VERSAILLES – Skye Berger was talking to about 100 mostly early childhood caregivers at the 23rd annual Southeast Indiana Economic Opportunities Corp. Child Care Resource & Referral Prevent Child Abuse and Neglect Conference April 27.
She confessed, "I could never do what you do: You sign up to watch other people's lovelies all day long."
"Do you serve any children who have autism?" There were nods. "The services that they receive are really hard to come by. They are very limited in our state." Berger discussed a 13-year-old who was recently diagnosed as being on the autism disorder spectrum and will be considered for adult services because the waiting list is so long for children's services.
The Indiana Wesleyan University faculty member worked on the state's children's mental health initiative and pointed out, "97 percent of the children in your care probably qualify for these services" due to behavioral issues.
The speaker asked, "Do you all serve any families that have stress?" The murmurs began. "Are you all experiencing behaviors?" Laughter.
Berger pressed on. "I want to hear from you about the types of behaviors." One woman questioned, "How long have you got?" Words were offered from around the Versailles Baptist Church Family Life Center: aggression, defiance, delayed speech, selfishness, destruction, disrespectful.
"Anybody been hit?" Hands went up. One woman volunteered, "Peed on." Other workers have had kids run away from the classroom, bite others, throw tantrums and simply lay down. One child won't answer unless addressed as "Dinosaur."
Berger concluded, "You're not alone." She reported Batesville resident Kathy Riley had a lot to do with Berger establishing Door Opener Academy, a Hoosier nonprofit that provides tools that empower families, youth and the youth workers that serve them. "Kathy is loud and random and I love every bit of her. She is the truest advocate when it comes to understanding children." The two met when Berger was developing the children's mental health initiative and Riley was working for One Community One Family.
At Door Opener Academy, "we laugh to keep from crying. These behaviors are real. I'm working in more schools. The children you have in your day care go on to school. Those behaviors don't stop."
Then Berger launched into her speech, "ACE and the Brain." "Adverse Childhood Experiences are experiences in childhood that are unhappy, unpleasant or hurtful." While children may seem to be resilient and able to bounce back from tough experiences, the speaker maintained, "We have to understand they carry the weight of emotions far more than we ever would" because of brain structure.
American health maintenance organization Kaiser Permanente and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention conducted the ACE Study between 1995-97. It aimed to identify the childhood trauma experiences of more than 17,000 adult participants, who underwent physical exams and completed ACE Questionnaires, in order to determine whether there truly was a link between adverse experiences in childhood and health concerns, both physical and mental, later in life, according to https://www.goodtherapy.org.
The survey consists of 10 questions. Some samples: Did a parent or other adult in the household often push, grab, slap or throw something at you? Was a household member depressed or mentally ill or did a household member attempt suicide? Did you often feel that you didn’t have enough to eat, had to wear dirty clothes, and had no one to protect you? To read all 10 questions: https://www.ashlandmhrb.org/upload/documents/ace/finding_your_ace_score_1.pdf
Ten types of childhood trauma were measured in the ACE Study. Five are personal – physical abuse, emotional abuse, sexual abuse, physical neglect and emotional neglect. Five are related to other family members: a parent with substance abuse, a parent who’s a victim of domestic violence, a family member in jail, a family member diagnosed with a mental illness and the disappearance of a parent through divorce, death or abandonment. Each type of trauma counts as 1 point.
The study found that nearly 40 percent of participants had been exposed to two or more of the different categories, and 12.5 percent reported exposure to at least four categories. In other words, the study showed that adverse childhood experiences were more common than had previously been recognized or acknowledged by research and medical findings. The study also identified a direct link between the ACE score and adult chronic illness, as well as emotional and social issues, such as depression, domestic violence and suicide.
Berger pointed out 51 percent of children with ACE scores of 4 or higher had learning and behavior problems in school compared with only 3 percent of children with 0 ACE scores. An ACE score of 6+ results in a 20-year decrease in life expectancy.
One researcher believed "it's harder to come back from emotional abuse than physical or sexual." Berger reported, "If you're told you're nothing every day ... you start to feel that .. and that's the behavior that starts to come out of you."
The mother of five asked the caregivers, "What trauma have your children gone through that we haven't talked about?" Death of a parent, one suggested. Other incidents that stick with children: death of a pet or sibling, household fire, natural disaster. Berger had more ideas: "What about people that move all the time? How about deportation?"
A school shooting is a relatively new ACE. After two were shot at Noblesville West Middle School May 25, 2018, she predicted, "Fourth of July is not a good thing now for those children who heard those noises."
"I encourage people to look at life experiences" and even ask about medical histories when trying to determine why a child is behaving badly. She contended a tyke could even be affected by experiences that occurred before birth – medical care the mother did not have, violence while the baby was in utero, the mother shooting up heroin.
The speaker said, "Behaviors stem from not feeling securely attached." She spoke about four levels of attachment:
• secure attachment – "Our little people know you and their parent are their secure base." The child shows appropriate distress when the caregiver leaves and is comforted on return.
• ambivalent – does not use caregiver as a secure base, upset about the caregiver leaving, not easily calmed by a stranger. "In this relationship, the child always feels anxious because the caregiver's availability is never consistent."
• avoidant – little emotional sharing in play, few signs of emotion when the caregiver leaves or returns. "They try to avoid relationships at all costs." The child may express lack of attachment and low self-esteem by acting out.
• disorganized – child can't tell if he or she loves or hates you. This lack of attachment can be expressed by disorganized emotional behavior, such as approaching the caregiver, but with the back turned.
Berger offered ways to get behavior on the right track. "Yoga is a good thing. Calm down and breathe." If the child is put in time out, have he or she bounce a ball. "Do they like to sing? Dance? How do you become innovative to make sure you can help them move forward in creative ways?"
"You have to get slow and low with them" to calm young ones down. "The more behaviors they have, the more love you're giving them."
With a sometimes stressful work environment, Berger suggested child care workers implement self-care. "We have to have you physically healthy. ... We are helping professionals and have been taught to put others first. .. We don't want to let anybody down. The person we let down most is us."
Debbie Blank can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 812-934-4343, Ext. 113.