LACONIA — Every Wednesday at 9 a.m., Tricia Tousignant, parent education manager at the Family Resource Center of Central New Hampshire, teaches a free class on Zoom called Happy Sounds. Her audience jumps for joy – including 3-year old Jemma O’Sullivan.

Jemma sings and dances to her favorite songs from Happy Sounds at home during the week, including “We Are the Dinosaurs,” which requires the Happy Sounds gang – mostly toddlers and preschoolers – to march and roar, with their imaginary claws extended. Another big hit is Freeze Dance, which requires them to suddenly stop, and wait for the signal to move.

“A song about little fishes under the sea, she sings it in the shower and bathtub,” said Kaitie O’Sullivan, Jemma’s mother. “One of the biggest things, especially since we can’t meet in person, is these songs translate to home. With my mom, just the other day, we sang the fish song in front of the house. These are things I never would have found on my own.”

Since COVID 19 redefined group learning for even the very youngest, many, but not all early enrichment programs have continued online with plenty of developmental benefits intact. These include boosting exercise, vocalization, memory, self-control, physical coordination and imagination – plus another skill essential for life and school: the ability to follow directions.

But one critical ingredient is lacking: in-person interaction, which enables little ones to decode each other’s body language and practice the fundamentals of making and getting along with friends.

“Early brain development is the foundation for the rest of their lives, and relationships matter, whether in the home, family resource centers or at child care,”said Patricia Tilley, deputy director of public health services for the NH Department of Health and Human Services. For this reason, the 16 family resource centers statewide are trying to figure out the safest way to resume in-person activities. One is asking families to bring blankets to lay six feet apart on the floor, so children will be able to interact and participate in music and movement programs at a reasonable social distance. “It’s taking a little more finessing, and a little more compromise,” Tilley said.

Social distancing for the very young

For over four months, the youngest have been sequestered at home, away from playmates and extended family, including grandparents who play, talk, smile, laugh and hug – visual and emotional cues that contribute to their sense of safety, wellbeing and self-esteem – and to their normal social and neural development, according to childhood experts.

“There is so much (brain) activity early on, much more than we even realize,” said Marti Ilg, deputy director of economic and housing stability at DHHS, who has worked in early childhood development. “It sets the brain architecture for whatever follows.” Teleconferencing can provide platforms for meaningful interaction, more than parents often realize, Ilg said.

But it’s too early to predict what the fallout will be from less mingling, conversation and touch, especially if it continues into the future. And some parents are already noticing effects, and bemoaning the loss.

“He was so used to the routine. It’s been hard. When we drive by he asks about it,” said Becky Brown of Franklin, whose 3-year-old son, Brayden, misses his playgroup at the Greater Tilton Area Family Resource Center. She said the little boy has become less outgoing since coronavirus precautions suspended in-person programs at the Tilton building. “Before he was more social.  Now he backs off more when he sees other kids,” said Brown, who credits the playgroup with helping Braydon become more communicative, and learn to speak with confidence.

One thing is certain: since the pandemic, parents have become responsible for more nurture and developmental coaching than they ever imagined – and more than they may feel equipped to provide.

Lakes Region solutions

One solution in the Lakes Region may be to tap into the cost-free early childhood and parent education programs provided by the family resource centers in Laconia and Tilton  – opportunities many families don’t know exist, even before programming went online because of COVID.

Happy Sounds started as a socializing group, a way for children to get together and for stay-at-home parents to make contacts and learn from a professional parent educator, said Tousignant, a former preschool and kindergarten teacher. The modeling it provides, even online, is invaluable to youngsters and parents, who mostly learn as they go in isolation, especially since COVID-19.

“Physically, emotionally and mentally, (the children are) developing skills, including math skills they don’t realize they’re using,” said Tousignant, an energetic leader who sings, mimes and talks to the children on screen and encourages them when they try something different, such as waving a scarf.

Happy Songs’ rhythmic spoon dance feeds beginning math skills through recognizing patterns, tempo and beat, she said. The rhyming songs develop pre-literacy skills. Most important, the sensory and movement songs can be performed at home, which continues and reinforces the benefits. Her personal favorite, she said, is Freeze Dance, “because they giggle so much, especially when their family members dance along with them.” The experiences are more fun and meaningful when done with others who giggle, jump and stomp.

“Kids who’ve been exposed to this are ready to jump into academics when they come into kindergarten,” said Tousignant.

Participation in Happy Sounds has grown from 182 to 212 adults and children over the last five fiscal years, while enrollment in all of the FRC’s programs dropped by roughly 80 adults and children during that time, with the steepest decline because of COVID shutdowns.

