UNICEF reported that 1 in 7 children have been negatively impacted by the pandemic lockdowns. And more than 1.6 billion children have suffered from some loss of education. The co-founders of Virtual Milestones Academy, Megan Cawlfield, a pediatric speech-language pathologist, and Emily Roberts, an occupational therapist, expose the cracks in our disjointed healthcare system and support parents with finding holistic, family-centered solutions.
Some highlights from Lockdowns, Social Isolation and Children’s Mental Health:
04:35 – Navigating Mental Health with Virtual Milestones Academy
10:19 – Early Intervention
14:27 – 1 out of 6 Children
15:44 – Find the Positive in the Pandemic
19:32 – Falling Down the Rabbit Holes
This is The World of Multiemployer Benefit Funds with Traci Dority-Shanklin. We believe in demystifying retirement solutions, upholding retiree dignity, and contributing to economic stability through union organizing, pension reform, and legislative activism. In short, we're devoted to busting myths about the labor movement. If you're interested in the enduring power of labor, well, you've landed in the right place. Experts and activists will share their insights, expertise, and stories. Time is short, so let's get started.
Traci Shanklin 0:37
Health and welfare benefits are crucial to unions and union employers. It is another benefit that unions bargain for on behalf of their membership. The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the importance and the gift of being able to afford healthcare insurance. Several podcast guests shined a spotlight on stress and mental health aggravated by the pandemic. And today, we are going to do a dive into the impact on our youth. This topic for me is highly personal. I am a mother, and I have a child that suffers from anxiety disorder. Now, any parent listening knows that you will do anything to get your child that help they need when they are sick. I know advocating and navigating our healthcare system for any illness is daunting. But, advocating for a child with mental disorder is even more complex.
Traci Shanklin 1:31
Mental disorders can manifest in 1000 different ways. Anxiety can be physical, behavioral, or developmental, and sometimes a combination of these symptoms. Doctors do play a role, an essential role in this, but only through their narrow specialty lens. They rarely take in the entire picture. It is not uncommon for a parent to be dealing with a cognitive-behavioral therapist, an occupational therapist, a pediatrician, a speech pathologist, an academic tutor, a school system, you get the picture. The list is endless. This is why I am thrilled to bring together two distinguished guests, Megan Cawlfield and Emily Roberts. Megan and Emily are from Virtual Milestones Academy, VMA. VMA is a consulting company that bridges the gap of coordinating and guiding parents and professionals helping children on how to navigate a disjointed system. VMA offers clients comprehensive consulting services from a holistic, family-centered perspective guiding their way and ultimately resulting in improved functional life skills for their clients.
Traci Shanklin 2:45
Both Emily and Megan have a passion for the children and the families that they serve. Megan is a pediatric speech-language pathologist and co-founder of Virtual Milestones Academy. Megan has worked in various outpatient settings throughout her career and experienced firsthand the everyday challenges families face as they strive to obtain the necessary resources to meet crucial goals for their children. Emily is an occupational therapist and co-founder of Virtual Milestones Academy. She has worked clinically for 25 years as a pediatric occupational therapist in clinical settings and is the owner of Theraplay Pediatrics in Northwest Arkansas. Thank you both for joining me in this conversation.
Emily Roberts 3:30
Megan Cawlfield 3:31
Hi, thank you so much for having us.
Traci Shanklin 3:33
Of course, of course. I like to start each of my conversations by having my guests share a little of their background with our listeners, and then what led you to this vital work?
Emily Roberts 3:45
I have a brother with Down Syndrome and decided that I wanted to do what I saw his therapist doing with his early intervention, so that's kind of what started me. I have a son that is now 29, unbelievably, and he was diagnosed with Asperger's. And then I have twin daughters that have a sensory processing disorder. They were in the NICU and struggled with their developmental milestones. And so personally, I have really had a passion for what parents go through, how it impacts the entire family, and just wanted to develop something that really walked parents through how to best increase both the family's quality of life as well as the child's.
