The Rock Star program is currently looking for volunteers. For more information, contact email@example.com.
MANSFIELD — Can time spent in a rocking chair have a lasting impact on a child’s life?
Buffi Williams, a Mansfield native and licensed social worker, believes it can.
Williams has spent three decades working with troubled kids, trying to get to the root of bad behavior and help them turn their lives around. Now she’s attempting to tackle youth trauma at an earlier age — before they even set foot in kindergarten.
Williams is partnering with Christole Page of Lorine’s Little Learners, a daycare center in Mansfield’s North End, to found the “Rock Star” initiative. The program is part of a larger effort to teach emotional awareness and coping skills to young children.
Page and Williams already teach social and emotional wellness stills at the daycare by providing brief, age-appropriate lessons on feelings. This teaches children to recognize and not be afraid of their feelings, which is the first step in helping them deal appropriately with those emotions.
“We treat the children with respect, get down on that level when we're talking to them to let them know that their words matter and their feelings matter,” Page explained.
Members of the community have donated four rocking chairs to the daycare to further this work with the "Rock Star" initiative. Teachers and volunteers have begun using them as a tool for calming upset children.
The first step towards social and emotional wellness in children is creating a sense of peace and safety, which is crucial to early childhood development. Being rocked on a regular basis can help with this.
“I call rocking chairs a simple solution to a complex problem,” Williams said. “I'm trying to reduce the neurobiological effect of trauma. It's teaching them, ‘Wow, when I rock I calm down.’”
Jennifer Draper, a licensed professional counselor with Family Life Counseling and Psychiatric Services, said that when children feel comforted and safe, they subconsciously learn that they can calm themselves during times of stress.
“We're teaching them their own coping skills,” Draper explained. “Anything that we can provide that helps promote self regulation will carry with them throughout their life.”
The ability to self-soothe is a key part of self-regulation — the ability to manage one’s emotions and behavior. Williams believes it's never too early to start teaching children how to regulate their emotions.
“A lot of the problems that I see in my kids, even in elementary and middle school, I see them now,” Williams said, standing in the lobby of the daycare while toddlers and preschoolers played behind her.
“I want them to always understand that anger can be regulated. You're not stuck being angry all your life. You're not stuck being traumatized all your life.”
In addition to strengthening children’s self-regulatory skills, the rocking chairs will be used as an educational tool. Teachers and volunteers will work on literacy skills while rocking the children.
Williams believes practicing those skills in a calm environment will help kids focus and foster positive associations with reading — and eventually lead to more success in the classroom.
“When you get to kindergarten, you’re five years old. You’ve already created some norms of how you interact socially, how you look at education,” she said.
“I think our kids are afraid they can't do it; they're so easily defeated. So I want them to connect learning to being nourished in connection and belonging,” she said.
Draper confirmed that rocking can help children self-regulate and lead to better learning outcomes. Williams also noted good social emotional skills are crucial for being successful in school.
“During learning, self-regulation can help improve concentration and focus,” Draper said. “They're more able to cope with their emotions and behaviors in positive ways, so they can concentrate more on reading or what their teachers are saying.”
Movement can be especially helpful for children with ADHD, who may struggle to focus while sitting still. Some schools use rocking chairs, yoga balls or other non-traditional “fidget” seating to help students focus in the classroom.
“It looks like you're fidgeting, but you're actually trying to regulate,” Williams explained. “When you do that, you can't try to calm yourself down and learn at the same time.”
Workers who spend time with children one-on-one can also identify those in need of extra help.
Williams hopes that addressing learning disabilities and special needs early can put a dent in the "school-to-prison" pipeline.
“I have kids that are deeply involved in probation. All have an (individualized education program). All have reading comprehension issues,” she said. “What the program is going to do is make us very aware of looking for, ‘Does this child know how to decode? Do they understand that the alphabet creates words?’”
Williams said she’d love to continue the "Rock Star" movement by putting rocking chairs in daycares and schools. But first she wants to fine-tune the program and make sure it works.
“I'm trying to master this right now and really see whether or not this is going to increase reading scores,” she said.
Williams and Page are currently recruiting volunteers (a.k.a "rock stars") for the program. No teaching degree required; building literacy can be as simple as practicing letter sounds or spelling out simple words like c-a-t.
Mostly they are looking for anyone with a kind heart and a little patience.
“I want (the program) to represent that we can do great things right here on the North End of Mansfield,” Williams said. “If we're going to change the social economic climate of Mansfield, we have to have schools of high quality.
“If we're going to change our schools, it starts here.”