Nurturing Resilience in Children Living with Family Substance Use Disorder Through Storytelling

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Episode #130: Did you know that close to one in four children come from households with substance use disorder? Despite this statistic, few resources are available for early educators to tackle this very important reality of working with our youngest and most vulnerable children. In this episode, Stephanie Goloway, Professor of Early Education at the Community College of Allegheny in Pennsylvania, gives us insight to the importance of storytelling to develop resilience in young children by building relationships, encouraging initiative and promoting self-regulation.

Resources in this episode:

substance use disorder preschool children stephanie goloway

Episode Transcript

Stephanie GOLOWAY: Those are those are really easy, subtle ways of giving children the opportunity to have wonderful ideas, act on them, be motivated enough to persist. Children need these chances, and we’ve known that in early-childhood [education] forever. But it’s I think this is an additional reason to recognize how important it is.

Ron SPREEUWENBERG: Hi, I’m Ron Spreeuwenberg, co-founder and CEO of HiMama. Welcome to our podcast about all things “early-childhood education”.

Stephanie, welcome to the Preschool Podcast.

GOLOWAY: Thank you very much, Ron.

SPREEUWENBERG: So today on the show we have Dr. Stephanie Goloway. She’s a professor at the Community College of Allegheny County. And we’re here today to talk to Stephanie about nurturing resilience in children living with family substance use disorder. And Stephanie is very passionate about the subject – she has some really great content to walk you all through, and so we’re looking forward to speaking with Stephanie. Stephanie, let’s start off learning a little bit about you and how you became passionate about this subject.

GOLOWAY: Well, I’m a lifelong teacher. I’ve taught early-childhood [education and] elementary school. I’ve worked in early intervention, worked with adjudicated teens and then ended up teaching at a community college. And my husband actually suffered from substance use disorder. And I was at a rehab with him and one of the speakers looked out at the audience – which had kids from all the way from about 12 to older people – and said, “Look at these kids. Where were their teachers?” And I looked at my husband, and I went, “Oh my gosh, I’m a teacher. What professional development have I ever had about working with kids with substance use disorder? That would be zero minutes in almost 40 years.”

And it just it was one of those moments that everything kind of froze, and I thought, “What are we doing? How can we not be doing more to support teachers in working with these kids?” A year after that, actually my husband passed away from the disease. And I decided that the best thing that I could do to honour his struggles and to honour my profession was to get serious about finding out what professional development existed for teachers – especially early-childhood teachers – about substance use disorder and what I could do about it if there wasn’t anything there.

So I started on working on my doctorate because I knew I didn’t have the self-discipline to research all of this on my own. And one thing led to another, and I discovered lots about both the disease – how it impacts children – and in fact discovered that there is very, very little out there for early-childhood educators to help them support these kids.

substance use disorder preschool

SPREEUWENBERG: Wow, very powerful story. Thank you for sharing that. And let’s go there. So tell us… I guess maybe let’s start out a little bit with learning a little bit more about substance use disorder. What is it? Are there any facts about it out there that can help inform our audience about what we’re talking about, before we get into how we can help children cope with this situation?

GOLOWAY: Sure. So I think that people right now are very much focused on opioids and the epidemic that is sweeping this country, anyway. And in fact that is just the tip of the iceberg. Substance use disorder is a heritable disease, so it’s more heritable actually than most kinds of cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, which means that if you’re born into a family where one parent has substance use disorder your chances of developing that disease as an adolescent or an adult are greatly increased. If both parents suffer from this disease your chances are ten times that of what a person who does not have substance use disorder in their genetic makeup would have.

And it’s been around forever. Alcoholism and lots of other substances are all part of the problem as well. And actually alcoholism has increased at a greater rate – I think it’s up 49% or something through the beginning of the 2000s. Some outrageous numbers are coming out. So that the disease encompasses all of these different that include it in addition to opioids.

Because it is heritable it is something that we can’t do much to control as an early-childhood educator. We know that close to one in four children who are in our classrooms are living in homes that are impacted by substance use disorder. So that’s huge. When I found that number I just thought, “Whoa.” And then I started thinking about my classrooms, and I recognized that, yeah, those kids who weren’t quite there some other time, who had attention challenges, who had a difficult time with focus, with self-regulation, when I thought back about what I knew about their families and started to put some pieces together I realized that a lot of those children actually had been living with substance use disorder. And that caused challenges for them in the classroom as well.

