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BROOKLYN, N.Y. — At age 2, Maya turns to her mother, Taneice Dawkins, to show off her every move. She pounds a spoon on a table, prompting her mother to exclaim, “Oh, it’s a loud banging spoon.” The little girl hands her mother a cup, a piece of paper, a plastic banana. Each time, the 36-year-old Brooklyn mother responds, “Thank you, Maya,” a phrase the toddler repeats.

Such parent-child interactions are vital, experts say. And a group working to strengthen bonds between mothers and babies in New York’s high-poverty areas believe they also take a lot of work. As a result, the group is coaching primary caregivers like Dawkins how to be more sensitive parents, which is loosely defined as parents who respond appropriately to their children’s signals and interact positively with them

“When families are living in poverty, the infants need extra-sensitive parents and it’s harder for the parents to give that extra-sensitive parenting,” said Anne Heller, founder of Power of Two, which opened in Brownsville, Brooklyn, last fall and has worked to help nearly 100 families become more sensitive to their children’s needs.

The idea is that forming strong attachments in the first years of life can buffer children from stress over their lifetimes, and also lead to better academic achievement. Without these attachments, the theory goes, some of these children will already be at a disadvantage by preschool.

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Indeed, research supports the idea that sensitive parenting is beneficial. A study published in the journal Child Development in 2014 found that those born in poverty who received sensitive parenting functioned better socially and academically into adulthood.

“When families are living in poverty, the infants need extra sensitive parents and it’s harder for the parents to give that extra sensitive parenting.”

“We all need this [kind of training] but people who live in high-poverty areas need it more,” said Heller, a former deputy commissioner for New York City’s Department of Homeless Services (DHS) during the Bloomberg Administration.

At DHS, Heller noticed that about 10 percent of families in the city’s shelters were repeat customers, never leaving the system. Even with assistance from child welfare workers, job training programs or rent subsidies, these families seemed unable to move forward. “I knew we weren’t getting it right for our most vulnerable families,” she said.

When she left government work, Heller researched how to best aid these families and learned about a program called Attachment and Biobehavioral Catch-up (ABC) developed by Mary Dozier, a professor at the University of Delaware as part of her work on the Infant Caregiver Project. The group’s research found that children who received ABC intervention had more secure attachments than those in a control group.

The researchers also looked at levels of cortisol, the hormone produced by the body in response to stress. Children who received ABC had a healthy rhythm of cortisol levels, starting high in the morning and low in the evening, but the control group had a blunted pattern, which researchers said has been linked to behavior and attention problems.

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“What I started to understand is that when the brain is developing in those early years, if you have ongoing stress, you need parenting that protects you,” Heller said.

37 percent of the population of Brownsville, Brooklyn, lives in poverty, according to census data.

Unfortunately, parents who themselves experience stress may be less able to provide that protection. Stressors — jail time, unemployment, homelessness, hunger, language barriers, domestic violence, depression and other health issues — interfere with a parent’s ability to be sensitive to their children’s needs. “Even if parents are incredibly motivated to provide the best care possible, stress can significantly undermine their capacity to be sensitive,” said Kristin Bernard, a psychology professor at Stony Brook University who worked on ABC at the University of Delaware.

Heller teamed up with Bernard to develop a program for families in New York City, targeting those in the highest poverty areas. Heller went on a fund-raising crusade and set up shop in Brownsville, where census data shows 37 percent of the population lives in poverty.

Together, Heller and Bernard hired 12 coaches and recruited families to participate in the program at schools and hospital fairs. The children currently served by the Power of Two range from six months to two years old. Seven families*, including Dawkins and her daughter Maya, have finished the program.

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Dawkins, a single mother on public assistance, learned about the program at a fair at PS 158 in Brooklyn, the school her 11-year-old daughter, Tanyia, attends, and signed up.

“Some of the challenges are getting to see them every week. They are families with two or three jobs, homelessness, one to five children, sometimes laid off from work, dealing with social workers. Finding space is challenging when they have so many stressors in their life.”

