2018-19. By combining Programmatic consultation and reflective supervisions approaches, we find strong effects that can reduce the disproportionate rates by which black preschoolers expelled or suspended from preschool (3.6 x more likely, nationally).

Coming together, is about identifying and promoting key sets of interactions that produce the change sought. Our work remains directed at identifying and promoting the programs and approach that ought to stand together to shore up children’s growth, and to combat inequity in children’s development due to life- and hope-sucking conditions in the “pond.”

What is this work like? 

Stop – put your hand to your heart, feel this and listen to your breathing…observe two major separate components of the cardiovascular system interacting with each other to keep life going. 

But, when we think of children’s development, there are any of a number of such wheels within wheels of processes in play, individual, interpersonally, and institutionally or ecologically, making an infinite number of possibilities of interactions we have to pay attention to.

Then – adding to the complexity of what we need to pay attention to – to see its effects on our children – is the fact that things change with time. There are disruptive, epic and sometimes terrifying changes. Imagine we were Rip Van Winkle and had all fallen asleep 20 years ago and just woke up. We would see paper money usage down and now Venmo and Apple Pay “wallets”. We’d wake up to realize gene-tailoring isn’t shortening a pair of blue jeans but rather a new medicine to attack diseases. We’d be shocked to see juicy steaks were cell grown or plant-based meat. 

How technology does and will play into children’s development is an area we better be paying great attention. We are committed to watching, through evidence and responding, but this effort requires a sentry’s watch or ability for constant vigilance. 

Thought experiment shows why:  a) if I asked each of you in the room to take aim on one single target or outcome: each person to find two people and stand or come together at the point equidistant between them, we would never achieve equilibrium. We would all keep moving, for as soon as you thought, one of the other two would have adjusted to their two people, disrupting the whole system.  We thus need to keep our system analytics going to see how the effects of our standing together change over time.

For such reasons, we have projects like RECAP that assesses and supports all children in 3 and 4 year old preschool community-agency and school-based classrooms to ensure highest quality care settings and school readiness in Rochester City School District’s program for the past twenty years.

This commitment to quality has led to national recognition due to its high quality program, and its ability to help close school readiness gaps due to poverty and other challenging conditions children face. Its focus on quality observational assessments helps it self-sustain: such that as 40+ new teachers emerge, these new teachers quickly gear their work to these high standards and norms.  When such systems are in place, these show we can bolster growth to help close the gaps present such that 85% children growing at faster pace than what we’d expect due to simple age differences. However, despite these great gains, many still almost a year behind upon entering kindergarten. This observation led to project GROW that helps every families get services needed during children’s earliest years.

As we do this work of closing learning gaps, Children’s Institute will continue to talk about and connect approaches explicitly to the work of equity. This includes talking through as a “system” of how we got here and seeking to address fundamental causes such as not blaming individual’s children or use such information as a weapon against families. 

We must fundamentally reframe how we come together to work on some deeper structural causes like how to remove sources causing prenatal maternal stress. We are pleased, thus, to stand together and start to connect how what we are doing in one area, affects the outcomes of another. For instance, we participate in AKT framework for all kid 0-8 be healthy, thriving and developmentally on track that links our comprehensive screening and referral work with children with earlier prevention efforts in the perinatal period of the life course.

We do know must continue to be sentry watching child outcomes that means sustaining longitudinal datasets so we can assess for long-term and time delayed effects, and creating data exchanges across our community’s many sources of child data. We value the data collection and reporting backbone COMET for Children has provided to make in-situ data collection, analysis and data and report sharing across agencies possible!

And here we have concerns: we see significant increases in 2+ risk factors among entering 3 year olds; and also that 40-50% identified social emotional health risk across New York State urban and suburban districts alike. This suggests in a public health crises that is manifesting as behavioral health risks. 

And so we remain committed to continue efforts like Primary Project where 50% of children participating demonstrate an improvement/ reduction in any one of four identified risk behavior (assertiveness, peer social, behavior control, task orientation) in 12-15 weeks-time, when helped through play-based interactions led by a paraprofessional.

We plan to continue to harmonize this and ask you consider – how can and do each of you imagine being purposeful actors in promoting children’s comprehensive well-being with us?

Children’s Institute is busy with partners in the huddles needed to promote more holistic approaches to children that seek to be responsive to culture and are data-informed. We also will continue to focus on the whole child and those solutions that effect change across all domains of learning and growth as social emotional health does.

We form teams, joining together, and come together with shared goal setting, empathy-building, active listening and language, and processes that promote both mutual adjustment and honor autonomy of participants, and in the spirit of prevention and creating and fostering bright spots through data

To summarize, Children’s Institute commits to do this work in solidarity – to stand together to support the child and to see the child everywhere…and find or remember the child in ourselves as adults who work with children.

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