Professional Resource

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MEMBER CORNER: Annual Conference 2019: The View from Our Members

with Keri Giordano, Maureen (Mo) O’Brien, Kathy Grohs, and Stephanie David

Annual Conference 2019: The View From Our Members

ZERO TO THREE’s Annual Conference was held earlier this month at the beautiful Diplomat Hotel Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida. What better way to share the experience with you than to ask some of our members to reflect on their experiences at the conference—and that’s just what we did! Four volunteers eagerly took on the assignment of answering a few questions for us:

  • Keri Giordano, PsyD, Assistant Professor in Advanced Studies in Psychology at Kean University in Union, NJ
  • Maureen (Mo) O’Brien, PhD, Director of Curriculum and Training at Families First in Watertown, MA
  • Kathy Grohs, MEd., Professional Development Educator at Nebraska Early Childhood Collaborative in Omaha, NE
  • Stephanie David, JD, MPH, Children’s Health Policy Associate and NYS-AIMH Board Member, Healthi Kids Initiative at Common Ground Health, Rochester, NY

1. Why did you attend the conference, and how well did the conference meet your expectations?

Keri: I was honored to be able to present some of my research on racial disproportionality in children who are suspended or expelled from New Jersey community child care programs at the conference. I selected ZERO TO THREE as an outlet for this work because of the strong policy and advocacy focus of the membership. In addition to sharing my own work, I was eager to hear about the latest advances in the field and network with others dedicated to this work. Although I am not new to ZERO TO THREE conferences, I was especially glad to attend this conference with two of my doctoral students, who are new the field. It was a powerful experience to see the conference through their lens as well as through my own. As they move forward in their studies, I am hopeful that their experience at ZERO TO THREE will inspire them to continue to network and establish themselves as professionals in this field.

Mo: I’ve attended the conference off and on for more than 25 years, beginning when I was in graduate school. I was excited to attend this year because of the rising level of support and recognition I have seen regarding the importance of the early childhood years. After decades of research, it feels like prevention programs are finally being recognized for the incredible impact they are having on children and families. I have worked in applied settings for much of my career and am so pleased that the world now believes what those in the field have known for so long: that early relationships matter, that all families deserve support, and that strength-based approaches can make a meaningful difference in achieving family potential. Between the advances in neurobiology and the current news cycle highlighting the traumatic effects of separation on child development, I wanted to hear what national experts were saying and learn from effective programs that are scaling up. The combination of content and discussions with colleagues in other states made the conference a very worthwhile experience for me.

Kathy: I attended the conference primary to network with the Growing Brain curriculum trainers. Our luncheon together provided new perspectives in how to train that series. I attended one other ZERO TO THREE conference (in New Orleans a few years ago) and was drawn by the passion and drive to affect the lives of babies and families.

Stephanie: I attended my first ZERO TO THREE conference last year relatively new to the field of infant and early childhood mental health (IECMH) , and now one year later—thanks in large part to my experience at last year’s conference—IECMH is a significant part of my work both with the Healthi Kids team in Rochester and as a NYS-AIMH Board member. I returned this year to continue building my knowledge and connections in this space and to learn about innovative practices in other communities that address similar opportunities and challenges to those we face throughout the New York Finger Lakes region.

2. Who was the person you met or heard who was most inspiring to you (could be a speaker but doesn’t have to be)? Why?

Keri: While there were so many connections made during the conference, hearing Doreen Oliver’s plenary was the most inspiring part of the conference for me. Although this is not the first time that I have heard Doreen speak, she continues to awe and inspire me with her story. When she tells her story, it causes me to reflect on things I have done in my work, both the wonderful things and my less-than-stellar moments. Hearing Doreen share her experiences as a parent encourages me to reflect on the role I would like to play in a family’s story. I think about the way I am when working with children and families and about how I approach training others to do this work. Her lecture was a strong reminder that everything we learn and do is for the benefit of infants, young children, and families and, despite all the red tape, politics, and stress that we face, we need to always do our work with the family and child in mind.

