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Ask the Expert: Scientific Mommy

For this not so normal Back to School season, we have teamed up with some really amazing experts to help you stay sane and keep your kids engaged! Continuing our series, we would like to introduce Erin O'Connor and Robin Neuhaus from Scientific Mommy!

ABOUT: Scientific Mommy was founded by a psychology professor, Erin O’Connor, and a PhD student, Robin Neuhaus. They noticed how difficult it was for researchers to communicate their findings to the people who it was most relevant to: parents and educators. From there, they created the website to offer bite-sized insights that often never reach audiences.

MISSION: By the time child development research reaches parents, the findings are often distorted, exaggerated, and misrepresented. Since most parents don't have the time to sift through the data, we decided to create a resource that presents research honestly and accessibly.

meet erin

Meet Erin: The Director of New York University's Early Childhood Education Program, Erin is a tenured professor and holds a Doctorate in Human Development and Psychology from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, a Masters in Teaching from Fordham University, and a Masters in School Psychology from Columbia University. Erin teaches human development and education classes to pre- and in-service teachers in New York City schools. She also co-directs a community partnership working with families and caregivers.

meet robin

Meet Robin: Robin is a PhD student in Early Childhood Education at New York University. Erin is her doctoral advisor. Robin studies children's relationships with their preschool teachers and parents and is especially interested in how those relationships relate to anxiety in early childhood. She is working on data analysis for a study co-led by Erin of the long term impacts of INSIGHTS, an early childhood social emotional intervention that was implemented in elementary schools across New York City.

Q & A:

1. Please tell us a bit about Scientific Mommy and how you teamed up with each other to create this platform? Our goal at Scientific Mommy is to provide accurate, objective and up to date research on child development, education and family systems. The idea for the project began back in 2000 when I was getting my doctorate. I was fortunate enough to work with an amazing woman, Dr Kathleen McCartney, who was a lead investigator on the National Institutes of Child Health and Human Development Study of Early Care and Education (SECCYD). The SECCYD collected information beginning at children’s birth and is to date one of the most thorough studies of children, families and environment. One peer-reviewed article from the study examined the effects of hours in care outside the home on children’s behavior problems in kindergarten through third grade. They found  that the more hours a child spent in outside care, the greater they scored on a scale of behavior problems. This caused a stir in the press with even outlets like the New York Times speaking to the negative effects of outside care on children’s behavior. What was lost in all the popular press pieces was that maternal sensitivity - how accurately and how consistently mothers were able to pick up on their children’s cues - was a much greater predictor than outside child care. Further, the increases in the behavior problems were so small that they  still fell within the normal range of behavior. This reporting caused undue stress and guilt among parents who didn’t have the background knowledge of the study. It was at this point that I decided I wanted my career to be focused on the transmission of measured and objective research. 

It was not, however, until I met Robin that the platform was created.

2. What kind of information did you think was missing out there that you thought this platform could fill? While there are a lot of wonderful sites out there, we really felt that objective reporting on scientifically rigorous studies of child development, education and the family context were missing from the popular press. Many studies of large samples of children are reported on in academic journals. Their findings have substantial consequences for children and their caretakers, yet often stay in academic journals never reaching parents or educators.

3. What kind of workshops do you offer on your platform? We offer workshops for parents and educators. We focus on pressing topics like understanding children’s anxiety, building children’s resilience to stress during COVID, and helping children feel safe through warm and supportive relationships.

4. How have these changed or adapted due to the ongoing pandemic? The pandemic has forced us to create on-line workshops, play groups and focus groups, some of which would have been in person otherwise. Right now, one of parents and teachers’ biggest concerns is the reopening of schools. In our last workshop, for example, we focused on how to help preschoolers prepare for the transition back to the classroom. For some children, this transition will trigger separation anxiety. What can parents do to prepare their child? And what can teachers do to create a classroom environment in which the child feels safe? The pandemic has also forced us to maintain as objective of an approach to presenting research as possible. This is such a heightened time of anxiety, especially for parents. More than ever, we seek multiple studies that research these current issues with diverse populations.