Megan Cawlfield 4:35
Emily really said it whenever she said to increase a family's quality of life. And for me, I have a background as a speech-language pathologist and in the therapeutic world. I saw so many opportunities to educate families and educate their caregivers. But, whenever I entered the world virtually, I realized that the consultation piece was really lacking and that I can increase my rapport with caregivers and with families through the education that we could develop a rapport together; we could develop goals together and resources together. And that we can really accomplish more by combining all of our resources together and through that conversation, and is where Virtual Milestones Academy began.
Traci Shanklin 5:19
I know I've given a little description, how would you explain the services and the programs that you guys are offering at VMA?
Megan Cawlfield 5:27
At VMA, we really provide a different kind of consultation experience because we're really looking at that entire picture that you talked about. We give families that structure through a program that we refer to as GEAR. Whenever we have a GEAR program set up, we're talking about Goals; we're talking about Education, and we're talking about Activities, and we're talking about Resources. And we're talking about finding that entire picture. Our goal is really to provide a service that is cohesive, where a conversation can put together all the pieces: the tutoring, the therapy, the educational resources, and the conversations that need to happen, where we're looking at the whole picture. And that's really what a consultation service is all about. And this is where we're trying to empower through these conversations. And that's a lot different than a therapeutic service.
Traci Shanklin 6:18
Navigating mental health is tricky for parents. As I said, I have my firsthand experience. Any diagnosis is daunting, and sometimes, it can be inaccurate, because they are such broad spectrums of disorders in these mental health diagnoses. So often what I'm experiencing with insurance, they see mental health treatments as alternative medicine. And alternative modalities sometimes are covered, but often on a limited basis. So, because of our listeners, I want to mention that if you are a union member, your union employer provider, or your healthcare provider has fantastic healthcare benefits. If you are in crisis, and there is a moment when you wonder whether your insurance will cover it, I'm here to say you have to sometimes dig a little bit deeper, and find all of the benefits and then push to ensure that you get them approved. So, sometimes it will feel like the insurance company is looking for a reason to deny the claim, but often that is not the case, there is supplemental benefits that cover mental health needs. And it does take some navigating that system.
Traci Shanklin 7:40
Can you give me a few examples of the help you might provide to a parent navigating either insurance or social services or just coordinating all of the professionals and making sure that I guess, that the treatments are getting applied to everyday life?
Emily Roberts 7:57
When a doctor or a primary care physician is diagnosing that is coming directly from what's called a DSM 5. That is very limited. Unfortunately, it does not cover a lot of the mental health issues because a lot of those can be dual diagnoses. So, your child or your person might have anxiety disorder, but they might have something else overlapping that. And a lot of times that is overlooked, unfortunately. Your primary care physician is looking at just like you said, that specific thing. So, if you go in for the flu, they see the flu; they test for the flu, so it does require a lot of digging. And that's where Virtual Milestones can really help with community resources, you know, kind of help a parent and a family through that difficult and challenging process.
Megan Cawlfield 9:01
Yeah. And I think the second part of your question was, how does Virtual Milestones Academy also help with incorporating and carrying over the skills that are obtained from the different avenues? And that is something that we're able to do through our consultations. We're able to integrate for families, the information that they're being given, and give them some ways to be able to actively put those things into their functional everyday life.
Traci Shanklin 9:28
It's very tricky. And I loved what you guys said at the beginning about giving families quality of life because you really do have to bring these resources and modalities and ways in which to function home. And that if there's anything that I think as a parent I've potentially failed at it was that, but it wasn't that I failed, so much as that nobody was really sharing that information in a way in which I knew how to implement it.
Megan Cawlfield 10:00
Right, that's key. And that's the goals and the education, the activities, those things are things that we've lived as therapists and as consultants, and we understand that just an idea isn't necessarily implementable, and we're able to really help families get through that challenge.
Traci Shanklin 10:19
You mentioned early intervention that you saw, Emily, with your brother. And I know today's science supports this concept of neuroplasticity, which is a science that supports the ability of the brain to reprogram or retrain the brain synapses to fire correctly. As I understand it, the early intervention to correct those neural pathways is really an important piece to potentially heal or at least significantly improve the quality of life for individuals suffering from any of these disorders. Why is it such a struggle to get cognitive differences recognized as actual sicknesses if we all know that there is this ability?
