Crossing Continents and Cultures to Help Kids

July 23, 2020

Published by CounciLINK on July 23, 2020


DrWilliamMosierWright“My mother was a very loving person,” Dr. William Mosier says, “who inspired me to follow in her footsteps by making early childhood education the focus of my adult life. She taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural Iowa during the Great Depression, and she was the director of our Sunday school while I was growing up in California.” But it wasn’t just her work outside the home that led him to pursue his life’s work. “I was affected by her personhood and the way she treated my three siblings and me in such a child-oriented manner. It made me see the importance of devoting myself to early childhood.”

Mosier has gone on to follow his passion in the far-flung reaches of the globe—everywhere from the inner city of St. Louis to the streets of Istanbul, where he serves Syrian families who’ve fled from the civil war in their homeland. He has taught young children in public schools and served as a project director for Head Start. He’s been a college professor and put in years as an international health specialist for the U.S. Air Force. He has counseled families in a private practice and is now director of research and behavioral health at the Lynda A. Cohen Center for the Study of Child Development in Dayton, Ohio. He lives there with his wife and six children when he’s not confronting the tragic refugee crisis in Turkey.

In the course of his long career, he has also earned several bachelor’s degrees, a few master’s and doctorates in both medicine and education. “I’m a lifelong learner,” he says. And all his schooling has a single goal. “I’ve heard people say many times,” he relates, “that ‘you’ve been in different fields.’ But that’s not the case. During my time in medical school and my 20 years as a medical officer in the military, I worked in developmental pediatrics. My focus has always been on children.”

He first understood the full impact of the early years when he studied early childhood in college. “While there, I learned that 80 percent of all human learning is etched in stone by the time we leave third grade, so it became clear to me that we need to touch the lives of young children in positive ways that help them develop,” he explains. Granted, we can never completely undo emotional trauma in the early years. “A critical incident will never go away, but we can program positive feelings over it and help the child grow up to be able to cope with life.” The key is to put young children in settings where they have interactions that give them a sense of positive and unconditional regard.

Mosier gave children a needed sense of unconditional love in his first teaching job at an inner-city school in St. Louis. “I was the only white face in an all African-American school,” he recalls. “I lived across the street from the school, and I was totally committed to my primary-grade classroom.” The children also became especially close to him because he taught in a looped classroom where he kept the same students for three years. The children were six, seven, or eight years old at the time, but many have stayed in touch with him online over the course of several decades.

After ten years in St. Louis, he wanted to do more for young learners, so he went back to California where he taught in Head Start while working on his first doctoral degree. The core of his studies—and his subsequent career—was empathic understanding, the ability to show another person you understand what they’re feeling. “My dissertation was specifically on how to teach Migrant Head Start child care providers how to communicate empathic understanding with young children.” And he shared his expertise in this complex skill as he rose from Head Start teacher to a project director, center director and then Migrant Head Start director for 13 counties up and down the state of California.

He also put empathic understanding into practice while working with special needs children at Head Start. One of them was Salvador, a 3-year-old boy on the autism spectrum. “When I met him,” Mosier recalls, “he was always in his own little world and he would just repeat TV commercials over and over”— to his parents’ tremendous distress. “Salvador’s mom thought she couldn’t have any more children when she finally had her son. She looked on him as her salvation—which explains his name—and was really depressed when he turned out to be autistic.” So, she was thrilled at the breakthroughs that Mosier made with her little boy. “Using floor time with him,” Mosier says, “I was able to get Salvador to write his name and make eye contact with others. All it took was just getting into his space.”

Working with children like Salvador is challenging, Mosier admits. “That’s why it’s so important for educators to have training like those who earn a Child Development Associate® (CDA) credential. If you learn the competencies and internalize them, you’ll be much better prepared to foster children’s development,” as Mosier has witnessed first-hand. “I’ve been a Professional Development Specialist for CDAs, and I’ve been a professor for 20 years. So, I’ve trained a lot of early childhood educators.” But despite his own scholarly pedigree, he doesn’t judge teachers by how much time they’ve spent in school. “I have embraced the concept of early care and education as being about competencies, not college degrees. And that’s why I’m totally committed to the CDA credential as an effective way to enhance the quality of teacher-child interactions. That has to be the focus.”