I think that [for] many people, the myth is that if people really wanted to quit they could and that substance use disorder it is about willpower. And I think that people tend to judge parents very harshly when they continue to use drugs or alcohol and it’s impacting their children. And what I’ve learned is that it is not a moral failing. It’s just like saying to somebody who has diabetes, “Why don’t you just get your sugar under control?” And, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you letting this impact your family?”

And substance use disorder cannot be cured. It can only be managed. So it’s a chronic disease like diabetes or cardiovascular disease, and unlike those diseases there’s a tremendous amount of stigma attached to it, which makes treatment and successful recovery more challenging than it does for other kinds of diseases. And so that’s this package of stuff that children who are living in families who are impacted by this disease are bringing into our classrooms.

substance use disorder preschool

SPREEUWENBERG: And so you talk about some of the challenges that children face when they’re living in situations where there is substance use disorder. But we’ve also learned from various studies that there’s ways that we can help children protect themselves against some of these adverse effects of substance use disorder in families. Let’s talk a little bit about that.

GOLOWAY: Okay, yeah, that’s the happy news. The first part of my dissertation was all the bad news and then I got to the good stuff, which is that a large number of studies have shown that taking a look at different families and how not all children develop the disease who were exposed to it, have the same genetic predisposition and are exposed to the same environment. And it turns out that when there are circumstances that promote resilience in children’s brains, that is the strongest protective factor against developing the disease as adolescents or adults. And it also has a huge impact on the recovery trajectory of individuals. So if they do develop the disease, people who have this strong protective factor for resilience in their early childhood end up having a much better chance of recovering and staying in recovery.

So resilience used to be thought of as something that only extraordinary people had because we’ve heard about tales of people losing their legs and still managing to crawl through the mountain passes and survive. But recent research on resilience shows that is something that develops in the brain, and it develops from what Dr. Ann Masten, who is one of the primary resilience researchers right now, calls “ordinary magic”, which is that relationships, opportunities to take initiative and do things on one’s own and solve problems and self-regulation all are these strong protective factors for resilience. And if we can provide children with opportunities for those they have a much better chance of developing resilience and being able to bounce back from substance use disorder, trauma, all kinds of different things, even things like somebody taking their truck away from them in the block area.

So resiliency, to me, I learned about it to be not only this magic bullet for helping to offset the challenges of substance use disorder for kids but something that we all need, which is kind of what I was looking for as a early-childhood solution to the problem because teachers don’t know who in their classroom is living with substance use disorder. So any kind of program or initiative that teachers would take needs to be something that is a wonderful experience for all of their kids, not just the targeted children who may be living with trauma and other kinds of issues.

substance use disorder no cure

SPREEUWENBERG: So resilience is, I guess, more common than what we might perceive, which is actually very interesting and it sounds like a very interesting topic to read further about from Dr. Ann Masten. Now, how can we as early-childhood educators nurture resilience in the children that we are working with?

GOLOWAY: Well, it starts with relationships, which as I started to read about more about resilience – my whole background is on developmentally appropriate practices – and it seems to me, or research seems to show, that in fact everything that we know is good for young children with developmentally appropriate practice actually can promote resilience.

So primary factor one – protective factor one – is the relationships with caregivers, with other competent adults and with peers. So in a classroom setting, making sure that we put the relationship between teachers and children at the top of our priority list is really important. We know that a lot of kids spend their whole days in childcare, so the teachers become the part of the primary caregiving team. And they’re also functioning as competent adults in the child’s life. So having a warm, nurturing relationship goes a long way. Also providing lots of opportunities for children to have relationships with their friends through play and through child-initiated activities promotes that those relationships which trigger all of the good stuff happening in the brain that supports resilience.

Initiative is the second thing, the second protective factor for resilience. And giving kids the opportunity to make their own decisions, to make choices, to again participate in child-initiated activities, a lot of the research that’s been coming out shows that play – especially pretend play – has very strong, positive effects for the development of children’s initiative because they have to solve their own problems, they’re coming up with their own scenarios, their own roles, their own solutions, and that that wonderful activity that children engage in turns out to also be very beneficial for the development of resilience.

And self-regulation, [the] number one teacher issue with young children and children who are living with substance use disorder have often have a much more difficult time because of the way their brains are developing with self-regulation, providing kids with lots of opportunities to learn how to self-regulate and to be able to take control over both identifying their own emotions and their own wants and needs and figuring out and learning appropriate ways to get their own needs met, not responding impulsively but giving them ways to calm down, take a breath, relax, not putting them in situations where they have to self-regulate when it’s beyond their capabilities – like half-hour circle time for two-year-olds – all kinds of things like that actually promote self-regulation in children.

