Ellen Galinsky: ‘Adversity is not Destiny’– Changing the Conversation to Enable Executive Functioning - Early Learning Nation

Ellen Galinsky: ‘Adversity is not Destiny’– Changing the Conversation to Enable Executive Functioning

Editor’s Note: The Early Learning Nation Studio recently attended the National Association for the Education of Young Children’s annual conference where we spoke with early learning researchers, policymakers, and practitioners. The full collection of video conversations can be found here.

We are all more than our most challenging moments. As Ellen Galinsky, Bezos Family Foundation Chief Science Officer and Founder/Executive Director of Mind in the Making, explains, a focus on “trauma informed care” in early learning is shifting to “asset informed care.” And that process starts with looking at children in terms of their strengths.


Chris Riback:                 Ellen, thank you for coming by the studio.

Ellen Galinsky:              It’s my pleasure.

Chris Riback:                 It’s always great to see you.

Ellen Galinsky:              Great to see you.

Chris Riback:                 You have written on the focus that toxic stress, that adverse childhood experience and trauma informed care have really been game changers in the field of early childhood development. What do you mean when you write that?

Ellen Galinsky:              In the past, if a child had a meltdown, or wasn’t focusing, or was distracted, or was disruptive, that was just seen as bad behavior, willful children, and there was no understanding of what children’s backgrounds might do to affect their behavior. So what these concepts have done is make it clear to professionals, to families, to the general public that children’s behavior is affected by the way that they grow up and children who have had difficulties growing up develop what sometimes call an act now think later brain. It’s like the fight or flight kind of response and in the case of ACEs, and toxic stress, and trauma informed care, I think we’re at a point in the field where we can begin to say, “Yes, there have been unintended consequences to these very good things and we need to correct for those now.”

Ellen Galinsky:              For example, I remember once being in a meeting where when the term toxic stress first came out and people got very upset about it because they had experienced toxic stress themselves in their own lives and they said, “Toxic just sounds fatal. It sounds like you’re done and I don’t know if I could have fought so well to become better if I had heard the word toxic stress at that time in my life.” I had a similar experience that I’ll tell you about with ACEs where there was a presentation about-

Chris Riback:                 ACEs – adverse childhood experiences.

Ellen Galinsky:              Yes, ACEs stands for “adverse child experiences,” and there are 10 of them that are usually measured and studies have found on a very simple level that the more adverse childhood experiences you have, it can affect your health, and how long you live. It can affect your mental health, your behavior, so physical, social, emotional, cognitive development.

Chris Riback:                 Everything.

Ellen Galinsky:              But it’s a very simplified term and there’s a need now to un-simplify a simple story. The experience that I had was there had been a presentation about adverse childhood experiences to a group of leaders from around the country who said that kids were getting stereotyped. If they knew that they lived in poverty, if they knew that they had had divorce in their family, which is considered one ACEs, adverse childhood experience. If they knew things like that about a child, they would start to assume that there was something wrong with that kid. Then the notion of trauma informed care, people are starting to think of people just in terms of the trauma they had and people are more than… They have to be defined as larger than the trauma. If you are stereotyping kids, those can have adverse experiences in and of themselves. So I was been unhappy about these terms for a very long time. I would say a good 15 years. I think now it’s the time in the field now that these have a real stronghold to move beyond them. To enlarge the conversation, to focus on assets.

Chris Riback:                 So let’s enlarge the conversation: What is asset informed care?

Ellen Galinsky:              That starts with what people are doing already that’s right. Every child, let’s say, who is disruptive or has meltdowns as doing something wonderful. Or a parent who might be harsh with a child but also has moments when he or she is doing something that makes the child feel loved, and cared about, and respected and supported. So finding the things that each of us are doing right. One of the more successful programs is called “Attachment Vitamins” that Alicia Lieberman from the University of California at San Francisco does and they used to start with, tell me about your trauma and everyone would sit there like this in the meeting. They started with tell me what you love most about your child and people would just melt and then they could get into the things that are difficult in their lives.

Chris Riback:                 It’s such a different mindset. It really turns the whole conversation around.

Ellen Galinsky:              Mindsets matter. Mindsets… So if I see someone just in terms of their trauma, their problems, I’m going to act differently to them than if I see them in terms of their assets or their strengths.

Chris Riback:                 That’s one of the key points that you have around asset informed care, which is people who have experienced trauma should not be defined by their trauma.

Ellen Galinsky:              It’s similar to cancer. I mean, I know people who have survived cancer, so to speak, but they’re always looked at as well, you had cancer or a child of divorce. Oh, well that child is from a family that got divorced. Well, that’s 50% of us or so forth. So we have to see the whole person, the whole child, and we have to look at what people are doing right. We’re more likely to change and do more of what we’re already doing right, than to stop what we’re doing wrong.

Chris Riback:                 One other of the key points around asset informed care. One you have around stereotyping. There’s another one that you’ve kind of discussed on the need to build on children’s families and assets, but the idea that adversity is not destiny. What do you mean by that?

Ellen Galinsky:              We have a lot of talk about motherhood and apple pie and fatherhood and apple pie and how wonderful children are, but it’s my children and your children versus all of our children. We tend to not support things for all children, which is why we have some of the problems that we have in childhood education today. I’ve been to session after session at this conference at NAEYC talking about that. We need to build on the strengths, the promise of what people have. I remember reading so many policy papers by leaders in the field and I would write in the margins, “Adversity is not destiny. Adversity is not destiny. Adversity is not destiny.”

Chris Riback:                 Interesting.

Ellen Galinsky:              Because it sells well. There was a tendency for people who were trying to make the public understand this field, use it over and over again and what we’ve had to do is to use it in a way that also emphasizes the positive. That every child, that every parent, that every teacher, and we have to look at the professionals and the adversity and in our own lives too, has the power to build on strength.

Chris Riback:                 Ellen, thank you. It’s a new approach and a different way to look at early childhood education.

Ellen Galinsky:              We’ll at the Bezos Foundation we always try to be ahead of the curve and this is another example of saying, “We’ve done a good thing; now let’s do better.”

Chris Riback:                 Well, keep it coming! We’re waiting for more.

Ellen Galinsky:              We’re ready.

Chris Riback:                 Thank you.

Ellen Galinsky:              Thank you.






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