Blog & News

Teaching Children to Calm Themselves – A Blog Published in the New York Times

Here is an article that is particularly relevant to our treatment philosophies, recently published in the New York Times Opinion Pages:

When Luke gets angry, he tries to remember to look at his bracelet. It reminds him of what he can do to calm himself: stop, take a deep breath, count to four, give yourself a hug and, if necessary, ask an adult for help.

Luke is 5 and he has been practicing these steps for half a year at school and at home, thanks to a program called Head Start Trauma Smart that currently serves some 3,300 children annually in 26 counties in Kansas and Missouri. “We used to have to do these steps four or five times a day,” said Connie, his grandmother (who requested that I change her grandson’s name and omit her surname). “Now we’re down to four or five times a week.”

Luke’s difficulties stem from his earliest experiences. Before and after his birth, his parents regularly used drugs. His mother was unable to attend to him and his father was sent to prison shortly after his first birthday. Now he lives with his grandparents.

Children like Luke, who experience neglect, severe stress or sudden separation at a young age can be traumatized. Without appropriate adult support, trauma can interfere with  healthy brain development, inhibiting children’s ability to make good decisions, use memory or use sequential thought processes to work through problems. “Kids who have had significant chronic adversity become hypervigilant,” said Janine Hron, C.E.O. of the Crittenton Children’s Center, which developed the Head Start Trauma Smart program. “Their emotions overwhelm them. They have difficulty sleeping, difficulty tracking in class, they act out, and then they get kicked out of school. The numbers of people who are experiencing these traumas are really epidemic.”

As I have reported in this column, chronic childhood adversity is now understood to be far more prevalent than researchers have imagined. More than 50 percent of the children served by Head Start Trauma Smart have had three or more adverse childhood experiences. The list includes a family member incarcerated, an unexpected death in the family, depression, violence, abuse or drug use in the home, or periods of homelessness.

The education system responds bluntly to kids with these challenges. The standard arsenal of disciplinary measures — from yelling and “timeouts” to detentions and suspensions — are not just ineffective for children who have experienced traumatic stress; they make things worse. By some estimates, preschool expulsions are 13 times more common than K-12 expulsions — a finding that, given the bleak future it portends for these children (and the associated costs for society), should send alarm bells ringing across the nation.

In his Head Start class, Luke would explode into rages, screaming, pushing or hitting other children or his teachers. It inhibited his ability to learn and caused considerable distress to his classmates, teachers and grandparents.

Luke is receiving individual therapy. But he is also surrounded by caregivers who understand his needs and know how to respond when he needs help. Through the Head Start Trauma Smart model, teachers, parents and even the bus drivers and cafeteria workers who interact with children receive training in trauma.

This allows them to respond more skillfully, rather than reacting out of anger, frustration or resentment. Indeed, one of the biggest lessons for teachers and parents who undergo this training is that the very first step is learning how to calm, and care for, themselves, especially when they are overstressed.

The Head Start Trauma Smart program is still in its early stages, but the evidence is highly promising (pdf). To date, the program has produced significant gains as measured by the Classroom Assessment Scoring System, an instrument for gauging the quality of classroom relationships, as well as emotional and instructional support.

And using another standard assessment tool, the Achenbach system, parents and guardians of children who are receiving individual therapy (like Luke) have reported gains in a variety of areas: kids are less anxious and emotionally reactive, and less aggressive or withdrawn; attention deficit, hyperactivity and “oppositional defiant” problems have decreased; and parents report overwhelmingly that their children are sleeping better. The scores indicate that many kids have moved out of a “clinical range of concern” on several factors to within a normal range — a sign that they are better prepared to succeed in kindergarten.

That has been Luke’s experience, too. “Before the program, Luke was constantly in trouble, either off by himself or hitting other kids,” Connie said. “Now he can sit right next to others and he doesn’t bother them. Before he had no friends because other kids were scared of him. Now he’s got three friends. He knows his address and his ABCs and colors and we’re working on counting to 20.”

