Thriving Maine Communities Conference

Please join us at the first annual Thriving Maine Communities Conference, focused on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and resilience.

Panel sessions over two days will explore current initiatives in Maine and share vision, ideas, experiences and opportunities designed to build thriving, resilient communities. Breakout sessions will reflect a range of approaches to using data, stories, policy change, and collaborative action to drive change in the following areas of ACEs work:

  • Awareness education
  • Interventions
  • Professional development
  • Screening
  • Treatment and specialty care

Who Should Attend?  

Any and everyone! K-12 and post-secondary educators; medical and behavioral health care providers; law enforcement and juvenile justice workers; early care and education providers; child welfare agencies; clergy members; business leaders; policy-makers, legislators and community residents will all find something of interest at this conference.

Register by September 27th to take advantage of early bird rates:

$175 for the full conference
$100 for one-day registrations

Join us for an optional gathering on November 3rd, from 6:30-8:30 PM. Enjoy pizza and networking with conference attendees. Additional cost: $25.

Click here for more information and registration options.

Hope to see you there. I will be presenting.

Peek Inside a Classroom

This blog post gives everyone who is involved in a child’s life a lot to think about and consider.



What happened to Jasmine?


Photo © Jinx!/Flickr Photo © Jinx!/Flickr

When you look inside a classroom there are some things you can not see….


Jasmine was one of my favorites.

She was one of the shortest, scrawniest children in our second grade classroom.  Maybe 45 pounds with her coat on.   Her tattered backpack seemed as big as she was.  Somehow the tiniest children can hold the most energy, the most emotion, and somehow they manage to get the most compassion from me.

 © Soloway/Dreamstime © Soloway/Dreamstime


When you peek in our classroom you may see Jasmine stealthily surveying the classroom for the child most likely to respond the most spiritedly when she gives them the “the finger”, or when she “gives them” a freshly sharpened pencil, in the side of the head, perfectly thrown from twenty feet away.

When Jasmine is unsuccessful in provoking a classmate’s response, she can get…

View original post 2,119 more words

The Choice of Empathy


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Fake Dictionary, definition of the word empathy.

Steve Harvey recently interviewed a family from Manhattan who run a mobile food bank for the city’s homeless citizens. The piece was a perfect example of the nature of empathy as discussed by Cameron, Inzlicht & Cunningham in the July 12, 2015 Sunday New York Times. Both talk about empathy less as a character trait than a conscious choice to help those less fortunate.

The frequency with which individuals choose to act empathically varies greatly. For some it is a somewhat inconsistent response to the needs of others, often driven by proximity, personal involvement, or the scope of a particular human tragedy. For others, empathy is a way of life. These are people who are responsive to the needs of others wherever they find them.

Variations people’s level of empathic connections are probably best explained by early experiences that develop an individual’s capacity to think representationally. In other words, to imagine another’s thoughts or feelings within one’s own mind.

There are lots of ways to foster this type of “mindsight” in children. Playing games is a great place to start. Card games, board games, team sports. It doesn’t matter. Any game that requires a child to think about another’s thoughts, and act on those perceptions, helps to develop representational thought, or the ability to see situations as others see them.

Learning about perspective-taking in art is another way to strengthen this ability. So are reading, imaginary play, role playing, and drama. These activities encourage children to “try on” the perspectives of different characters, and notice how these are different than their own.

As children’s capacity of representational thought or mindsight grows, so does their ability to engage more frequently in empathic behaviors. They become less judgmental, and more compassionate in  their understanding of the world. To paraphrase Einstein, they are able to see beyond the optical illusion that we are separate, and realize the truth that we are one.

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Coming soon  Trauma-Sensitive Schools: Learning Communities Transforming Children’s Lives. Watch for it at Teacher’s College Press and

Songs of Our Lives


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Image the announcer speaks into a microphone.

Ever wonder where all the slaves who died here are buried? What rituals prepared them for their final resting place? In Portsmouth, New Hampshire it turns out that the slaves were buried under several streets in the city’s downtown area. Although the burial ground was marked on official city maps, it went unnoticed. That changed when earlier this century some bones surfaced and demanded their story be told.

And so they were with a dignity and beauty that touched the hearts and raised the consciousness of many. It was a proud moment for Portsmouth as its citizens came together in a moment of profound reconciliation. Whether consciously or not, the ceremony organizers taught the community a lot about trauma and recovery.

First, by acknowledging the horror of slavery. There was no glossing over how bad it really was. The wrenching travesty of people ripped from their own lives was there for all to see.

But there was more. There was a glimpse into how African Americans were able to integrate the trauma of slavery into the narrative of a better life.  While never forgetting the anguish expressed in the lyrics of Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child, artists used the familiar melody to create new, softer stories, like Summer Time and St. Louie Woman.

