youth and family services

Being a Veteran in the RHY Field

By: TC Cassidy, MPA, M.Div., CYC-P, Director of Technical Assistance / HTR3 Project Director, RHYTTAC / National Safe Place Network

When I was asked to write this blog as a veteran of the United States military and the RHY field, I struggled to find a balance between recognizing military veterans and recognizing veterans of the RHY field.

In recognition of military veterans I can think of no better words than those spoken by President Barack Obama:

“For their service and sacrifice, warm words of thanks from a grateful nation are more than warranted, but they aren’t nearly enough. We also owe our veterans the care they were promised and the benefits that they have earned. We have a sacred trust with those who wear the uniform of the United States of America.” 

In recognition of “veterans” of the RHY field I have tried to string together some words that address your service with one of our country’s most vulnerable populations. I believe the reason many of us are “veterans” of the field is our core belief in the truth found in the words of former President Dwight D. Eisenhower:

“Fortunately for us and our world, young people are not easily discouraged. The hopes of the world rest on the fresh outlook of young people.”

Our service in the child and youth care field, with runaway and homeless youth, provides opportunities for children, youth and young adults accessing our services to “change the world” just as our 2015 National RHY Grantees Conference tagline states. Our service also gives us the opportunity to become “veterans” of the RHY field and to honor the service of “veterans” that have gone before us to guide our work.

Some of the veterans that come to mind for me are people the field has lost in recent years: Pamela Johnson, Mark Krueger, and Ron Mortenson. I was fortunate to know and learn from each of these “veterans”; I was fortunate to call them colleagues, mentors, and friends. I could write pages about the impact Pam, Mark, and Ron had on me and my work.

Other “veterans” of the field are going to be sitting in a room at the 2015 Runaway and Homeless Youth Grantees Conference in a few days. I am fortunate to call you colleagues, mentors, and friends. I look forward to meeting you there to continue our work to end youth homelessness and provide opportunities for youth to change the world.

I hope each of you find an opportunity to connect with a “veteran” of the field that has impacted your work – at conference, by phone, email, Skype, Twitter, Facebook – to let them know how they have influenced your work with children, youth, young adults and families.

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Part Two of our “Brain Development” Series: The Brain and Crisis Situations

By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member

What determines the individual responses in times of crisis? Why do some freeze and become incapable of responding while others seem to thrive and rise to the challenge in the face of threat? We can look to genetics and a person’s upbringing to determine the neural pathways established in the brain that dictate the varied ranges of response to crises.

In the center of the brain and seated in the limbic system lies a small structure known as the amygdala. The amygdala houses fearful or threatening memories and uses this information to access incoming information to determine potential threats and initiate the “fight or flight” response required to deal with those threats. While information from the amygdala can be sent to the prefrontal lobe for higher cognitive and emotional assessment, it is important to understand that the amygdala is designed to respond immediately to ensure survival.

Genetics will determine the initial sensitivity and response rate of the amygdala. Some individuals are prone to quick emotional responses due to the innate sensitivity of amygdala responsiveness influenced by levels of neurotransmitters and cellular structure.  Early upbringing can either enhance or moderate this heightened sensitivity.

Early environment is crucial to the cellular development and connectivity of the amygdala because newborns enter the world unable to regulate their emotional responses.  When responsive caregivers immediately respond to meet the needs of their newborn, they help establish neural pathways in the brain that allow the infant to begin to self-regulate and self-sooth in times of distress. Infants who have caregivers that are unresponsive lack the opportunity to establish these pathways for self-regulation.  When caregivers are abusive, infants miss opportunities to self-regulate and the initial responsiveness of the amygdala is increased to respond to the threat. Neglectful and abusive environments heighten emotional responses and reactivity and all new information is processed against those threatening memories. An overactive amygdala results in increased anxiety, fear, distrust and mood disorders.

These early patterns generally persist throughout life. While intervention can help moderate the emotional response and change behavioral patterns, in times of crises or in unfamiliar situations we tend to revert to earlier patterns. Certain environmental features or characteristics and mannerisms of others can trigger old fearful memories and initiate the crisis response. Understanding how a person’s stress response was established can help predict their future behavior in crisis situations.