When coaches began working with the family, they noticed that Tanyia often fed or dressed Maya when Dawkins, who suffers from chronic back pain and migraine headaches, was in pain. Maya wasn’t engaging with her mother as much as she was her sister. The Power of Two coaches wanted to change that.

During 10 home sessions, the coaches worked with Dawkins — as they do with all parents in the program — on three areas: how to better nurture the child, how to avoid frightening her and how to follow the child’s lead. For example, nurturing can be picking a child up immediately after a fall. Sounds simple, but many families worry this will spoil the child, a myth coaches try to dispel. Behavior that is frightening to a child can range from nonstop tickling to a parent’s fits of rage. And following a baby’s lead can be the trickiest area to learn, forcing the parent to pick up on subtle cues such as throwing a toy when the child wants to play alone.

In most sessions, a coach observes the parent and child playing, applauds parents for positive behavior, and, after a few sessions, makes suggestions. When parents and children play with puppets, a coach might point out that if a child is pulling away, the parent should follow that cue and put the puppet away instead of pushing the toy on the child. If the child plays with toy food, coaches advise parents to encourage conversation when they are handed an item, asking questions such as “You like the yellow banana?”

The parents and children also make chocolate pudding together, a task that shows parents even creating a mess can be a bonding experience. “Normally, I wouldn’t allow [Maya] to do that because it would make a mess,” Dawkins said after the pudding session. “She got some on her face, her clothes and her chair but I was OK.”

The pudding session was also an eye opener for Ebony Edmundson, whose one-year-old son, Marshall, has gone through four sessions in the program. “It was really nice,” she said. “I would never have thought to do that with him. I thought, ‘He’s a toddler. I’ll do it alone.’” The training, Edmundson said, has made her a more patient and attentive parent. “Sometimes he just wants to play by himself,” she said. “It depends on his mood. He’ll start throwing toys and take them away. He’s upset. I didn’t realize that until the program.”

“I had to step back and say, ‘He’s only one. There’s no need to yell. Before I might have yelled, ‘Stop.’”

And when Marshall ripped up papers Edmundson needed for a program that would train her to be a home health aide, she didn’t scream. “I had to step back and say, ‘He’s only one. There’s no need to yell. Before I might have yelled, ‘Stop.’ Now I know he’s a baby and in his mind, he’s just playing.”

Coaches are not required to have a college degree but do go through two screening tests to see how well they are able to give positive feedback. Organizers try to recruit coaches from the area being served, in this case Brownsville and East New York. Coaches, who work with clinical social workers at Power of Two, are given training manuals they must follow closely.

Even with that guidance, coaches may struggle to arrange appointments and, sometimes, to convince parents that their suggestions are supported by solid research.

“Some of the challenges are getting to see them every week,” said Kat Castaño, a coach. “They are families with two or three jobs, homelessness, one to five children, sometimes laid off from work, dealing with social workers. Finding space is challenging when they have so many stressors in their life.”

One coach described having a session interrupted when the mother had to take a phone call from a lawyer working to get her husband out of jail.

Kelsey Smith, another coach, said she’s had mothers with multiple kids who don’t believe she can show them anything new. The mothers tell her, “I already knew that,” Smith said. Still, she has to teach them, for instance, that a child who is fussing because a toy was taken away needs a hug, not the toy.

“Nurture first, solve the problem later,” Smith explains.

Telling parents there is such a thing as too much tickling is also a hard sell. “A baby can’t say, ‘Stop. I don’t like that,’” Castaño said. “They might cover their body or hide their head. Kids giving confusing signals.”

While most parents welcome the tips, coaches acknowledge they can’t force parents to follow their guidance. “I had one parent say, ‘Well, children are individuals,’” said Castaño. “At that point, I had to say, ‘Well, you are the expert on your child.’”

This story was written by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about early education. 

* As of June 1, 61 families had completed the program.

 This story has also been updated to correct the spelling of Kristin Bernard.

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