That’s the art of recovery. That’s what traumatized children need to learn how to do – to acknowledge the background music of their lives while taking control of the lyrics. It’s the story they choose to create that defines them-not just the accompanying melody.

For more information about the African Burying Ground in Portsmouth NH, please visit

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It’s More Than Economic Disparity


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Tower of cardsDavid Brooks is on a book tour for his latest book The Road to Character. The tour comes at a time when once again conversations about poverty are percolating across all types of media. And Mr. Brooks is taking a stand that inspires wrath from some (Paul Krugman, Race, Class, and Neglect NYT, May 4, 2015) who mistakenly equate his reference to social psychology with morality.

Those familiar with the now famous Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study (Felitti et al., 1998) recognize that Mr. Brooks’ reference to “relationships in a home and neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future oriented thinking, and practical ambition” has nothing to do with morality. Rather he is referring to the alterations in brain development that are the result of prolonged exposure to childhood adversities such as poverty. These early childhood experiences inhibit the development of executive functioning. In other words, the area of the brain responsible for cause and effect, personal agency, motivation, and the ability to regulate behavior to achieve future oriented goals. This is not a moral judgement but scientific fact (see Bessel van der Kolk, Developmental Trauma Disorder, 2005).

Prolonged financial insecurity eats away at the protective capacity of the family in ways that are traumatizing to both parents and their children. Poor people are “under resourced and overburdened” (Babcock, 2014). For many parents, the struggle to survive hijacks their ability to make decisions, or solve problems (Babcock, 2014). The cognitive burden imposed by poverty leaves little bandwidth to do many of the things needed to improve their situation (Badger, 2013). They are unable to imagine a way out.

It is this intersection of poverty and trauma that is so detrimental to children. Until society can provide the personal support families need to move beyond the traumagenic foundations of chronic poverty, efforts to break its intergenerational cycle are unlikely to succeed.

Read more at:

Babcock, E. (2014). Using brain research to design new pathways out of poverty. Brighton, MA: Crittendon Women’s Union.

Badger, E. (2013, August 29). How poverty taxes the brain. The Atlantic CityLab. Retrieved from


The High Price of Being Jilted


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beachvolleyball spike against blockMost adults are familiar with the sting of a broken heart. Although there’s truth in the adage “It’s better to have loved and lost, than never loved at all” no one likes to be jilted.  Rejection is embarrassing, leaving in its wake feelings of vulnerability and disappointment. These are usually short lived, dissipating with time and new experiences of affection and belonging.

This is not the case for children. When parents play the role of a rejecting suitor, the effect on children’s emergent self is devastating. Early attachment relationships are meant to be an unbroken feedback loop of serve and return affection. When children’s expressions of love and connection are not reciprocated, their internal world starts to fall apart. If caregivers are attuned enough to notice the child’s distress, the relationship can be repaired and the child’s sense of well-being restored.

This is not the case when children’s expressions of affection are continually ignored or rebuffed. A pattern of repeated rejection leads children to develop strong misgivings about their own self-worth and desirability. They learn to be ashamed of their legitimate needs for love and affection. This sense of shame is far more devastating than guilt. Guilt is about doing something wrong.  Shame is about being something wrong.  When a child feels ashamed, he feels like there is something basically wrong with him.

Shame has serious consequences for children’s mental health. Shame robs children of their natural exuberance and curiosity. Some become guarded and withdrawn. Others become aggressive or violent, acting out against the injustice that’s been done to them. In either case, they are unhappy, and less productive than they may have been if, as infants, someone had returned their serve.

For more information about the effects of shame on children’s development, see Good Children at What Price? The Secret Cost of Shame at

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Stuck in a Rut


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It’s been snowing a lot here – 73 inches in three weeks. And really cold. Temperatures well below freezing. The result? Ruts. Lots of them. Making getting in and out of the driveway more than challenging.

Yesterday as I struggled to get out of a particularly deep rut, my mind was on the ruts children find themselves in when they live with chronic adversity or stress. These early experiences alter the development of the brain’s prefrontal cortex. That’s the area of the brain most sensitive to stress. According to neuroscientist Adele Diamond, even mild stress can flood the prefrontal cortex with dopamine, effectively shutting down the control center of the brain. This is the area of the brain responsible for conscious regulation of though, emotion, and behavior. Its primary “executive functions” are inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility.

Which brings me back to the ruts in the road. While children with early trauma history find all aspects of executive functioning difficult, cognitive flexibility may be their greatest challenge. By its very nature, trauma limits children’s ability to change the way they think about things, especially how they think about themselves or adults who try to help them. The ruts of self- hatred and mistrust are deep. And children trip on them often. Their perseveration on the past limits their ability to move beyond it. Compulsive repetitions of traumatic interactions with adults, sap the energy needed to take advantage of new opportunities. Intrusive memories of harmful events are a constant reminder to remain focused on survival rather than taking the risk to try something new.

