Dr. Lauren Starnes Of The Goddard School On Raising Children Who Are Mentally & Emotionally Healthy
An Interview With Maria Angelova
Play. Young children explore thoughts, ideas, experiences, and the world around them through play. Engage with your child in imaginative play and have your child tell you what role you are to play. Listen to what your child says and note the vocabulary they use. You may recognize your own phrases, tone of voice, or even an unknown overheard conversation emerge as the child creates a play experience for you.
Our children are facing challenges that didn’t exist just a short while ago. They are growing up with social media, constantly being connected, and the hurried pace of life today, as well as the pandemic, and the often frightening news. In short, our children are facing unprecedented mental health challenges. Anxiety, depression, and even suicide are on the rise. As parents and educators, what can we do to raise children who are mentally healthy? In this interview series, we are talking to authors, parenting experts and mental health professionals who can share their expertise and advice on Raising Children Who Are Mentally Healthy. As a part of this series, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Dr. Lauren Starnes.
Dr. Lauren Starnes is an expert in early childhood education. She serves as senior vice president and chief academic officer at Goddard Systems, LLC, manager of The Goddard School franchise system. She has completed dual doctoral programs in child development and educational leadership from North Carolina State University and Liberty University respectively. She also received a master’s degree in child development from North Carolina State University and bachelor’s degree in psychology from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Dr. Starnes is the author of the book “Big Conversations with Little Children: Addressing Questions, Worries, and Fears,” which is a great resource for parents and teachers looking for advice on how to discuss complicated and important topics with children.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to hear a little about you. Inspire us with your backstory! What are some lessons you would share with your younger self if you had the opportunity?
If I were to turn back time, I would encourage myself to slow down and enjoy the process. So often with the drive of professional success, educational attainment, and job advancements, it is easy to get caught up in focusing on the next rung as opposed to slowing down and reflecting. I would encourage myself to invest more time in mentorship — receiving more guidance from more knowledgeable people — and taking more time to share my life experiences with those along my journey. The impact of learning from others is invaluable and enriches both the mentor and mentee.
None of us are able to experience success without support along the way. Is there a particular person for whom you are grateful because of the support he/ she gave you to get where you are today? Can you share that story and why you are grateful for that person?
I am blessed to have had many powerful mentors and encouraging people to support me. While I can think of so many, one person who had an important impact in my early professional life was Dr. Jason Osborne, whom I worked with at North Carolina State University. My first doctoral program was focused on child development with a specialization in cognition and memory. It was Jason who encouraged me to channel that expertise, interest, and specialty into education. While teaching at North Carolina State University, Jason who mentored me, coached me, and constantly challenged me. When I would come to him with a problem, he would respond with a question and never an answer. He forced me to not only trust my knowledge, but he empowered me with a deeper confidence in my discipline. Jason was the type of mentor who would constantly push me just beyond my comfort zone, be it in grant work, research projects, higher level statistical analyses, or trailblazing teaching new courses in new departments at the university. When I left the university to lead a school, Jason understood my decision. Years later when I completed my second doctoral program, this one in educational leadership, his response was quite simple: “I always knew you were an educator at heart. Lead and inspire others. You can do as much as you wish to with your mind and your leadership.”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think they might help people?
I am currently leading a dream team of early childhood educators in the development of a new innovative and proprietary educational program for all Goddard Schools. This educational program reflects the most current research, strongest proven approaches to learning, and elevates the wonder and curiosity of children. One strong component of this program is the added feature of elevating the role of the teacher to be able to successfully follow the interests and inquiries of children while providing a robust and enriched learning experience academically, socially, and emotionally. While Goddard Schools has always been the exemplar of premium early childhood education, this new program will further differentiate the brand and demonstrate the unparalleled strength of this program.
Ok, thank you. Let’s talk about raising emotionally and mentally healthy children. In the Western world, humans typically have their physical needs met. But what has led to the tremendous downgrade in emotional and mental health that we are seeing today, especially for children? What is lacking in the mental health arena? Why are so many of our children struggling today?