The important thing for educators to know is how to help children form secure attachments, he explains. “If a child has a secure attachment, it’s easier for them to be resilient. And the attachment doesn’t have to be with a parent. It can be with a grandparent, or another family member or even an early childhood teacher. And that’s the beauty of the CDA. It helps you internalize your role as a caregiver and helps children bond with you—the way the children in my classrooms bonded with me.”

Early childhood teachers who are well trained also know how to strengthen the bonds between children and their parents. “Education is the key to everything,” he says. “and that’s why we have parenting classes that show families how to do a more effective job interacting with their children.” Much of the training that parents receive centers on language and talking to kids, something you might consider natural for parents of young children. But it simply isn’t. “Our ability to use language to communicate came only two million years ago,” Mosier says. “It’s very new in the development of the human brain. So, it’s understandable that people aren’t very good at it, and many need a teacher’s help.”

But educators have to very mindful about how they approach families, he cautions, since there’s now a tendency to see parents as the experts on their own children. It makes a huge difference if educators are “authentic and caring,” he says based on his decades on the frontlines of the early childhood field and the weekly home visits he made in his Head Start days. “The parents quickly saw that the real me was the person in front of them, and even my being a man in a female-dominated profession was never really a big deal. Sure, I’m familiar with the challenges men face since every once in a while, some person would ask why I was in the field.” But he contended with that, he explains, because he put the children first. Over the course of his time teaching college, that’s made him a role model for male students whose hearts are in the early education profession.

And his heart went out to the Head Start children he taught over the years. “Some of the kids came from really rough backgrounds that left them with emotional damage,” he says. “Despite widespread perception that parents are authorities on their kids, with all the pressures on a lower socioeconomic family—the typical Head Start family—you can understand why the parents need additional support.”

Teachers aren’t in a position to fill in all the gaps, especially when it comes to the way parents communicate with their children. “A major problem is that parents don’t talk to kids, and that’s why I made it a point of making regular home visits from the start of my career,” Mosier says. “I committed myself from my first year of teaching to faithfully follow what the textbooks advise by having frequent contact with parents and helping them see how language stimulates children’s growth. So, I made regular home visits to families in the inner city of St. Louis and then weekly home visits to families in Migrant Head Start.”

Some of these visits showed him deprivation and dire need. Still, he saw worse in his many years as an international health specialist with the armed forces. His role in the pediatric part of humanitarian and disaster relief took him to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, to Haiti after the quake of 2009, and to missions in Latin America and Africa, where he often worked with children who suffered from PTSD. “They’ve seen a parent, a grandparent or a close relative die,” he says. “They have a lot of emotional trauma. They’ve been through critical incidents that have potentially scarred them for life.” Working with these kids showed that his commitment to young children crossed continents and cultures. It also prepared him for his current project in Turkey with Muslim refugees of the Syrian Civil War.

“It’s a multimillion-dollar European Union contract to set up Head Start-type programs for the refugees. in Istanbul,” he explains. “There are about two million Syrian refugees, including about 20,000 children under nine, and my job is to design support services for them and their parents. I collaborate with social workers, nutrition engineers and architects to design spaces for the children. Then I train more adults to work with the children. It’s a three-year project that started in August 2019, but I want it to keep going longer because there’s so much to do.” And there’s so much need, as he’s already seen though the project is still in its early stages.

Originally, Mosier and his team had only about 100 families since their initial efforts were part of a pilot designed to show they needed more funds to build child development centers. Unfortunately, “the pandemic was a showstopper that forced us to switch to home visiting until the risk of infection is over,” Mosier says. He’s using the hiatus to spend time this summer with his own family in Dayton, but his mind is still filled with heartrending scenes of what he witnessed in Turkey.

“Every day, the social workers and I went into the subways and the streets, where we saw children begging to provide a little income for their families. We would ask the children to take us to their homes so we could enroll their families in the program,” Mosier recalls. Then he would show up with an Arabic-speaking caseworker and a Muslim social worker to bridge cultural and linguistic gaps. You might think that the families would be afraid, he admits, because they’re illegal refugees and he’s a Euro-American. But that hasn’t been the case because the lessons he learned from his mom have withstood the passage of many years and thousands of miles he’s crossed to fulfill his mission in life. “There’s no problem if you come across as someone who sincerely cares and is there to help,” Mosier says. “Everybody needs TLC. People just want to be loved.”

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