5. During the pandemic, families are spending so much more time together than ever before. Parents are taking on more roles than usual - what are your tips on preventing burn-out and dealing with this newfound stress? Maintaining a sense of balance during this time can be difficult, and getting moving to increase endorphins levels is important. However, even being told to find time and take care of oneself can make us anxious. The message of taking care of oneself is an important one, but making it a mandatory item on a check-list can actually create more stress. Sometimes doing something for yourself can mean getting up an hour early and working in silence to get a project done that has been lingering over your head and causing stress. It is important to identify the sources of one’s individual and unique stresses and come up with a way to cope with those. There is no one-size-fits-all solution, so if doing yoga is going to make you anxious because you have deadline looming then finishing the task at hand will probably be the best use of your time.

6. Parents are obviously entering uncharted territory with this new “back to school” season, any advice on how to navigate the pressures of at-home learning? At home learning can pose many challenges from defining one’s role as a parent vs as a teacher. Some ways to set boundaries as to one’s roles is to keep a routine that distinguishes learning time from other periods of the day. Also, when possible, having a designated work space can help maintain a designation between school time and other time.

If you are in a work environment that allows some flexibility, speaking to one’s colleagues about your work and schooling schedule may be helpful. For example, if your child is in math class from 11to12 every day, and that is a subject you often have to help them with then you might mention that you will be off email during those times.

7. Please tell us about some of your findings on how to best support schools, students and teachers during this time? Our research focused primarily on how to support parents. The amount of social support that parents felt they had predicted multiple aspects of well-being. Parents who reported having a strong social network were less likely to feel like homeschooling is a burden, to report anxiety over instructing their own children, and to report that having children at home negatively impacted their careers.

8. How can we help our kids stay connected and feel supported during this time where we are all feeling a bit isolated? This is such an important question and is one that a lot of parents expressed concerns about. One way that we can help kids stay connected is to help them connect with other children through video conferencing. Many parents have concerns about screen time, especially now given how much more time children are spending at home. However, screen time can either be passive or active. Passive screen time is what we normally imagine when we think of screen time - a child staring at the TV with their eyes glazed over. Active screen time, on the other hand, is highly interactive and personal. Whether it’s a children’s book club, an art class, or just a 1:1 conversation, the key to making this format an opportunity for social connection is for it to be a small group in which everyone has the opportunity to participate.

9. In your research, you discuss “overparenting.” Please explain how you define this, and what are some ways to avoid it, especially now? Avoiding “overparenting” can be extremely challenging. I find myself struggling with this. Over parenting involves protecting your children from feeling any sense of disappointment or failure. As parents we all know that seeing one's child upset is gut wrenching. However, allowing them to fail in a safe environment is just what they need to develop perseverance. 

Now that many of us have children doing remote learning, the tendency is to jump in and help with class work. We also sometimes can’t help but eavesdrop on their class hearing how their teachers are instructing them  in the classroom. We then might be tempted to help our child modify their style to what we think the teacher wants. Having such an open classroom experience is not a natural experience for children. I believe it is best to remain as removed as possible from children’s “virtual” classes and to only provide homework help when children themselves seek it. 

We have also found in our research that one of the most important relationships, especially in a young child’s life, is their relationship with their teacher(s). In several large, scale quantitative studies we have found that the quality of children’s relationships with teachers are significant predictors of children’s academic and social development through at least third grade. Overparenting may prevent a child from forming as strong a relationship with their teacher as possible.

10. Please tell us about this new program you are launching on your site in this month? Our new program, Strong Foundations, is a program to support families of children ages 1 to 6. ​We know as researchers that the effectiveness of any type of program or intervention is compounded when it takes the entire family system into account rather than just focusing on the child. We integrate virtual play-based sessions for children with psychological support for parents through group therapy sessions, Q&A sessions, learning modules tailored for parents’ concerns, and 1:1 consultations with psychologists. There are programs popping up that aim to address the pressing need for childcare, but none that take this holistic approach to supporting families.

The program’s design is based on results from a survey we conducted of over 500 parents about their experiences during the pandemic. We were struck by two things in particular from our analysis of the survey. First, parents who felt they had a strong support system fared much better than parents who felt they were alone in facing the challenges of quarantine and homeschooling. Second, parents’ own mental health was tightly wound with their children’s well-being. Strong Foundations provides families with support systems, both for children and for parents. 

The program officially starts on September 4th, but we have early bird prices for parents who join the waitlist before then!

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