Curated Topics, Community Voices

The Hackett Center Newsletter, May 2024

Welcome to our latest edition, featuring topics, news, and people that are shaping how we are putting policy into practice throughout Greater Houston and the Texas Gulf Coast.

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Message from Dr. Quianta Moore

Welcome to the spring edition of The Hackett Center News. In this issue, we focus on the power of relationships that affect our health and well-being. The science of relational health is compelling, with studies in multiple disciplines concluding that our connections to each other serve as a buffer against the effects of chronic stress and anxiety. In other words, we are biologically built to thrive in a caring community. I am thrilled to lead The Hackett Center in strategic work to deepen meaningful connections at monumental times throughout the life course, including early childhood, parenthood, and adolescence. I hope you enjoy learning more about relational health, our Brain Builders program that supports the parent/child connections essential to strong and resilient brain development, and the work of our partners in the field. As always, this issue closes with a personal story from one of our fantastic staff members, a Brain Builders graduate who is now working to bring the program to other mothers.

Family Resilience / Early Relational Health

Strengthening Children's Development and Family Resilience through Early Relational Health

Social connection, the experience of feeling connected or close to others, is an essential component of human well-being and survival (source). According to the Centers for Disease Control, people who are socially connected have better mental and physical health and are better able to cope with anxiety and depression (source). Primary human connection is one of the reasons why relational health is so important. Relational health is cultivating and maintaining secure, consistent, and caring connections with others, and doing so can protect against excessive exposure to the body’s stress response systems (source). Relational health relates to the quality and healthiness of connections among individuals, which includes romantic partnerships, friendships, familial relations, and professional associations (source). Many factors influence a person’s relational health, including communication skills, trust, mutual respect, empathy, support, and conflict-resolution abilities (source).

There is a growing body of research around early relational health, a specialized model focusing on the immediate interactions between parents or caregivers and infants and toddlers. Research supports the idea that, for children, positive relational experiences both foster healthy physical development and prevent future health issues (source). Promotion of healthy early relationships supports families to protect against childhood adversity, particularly during the ongoing mental health crisis affecting both children and their parents/caregivers (source). It is important to note that early relational health is not just about child development. The latest developments in neuroscience underscore the adult brain’s ability to adjust and develop in preparation for and in reaction to caregiving encounters, both before and during the initial stages of parenthood (source). Responsive caregiving experiences strengthen maternal-infant bonding and empathy and can impact hormone levels, which can reduce symptoms of maternal anxiety and depression (source). Such experiences have the potential to bolster stress resilience and promote cardiac health (source).

Early relational health is crucial for overall family resilience, which is necessary to navigate life’s ups and downs and promote the well-being of families (source) (source) (source). Daily experiences, communication styles, support systems, and coping strategies are intimately linked to family resilience and relational health (source). By nurturing positive relationships within the family, families can enhance their resilience and ability to thrive in adversity. Building family resilience and promoting early relational health is beneficial for both children and the adults who care for them.

Project Highlights

Brain Builders

Free Program to Support New Parents by Creating Resilient Brain Development and Social Connections

“When coming over to visit and hold the new baby, don’t forget to hold the mother.” These words were shared with the Brain Builders team by a newly trained facilitator. After a baby is born, people typically give them gifts, cuddles, attention, and love, but they often overlook the mother’s needs. We need to remember to hold them, too. Once mothers are sent home from the hospital with their tiny human, the extra help eventually ends, and the visits slow down. Many mothers become overwhelmed as they try to find time for self-care while caring for the new baby, and for some mothers, other children. Mothers may sometimes not want to ask for help for fear of being judged, and they may not have immediate family or close friends nearby to ask for help. Motherhood can become a lonely and isolating journey, and signs of postpartum depression and other mental illnesses often go unnoticed or untreated. Brain Builders was created with these mothers in mind.

Brain Builders is designed to promote early relational health and operates under the premise that if we want our school-aged youth to be healthy, resilient, and productive, we must support the healthy brain development of our babies, toddlers, and young children. While we can’t prevent our youth from experiencing adverse occurrences, we can ensure they have solid brain architecture development to serve as a mitigating factor to help them overcome adversities.