SPREEUWENBERG: Cool. So relationships, initiative and self-regulation are key things for us to think about. And if we translate these into, like, a classroom setting, what are some practical pieces of advice and tips that you can provide us in terms of helping to work on these items, relationships, initiative and self-regulation? You mentioned self-directed play, for example. [Are] there other things?

GOLOWAY: Sure. So I think that one of the challenges that we face in the field is that we are really pressured to make sure that children achieve academically. And the whole push-down curriculum – so even preschoolers, infants and toddlers – are expected to be doing literacy activities and all of that. That often takes the place of real, one-on-one relationships with teachers and other children.

So I think re-prioritizing what we do with young children – making sure that teachers have the time to spend with children reading books, individually sitting with small groups of children, talking – often that the teacher’s so busy for example during snack time – making snacks, preparing snacks, opening everybody’s juice boxes, doing all of that kind of stuff – that it’s increasingly rare in early-childhood classrooms, I’ve found, to find teachers who just plop themselves down at the snack table or at the lunch table and chat. And, I mean, that’s how we establish relationships with each other as adults is we talk to each other and we listen and we hear the stories and we share our stories. And we need to be doing that with young children to establish those relationships.

And so that would be I think number one is realizing that a child who reads but who doesn’t have resilience isn’t going to be okay. I mean, that to me is something that is the harsh fact. Whether they’re living with substance use disorder or they’re just dealing with regular stressors in their lives, all children need to have the opportunity for their brain to develop resilience. And that relationship piece is key.

Things like, as far as initiative goes… again, are we going to put children in situations where we’re telling them what they need to learn all the time? Or are we going to listen to their own ideas? Are we going to let them build that tower above their head and figure out how to make it so it won’t crash down on them? Can we give children the opportunity when they’re doing cookie cutter art to get a bunch of materials down and have them create what they want to?

Those are really easy, subtle ways of giving children the opportunity to have wonderful ideas, act on them, be motivated enough to persist – which is a part of initiative, as well, as being able to stick to something until it’s completed, to overcome frustrations, to be able to view oneself as able to solve problems. And we need to give kids the opportunity to create their own problems and to solve them in our art, in our science activities, the sand-and-water table, out on the playground. Children need these chances, and we’ve known that in early-childhood forever. But it’s I think this is an additional reason to recognize how important it is.

SPREEUWENBERG: And I’ve heard you use the word a couple of times of “telling stories”. And I know you’ve talked to and your work a little bit more about storytelling and story acting as important elements of helping build resilience. Can you talk to that a little bit?

substance use disorder preschool children

GOLOWAY: Sure. So when I started to learn about what resilience was, both in a practical sense and in a theoretical sense, it hit me – and probably had something to do with Ann Masten calling it “ordinary magic” – that fairy tales were actually good scenes. Like, they were models of resilience because we always hear about the “happy ever after”. But before the “happy ever after” the princesses and the heroes and the third children who come from poverty had to overcome a lot of dragons and witches to get to that happy-ever-after point.

So in my research I started to look at, what were fairy tales? Did they actually show these research-based elements of resilience? And I discovered that they did. And to me this was kind of an “Aha!” moment because as adults we’ve really tried to snuff fairy tales out of children’s lives. We’ve sanitized them, we’ve tried to we’ve been horrified because they’re violent and they’re sexist in they’re ageist and all of this stuff. And kids keep playing fairy tales. We haven’t been able to successfully take fairy tales away from children because they won’t let them go.

And I’m curious about whether that part of it is that they recognize these very strong, resilient characters as models because a lot of modern children’s literature doesn’t have resilience as part of it. The characters just kind of go through their little stories. The problem is, we don’t want to somehow expose kids to the idea that there are real problems. So lots of lots of modern kids’ characters don’t demonstrate resilience, whereas fairy tale characters do. So that’s part of it. I think bringing fairy tales back into classrooms, and helping kids, offering kids real struggle and how characters that they find interesting resolved those struggles is part of it.

Then there’s also… as a classroom teacher I always used to be in Vivian Paley’s work of storytelling story acting where the children dictate stories and then they’re acted out as the teacher narrates them for the class. And I found that very powerful at a classroom teacher. And as I did my research, it turns out that the storytelling story acting offers kids lots of opportunity to develop resilience as well. Obviously they’re telling their own stories, which ties right into initiative, but they also, through the process of acting them out, are developing relationships. They are hearing each other’s stories; they’re connecting with each other as authors, as interesting people; it’s a shared experience with the teachers and the children kind of all participating on an equal ground. So there’s that piece of the relationship-building going on.

