Carole Norris-Shortle works to foster attachment between young children and their parents who are experiencing homelessness. She is a mental health consultant at the PACT Therapeutic Nursery in Baltimore, Maryland. She chats with the HRC’s Wendy Grace Evans to discuss her strategies for helping parents become their child’s best teacher.
What is your starting point for working with families that are new to the nursery?
I start with an in-depth clinical assessment in order to understand their trauma history. I may ask: has the parent ever experienced physical abuse? Has your baby experienced anything scary? It is not unusual for parents to say, “Yes, my baby was in the house when we were fighting.” I don’t always get all of the information I need because women may be guarded about domestic violence histories. They may reveal this history later, when they are more comfortable with us.
What are your goals for working with parents and their children?
Our overarching goal is to foster attachment between parent and child. The best thing we can do to maintain a child’s emotional health is to support her connections to her caregiver. I work hard to greet parents and make a connection with them. Often things are not going very well in their lives. I’ll offer a cup of coffee, and I’ll listen and let them know I care. I believe we must nurture the parents, so that they can learn to nurture their children. Making a connection with the parents helps me to create a connection with the child.
What do your interactions with children look like?
I always get down to eye level and I say things like, “I see you have a big smile today and that you and mommy had a good morning.” I always try to underscore what a parent is doing well and I am always happy when a parent chooses to stay for “Wee Cuddle and Grow” or the “Family Traditions Breakfast.” It is such a great way for parents to learn how to be their child’s best teacher.
How do you teach parents to be their child’s best teacher?
It is important to help parents learn to follow their child’s lead in play, though it can be challenging. When a child watches her mother mirror the child’s play, it grows the child’s imaginative play. This correlates with later cognitive development. To do this, our clinicians will sit with parents and children and model this way of playing and interacting with the child.
How does your program address the trauma experienced by parents and children living in emergency shelters, or on the streets?
Establishing healthy rituals and routines in a child’s life, even when the child or caregiver has experienced significant trauma, can protect children’s emotional well-being. These routines can be maintained in a family, even with a trauma history.
How is your program designed to nurture parents?
We are family-centered and strengths-based. We work hard to identify the things that parents are doing right and to encourage them. I think this is the most effective way to help people make changes. At PACT, we have a continuum of nurturing throughout our organization, from our funders to our staff. For example, we recently received training on mindfulness. It taught us how to be aware of our thoughts and our actions, and how we experience stress. Now, we can share this knowledge with the families we work with.