Family Connections has created a group of materialsthat provide professionals with information, learning opportunities, and a description of the crucial ways they can better understand and respond to the needs of children and families. These resources are designed to promote the professional skills of Self-Reflection, Self-Care, andPerspective Taking.
The following is an excerpt from The Introduction to the Family Connections Materials (Avery, Beardslee, Ayoub & Watts, 2008).
Why is depression a relevant topic for early childhood programs?
Members of the early childhood community recognize that being involved in the lives of young children means being involved with parents. The wealth of positive outcomes resulting from parent involvement have made parent outreach a foundation of best practice, and yet trying to engage parents can be challenging under the best circumstances. One factor that can provide such a challenge is parental depression, because the isolating effects of depression can rob individuals from access to the very resources that could ease their suffering. Recent research and public discussion have brought new attention to adult depression, its risk factors and successes in treatment. A recent study found that 48% of Early Head Start mothers were found to be suffering from depression, bringing with it a heightened awareness to the relevance of the topic to the Head Start community. Our work with Early Head Start and Head Start programs over the last five years has allowed us to acknowledge three key assumptions that have grounded all of our efforts:
- Early Head Start/Head Start families and staff are often in chronically adverse situations - including poverty, exposure to violence, and social isolation.
- Depression is a common response to such adversity.
- These adversities and depression affect the ability of parents and staff to relate effectively with other adults, with their children or the children in their care, and with the Early Head Start/Head Start community.
What can my program gain by learning more about depression?
The purpose of early childhood staff gaining new knowledge about the topic of depression and strategies for addressing the needs of families facing adversities is to strengthen their knowledge base in effective parent engagement. The goal of such support is to build the front-line staffâ€™s capacity to reach out to depressed parents so that they and their families might benefit from the many resources these early childhood programs provide.
Why focus support on early childhood staff?
The goal in this method is to maintain a focus on building capacity within the program, leaving the professionals of that program better able to respond to the challenges they face in effectively engaging all the families they seek to serve. Working with young children and their families is a highly demanding profession. When one works in an early childhood setting serving families negotiating the effects of poverty, community violence, social spending cuts, and a shortage of affordable housing, one is at greater risk of experiencing a high degree of stress and professional "burn out." The approach acknowledges this stress and as a result the promotion of mental health and emotional support for staff is presented as a high priority. It is important to acknowledge that early childhood program staff may be feeling the effects of the stress coming from their experience in the community as well as in the role of a professional trying to support other members of that community. In this way the goal of engaging and supporting parents and the goal of providing support for staff is complexly intertwined.
How do the Family Connections materials go about accomplishing this?
The Family Connections training approach provides workshops designed to strengthen participants' knowledge base regarding the signs and symptoms of depression, social emotional development, and the importance of self-care and reflection.
The materials are also designed to build on early childhood program staff's skill by providing strategies and learning opportunities designed to encourage:
- Practice of reflection and perspective-taking as professional skills,
- Positive engagement of all parents in order to reach those affected by depression,
- Positive attachment with children as a foundation for the promotion of social-emotional growth and positive relationship-building with parents,
- Active participation in effective information-sharing and communication practices,
- Understanding of the crucial role each front-line staff member plays in effective parent outreach.
As you consider this work, we strongly urge that you access the resource of a mental health consultant who knows your program. Such a relationship can provide support during many aspects of your self-study and assist in understanding the training needs of the staff.
How can this model of training effect practice?
It is essential to provide good information about depression, resilience in the face of depression, and support for parents struggling with depression and related adversities, but, it is important to keep in mind that information alone does not automatically lead to change in behavior or skill. Factual knowledge must be made personally relevant and meaningful for practitioners in order for professional skill to change. In particular, the values, expectations and attitudes about parenting and childcare held by program parents and staff are critical to how they function as professional caregivers or at home with their own children. A focus upon depression as it affects parenting, clarifying personal attitudes and values about mental health and depression is centrally important to building better working alliances between staff and parents, among staff, and within families. The content and progression of trainings offered for staff and parents focus not only on important information and concrete skills, but also upon the personal meaning of the topics for the participants. Reflecting this philosophy that meaning provides the essential link between thought and action (Selman, 1997), all training efforts seek to encourage "meaning making" by:
- Linking topics to practical knowledge identified as relevant by staff or parents;
- Engaging staff and parents in exercises that challenge them to connect training themes with the real-life situations they encounter in their work and home;
- Incorporating practice of self-reflection, and perspective-taking into training experiences as important tools in on-going personal and professional growth;
- Advocating for other elements of engagement by supervisors and Workshop Leaders, for instance classroom observation, provided to offer opportunities for "scaffolding" and modeling the new skills described in trainings; and
- Encouraging an emphasis on self-care and the support of the on-going mental health of early childhood program staff.
This final goal has provided the opportunity to acknowledge the incidence of depression amongst early childhood program staff and how it can be a factor in prohibiting these professionals to fulfill their responsibilities as well as their potential.