O’Sullivan, an ardent fan, said she has had scheduling conflicts, and she and her daughter have sometimes resorted to watching on a cell phone screen, which is less than ideal.

But O’Sullivan praises the changes she has seen since her daughter started Happy Sounds 18 months ago, including the little girl’s newfound confidence and carefully chosen wardrobe, which defines who she feels she is at the moment.

In addition, Jemma, who was timid, now “marches in with her sunglasses and her hands on her hips,” O’Sullivan said. “We weren’t a musical family, but now she wants to engage with the music, not just listen to it in the background while she plays. She wants to do the movements. It’s exercise and it’s memory.”  

The magic of 'serve and return'

The virtual classes provide something else critical to developing brains: “serve and return,” which is shorthand for interaction through normal conversation, asking questions and giving answers – the spontaneous comment and response that parents and children do without thinking, perhaps not as often as they should.

It’s something they can practice daily at home, with guidance from VROOM, an online phone app that gives daily tips for “serve and return” that can occur on trips to the supermarket, a park, or at home – anywhere caregivers and children are together, said Michele Lennon, executive director of the Greater Tilton Area Family Resource Center, which is in the process of opening a location in Franklin. 

“It’s just as possible to have a good serve and return by Zoom or FaceTime as in person,” Ilg said.

“It’s the interaction,” said Tilley. “When they reach out, you answer back to them. It sets the neural pathways and helps give them a sense of self-worth”

When parents of infants and toddlers “aren’t invested in doing attachment exercises” such as cooing in their faces to elicit a response, or letting children explore their environment and giving them praise, that can result in “unintentional neglect,” Lennon said.

“If you play a matching game, it’s really good for their developing brains. It’s sensory input and bonding that doesn’t occur naturally,” she said. “It’s OK to let kids look at pictures and babble about what they see. Instead of talking as usual, sing in a different voice. Sing and talk encourages serve and return, which builds attachment. That, in turn, helps kids feel secure in the world,” and builds brain connections and activity and the foundation for life and school. “When you’re having fun, your child is, too,” Lennon said.

Extensive opportunities

 At the greater Tilton center, enrollment in the center’s Happy Trails Playgroup has exploded from a pre-COVID group of five or six kids plus their caregivers who met in person to roughly  65 to 80 who now tune in Facebook Live. Because of its success in reaching more families, the GTAFRC plans to offer both in person and online versions of Happy Trails, using outdoor space behind the building when weather permits.

It’s unknown when in-person group classes and meeting will resume at the Family Resource Center of Central New Hampshire, which is located in a hallway of Lakes Region Community Services in Laconia, in a building which serves many people with disabilities and chronic medical conditions in Belknap and southern Grafton counties. Tousignant said the center  is following the guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Gov. Chris Sununu, which allows for different scenarios depending on clientele and physical space.

A challenge for family resource centers statewide remains attracting new families who may not realize the parent education and children’s programs are free and available to anyone, including children up to age 21.

Between fiscal 2015 and 2020, the number of children from birth to age three with developmental needs enrolled in the center’s Early Supports and Services grew from 209 to 261, not counting the siblings and caregivers who benefit from them. The center offers online classes such as Parenting the Second Time Around for second-time caregivers such as grandparents, and Nurturing Skills, its most popular and comprehensive parenting course, which covers topics such as empathy, early development and positive discipline. Another class, Active Parenting of Teens, helps parents navigate turbulent years, made more puzzling because of social media.

Prior to the suspension of classes at the center because of COVID, the programs had the added benefit of providing contacts and a local support network, “a group of trusted families in the area, which is priceless,” said Erin Pettengill, vice president of the FRC of Central New Hampshire. “Having natural supports is a game changer” – especially for parents who are new or overwhelmed.  “This is a non-judgmental zone.” Even online, “parents learn strategies and say, ‘I could do this.’  It gives you an ability to look around and say, ‘I’m not alone.’”    

Perhaps the biggest roadblock to increasing participation is stigma, Pettengill said.  People think “you have to be low income to access services or you have to be involved with DCYF (the state’s Division of Children, Youth and Families), or you have a problem or you’re not a good parent. That’s 100 percent not accurate.”

O’Sullivan said she discovered the Family Resource Center through a brochure in a courthouse, and initially thought its programs were only for people who were court-ordered.

The FRC is a “hidden gem,” O’Sullivan said. “All their stuff is invaluable, the hole they fill. I’m frustrated the community doesn’t know about it. What they’ve given Jemma and I is an extended family. It’s a family and a community.”

•••

The Sunshine Project is underwritten by grants from the Endowment for Health, New Hampshire’s largest health foundation, and the New Hampshire Charitable Foundation. Roberta Baker can be reached by email at Roberta@laconiadailysun.com

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