And there’s also self-regulation. We have a really hard time sitting and being bored, as we all do, and we know from going through meetings or listening to podcasts that go on and on and on. And children… so we want kids to have our circle times to be meaningful to kids. And I personally, as a classroom teacher, have never had children sit for longer periods of time than they did when they were participating in each other’s stories, through storytelling and story-acting. And so it’s a way of engaging children actively in this circle time ritual that we all can’t seem to let go of it, but having it meaningful.

And then if they develop self-regulation… I’ve had children who would could not focus on anything for more than a couple of minutes be just enchanted by watching the stories of their peers being acted out and having a chance to see that rainbow or that fence or that tree or whatever characters their friends put into their story. And there’s quite a bit of research that’s come out by a woman named Ageliki Nicolopoulou from Lehigh University where she’s looked at how storytelling story-acting plays out in a Headstart classrooms. And [she] has found that it can have not only a very beneficial effect on kids literacy but also on their social and emotional development when compared to control groups.

So again, I looked for a thing in my research that we’re childlike and joyful, because substance use disorder is not. It is a horrible disease, and it’s sad. And the programs that I found that were designed to address it were sad, talkie programs. And I discovered that resilience is playful and joyful and can be developed through letting kids be kids by intentional teachers. I found a great deal of hope in that.

SPREEUWENBERG: This is actually a really, really fascinating topic. So you through your own experience and through your own passion you’ve certainly landed on something that, at least from my view, is very, very, very interesting. And your tying it to the fairy tales makes so much sense, and also the story acting and how children get so much more engaged in that. It makes so much sense, and yet, as you’ve mentioned, some of the more traditional things that we’re doing in the classroom, they’re not necessarily aligned to these points. So I think a lot, a lot of great takeaways for our listeners in terms of what we can be doing in our classrooms a little bit differently to help build resilience.

Stephanie, this has been an awesome episode. Can you tell our guests where they can go to learn more about this subject or a couple of the other potential resources that you’ve referenced previously?

GOLOWAY: Sure. So Dr. Ann Masten has, if you just Google her and put in… I don’t think it’s a TED talk, I think it’s some other online talk, but she has a great book called Ordinary Magic: [Resilience in Development] and it’s wonderful. It’s heavy but it’s good. But she also has this 20-minute TED talk introduction to resilience that is magnificent and really fun to watch. Harvard University’s Center for the Developing Child at [DevelopingChild.Harvard.edu] is a fantastic resource. They have a whole section on resilience from the point of view of brain research, which includes short videos that describe the research on resilience. They have resources for parents, for teachers. There’s a whole book that they have on executive functions, which I haven’t really touched on but they’ve found to be overlapping with resilience. It’s all classroom activities. So I would say that’s a great resource.

The [Devereux] Center for Resilient Children has great resources. Any book by Vivian Paley I think is worth a read. I call them “beach reads” because they are so rich with young children’s voices that you can read them on the beach and still get a lot out of them. But her books are fantastic.

I have a blog that has been sorely neglected, but is called Imagination On the Move and one day it will be a good resource. I have a lot of links there and things like that if people are interested in that, at www.ImaginationOnTheMove.com. And I think once you start focusing on looking for things about resilience, it’s a thing that is people are really paying attention to now in the early-childhood field because it dovetails with what we’re learning about social and emotional development, about brain development. And so there’s lots out there for people to dig in to that’s accessible and will hopefully prompt some interesting ideas in teachers’ brains.

SPREEUWENBERG: Awesome, that is super useful. And for our listeners, Ann Masten, the spelling of that name is M A S T E N. Sounds like you should definitely check out that video online. And Vivian Paley, the spelling of that name is P A L E Y. Check out her books on story acting. Also sounds like something worth your time. Stephanie, this has been a phenomenal episode. I’ve certainly learned a lot. Thank you so much for sharing your story, your passion and teaching us about nurturing resilience in children living with family substance use substance use disorder. Fascinating topic and some fascinating work that you’re doing there.

GOLOWAY: Thank you very much, Ron, I really appreciate it. And I’m honored to be part of the Preschool Podcast.

Carmen Choi

Carmen is the Marketing Coordinator and Preschool Podcast Manager on the HiMama team. She's been working with childcare business owners and consultants for 3 years. She is passionate making connections that empower the ECE Community through knowledge-sharing to support better outcomes for children, their families, and society!

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