The Developing Brain

By: Rebecca Copans

Lucy, 3 years old, heading to her first day of preschool.

As a parent, you want nothing more than for your child to be happy and healthy, to make friends, and to be accepted and integrated with their peers. When one of those pieces doesn’t fall into place as you would hope, you start asking questions.  You talk to your friends and neighbors, you ask for help from your primary care provider, and you call Lamoille County Mental Health Services.

From when she was a toddler, my daughter Lucy struggled with communicating her needs in a socially acceptable way.  As an infant, we taught her baby sign language and she was incredibly proficient in verbal language at an early age. Also from a young age, however, she was paralyzed by social pressures and extreme shyness. When she was three and entered preschool, it didn’t go well. A brand new teacher fresh out of college combined with some energetic kids is a recipe for chaos. Sprinkle in social, emotional and behavioral challenges, and it can be a recipe for disaster.

It all came to a head when we were invited to a birthday party in March, seven months into the program and I saw firsthand what she had been trying to tell me week after week. She would come home and say, “No one played with me today.” Or, “I don’t have any friends at school.”  Impossible, I thought. This is preschool, where they learn to be friends and care about each other equally—right? Wrong. It was like watching a car wreck. I was rooted to the spot, transfixed as parents chatted around me, oblivious to the scene that our children were playing out with each other. There were leaders and followers, cliques and bullying, and passive-aggressive exclusion that was closer to how seventh-grade girls infamously treat each other. This was a 4-year old’s birthday party. I was shocked. I have never felt so acutely that I failed as a parent. I didn’t listen to this tiny little person tell me over and over that she needed help figuring out how to navigate an incredibly stressful situation. It was like a language that everyone else could speak but her.

We asked for advice, I cried a whole lot, and ultimately we changed schools. Within three weeks of being enrolled in her new school, her teachers surged to action. We created a plan and began pulling in an incredible array of wrap-around services.They suggested screenings and behavioral interventions and within months and with some incredible people in her corner, things began slowly to improve, tiny step by tiny step.

From under a porch chair “fort”, 5 year old Lucy weaves a story for her brother Hazen.

Lucy, who suffers from a heady mix of debilitating shyness, ADHD and learning disabilities, was taught to scaffold mental prompts that allow most children seemingly automatically to wait for a turn at the paper towel dispenser (rather than pushing past to avoid having to think of something to say—and then say it—to the child blocking her way), to wait quietly in line to go outside for recess, to ask a teacher for help navigating a problem, or, the Everest: to ask “can I play?” Working with the behavioral interventionist, we created a playbook so that her family and her teachers were all working from the same place and using the same language.

Those early interventions helped to rewire her brain. She was given the tools to ask with her words rather than by hurling her body through space, and was able to integrate gracefully into playing with her peers by having a coach whispering prompts in her ear. As those prompts become ingrained, and with her incredible early educators mimicking the behavior interventionist’s language, the social fabric of her life became more normalized. By the time she entered Kindergarten, that coach standing by her shoulder was no longer needed, and in fact, her problem-solving skills became tools that her Kindergarten peers learned from Lucy.

When Lucy was a toddler, we thought that her actions were simply normal—we had nothing to compare it to. We thought parenting was simply the hardest job on the planet and didn’t realize how much help was available in the community. I didn’t know that our designated mental health agency or our local parent-child center offered resources for someone with Lucy’s developmental challenges, and for us, as parents raising her. I had the misconception that those agencies were reserved only for low-income Vermonters. We had no idea where to turn and grew increasingly panicked.

Studies from the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University have shown that in the first years of life, a developing brain forms one million connections every second. By the age of by the age of five, 90% of the brain is developed. If we had waited until Lucy reached Kindergarten before putting behavior interventions in place, the work in bending her trajectory would have become much more difficult.

Lucy is far from alone on her path. A 2015 VT Digger story noted,

“Vermont has the highest rate of identifying students with emotional disturbance in the country. As a percentage of all students who received special education services in the 2012-13 school year in Vermont, about 16 percent were identified with an emotional disturbance, according to federal data. That is more than twice the national average of 6.3 percent.”

Some experts have argued that Vermont is simply doing a better job than other states at early identification and intervention.

During the 2016-2017 School Year, the School-Based Clinician Program at Lamoille County Mental Health supported over 120 children like Lucy from preschool-age to high school seniors. These dedicated individuals provided individual, group, and team support for students in their learning environments. School-Based Clinicians teach and practice mindfulness techniques with children, organize running and fitness groups, support skill development in the areas of self-advocacy, self-regulation, identifying and verbalizing emotional states, peer conflict resolution, verbal and non-verbal communication, and development of reciprocal play skills. They also facilitate training sessions for an increase in trauma-informed approaches in schools. These services are now available in 12 schools with a potential to serve over 200 children in the Lamoille Valley.

The Redwood Program at LCMHS contracts with school districts to offer wrap-around, full-year behavioral interventions for children. The children engaged in the program during the school year then attend a six-week summer camp that has precipitously lowered the crisis rate for kids returning to school in the fall. The Redwood Summer Camp is free for students enrolled in the Redwood Program and prevents a lot of kids from needing more expensive therapies. It maintains structure for the children during the summer and builds and strengthens the relationships between the kids and the incredible cohort of behavioral interventionists.

At 7 years old, Lucy is thriving with school-based supports.

The Access Program at LCMHS offers Community Skills Work (CSW), allowing children to connect with this service when in crisis. At its peak this year, the CSW Program served approximately 60 children at one time. In addition to weekly visits with children, the program also supports activities such as Wellness Camp, Children’s Emotional Wellness Day and the Resource Parent Curriculum Plus (RPC+) Children’s Group—an incredible program that supports placement stability for children in foster care. The CSW Program is connected with several local organizations, offering access to activities such as swimming, ice skating, gyms, game rooms, and State Parks.

During that first year of preschool, I was sure that Lucy would never be able to succeed socially in school.  Now as a second grader, she has wonderful friends, she is successful in dance and gymnastics, she is able to have playdates that don’t reliably devolve into tears, and on any given day a stranger in the grocery store wouldn’t know the challenges she faces—all things that would have seemed impossible four years ago. Without those early interventions, this trajectory would be heading in a very different direction. When parents are at a loss as to how to help their child, they need to know that they aren’t alone and that help can be found right here in Lamoille. Parenting is hard in the best of situations and if you are struggling, some days it just feels impossible. Support is just right down the street. If you or someone you know could use some help with a child who is struggling, don’t wait until it’s a crisis to ask for help.

If you or a child you know needs help, call Lamoille County Mental Health at (802) 888-5026 or visit www.lamoille.org.


Rebecca Copans has worked extensively in government affairs, public relations and communications. As a society, our greatest potential lies with our children. With this basic tenant firmly in mind, Rebecca worked most recently with the Permanent Fund for Vermont’s Children and now with Lamoille County Mental Health to secure a stronger foundation for all Vermont families. 

A graduate of the University of Vermont and Dartmouth College, Rebecca holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in globalization. Her thesis concentration was the history and societal use of language and its effect on early cognitive development. She lives in Montpelier with her husband and three children.

About the author

Live Well Lamoille
Live Well Lamoille

The Live Well Lamoille blog is a collaborative community effort. We hope you find this blog to be a valuable resource and use it to share information and encourage one another to make healthy choices.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>