Spring Staff Development Day: Building Resiliency to Improve Adult-Child Relationships

By Jeanne Zuech, Head Teacher

Compelling research suggests that toxic stress can affect children’s development, and caregivers’ own experiences of stress can affect the quality of adult-child relationships. A workshop at the Bing Nursery School spring professional development day, held April 25 in the Tower House, deepened the staff’s understanding of toxic stress and how we can lessen its effects through sensitive, responsive caregiving relationships. The morning workshop, led by husband-and-wife team Kelly and Darryl Etter, offered practical strategies to improve our own emotional well-being in order to build supportive relationships in our caregiving communities. 

The workshop began with Kelly Etter helping us understand stress and how our bodies respond to it. Etter, an expert on early childhood development and early care and education policy, clarified the definition of stress: It is when we feel that the demands placed on us outweigh our resources. Our brains and bodies respond to stress by releasing stress hormones, which results in temporary physiological changes such as increased heart rate, heightened alertness, and increased energy and muscle strength. Our bodies cannot differentiate among types of stressors (such as the first day of school jitters or seeing a bear in the woods). Our response to stress is meant to increase our capacity to manage threats and challenges, yet the body is basically entering survival mode. Metabolically, this process is costly to activate and should only be used in emergencies. Etter compared the toxic stress response to fire fighters continuously patrolling neighborhoods, never returning to the fire station to relax or recover. In this constant high-alert state, fire fighters would likely start reacting to false alarms. Similarly, if a child lives in a state of tension due to chronic stress such as neglect or abuse or unreliable caregiving, the child’s body would take tremendous wear and tear, leading to significant long-term health problems. Similar to the fire fighters, children would likely exhibit strong reactions to what would normally be minor actions, such as another child bumping into them or someone slipping in front of them in line to wash hands at the sink.

Significantly, the effects of toxic stress on children have been shown to impair the growth and activity of the brain and adversely affect areas of the brain responsible for such skills as self-regulation, decision-making and memory. Toxic stress also has implications for learning. A child experiencing toxic stress can be hypersensitive to the environment, quick to respond to perceived threats or have a strong focus on the present moment. At school, such a child might be viewed as being inattentive, having memory or planning difficulties, or being impulsive and aggressive. A diagnosis of ADHD might veil significant early trauma, Etter said.

“The good news,” stated Etter, “is that we know what works to buffer the stress for children: relationships with caregivers. Relationships can physically alter children’s brain development.” Etter explained that caregiver sensitivity and responsiveness predicts children’s stress hormone levels and stress response patterns. Children who are securely attached to caregivers are more likely to have more normative patterns of stress response rather than the “continual fire truck patrol” state. Encouragingly, supporting positive caregiving relationships can reverse some of the physiological effects of chronic stress. The single most common factor among children who do well despite early adversity is the presence of at least one supportive, responsive adult in their life. The self-care of the adult is then of vital importance.

Darryl Etter

During the second half of the workshop, clinical psychologist Darryl Etter addressed adult emotional well-being and how to integrate strategies daily for self-care. Caregiver well-being is especially important, he said, because of its impact on establishing a positive, secure relationship with the child. He explained how coping skills drawn from cognitive-behavioral therapy—where changes to one’s physical status, behavior and thoughts interact to affect each of those domains and one’s mood—can help caregivers manage their own stress and mood. Physical strategies to promote well-being include diaphragmatic breathing and progressive muscle relaxation. The deep breathing counteracts stress by influencing heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, muscle tension and increasing oxygen to the brain and body. Practicing diaphragmatic breathing two to five minutes each day can condition one’s brain to get to a relaxed state more quickly. Progressive muscle relaxation—tensing and then totally relaxing individual muscles—can counteract stress by reducing muscle tension and by increasing awareness of one’s physical state and overall mindfulness. Behavioral strategies for self-care included doing three things each day that one enjoys. Referencing the research of Stanford professor of psychiatry Dolores Gallagher-Thompson on the importance of deliberate acts of self-care, Etter emphasized that we must purposely do things that make us feel good so that we can be emotionally satisfied. People most commonly cite lack of sufficient time and energy as the biggest challenges to engaging in pleasant activities, said Etter, but in reality, the biggest challenges are expectations and habit. Perhaps self-care is not yet consistently part of the adult’s routine, and prioritizing it even in a small way requires creative thinking, he suggested. Cognitive strategies emphasize changing our thinking about a situation to something more balanced and helpful, rather than more extreme thoughts that contribute to more unpleasant emotions. To facilitate this kind of reframing, Etter suggested using structured practice of identifying helpful, motivating thoughts to keep a flexible mindset—for example, every night, write down three things that went well and why they went well. Etter noted that people who did this for as little as one week saw better mood months later compared with individuals who had not done the exercise, likely because those who carried out the nightly practice were specifically looking for positive events and felt a greater sense of agency over their lives. A positive attitude and routine self-care are imperative for establishing and maintaining healthy, responsive relationships with children in our care.

After lunch, the staff had an afternoon of small-group discussions. Staff had the choice of working on documentation and anecdote writing, led by head teacher Adrienne Lomangino and director Jennifer Winters; exploring strategies to integrate music with storytelling, with music specialist Kitti Pecka and associate director Beth Wise; and having hands-on experiences with basic materials, with head teacher Colin Johnson. We concluded the day by meeting in our teaching teams to discuss curriculum, documentation and spring conferences.