The pendulum has swung in early childhood education and COVID-19 has also had a notable effect. The focus in early childhood swung sharply to overly emphasize the academic skill development of early literacy and mathematics. Increasing pressure was placed on education systems to produce and be able to demonstrate academic outcome measures. Regrettably, this was done at the expense of focusing on the social and emotional development of the child, which luckily has a heightened focus now.
COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the social and emotional development of young children. While young children are resilient, no one, notably no child, is immune from the systemic effects of stress. The stress on families regarding health, career, and social isolation directly impact children. Social experiences that children normatively have at younger ages are delayed.
It is critical that we appreciate a child who is able to verbalize his or her feelings, identify emotional responses in others, knows how to interact and engage with others, and can make decisions is a child who is ready to learn. Supporting young children’s social and emotional development is not a nice-to-do, it is a must-do.
How does technology play into the equation of mental and emotional well-being? What about social media?
Interacting with media is not the same as interacting with people. Children need experiences interacting with others and learning how to identify, interpret, and respond to the behavior and non-verbal cues of others. Technology is a tool of our generation and there are fascinating apps and programs available for young children. None of them, however, are a suitable substitution for young children interacting with adults and other children in engaging play. Social media is not relevant to young children and needs to be carefully monitored to ensure children are not being exposed to content that is not developmentally appropriate.
Obviously, this is a huge issue, and it seems to be growing. What are some small, practical tips, or tweaks, that parents and educators can easily implement to help their children who are struggling?
Parents need to trust their intuition. If you are worried that your child is struggling socially or emotionally, talk to your child and seek medical advice. Observe your child’s behavior, reactions, and language. Note your child’s sleeping habits, eating habits, and emotional reactions. Ask your child how he or she is feeling and listen with full attention. Even if your child surfaces fears or anxieties which seem outlandish, remember that your child’s perception is his or her reality. Ask your child on a regular basis how he or she is feeling, label your own emotions in conversations with your child, and model ways to manage big feelings when they feel out of control.
In your professional opinion, what are certain triggers or signs that the state of a child’s mental and emotional health is not at its best? What is the best way to be proactive and address these signs from the get-go?
Watch to see if your child is sleeping significantly more or less than usual, eating significantly more or less than usual, experiencing intense emotional reactions, withdrawing from previously enjoyed activities, and preserving thoughts, fears, or anxieties that do not resolve. If you notice changes in your child, spend uninterrupted time with him or her and ask directly about how your child is feeling. Articulate the behaviors you are seeing and then probe your child directly, such as “You had a very big reaction to going to school. You cried for 30 minutes, you didn’t want to leave the house, you refused to get in the car, and you said you hate school. Something about school or going to school is bothering you. Can you tell me more about how you are feeling?” Seek a partner in your child’s teacher to see if similar behaviors are being observed in different environments, and then feel comfortable talking with your child’s pediatrician about the behavioral patterns and what might be medically recommended.
Okay, fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview: Can you share with our readers your “5 things parents can do to raise children who are emotionally and mentally healthy”? Please share a story or example for each.
- Be present. Children live in a fast-paced world and things happen around children frequently. This constant hustle and bustle can be overwhelming for young children and can leave them with numerous questions and wonderings. Carve out time each day to disconnect from devices and be fully present with your child. We ask children to give us their full attention, so it is critical that we reciprocate this respect. When my sons were younger, I made a point every day to engage with them one-on-one with no distractions. This led to them asking big questions, sharing things they had learned that day, making up a new game to play, or even sometimes just having a quiet moment with a hug. In fact, some of the inspiration from my book came from those big questions my sons would ask in those distraction-free moments.
- Pause. Children ask us questions all the time. Sometimes we ignore them, sometimes we silence them, sometimes we respond. Rarely, however, do we then pause and give our child time to process, reflect, and respond back. Young children take longer to cognitively process, and it’s important to honor their questions and our responses as a conversation not a transaction. I remember a 4-year-old child asking me a question in a school once, “Do you know my grandpa has “oltimers” and forgets stuff?” I answered “No, I did not know your grandfather had Alzheimer’s. Thank you for sharing that with me. How does it make you feel knowing your grandfather forgets things sometimes?” He responded back, “Hmmm.” I could see he was in thought, and I paused. Almost two full minutes later, he said, “I am sad for Mommy. It makes Mommy cry when he forgets.” and he gave me a big hug. The conversation continued, but what a special moment and insight by such a young child.
