Many Parent Empowerment Program staffers like Janette Duffy and Hilda Romero were once parents in the program. The program worked so well for their families, they have come back to work at PEP and provide other families in La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools with empathy and hope.
Supporting the ‘bunker babies’
How one district responded to extreme behavior needs by empowering families
February 12, 2024
The following was written by Chelsea Gould, coordinator of Early Intervention and Mental Health at La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools.
A phrase I hear frequently across districts and early childhood classrooms is, “What is going on with these kids and their behaviors? COVID is over, why is it getting worse and not better?” The reality of our current state is that our youngest students — preschool, transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and up — seem to be struggling more and more with behavior. Where we used to see one or two “high flyers” per site, we are now seeing three or four “high flyers” per classroom. And it isn’t just the quantity of students with behavioral needs. It is the frequency, intensity and severity of these at times explosive behaviors that are demanding all hands on deck.
First of all, why is this happening? Well, what we know is that these littles who are ages 3-6 can be considered “Bunker Babies,” or little ones who were in key stages of development when the pandemic hit and the world shut down. The pandemic interrupted typical routines and activities and led these kiddos to be stuck at home in basically a “bunker.” They were Bunker Babies stuck inside with stressed adults when screens became our babysitters. The tablet or TV replaced play dates, preschool, or even going outside for walks or to the park. Our kids were not getting the proper developmental experiences they needed for their brains to be able to be prepared for life in the classroom.
Now they are at school where there are expectations, schedules, boundaries, etc., and they have not had the developmental and social-emotional experiences they needed before coming to a structured environment. They don’t know how to regulate their emotions, tolerate frustration, problem solve or be a learner (share, wait, stay in one area — you name it), and the kids are melting down anytime we try to impose any type of expectation on them. They don’t want to stay at the rug; they don’t want to clean up; they don’t want to share your attention, so they are displaying extreme behaviors as a result.
But we have to remember, these kids aren’t just giving you a hard time. They are having a hard time. Their brains are literally not set up to be able to be successful in a structured setting. So they are struggling, and at the same time, so are we educators.
This is our new reality, and it looks bleak, but what we know is that early intervention, specifically caregiver or Parent Implemented Intervention (PII) has the evidence base and power to make huge changes in the brain/behavior of a child. A lot of times we focus solely on in-class behavior strategies and plans, but a lot of times these plans stay at school and don’t transfer home. So, what if we did something different? What if we brought in the parents, and not only supported the child but the caregivers in strategies to support behavior change? This is what the Parent Empowerment Program (PEP) within the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District is working to provide.
PEP is a free program that provides behavioral support and parenting tools to families with kiddos ages 3-6 who may be experiencing any level of behavior difficulties, including separation anxiety, defiance, tantrums, aggression, elopement, etc. PEP is a safe place for families to come to get support. The Parent Empowerment Program is an expansion site of the Regional Intervention Program (RIP) based out of Vanderbilt University. RIP has over 50 years of data showing that this program works not only to reduce challenging behaviors across settings (home, school, in the community), but also reduces caregiver stress and increases student access to less restrictive educational settings and supports.
The PEP Program is housed on a school campus in our school district, where both caregiver/parent and child receive targeted teaching and support to grow both adult and child skill sets. PEP provides a classroom setting where children follow a typical classroom routine while being taught and reinforced for skills such as frustration tolerance, delayed gratification, functional communication and social skills through class activities such as story time, independent work, group activities and more. While the children are in their classroom setting, their parents receive case management support where we develop individualized plans that will target their child’s behavior, and training on how to implement the strategies at home, in the community and within classroom settings. Parents also receive social skills training on what they can do to support their child’s social-emotional and pro-social skills, and they also get to spend time practicing what they learn with their own child in a two-way mirror behavior skills training room. In addition to caregivers being provided with research-based behavior strategies and plans, PEP staff work with school teams to ensure strategies and plans are consistent across settings to support generalization of skills.
Another unique aspect about PEP is that some of our staff are actually former parents who went through the program with their own children. They saw first-hand the impact the program had on their child and family, and have come back to help other families who are currently walking through the same challenges they previously experienced. This empathetic perspective results in parents empowering other parents to support their children — it is PEP in action.
By empowering families, PEP helps break generational cycles of ineffective discipline, and provides families with positive strategies and tools that both families and school teams can implement in support of the students.
Early intervention programs like PEP are especially critical to our Bunker Babies, because research shows that early-appearing behavior problems in a child’s preschool career are the single best predictor of delinquency in adolescence, gang membership and adult incarceration (Dishion, French, & Patterson, 1995; Reid 1993). In addition, children who grow into adolescence with aggressive behaviors are likely to drop out of school, be arrested, abuse drugs and alcohol, have marginalized adult lives, and die young (Lipsey & Dezron, 1998; Walker; Colvin, & Ramsey, 1995). Without early intervention, our students have higher likelihoods of encountering negative life experiences that will impact them long-term throughout adulthood. We owe them every opportunity to help them learn appropriate, self-regulatory behaviors as early as possible in their educational careers.
PEP and the La Mesa-Spring Valley School District are working to help give these Bunker Babies the support they need by empowering their caregivers. We are working in partnership with our families to support our students. This program not only helps reduce challenging behaviors right now, but it is changing trajectories for these children’s futures.
Chelsea Gould is a licensed educational psychologist and coordinator of Early Intervention and Mental Health at La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools.
Chelsea Gould, coordinator of Early Intervention and Mental Health at La Mesa-Spring Valley Schools, with Parent Empowerment Program staff members Hilda Romero and Janette Duffy.
In the Behavior Skills Training (BST) room, there are two-way mirrors with staff on one side taking data and parent and child on the other side of the glass working on a target skill during staged scenarios (i.e., cleaning up, complying with a non-preferred directive, frustration tolerance, self advocacy, etc.).