Head Start Trauma Smart is based on an evidence-based trauma intervention framework known as ARC (Attachment, Self-Regulation and Competency) developed by Kristine Kinniburgh and Margaret Blaustein at the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Brookline, Mass. Trauma interventions can be highly effective, but the challenge today is extending them from therapeutic settings — which are limited and expensive — into the broad systems that serve larger numbers of children.

Through the Head Start Trauma Smart training and mentoring programs, teachers, parents and others come to understand how trauma affects the brain and manifests itself in daily life. “Every behavior communicates a need,” said Kinniburgh, the co-developer of ARC and co-author of “Treating Traumatic Stress in Children and Adolescents.” “The question is, how do we help caregivers and teachers tune in and understand the messages that kids are really sending through their behavior?” And how to do it in real-time in a classroom with two dozen children or the checkout counter at Wal-Mart?

One key is remembering that children who have experienced trauma feel profoundly unsafe. When they are acting out, their primary need is often to feel a sense of connection. Instead of yelling, “Stop!” when a child is throwing a tantrum, or making the child sit alone in the corner, teachers learn to notice and name the child’s experience. (They wear bracelets, as reminders, too.)

“The minute you say to a child: ‘I can see you are so angry. Your fists are balled up and your face is scrunched up,’ they can relax because they know they’re being attuned to,” said Avis Smith, who directs the Prevention and Early Intervention Programs for the Crittenton Children’s Center.

At that point, the teacher can validate the child’s emotions by saying, “I’d be mad too if somebody took my block,” added Suzee Schulz-Marks, a Head Start teacher who has taught for 18 years and has found the trauma smart model — a new approach for her — to be highly effective. “You can let them know it’s O.K. to have those strong feelings, and that they are not alone with them.”

Next, the teacher, or parent, can help the child find a way to shift. Together, they problem-solve. The teacher might say, “‘Maybe you can use your words and say that everybody should get a chance to play with the blocks?’” added Schulz-Marks. But the child may not be ready for that. Or: “Would you like to go to the safe spot or sit on my lap? Take some deep breaths or use the breathing star?”

Breathing stars (playful breathing aids made out of file folders) are invaluable, teachers say. So are safe spots, or “calm-down corners,” with shoeboxes filled with sunglasses, pinwheels and tactile things: nail brushes with soft bristles, bendy Gumby animals, or pieces of burlap or velvet. (Some parents create their own calm-down corners at home, as well.) The main thing is for the children to discover the tools and methods that work for them. Through this process, they learn over time that they can gain control over themselves and return to an emotional place where they can enjoy playing and genuinely benefit from learning opportunities.

“Many adults are skeptical that kids can learn to respond to themselves,” said Lauren Clithero, a therapist who delivers the program’s training sessions in mid-Missouri. “It’s a big paradigm shift in how adults think they are supposed to take care of children. We think our job is to jump in and take control, but it’s much better to give kids choices and control over themselves.”

Another common misunderstanding, said Avis Smith, is when adults say: “He’s just looking for attention. I’m not going to give it to him because it will reinforce the behavior.”

“There’s a big difference between attention-seeking behavior and children seeking connection,” she added. “Validating children’s feelings and connecting with them on a personal level is a core need.”

It’s not just something for teachers or parents to do. Any adult can play a part in helping to heal a child, or anyone else, for that matter. One of the core goals of the Head Start Trauma Smart model is to create a common context so that everyone understands the impact and extent of traumatic stress, not just on children’s lives, but also on their lives of their friends and colleagues, and perhaps on their own lives, too.

Stephanie McIntosh said the training has changed the way she looks at the world. McIntosh has been a bus driver for more than 20 years. “I deal with preschoolers,” she said. “I’m the next adult the kids see in the morning when they go to school.” Sometimes the kids get on the bus in the morning carrying heavy feelings from home, fears about school, crying, sometimes acting out.