- Label emotions. It is important for young children to learn that adults experience emotions too and to learn how adults handle them. Normalizing emotions makes young children more self-aware and empathetic to others. A few weeks ago, while visiting a school, a young 3-year-old was having an emotional meltdown. After the child had calmed a bit, I spoke with her and told her that sometimes I feel sad too. She looked at me with big eyes and said, “You do?” I assured her I did and that sometimes when my feelings feel much too big and my sad feels much too sad that I like to put on music and dance my sad out. She smiled at me and began to jump up and down, dancing in her own way. Emotions should never be shamed, but rather should be shared.
- Play. Young children explore thoughts, ideas, experiences, and the world around them through play. Engage with your child in imaginative play and have your child tell you what role you are to play. Listen to what your child says and note the vocabulary they use. You may recognize your own phrases, tone of voice, or even an unknown overheard conversation emerge as the child creates a play experience for you.
- Raise the bar. Children will naturally rise to the level of expectation. Use vocabulary to challenge them slightly. Ask your child questions that force him or her to formulate an opinion and give your child a problem to solve. You may be surprised at what your child is able to do when you push him or her just outside of their comfort zone. Politics can be a tricky topic with children who lack life knowledge and political insight to make informed decisions. I think about a recent political season where a young child asked me, “Who are you voting for?” Rather than answer, I asked her, “Who should I vote for?” When she responded, I asked her “Why?” It was fascinating to hear this young child repeat what she had heard in political ads but also to begin to make connections between that and what she thought of the world in her limited experience. When she was done explaining to me the ‘correct’ choice, she paused. “I bet we win!” she exclaimed. When the election results were announced a few weeks later, I laughed to myself at her correct prediction winning the political race.
Do you have any favorite books or resources you recommend to our audience reading this interview?
One of my strong influences in my career was Fred Rogers. I would encourage readers to watch the documentary on his work, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” As for books, I recommend “The Importance of Being Little: What Young Children Really Need from Grown-ups” by Erika Christakis, “What If: Short Stories to Spark Inclusion & Diversity Dialogue” by Steve Robbins, PhD, and “The Gift of Struggle — Life Changing Lessons about Leading” by Bobby Herrera.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
It is critical that we give children more of a voice. Children are constantly observing and trying to make sense of their world. When young children ask questions or make observations, we must honor and respect this with time, attention, focus, and honest responses. A child who knows that he or she has trusted adults who listen to him or her and address his or her curiosities will be far more likely to seek out that adult when he or she is feeling overwhelmed, scared, or anxious.
What is the best way for our readers to continue to follow your work online?
I encourage readers to follow me on LinkedIn at www.linkedin.com/in/dr-lauren-starnes
Readers can also find my book and my story about my book at DrLaurenStarnes.com.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About The Interviewer: Maria Angelova, MBA is a disruptor, author, motivational speaker, body-mind expert, Pilates teacher, and founder and CEO of Rebellious Intl. As a disruptor, Maria is on a mission to change the face of the wellness industry by shifting the self-care mindset for consumers and providers alike. As a mind-body coach, Maria’s superpower is alignment which helps clients create a strong body and a calm mind so they can live a life of freedom, happiness, and fulfillment. Prior to founding Rebellious Intl, Maria was a Finance Director and a professional with 17+ years of progressive corporate experience in the Telecommunications, Finance, and Insurance industries. Born in Bulgaria, Maria moved to the United States in 1992. She graduated summa cum laude from both Georgia State University (MBA, Finance) and the University of Georgia (BBA, Finance). Maria’s favorite job is being a mom. Maria enjoys learning, coaching, creating authentic connections, working out, Latin dancing, traveling, and spending time with her tribe. To contact Maria, email her at email@example.com. To schedule a free consultation, click here.