ERLANGER, Ky. — In the 18 years that Kayla Bunch has worked at Bright Future Child Enrichment Center in Erlanger, she has helped nurture more kids than she can count.
“It’s just important to me to give the children the best life that they can have,” said Bunch, the director of Bright Future for the past three years. “Promoting that, making sure that they’re ready for school and hitting those milestones, watching them grow.”
But Bunch and her staff have learned an important lesson, too: It has gotten a lot tougher to be a kid in Northern Kentucky in recent years.
Experts say substantiated reports of child abuse and neglect are on the rise; a growing number of grandparents are raising their grandchildren as a result of the opioid epidemic; and more and more families are living in poverty.
Teachers, child-care workers and health care providers all have seen a growing number of children in the region suffer with the kind of chronic stress that affects their behavior and interferes with their ability to learn.
“We’re seeing more children with behavioral challenges or with difficulties managing their big emotions than we have in the past,” said Carolyn Brinkmann, director of early childhood services for Co-Stars by the Children’s Home of Cincinnati. “What we know is when young children are feeling worried or stressed, it’s expressed through their behavior. We have children kicking. We have children hitting. We have children throwing things.”
Fortunately, there is hope.
An initiative aimed at making Northern Kentucky children more resilient is teaching people like Bunch and her staff how to help families become more resilient, too. Called Northern Kentucky Strengthening Families, the effort works with school districts, child-care centers, medical providers and other organizations that serve families and children throughout the region.
“When you’ve got resilient families, they will be able to get out of whatever situation they are in and bounce back instead of turning to drugs, to alcohol, instead of turning to whatever they feel they need in that moment,” said Theresa Cruz, the Hispanic family engagement coordinator for Learning Grove. “When a family is resilient, they can bounce back from traumatic events – anything that life throws at them.”
The organizations leading the initiative are holding the Northern Kentucky Strengthening Families Summit on March 5. Organizations and agencies that have experience with the initiative will gather with those that are new to the work. The goal is for all of them to learn new strategies, beef up their skills and leave with new approaches to help Northern Kentucky’s families and children.
When the bear is always there
“Every agency will walk away with a plan on how to serve their families best,” Cruz said. “How can we support them so that they are more resilient?”
The work centers around what experts call “protective factors,” which have been found to help families of all income levels improve their chances for success and their ability to cope with stress. The six protective factors stressed in Kentucky are:
Parental resilience, where parents can manage stress and get through it when faced with adversity and trauma.
Social connections, those friends that families can rely upon for emotional and spiritual support and information about where to turn for help.
Knowledge of child development, so families understand how children grow and develop and what parenting strategies are appropriate and helpful.
Support in times of need, so families can meet their basic needs and reduce stress caused by challenges as much as possible.
Social and emotional competence of children, where families teach their children how to have healthy relationships so they can communicate effectively and regulate their emotions.
And nurturing and attachment, so families ensure that children feel loved and safe by having bonds with caring adults.
Those factors are critical when it comes to helping children and families cope with the chronic, toxic stress that can accompany addiction, poverty and instability, Brinkmann said.
“What we know is that stress gets under your skin. When you see a bear in the woods, your core says, 'I need to respond to this moment' and you get into fight or flight mode,” she said. “For a young child who has gone hungry at times, whose caregiver is shifting, who goes for days without seeing Mommy, those little stressors for them feel like a bear in the woods for us. The adrenaline and the cortisol is in their bodies, and it stays at a pretty heightened level for a long period of time. They’re on edge. So they perceive danger, and they feel threatened and unsafe and act out.”
Putting families in the driver’s seat
A group of 10 local organizations known as the Consortium for Resilient Young Children began this work to help children and families 14 years ago, Brinkmann said, although efforts were mainly focused in Southwest Ohio. More intense efforts in Northern Kentucky began about four years ago, she said.
Northern Kentucky now has its own steering committee that meets regularly and different work groups within the committee that focus on professional development, training and spreading the word, said Sarah Zawaly, director in the innovation lab at Learning Grove.
The steering committee created a resource guide for grandparents raising their grandchildren, for example, to make sure that grandparents had the resources they needed to be more resilient, she said.
“It’s not looking at what’s wrong with the families,” Brinkmann said. “It’s really looking at what’s happening and how can we support what families want for themselves and their children by putting them in the driver’s seat.”
For child-care providers, it can be as simple as creating a phone tree so parents know how to reach each other if they need to, she said.
“As early childhood providers, we have to shift our thinking,” Zawaly said. “We’re not just enrolling a child. We’re enrolling a family.”
United Healthcare is sponsoring the March 5 summit so that it doesn’t cost anything for local organizations to attend. It’s all part of the organization’s work to “be a catalyst for change in helping people live healthier lives,” said United Healthcare Community Plan of Kentucky CEO Amy Johnston in an email.
“To fulfill that mission, we partner with local groups like the Consortium for Resilient Young Children that is focused on strategies and resources to address the growing emotional and behavioral needs of young children and their families,” she wrote.
Back at Bright Futures, Bunch said she and her staff are working closely with NorthKey Community Care to learn how to help the families they serve become more resilient.
“My hope for the future of these families is to strengthen them and give them the tools they need to be resilient and have their children resilient,” she said.
After all, Cruz said, resilient parents have resilient children, and resilient children grow up to be resilient adults.
“It’s a cycle,” she said.
And when the cycle works well, she said, the entire community grows stronger.
Lucy May writes about the people, places and issues that define our region – to celebrate what makes the Tri-State great and shine a spotlight on issues we need to address. Poverty is an important focus for Lucy and WCPO, on air and online. To reach Lucy, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LucyMayCincy.