Children become more flexible in the company of playful, yet predicable adults, who engage them in “what if?” conversations about safe, hypothetical problems. Laughter and giggling create social bonds that help bridge histories of mistrust.  Martial arts and yoga build children’s physical flexibility, often releasing the energy that feeds the ruts.

And just like the sun shining on the driveway, the warmth of caring relationships eventually reduces the depth of the ruts traumatizing experiences leave in children’s hearts and brains. They lose their power to hold them back.

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Attending to Children’s Inner Landscape


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Boy is repairing the bicycle wheelTeaching children how to inhibit impulsive behaviors, manage their big angry feelings, and consider the effects of their behavior on others is a daunting task. Start by encouraging them to look inward. Draw their attention to their internal landscape. Teach them to watch their mental activity. With enough practice, they will make two important discoveries. The first is that their internal world is full of sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts competing for consideration. The second is that they get to choose what they will focus their attention on.

Daniel Siegel uses the analogy of a wheel of awareness to explain this phenomenon (Siegel, 2011). The mind or internalized self is at the wheel’s hub.  Sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts extend from the hub to the wheel rim. But none can command the attention of the hub without its permission. Attention always involves choice. And the best choices are those aligned with the goals the child sets for herself. The mind gets to choose where it directs its attention. The choice is based on what it wants to achieve.

This is a very liberating idea to children with early trauma histories. They are often stuck in reoccurring memories of the past.  Use guided imagery to teach  these children how to direct their attention to new sensations, images, feelings, and thoughts. Ones that foster happiness and enthusiasm versus those that trigger depression and lethargy.

Begin by having children center themselves in the hub of their internal awareness. From there, ask them to review the spokes of their awareness wheel. Are there any sensations, images, feelings, or thoughts stored there that if attended to, might help them feel safer or more at peace? (Siegel & Payne Bryson 2011).  Encourage them to write down any possibilities, and select one that they want to focus on. Together, decide on a strategy they can use to remember what they are focusing on, and draw them back to that image, feeling, or thought when their attention starts to wander – a picture, a note to themselves, an elastic band around their wrist.

Helping experience greater control of their attention, enables them to release their past and imagine a better future. This is an important step in overcoming a history of early childhood trauma.

For more information on teaching children to focus their attention, see:

Siegel, D. (2011). Mindsight. Bantam Books

Siegel, D. & Payne Bryson, T. (2011).  The whole- brain child: 12 revolutionary strategies to nurture your child’s developing brain. Mind Your Own Brain, Inc & Bryson Creative Productions, Inc.

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Language Development: It’s Not Just About Vocabulary


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Hemispheres of the brain front view

The discrepancies in vocabulary development between children in adverse circumstances and whose early childhood is spent within a more protective environment is well known. At age three, children growing up in financially secure families characterized by secure attachment relationships typically have 30 million more words than peers raised in home environments where economic instability and/or attachment failures influence the verbal interactions between caregivers and their children. As children continue to grow, so does the vocabulary gap, so that by Kindergarten, there is a two year difference on standardized language tests between these two groups of children.

Without question, this vocabulary deficit contributes to the achievement gap observed between children raised in adverse circumstances. But vocabulary is not the only language problem involved.  Another involves the role language plays in the integration of the right and left hemispheres.

The right hemisphere is very active in early childhood, absorbing bodily sensations, reactions to early interactions with caregivers, and strong emotions that can at times feel overwhelming. Caregivers who teach children words to describe or name their feelings help develop the left hemisphere’s capacity to label right hemisphere data. Once the left hemisphere comes on line, children are able to sort, select, and sequence the experiences of their inner lives into a coherent narrative.

Children whose caregivers are unaware of language’s regulating function often fail to link words and experiences. As a result the right and left hemispheres are unable to work together to manage and explain the emotional flow of the right hemisphere.  This integration failure is the cause of much of the emotional dysregulation and disruptive behavior observed in many low achieving children.

Correcting this language problem among children requires more than word banks and vocabulary drill. It requires forming collaborative relationships with them. These provide the safety needed to explore one’s inner landscape, and name one’s inner demons. Only then can children control the emotions that threaten their academic and social success.

Dana Susskind, founder of the Thirty Million Words Initiative recommends frequent use of the “3 Ts”:

  • Tune in to what children are trying to communicate, especially about their internal states.
  • Talk more using descriptive words and phrases that increase the capacity of the left hemisphere to label right hemisphere data.
  • Take turns sharing thoughts and feelings about everyday activities.

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