Monica Adrian is a program manager and behavior support specialist for the Merced County Office of Education (MCOE) in California. She has created and helped establish innovative programs that focus on developmental screenings and social skills and behavioral intervention. These programs include Caring Kids, which provides training and support for parents, teachers, child care providers, and social workers. Adrian is an Act Early Ambassador to California for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign. In this role, she helps promote ongoing developmental monitoring; helping children with delays get connected to needed early intervention services in a timely manner.
ED: How did you begin your career in early learning and development?
Monica: Right out of high school I got a job working in a U.S. Department of Defense child care center at the U.S. Air Force base that was in my town at the time. I immediately loved it and knew I wanted a career working with young children. I worked at the child care center while I started college, first earning an associate’s degree in psychology, and then a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies with an emphasis on child studies. After college, I worked for five years with children with autism and their families in their homes; at the same time earning my teaching credentials in special education. When my son was born, I had planned to take a few years and stay home with him. However, when he was three months old, I received a call asking if I was interested in working for Caring Kids, a program that works with families to help their young children from birth to age five develop socially and emotionally. I realized that I missed the work of helping young children to build social skills and reduce their challenging behavior. I took the job and have continued to work with various programs that similarly focus on helping all children reach their potential. I also believe that as a professional I have the responsibility to continue to grow and learn. A year ago, I decided to go back and get a master’s degree in special education with an emphasis on early childhood and I’m almost done!!
ED: What is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Learn the Signs. Act Early campaign, and can you describe your role as the Act Early Ambassador to California?
Monica: Learn the Signs. Act Early. is a public awareness campaign that aims to educate families and caregivers about young children’s development and developmental milestones with the ultimate goal of improving caregivers’ support of early development and increasing the early identification of developmental delays and disabilities. Currently, the campaign has 45 Act Early Ambassadors across the country (California has two). Being an ambassador is a two-year commitment. Our role as ambassadors is to promote ongoing developmental monitoring in our state, and to help make sure young children exhibiting developmental delays are connected to early intervention or early childhood special education services as early as possible. We know that many kids with developmental delays or disabilities are often not identified until they go to school at age five, but this is inconsistent with what we know about brain science and the importance of intervening early. We’ve worked hard with different groups of professionals (doctors, social workers, child care providers, and others) to encourage them to move away from the “wait and see” approach, sharing with them the importance of identifying concerns early. This allows for children and families to be connected with appropriate services and interventions. So many different professionals and family members see and spend time with young children regularly and we want everyone to know what typical development looks like. We want to help families promote optimal development and also be able to identify when there should be concerns with development. Learn the Signs. Act Early. has developed evidenced-based and easy-to-use tools and resources for families and professionals which are free and easy to order. Some of my favorite resources are the Watch Me modules developed for child care providers. These modules train providers on why monitoring children’s development is important; what their role in developmental monitoring is; easy ways to monitor a child’s development; and how to talk with families about their children’s development. Child care providers can access the modules for free in English and Spanish and in using them, can even earn continuing education units (CEUs) or professional growth hours. We are working with the California Department of Education so early educators can also access the Watch Me! modules on California Early Childhood Online.
ED: How has your work improved the quality of early learning and development?
Monica: Merced County is in the central valley of California, right in the middle of the state. This is a region of high needs with minimal resources or services. Through our county office of education’s Early Education Department, we administer several programs that help to ensure quality early care and education services for our community. Our programs focus on promoting optimal development for all young children since we know the impact early experiences have on later academic, health, mental health, and employment outcomes. Most of our programs focus on young children at risk for developmental delays and negative outcomes later in school. We work to help families provide safe, stable, and nurturing environments. Many of the families we encounter live in poverty or are dealing with multiple stressors; this work is hard since we usually can’t remove the stressors. Our goal is to help parents build resiliency and provide a buffer from stressors for their children in spite of the adversity they experience. Given many of the children we work with live in families with pervasive—or, wide-ranging—needs, our approach is multi-generational. Our philosophy is that parents are their children’s first teachers, but parents also need support to fulfil this role. We want to implement a process that supports families in being fully present with their children.
I supervise two programs. First is the Caring Kids program I mentioned earlier. Through this program, we provide home visiting services to young children displaying challenging behavior or delays in social skills, and facilitate weekly social-skills-building playgroups and parenting workshops around the county. The second, our Early Connections program, is a collaboration between our county office of education and our county human services agency. This program conducts developmental screenings with children from birth to age five who have had substantiated cases of child abuse or neglect, and then connects the identified kids to any needed follow-up services. In order to act on the federal mandate that requires all of these children to be screened, our county tasked the Merced County Office of Education’s child development staff, who had the most relevant expertise, to conduct the screenings. They work closely with social workers from the human services agency, a collaboration which has been critical for many of the children with the greatest needs in our county.
ED: What are some of the challenges you have experienced in this work and what strategies have you tried to overcome them?
Monica: One of the challenges is that, as we push to identify more children with developmental delays and disabilities earlier, we need to ensure that the services and service providers who understand how to work with them are available. We really have to look at current systems and policies; identify early learning and intervention champions across disciplines; and empower them to communicate to decision makers the importance of increased funding for mental health and early intervention services, and for programs that are multi-generational. Given the research base, we should be able to make the case to decision makers that investing in these early programs will have long-term financial and social benefits. We really need to think about where we as a community invest our funds. When thinking about how we can better prepare children to enter school on a level playing field, the answer is more than just preschool. We need to look across different systems. As I mentioned before, one useful strategy is to identify champions, like a local school superintendent or principal who understands the importance of early experiences. Individuals in the medical field can also be really helpful advocates. I’m really excited that doctors recently coming out of medical school seem to have a strong understanding of the importance of developmental screenings—we should capitalize on their expertise and the fact that their perspective is one that is likely to influence policy makers.
ED: What suggestions do you have for others interested in promoting developmental screenings?
Monica: Engaging a wide range of stakeholders is really important. Start by having conversations about the importance of developmental screening and how professionals and families can play a role in this. Build a collaborative team of people that represent different agencies and disciplines, be sure to include families, and create and continue to follow an action plan. Consider important questions with this group: What is the vision for children’s future in your community? How does developmental screening fit within this vision? Try not to recreate the wheel; utilize the various resources that are already out there. In addition to resources from Learn the Signs. Act Early., there are great tools available via the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Birth to Five, Watch Me Thrive website. Many states also have a Help Me Grow initiative, which typically focuses on providing resources to best promote developmental screening and monitoring. You can also contact the Learn the Signs. Act Early. ambassador in your state or territory for support.
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