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Thinking Differently

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Elizabeth Kozleski

My original intent for this blog was to pick up on the recent themes of partnership and coaching. My twist was to discuss partnerships with parents whose children are enrolled in early intervention. I intended to discuss how coaching with parents is an intervention that fits well within the construct of partnership, is situated in family systems theory and more precisely, builds upon the work of our beloved Bronfenbrenner.

And then… as has happened often over the last four years… my major advisor, my mentor… Dr. Ann Turnbull said something that took over my thinking and now I have to write about it before I can write about partnerships with parents.

Dr. Turnbull along with some other colleagues and I recently engaged in a discussion about a video from The Center on the Developing Child from Harvard University titled Building Adult Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A theory of Change,http://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/multimedia/videos/theory_of_change/. The video discusses toxic stress and defines it as the prolonged activation of stress response systems in the absence of protective relationships resulting in developmental delays and later health problems – for a lifetime. Toxic stress is visually illustrated through sketches of a crane piling up one concrete block after another labelled with family risk factors (e.g., poverty, neglect, mental illness). I had been using the video in training early intervention providers because of the very strong message it contains about building adult capabilities. The intention was to support the intervention of coaching within partnerships with families as a capacity building intervention. What I did not focus on was the impact of the term, toxic stress, and the impact of the visual used in the video, despite its overall message.

The first reaction from my mentor was: “I feel that it is a “pile-up” of negatives against families who often are already negatively perceived by the service system. I also think the term toxic stress is very pathological. I think the drawing engages the viewers. “ And that was it. Purposely short, I am sure intended to make me think. So true to form for me, my first reaction was to…. create an argument which justified my use of the video. My argument was that the word was already widely used. If it is out there, we have a duty to discuss the term and help people understand it so they do not use it as a way to judge families. Being a good mentor Dr. Turnbull let me have my perspective, said some kind words back, and left it there. However, it did not end there. It has been eating at me ever since.

So I began to think and reflect and realize that she was right. Not only was she right but I actually held the same belief but I wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was doing. I was not thinking deeply enough about my actions.

I remembered the first time I heard the term, toxic stress, five years ago and how offended I was, not only personally but also on behalf of all families experiencing challenging circumstances. I grew up in a family that experienced every risk factor that is associated with toxic stress and much of the literature on the subject strikes close to home. My first reaction was to view this term as one more way to categorize and judge families, to judge kids and their abilities, perhaps a reason to not expect success. The term threw me back to sitting with my mom in the welfare office and hearing the surprise in the workers voice when she told my mom she had noticed in the newspaper that I had made the A honor roll. Her shock clearly communicated to both my mother and me that she would not expect this type of child from my family.  Now, here I was, showing videos that use this term, toxic stress, and promoting the concept that had so offended me as a child.

Dr. Turnbull is not the only faculty member who made me assess everything I say and everything I do against the set of beliefs I profess to hold and the theories I profess to subscribe to. Professor Rud Turnbull has an uncanny knack to push doc students to dig deep and know what it means to have their practice match their beliefs about persons who experience disability. He challenges us as students to realize that if we truly believe that every person is worthy, and then it must be apparent in the work we leave behind.

Similarly, Dr. Winnie Dunn’s helped me to know myself, my beliefs, the theories I hold as truths; and then to match my words and actions to these and ultimately to carry these into my research and my writing. Dr. Skirtic introduced ideas of civic professionalism urging us to compare these ideals with the practices of our profession and to align our actions with the ideals we hold dear and then to be willing to become the agent of change. Dr. Wehmeyer challenged each of us to articulate the theories with which we align and to match our actions accordingly as we would be called upon to do so as we moved from our PhD programs into the wider world.

“As a doctoral student, you will learn to think in a very different way than you do now” is a phrase I remember being told as a first year doc student. I remember thinking… we shall see. I have spent my career being what I considered a good thinker, a reflective practitioner, and leader. How would this program teach me to think differently? My professors and advisors have changed my thinking and thus, my actions to make a positive impact on my community. At this point, I know it’s good to be uncomfortable, to reflect and understand if my actions are aligned with my beliefs. When they are, I will truly be of service. I leave this program having internalized these values and skills I learned from this wonderful faculty.

To think differently enough to truly be of service. The trick will be to keep this value and skill a part of who I am once I leave the program and not forget the lessons learned at the hands of the masters.



Harvard University, Center on the Developing Child. (2013). Building Adult

Capabilities to Improve Child Outcomes: A Theory of Change. Retrieved from


Peggy Kemp, M.S., is a doctoral fellow at the University of Kansas Department of Special Education and Beach Center on Disability, funded through a U.S. Department of Education OSEP Leadership Grant, Families, and Policy under Dr. Ann Turnbull. Peggy also works as technical assistance specialist for the Part C programs in Kansas through the Kansas Inservice Training System, University of Kansas. Peggy’s areas of specialization are early intervention, infant mental health, families, and policy.

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