“I used to be the kind of person who said, ‘The way it looks is the way it is.’ But I don’t look at it that way anymore,” McIntosh said. “There are things that happen to people that we don’t know about. Now, I watch the kids better, their body language. I’m not the grouchy person who yells, ‘Sit down!’ or gets angry. I give them reassurances. They always want to give me hugs before they get off the bus. It makes my work more enjoyable.”

“I use my trauma training all the time,” she added. “I use it to calm myself down better. I use it in my home atmosphere and with adults in my church setting.”

The problem that Head Start Trauma Smart is trying to address is so widespread and so essential to human well-being that it’s hard to imagine an intervention that could yield greater payback for society — if the model proves to be scalable and transportable from community to community. Those are big questions, of course, and I will be tracking this work carefully as the answers emerge.

“What trauma does is steal from people the ability to feel safe and navigate relationships successfully,” said Chris Blodgett, who directs the Clear Trauma Center at Washington State University and is the principal researcher for the Spokane Safe Start program, which is similar to Head Start Trauma Smart. “Three- or 4-year-old children who have been exposed to trauma are at much greater risk of lacking the biological foundations or the behavior skills that will allow them to succeed in school and in life. The trauma keeps stealing their opportunities moment by moment and day by day.”

“If we can strengthen the sense of safety and the relationships around children, it creates a foundation for the natural process of development to get back on track,” he added. “We’re built to succeed as human beings. If that normal process gets disrupted, we need to do anything we can do to put it back on track.”

For Connie, the impact has been direct: “Before, I was always the bad guy. Whenever I made Luke sit quietly by himself, he said, ‘Grandma, I hate you.’ Now I know that’s not what was needed. And he’s also able to step back and look. He even says, ‘Thank you, Grandma,’ and gives me a hug after he calms down. He’s a very intelligent person if he can get past the anger.”

Access the article here:

BizTimes features Meta House YP Collaborative

Featured in June 6, 2014 BizTimes E-Newsletter

Meta House forms YP Collaborative

Meta House has taken the first steps of organizing a young professionals’ volunteer group to help the nonprofit organization make greater strides in supporting women overcoming substance abuse.The new movement, known as the YP Collaborative, launched on Saturday, May 31, with a service day held on the grounds of Meta House in Milwaukee.

Through the collaborative, Meta House aims to connect young professionals with meaningful opportunities to donate their time and talent. While professionals just starting their careers may not have the funds to make significant financial contributions, they have the energy and enthusiasm to impact their communities in a more hands-on capacity, said Amy Lindner, president and CEO of Meta House.

During the nonprofit’s service day on May 31, about 25 young professionals from the Milwaukee area rolled up their sleeves to complete renovation projects including interior painting, redecorating, landscaping and organizing.
A second service day will follow on Saturday, June 7, with similar projects planned for a new wave of young professional volunteers. Meta House expects at least 35 participants and currently has about 10 spots open for interested volunteers.

While Meta House is not yet certain how it will roll out additional programming within the collaborative, it plans to consult its individual volunteers about ways they’d like to invest their time into its mission.

“I think it’s just a chance to meet each individual person where they’re at, and if they’re moved by our mission as I am, maybe they’ll want to get involved in a way that makes the most sense for them,” Lindner said.

The organization is open to the possibility of other group volunteer projects, board and committee service from young professionals, advocacy work with young professionals, and partnerships with participants’ workplace charity efforts.
Figuring out how to give back to the community is a “really important part” of professional development, Lindner said.
“If we can be part of that journey for some people, that feels really good,” she said.

To bring all YP Collaborative volunteers together, along with any other community members interested in joining the initiative, Meta House will host a networking event on Thursday, June 12, at Discovery World, 500 N. Harbor Dr. in Milwaukee. The event is free to service day volunteers and costs $35 for other attendees.

Sponsors of the new YP Collaborative include the Bartolotta Restaurant Group, Johnson Controls, First Business Bank, MillerCoors, Indulge Studios, and 88.9 Radio Milwaukee.

Access the article here.

Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service Covers Meta House Reading Room Opening

New reading room gives women in recovery a place to relax with kids
May 20, 2014
by Karen Slattery

Who doesn’t love a good story?

Now the children of women in recovery for drug and alcohol addictions at Milwaukee’s Meta House will have lots of stories to hear and to read.

The new reading room at Meta House’s transitional facility was a gift to the women and children who live there, created by a group of five volunteers as a class requirement for the Future Milwaukee leadership program.

Future Milwaukee, affiliated with Marquette University’s College of Professional Studies, trains leaders to make change through civic work. Chris Welker said his group had two interests in mind for their project, “childhood literacy and women’s housing.”

Meta House offered a room in the basement of its transitional facility, a large, red brick apartment building. The room was sparsely furnished — tables, chairs and a couch. Women met there to visit or play cards.

Now the walls are decorated with artwork.  Bookcases full of stories, including “Let’s Catch Stars,” “How Do Lions Say I Love You?” and “Joshua’s Song,” line the sides of the room.  Throw pillows, bursting with bright colors, on the couch and beanbag chairs invite mothers and children to sit down and open a book.

Mothers in treatment at Meta House are allowed to live with their children, ages 10 or younger. The private, non-profit organization served 423 women suffering from addiction in its residential, transitional and outpatient facilities last year. According to spokesperson Sarah Pollack, the program offers daycare for children who need attention while their mothers are in group sessions or meetings with counselors.

The reading room project began last fall. Since then, the Future Milwaukee team has collected money, toys, pillows and more than 1,500 books. The team comprised Walker, Marisol Alamo, Sherri Jordan, Chelsea Johnson and Ryan Sawall.

At a recent reception, Meta House President and CEO Amy Lindner thanked the group for transforming the room, which she called “brand new and beautiful.”

Lindner also told mothers that the space will help them repair the physical and emotional relationships damaged by drug and alcohol dependence. She encouraged them to reread a favorite book, help their children with homework and “build warm and lasting memories” in the reading room.

Before the food was gone and the celebration ended, mothers and children had seated themselves on the couch, in the beanbag chairs and on the floor to look at books.

Timothy, age 2, sat on his mother Denise’s lap as they worked their way through a copy of  “I’m a Little Teapot.”  Said Denise, a Meta House client,  “We will be down here a lot more to sit and read.  My children will learn to like reading.”

A toddler named Storm, in a client’s arms, kept herself busy with a book called “Choo, choo.”  Said Storm’s mother, Shelonda, “It is so nice to have more to do with the children.” Added her friend, “All these books at our disposal. This is great, just great.”

Timothy and Storm were both too young to say much about the books that had grabbed their attention, but 5-year-old Gaely, sitting next to her mother, was quick to speak her mind.  Said Gaely enthusiastically, “I love books!”

See the article here.

A Day for Meta House 2014 – THANK YOU!

We’d like to extend a wholehearted thank you to all those who attended this year’s A Day for Meta House. With your support, we were able to smash our goal and raise over $150,000 to support Milwaukee families.

As we are talking about this amazing achievement, it’s important to realize that every dollar raised is an investment made in the futures of our women and their families. When kids are healthy and living in a stable environment, they are able to absorb the skills our counselors and staff instill in them every day. Because of this, we are able to make huge strides towards our goal of breaking the cycle of addiction and helping women become self-sufficient members of our community.

So, thank you, once again, to each and every person who supported this event and helped us achieve this remarkable accomplishment. Thank you also to our amazing sponsors who underwrote this year’s events – Harley-Davidson, The Jay Schmidt Group in partnership with Keller Williams, CliftonLarsonAllen,  BMO Harris Bank, Godfrey & Kahn, MGIC, Brookfield Badger Insurance in partnership with West Bend Insurance, Reinhart Boerner Van Deuren, Culvers VIP Foundation and Extendicare.

If you still want to invest in the lives of local women and children, please visit the donate tab on our website. No matter the amount of your contribution, you are helping women reclaim their lives and rebuild their families; thank you for choosing to be part of this transformational work!