Brain Builders strives to equip and empower caregivers with knowledge, skills, and social connections to optimize their child’s healthy development. This preventative strategy has the potential to foster connection and support for mothers during a time when they are most at risk for feelings of isolation and postpartum depression. Brain Builders can also positively impact school-aged children.

Offering mothers-to-be and caregivers of children ages zero to three the chance to interact with each other in the community fosters optimal healthy development. Caregivers meet for six sessions to share experiences, make connections, and take away strategies that will help build their baby’s brain. Each session covers a specific topic of discussion, such as managing stress, building resilience, developing language, and creating a secure attachment. Caregivers also hear reminders of self-care and encouragement as they face the joys and challenges of parenting.

To date, Brain Builders has impacted 323 families (and counting). Brain Builders continues to impact families throughout Houston through ongoing sessions in English and Spanish, community outreach, partnership building, training facilitators, and hosting technical assistance sessions to support program implementation. This coordination has led to building partnerships and conducting in-person Brain Builders sessions with Catholic Charities’ Blessed Beginnings, Tejano Center for Community Concerns, Harris County Public Library, and Houston Area Women’s Center. Brain Builders, in a way, is “holding” the mother as she builds a strong foundation for her baby.

Go to Brain Builders
Partner Spotlight

Brain Builders Partners with Community Providers

“Tejano Center’s mission is to empower families through education. Brain Builders, our partners in early childhood literacy, fosters community growth by equipping young mothers with tools for their children’s cognitive development. Brain Builders strengthens a student’s academic foundation by promoting literacy and critical thinking. Tejano Center’s holistic approach ensures families receive support and resources for lifelong learning, nurturing stronger bonds and community resilience.”
— Ramiro Fonseca, Director, Outreach and Engagement

“The Blessed Beginnings Pregnancy & Parenting Life Center is committed to the sanctity of human life, especially in its most vulnerable early stages. The Tejano Center provides the support and education parents need to have happy, healthy babies and children. Our program focuses on the critical time from the woman’s pregnancy through the age of five – a child’s most formative years.

Blessed Beginnings utilizes evidence-based curriculum in English and Spanish to address some of the most common questions around pregnancy and parenting.

We cover more than 40 topics including fetal development, postpartum physical care, breastfeeding, shaken baby syndrome, car seat safety, age-appropriate play, positive discipline, and much more!”
— Nelson Guzman, Lead Family Support Specialist

A Personal Story from Karla Bautista

Brain Builders Graduate and Project Coordinator at The Hackett Center 

Becoming a mother has been a transformative, yet daunting journey, marked by significant life changes. Without the support of a partner, I returned to the Houston area to live closer to family, leaving behind a job, friendships, and a community I belonged to. Despite growing up in the Houston area, I felt like a newcomer, longing for connection in this new phase of life.

During a sleep-deprived, late-night feeding session, I Googled local groups of mothers, desperately seeking connection to women in the same stage of life I was in. To this day, I cannot remember exactly what I searched for, but it led me to Brain Builders.

A few weeks later, I nervously joined a Zoom call with fellow mothers. Our warm and welcoming facilitator provided us with the opportunity to share experiences, ask questions, and receive validation and encouragement. Hearing mothers of older children provided me with much-needed reassurance. One day, the challenges of early motherhood would evolve into practicing “serve and return” interactions with a walking and talking toddler.

Despite differences in our children’s ages and our individual circumstances I was comforted by what we had in common— we want the best for our children, we were seeking connection amidst an often-isolating experience, and we were willing to get out of our comfort zone to meet.

Now, that two-month-old baby who joined me on the Brain Builders calls is turning two, and I serve as the project coordinator for the program. In an unexpected turn, a job search led me back to Brain Builders, where I now facilitate the same meetups, I once attended. I not only share insights into early brain development but also learn from our mothers as we navigate motherhood together. This year, facilitating classes in Spanish and connecting with another expectant mother with the same due date has been particularly fulfilling.

Brain Builders is more than a parenting program focusing on early brain development; it is a safe space to connect and receive support in a time that is often marked with isolation and feelings of overwhelm. I am grateful for the privilege of witnessing its impact from such a unique perspective.

Karla Bautista Hackett Center Newsletter