This blog post is the second in a three-part series on brain development. Click here to read the first blog, “General Brain Development.” Stay tuned for the final blog post on brain development!

Part One of our “Brain Development” Series: General Brain Development

By: Robin Donaldson, Chief Operating Officer, Indiana Youth Services Association & NSPN Advisory Board member

The human brain is a beautiful thing. Nothing matches a healthy brain in efficient, creative, and effective functioning. Normal brain development follows predictable patterns mirroring the mastery of developmental skills at different stages of life. It is important to understand, however, that brain development is strongly influenced by environment. An enriched, supportive environment facilitates healthy brain development; a deprived, harmful, or stressful environment greatly inhibits normal brain development.

There are two developmental periods during which brain growth and development is unparalleled: birth – toddlerhood and pre-adolescence. During both of these stages, there is a tremendous increase in brain matter, particularly in neural connections, or synapses, that allow the brain cells to communicate. This overabundance of brain matter is necessary to accommodate the significant learning that occurs during these periods.

Also common to both periods of brain development is the process called pruning. Neural pruning rids the brain of unused synapses to promote more efficient processing. Again, pruning is highly dependent upon the environment and individual experiences. Exposure to new skills and learning opportunities is crucial during these times.

There are also differences in the brain development of infancy / toddlerhood and adolescence and these differences reflect the developmental tasks that are key to each stage. Much of brain development in the earlier years is inhibitory; neural communication in the brain blocks brain activity in certain areas as the child learns to control their own bodies, emotions, and actions.  Brain growth in adolescence is excitatory; this is particularly true for the limbic system, the area of the brain integral to learning, reward, and emotions.

Key to understanding much of adolescent behavior is the knowledge that the limbic system develops and is “primed to respond” much sooner than the prefrontal cortex, the area controlling higher cognitive processes and higher emotional control. Due to this uneven growth pattern, adolescents experience heightened emotions, have more difficulty reading emotions and controlling their own emotions, and engage in thrill-seeking behavior at much greater extent than adults.

Because development of the prefrontal cortex is reliant upon experience, adults can create environments to facilitate this development. Learning opportunities, positive role modeling, adequate rest, diet, and exercise, effective coping skills and reduced exposure to risks factors such as alcohol, drugs, and stress, are all key components to healthy brain development. It is within our power to create experiences for youth that will allow them to maximize the most powerful tool at their disposal, the human brain.

This blog post is the first in a three-part series on brain development. Stay tuned for the next two blog posts on brain development!

Launched Today: Voices of Youth Count

VoYC logo

NSPN is pleased to announce the launch of Voices of Youth Count – http://www.voicesofyouthcount.org/.

Voices of Youth Count, led by Chapin Hall in collaboration with NSPN and partners across the country, seeks both a reliable national estimate of youth homelessness and a clearer picture of what it means to be young and homeless in America today. All efforts are aimed at finding and widely sharing solutions to preventing and ending youth homelessness.

The United States Interagency Council on Homelessness has spoken to the need to fill gaps in our knowledge about this highly vulnerable group, stating “…we know too little about the scale and nature of youth homelessness.”

Chapin Hall and its partners are ready to take on that challenge.

Beginning in mid-2015 through 2017, Voices of Youth Count will collect original data by interviewing and surveying youth and those around them, conducting quantitative analyses, rigorously examining the effectiveness of investments we are making as a country, analyzing existing federal, state, and local policies, and connecting findings to the existing knowledge base.

Evidence and recommendations will be purposefully linked to current local, state, and federal policy efforts with an eye on authorizing legislation, how programs are structured and funded, and the way in which services are delivered.

NSPN is excited to join Chapin Hall, myriad national and local advocates, community providers of youth services, philanthropists, policymakers, and youth in this effort. As the project evolves, learning will be shared on http://www.voicesofyouthcount.org/

Thank you for taking time to learn about this innovative research effort. We hope you will join NSPN on this journey of learning.

*Check out the official Voices of Youth Count launch video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ks6SwFCX-yM