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Hearts and Minds on Babies

First Things First

I must say... it's been such a pleasure to receive emails and comments on my blogs ... especially the last two. I'm really sorry not to have responded via the Facebook link at the bottom of the blog but Facebook security is being over zealous. They're suspicious that all of a sudden, I have attempted to log into my account after many years... and from different places in the world, so they're protecting it and whatever I submit to prove my identity is not enough. It's reassuring to know that they are taking security seriously though. To be quite honest, I have never been a social media person but I guess it has its place if we don't become enslaved to it.

Speaking of social media, I've been persuaded to join Whatsapp (is that even how you spell it ?) so I can connect with my children back home. They find it really amusing that we take so long to type our responses and they send all kinds of Emojis with strange expressions while we type. It's been great to send little film clips back and forth.

Seriously though... social media enables us to have important conversations across the globe. I'm finding that even after I move on from meeting with my hosts, I am able to continue to share resources, ideas, papers, etc... I'm hopeful that this will continue long into the future.

Thank you for all your comments ... Sheryl, Cheryl, Stella, Deborah, Jill... and also for all the emails to which I have not yet responded. As soon as I persuade Facebook that I'm not hacking into my account I will be able to respond directly on the blog.

Now back to where I left off yesterday. It's Thursday morning, 18th May and I have a Skype session at 9.00am with my supervisor from the University of Essex, UK, where I'm doing my Professional Doctorate in psychoanalytic parent-infant psychotherapy. In the midst of my exciting travels she just wants to make sure that I'm ready for my Supervisory Board next week when I return to London.

After supervision, it's time to close our suitcases, thank our Airbnb hosts and call an Uber for the long journey to East Lansing.

A Healing Conversation

Our driver is a sixty-year-old African American man (no... that's not him in the picture). Really warm and friendly and sounding that he really needs to talk. 'About time I got a decent fare today', he celebrated as he invites one of us to take the front seat. I quickly hop into the back to listen and observe. Kofi is in his zone, having 'meaningful conversations' with whoever wants to talk.

Kofi combines the principles of systemic therapy and a pastoral approach with a disposition of always being ready and available to engage in meaningful, healing conversations. By 'paying attention to the other person, listening and being curious; he's always ready to create a space for a story to be told; to explore and reflect. Sometimes the story has never been told, or heard, but by slowing down and journeying side by side, he becomes a healing presence wherever he finds himself; a 'present' help in times of trouble (Psalm 46:1, The Bible).

What a timely conversation. This man had just buried his mother a few days ago and seemed to be overflowing with memories and emotion; just needing someone to listen. He grew up in the midst of the struggle for black freedom in America. He was passionate to see the younger generation rise up to value what had been won for them. He reminisced about the days when he could not

swim in the same pools as white young people and when everything was segregated. He spoke of dignity in the midst of poverty, which was faced with grace and deep rooted faith by his Godly parents. He remembered his rebellious youthful days when he challenged the system and got into a lot of trouble for it. His long-suffering parents; pastors and pillars of the community, steered him through the anger by instilling in him the faith that eased the pains of slavery for his ancestors. 'Yes, I grew up in church', he said proudly, and though he did not see eye to eye with his parents in everything he now valued what they had instilled in him now that they were gone.

He reached up behind the sun screen and showed Kofi the programme from the recent funeral of his mother, whom he had just buried. The one and a half hour journey was a time of healing for him as he poured out his story and confirmed some of the things we had observed in Detroit. He told us how his parents managed to keep the family healthy by growing all kinds of vegetables, and had so much that they could open their doors to people in the neighbourhood who needed a meal. He continues to do the same now, just like they did. It's not easy to get healthy food in the neighbourhood because the large supermarkets stay clear. We noticed that in all our time in Detroit we did not find a good supermarket to do food shopping.

We left the crumbling buildings of Detroit behind and gradually the landscape changed as we neared Lansing. Luscious, green, manicured lawns and beautiful houses spread out on either side of us. Our driver remembered the days when he and his friends were not welcome in these neighbourhoods. But he also remembered the people who gave him a chance; hired him to fit carpets and even paid him without requiring him to do the work, just because they wanted to help. Now he is able to pull into the beautiful drive of the home where we would be hosted, and where our elegant host was waiting to welcome us to her home. The driver greeted her with a friendly handshake and a chit chat before departing. In many ways, things have changed for people like our driver. And yet there is still so much more to achieve.

A refreshing Interlude

The house is the most beautiful and immaculate place we have stayed at so far (this is a view thorugh the kitchen window). Every corner is artistically designed and smelling so fresh. Our hostess showed us around all the rooms; inviting us to make use of the hot tub in the garden (we didn't though) and making us feel at home. She would be away for a few days from the next day so we had the house to ourselves. We wasted no time exploring the neighbourhood and finding Walmart (ASDA) and Aldi down the road to do some shopping. We did not find such supermarkets in Detroit so it felt like a real treat.

Hearts and Minds on Babies

Friday 19th May was our first meeting in East Lansing with Holly Brophy-Herb, at Michigan State University. While Kofi searched his phone for the local bus timetable, I sneakily book an Uber taxi and we were off in just a few minutes to see Holly at the Building Early Emotional Skills Lab (BEES), where she's Director.

At the BEES lab, Holly is involved in a very wide range of research projects but shared with us about the Hearts and Minds on Babies Study, which is a multi-university collaboration between Wayne State University, Michigan State University & the University of Michigan and between Early Head Start programs in the Lansing and greater Detroit areas. The focus of this project is on the effect of stress on the capacity to build relationships.

The project consists of a 13 week programme and is built on a tree metaphor. It aims to help parents and teachers to respond rather than react; to develop coping strategies to reduce stress levels. Parents are helped to recognise the verbal and non verbal cues of infants and toddlers and their moments of connection; allow time and space for emotion to be heard rather than distraction (emotional nurturance).

Parents learn to recognise moments for branching out and times for exploration and how adults can support that by giving the child opportunity to explore rather than swooping in. The curriculum includes information on guidance and discipline: Asking what need is driving the behaviours (kicking, biting, etc). This project is a five year study and is now in its third year. The hypothesis is that the curriculum will result in reduced stress.

Another research project that Holly is involved with is called CUPID, which is an acronym for the Collaborative for Understanding Pedagogy in Infant and Toddler Development ... (Yes, I prefer the shortened version too ... I can understand that word). This study involves 22 universities and aims to develop a set of competencies to guide the training for infant and toddler workers, children, parents and anyone working with birth to three.

Holly also shared the BEES curriculum, which is an eight week course designed to be used one on one at home visiting. This study has really taken off all over Michigan. Parents can meet together weekly or participate in an online version, which involves discussion boards. Parents move through the course at their own pace – they love the discussion board which includes videos, etc. and is easier to monitor as researchers can get data online by looking at the way the programme is used. A version of the course is being developed to enable child care providers and social workers to learn about infant and toddler development.

The BEES course aims to fill the gap in provision for children aged zero to 3 years and their families by focusing on four main areas

  1. Building parental awareness

  2. Listening to and interacting with the child

  3. Identifying and labelling emotions and

  4. Developing self regulation strategies over time

The main theory behind the study is that positive social emotional development, in the context of secure, responsive relationship, provides an important foundation for later learning.

In the short time with Holly I could only take a brief glimpse at her extensive work. If you would like to read more you can visit her lab by video here:

In my next blog Kofi and I strike gold when we visit Hiram Fitzgerald at Michigan State University.

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