Mo: Junlei Li was an inspiring keynote speaker. He knits together the science and the messaging in such an approachable way. The quote that will stick with me from his presentation is “everything that counts cannot always be counted.” I found this very reassuring, given the work that my agency, Families First, does in the community. Our Power of Parenting curriculum was built with the Strengthening Families framework as its basis and has tremendous impact, but some of the outcomes are nuanced. We mix qualitative and quantitative assessments, but sometimes it feels like funding agencies prioritize numbers, when so many other variables “count” just as much! The stories that parents tell are powerful and include things like starting social media groups after the program is over. We know that reducing isolation and building stronger relationships are buffers from all the stressors parents face. Yet, when we write up summaries in grants or present at conferences, we are not always confident that other audiences understand the power of such alliances. I will now use this quote if/when we get feedback that emphasizes only quantitative feedback.

Kathy: I LOVED LOVED Junlei Li. He spoke such a simple yet powerful message. I appreciated how he brought the discussion back to the heart of the matter: building relationships. The highlight was getting to hear him in the members-only session. Engaging with the large group of professionals with varied and vast experiences made that session even more relevant and uplifting.

Stephanie: It’s hard to choose just one but, both in the moment and now two weeks after the conference, Dr. Junlei Li’s plenary continues to pull at my heartstrings and has impacted my thinking around early childhood policy in so many ways. From the video and story he shared about the wonderful family child care provider who comforted a child while opening her mail to his toothpaste graphic showing relationships as the “active ingredient” in child development, his message continues to help me consider “the essential question” and “the honest question” as we think about policy and systems change that will best support both the children in our community, and the adult helpers around them.

3. What idea, strategy, resource, or approach did you learn about that you are excited to use in your work?

Keri: I left with so many exciting things that I am eager to implement! It was rejuvenating for me to talk with so many professionals from around the country who are focusing on issues around suspension and expulsion of young children. Hearing about the work of others has both inspired me to continue on this journey and helped me refine and expand on my own approach. On a related note, I was glad to learn about the new Center for Excellence for Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Since IECMHC is so important in the prevention of suspension and expulsion of young children, it is vital that there are resources available to those working in this area. I have already begun referring students to these materials in my courses.

Mo: The strategy and resources that I’m most eager to implement came from a session I attended (D9) that focused on New Mexico’s statewide implementation of an early childhood approach. The presenters were phenomenal in sharing the very real challenges of implementing programs on the ground in a variety of locations, with diverse populations and different levels of readiness. Since my nonprofit is gearing up to scale our successful local efforts in community-based settings, I learned some valuable lessons that will help as our agency moves into new geographic areas. The willingness to share experiences from other community collaborations is one of the strengths of attending the NTI. Participants were given the opportunity to brainstorm and be authentic about the challenges we all face as we strive to achieve collective impact. As a result, I was able to discuss with others what strategies they’ve used to identify potential funding sources and broaden my ideas of who our community partners could be as we expand. This session was a standout in terms of applying proven strategies to my daily work.

Stephanie: I was really excited to learn about the IECMH work that several communities across the country are doing with dads! One of my Healthi Kids colleagues is very involved in father engagement in our community and is currently taking our local 10-week Intro to IECMH course so that he can begin translating these concepts into messaging and opportunities that will resonate with the dads with whom we work. Not only did the breakout session and posters on father engagement help me to learn more about the importance of infant/toddler-father relationships, but also provided great examples and contacts to share with my colleague to move forward with our IECMH dads work.

4. What was the high point of the whole conference for you—the thing that made it worthwhile, that would bring you back again, or that would cause you to recommend it to a colleague who has never attended?

Keri: The high point of the conference was definitely having the opportunity to network and dialogue with interdisciplinary professionals from around the country. There are times when this work feels lonely and like an uphill battle. It was revitalizing to talk to like-minded individuals for several days, without having to try to convince them that there is such a thing as infant mental health. Seeing the number of people in attendance and hearing about all of the great work occurring at the local, state, and national levels serves as a reminder to me of how the work I do fits into the bigger picture.

Kathy: I can and do recommend this conference (and advocate to attend every year) because of the varied professionals that present and the quality of sessions. The ZERO TO THREE staff is so passionate and knowledgeable. Their enthusiasm is unmatched. I first learned to advocate at ZERO TO THREE; they brought out my voice.

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