Umatilla-Morrow Head Start staff learn about infant mental health

Sherri Alderman spoke to UMCHS staff about the importance of relationships on the developing brain.

Long before children step into a classroom, or even take their first steps, they’re building relationships and absorbing information that will shape how they behave later in life.

Dr. Sherri Alderman explained this to a group of Head Start employees from all over Eastern Oregon on Friday at Umatilla-Morrow County Head Start’s regional conference. Alderman, a developmental behavioral pediatrician and Oregon ambassador for the Centers for Disease Control’s “Act Early” program, is also an infant mental health specialist. She talked to the group of early childhood educators about recognizing signs of developmental delays and disabilities in children, and the ways they can act early to help those kids.

She said babies learn through relationships, and the relationships they have with those around them affects all aspects of development — play, learning, speaking, acting, and moving.

Those concepts are important for teachers of older students to keep in mind too, Alderman said.

“If a child comes in without the ability (to build relationships), we have to step back and approach the child where they are, developmentally,” said Alderman. “While they may be a certain age chronologically, developmentally, in some ways, they may only be a 3-month-old. If we don’t take that into consideration, we may be setting them up for failure.”

She said there are several training sessions teachers can attend to make sure they’re taking a trauma-informed approach to helping kids learn.

She passed out handouts for an app called “Milestone Tracker,” which helps parents or teachers monitor the signs of development, and helps them recognize if something is amiss, and how to act on those signs.

Alderman said children develop a sense of safety and attachment early on, and that they can’t develop if they don’t feel safe.

“If they’re surrounded by love and safety, it triggers a connection,” she said. “If the environment is toxic, the brain develops pathways that trigger anxiety and stress.”

She said that even when a baby hasn’t been born yet, its brain development is affected by the environment in which its mother lives.

“If the mom is experiencing stress, financial instability, domestic violence, then hormonally, that stress transmits to the baby,” she said. “The baby’s brain is impacted by that.”

It can affect children reaching milestones, such as responding to others’ emotions.

“People who have been traumatized, whether babies, toddlers, preschoolers or adults, don’t have the ability to recognize all the different expressions in our faces,” she said. “They begin to recognize only a small number of expressions, usually related to anger. I could be smiling ear-to-ear, and they could read it as anger.”

Alderman advised that for teachers trying to help kids become emotionally adjusted, they have to remember to apply some of the same principles to themselves, as the children they’re helping form their own emotions based off the behavior of the adults around them.

“We bring our experience into the classroom,” she said. “We need to work in an environment where we are held, and recognize when we need a break.”

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