Meta House Board Member Tonit Calaway Named 2014 Woman of Influence

From The Milwaukee Business Journal:

By: Stacy Vogel Davis

Tonit Calaway, Susan Lloyd among third group of Women of Influence winners

It’s been a fun week announcing our Women of Influence winners and seeing the response.

The fun will continue June 20 when we hold our awards luncheon and publish a special section in honor of these women. The luncheon is our largest event of the year, drawing more than 800 people last year. It’s heartwarming to see all the families, friends and colleagues turn out to celebrate the winners’ accomplishments.

Today, we announce our last group of winners in the categories of community supporter, entrepreneur and inspiration. Check out blogs from Tuesday and Wednesday announcing the rest of the winners, or pick up a copy of the May 2 weekly edition to see the complete list.

Stay tuned to the Milwaukee Business Journal’s website and print edition in the coming weeks to learn more about the winners. Here are the final names:

Community supporter



Announcing the Jan Rhodes Scholarship

The Jan Rhodes Scholarship is an opportunity for Meta House to recognize one client or graduate each calendar year who has made significant progress toward achieving economic self-sufficiency. Both academic achievements and/or recent employment would make a woman eligible for the Jan Rhodes Scholarship.

Who is eligible to apply? Current clients and women who have graduated within the past two years are eligible to apply. Applicants must currently be enrolled in school, be actively participating in classes to obtain a GED or have accepted a job offer / started a new job within the past three months.

One Jan Rhodes Scholar will be chosen each year. The winner will receive $250 toward qualifying educational expenses (like tuition or books) or in the form of a gift certificate to purchase work attire.

This application is due to Linda Catterson by Friday, March 28, 2014.

The scholarship was created in honor of Jan Rhodes, who dedicated 20 years of her life to volunteering and Board Service on behalf of the women and children served at Meta House.


Please click this link to download the fillable application form:  Jan Rhodes Scholarship Application_fillable.

If you have questions or would like to submit electronically, please contact Sarah Pollack at (414) 977-5803 or email 

Honoring the Dedication of Meta House Volunteer, Bobbi Timberlake

Congratulations to Bobbi Timberlake on being honored as the Volunteer Center of Greater Milwaukee’s Volunteer of the Month!

Bobbi has been involved in community issues throughout her professional career, and has continued to dedicate her time and energy to causes that she is most passionate about in her retirement.

She first became involved with Meta House four years ago as a table captain for “A Day for Meta House,” an annual fundraising event for the organization.  Bobbi has continued in this role each subsequent year, and has since become more involved with programming. She notes, “my main and ongoing role at Meta House has been bringing my therapy dog, a Golden Retriever named “Chobe,” there several times a month. Chobe and I attend both process and educational groups. He “works the crowd,” going to anyone who would like some time petting him. There is evidence that stroking an animal lowers a person’s blood pressure and stress level (also the dog’s, by the way).”

Bobbi attributes that, due to her involvement with Meta House, she’s, “learned so much about the nature of addictions and efforts at recovery. But mostly [she’s] learned to respect and appreciate the struggles, fortitude, and great wisdom of so many of the women who come to Meta House. It’s awe-inspiring.”

Thank you, Bobbi, for your time and dedication to improving the quality of life for Meta House families!

Read the full article here.

Celebrating a Tobacco-Free Meta House!


Thank you to the Wisconsin Nicotine Treatment Integration Project (WiNTiP) for supporting Meta House’s Tobacco Cessation Program!

Did you know that since Meta House’s Residential Program became smoke-free in July 2012, not one infant has been diagnosed with asthma? We’ve also had a dramatic reduction in the number of emergency room and urgent care visits for bronchitis, upper respiratory, and ear infections in both women and children.

We’re so proud of the Meta House clients and graduates who have quit smoking!

Thank you, WiNTiP, for helping improve the health  of our families!

Watch a video about the program here.