Giving Thought: FocusedKids helps children learn to self-regulate

Tamara Tormohlen
Giving Thought
Tamara Tormohlen
Steve Mundinger

Local child and family therapist Kathy Hegberg, M.A., knows that preparing children for kindergarten takes more than learning the alphabet, days of the week and numbers. It also includes paying attention to healthy brain development.

One of the most important developmental jobs in early childhood, according to Kathy, is to learn self-regulation: the ability to manage emotions, thoughts and behaviors effectively. Today we’re speaking with Kathy about FocusedKids, the organization she launched that provides a simple program for schools and families to support a healthy foundation for early brain development and executive function.

Aspen Community Foundation: Please introduce us to FocusedKids.

Kathy Hegberg: FocusedKids is a community-based program that teaches children about their brains and to provide strategies to help them self-regulate. The FocusedKids core program offers a classroom curriculum teaching three parts of the brain, both live and online. Participants learn how the brain works and practice exercises that help calm and focus. Both teachers and children participate using FocusedKids supporting materials and a well-defined implementation schedule.

It began as a pilot program in 2013 to augment Valley Settlement’s preschool efforts. Over the years we have expanded to serve children ages 3-10 in public and charter school classrooms and private preschools. We are in all Roaring Fork School District elementary schools, several private preschools, and three charter schools. We also fully implemented at the Cave Creek School District, Arizona, in 2019-2021, grades pre-k through second grade.

The program includes eight core lessons with topics include building safe relationships, learning about the brain, and strategies for calming and focusing using the breath, movement, and the senses.

In addition, many other program components have evolved to address needs in the community including professional development for teachers, parent coaching, and modifications for children with special needs.

ACF: How has COVID changed FocusedKids’ work?

KH: FocusedKids shifted to an online model after COVID shut down schools. We continue to coach teachers and parents and conduct in-classroom classes using Zoom. Our ability to engage parents in our coaching classes has increased with the online model.

ACF: Your approach has been recognized by researchers. Tell us about that.

KH: We developed our evaluation plan in partnership with the Harvard University Center for the Developing Child in 2015. Our research shows that Focused kids positively impacts children and adults.

Preschool students, both Latino and white, are better prepared for kindergarten with self-regulation skills. Kindergarten teachers report these children are better prepared to pay attention, manage themselves and socially thrive. FocusedKids graduates can identify the parts of their brain responsible for big feelings, solving problems and learning, and remembering. In addition, they have the skills to reset their brain when they feel distracted or upset.

Teachers report using FocusedKids concepts daily with their students helps them maintain a calm, learning-ready classroom. They also report feeling calmer themselves. And parents report that the FocusedKids tools help foster a closer relationship with their children, with less conflict.

ACF: You’ve expanded your impact through partnerships with nonprofit organizations.

KH: Partner organizations use the FocusedKids curriculum with family visits, with informal child care providers, and families with children ages 0-3 to build safe relationships, a precursor to healthy brain development. To reach more families and children with the unique FocusedKids concepts, we provide regular training and coaching to our partners. They, in turn, use FocusedKids concepts with their families and providers. Our partners include: Family Resource Center of the Roaring Fork Schools, Valley Settlement, Early Childhood Network, Raising A Reader, and Summer Advantage Roaring Fork.

ACF: What are your plans for the near future?

KH: This summer, we are collaborating with Child Find to offer classes to families with children born during the pandemic. These babies have had little social interaction outside the family and are experiencing behavior difficulties and developmental delays. FocusedKids’ early learning specialist will offer small group classes in an outdoor setting. Parents will learn the FocusedKids concepts of co-regulation and strategies for helping their babies calm themselves. The group format allows toddlers to engage in social interaction using games, songs, and calming activities. In addition, they will practice calming and co-regulation strategies so that their brains are better prepared to grow.

Thanks to a grant from the Town of Basalt, FocusedKids will expand its program this Fall to fourth and fifth graders and their parents. Unfortunately, we see that middle-schoolers have had perhaps the most challenging time during COVID and are using unhealthy coping methods. Providing this age group with healthy strategies may better prepare them to manage stress, allowing them to thrive socially and academically.

Tamara Tormohlen is the executive director of Aspen Community Foundation.