Emily Roberts 11:05
It is crucial for early intervention, early diagnosis, early identification, that there's a problem. It is crucial that we listen to our families, mom/dad knows best. One of the things that I would hear when with my son was, "Oh, every child is different, you know, just be patient. He'll grow out of it." And I knew that having an older son, "Yes, he is different; he learns different." But, there was something that I needed to follow through with; there was something that wasn't quite adding up to me. The other thing that I kind of already mentioned was that a lot of times it is missed, or we lose that opening to get that early intervention because the doctors are following that DSM 5. And because mental disorders or cognitive disorders don't a lot of times show up. You don't know that there's an issue until four or five that transition into school. That's where some consultation services can kind of help you see those signs.
Traci Shanklin 12:26
It is so maddening from my perspective because I hear what you're saying is I had a lot of the same, "She'll grow out of it," or, and I had a, I had so many red flags, you know, and I kept thinking, something's just off, and I went down one rabbit hole after the other. I kept trying to navigate it. I mean, and honestly, it's, you know, like you said, you had to push for it. I mean, I would talk to the pediatrician about gut issues, and I would get, "Oh, give her MiraLAX." I knew she had learning differences, so I pushed for that testing. So, it's been a very frustrating road.
Emily Roberts 13:09
And it's not that like your primary care physician is not wanting to see it. They are looking through different lenses. They do believe a lot of physicians have been trained in, you know, they will grow out of it, or they've even seen other children that maybe do grow out of it and cognitively compensate for their deficits. That's where us as consultants can say, "Okay, assess that child." And we do do that at VMA like we spend some time with the family what they're seeing, and a lot of times that sensory processing issue will look behavioral.
Megan Cawlfield 13:53
To add to what Emily said, a lot of the time our clients also have their own speech therapist or their occupational therapist or somebody else who is already giving them that therapeutic service. But, what we're able to really do is to be able to pull those pieces together for the parent and at home and to offer some real concrete integration into their everyday life and to be able to piece all the pieces together, you know, because whenever they're in those therapy services or in PCP appointment, you're really focused on one thing, and we're really focused on the entire picture.
Traci Shanklin 14:27
With one and six out of every six children between the ages of two and eight years old, having behavioral, mental, or developmental disorders, it seems to me there should be a shift in the way in which children are viewed or even adults as well. But, I do think this more holistic picture needs to be a move in our medical community. Far too often, at least in my experience, I've gotten just this high-level look at each thing, like through a pinhole instead of through the whole, like taking in that whole picture, so I think this is really critical. So, I wanted to back up and just say when would you, because I'm sure there are people out there asking, what is considered early intervention?
Emily Roberts 15:13
Zero to three is your early intervention. School districts actually have a responsibility to locate, assess, and even children as young as three, because that's when it becomes a federal issue with No Child Left Behind. So, they have to search out children in their district, identify them, and begin that transition process at three, that's three to five. And then you transition into the educational model.
Traci Shanklin 15:44
We've all had our firsthand experience with the coronavirus and the impact that it's had on everything in our society. The stress level of living through a pandemic is enormous, even for us adults, but now, how has the coronavirus pandemic affected our children and their mental health, education, and how they're learning? There's been a lot of attention pointing to that kids have lost ground. And I'd like to hear your insights.
Megan Cawlfield 16:15
I think Emily and I would both speak to that a little bit differently. We see both pendulums. We see absolutely what you're speaking of all the negative impacts absolutely. But then, we also see the positive impacts. Parents have been asking more questions; they've become more involved in their children's learning experiences. And we've seen an increase in parents reaching out because of that. And we think that that's a positive thing. We want to educate parents on how to educate their children, whether that's learning a milestone, whether that's learning how to read, whether it's learning how to get ready to learn, those are things that we've seen an increase in. But then, we've also have seen the negative side that you're speaking of.
Emily Roberts 16:58
I really feel like it's been very positive, but just like with our, you know, adults, just like you see in yourself, it's very difficult. We're expecting these children very young to sit in those Zoom classrooms; there's an increase in depression. And so, the mental issues that we're seeing a lot of times the children in a school move around. You've got transitions to Music to Library to all of that special classes. And we're not seeing that during a day, very much anymore. That is difficult because we're seeing a lot of children that have some sensory processing disorders because of that, and some mental health in particular depression and anxiety.
Traci Shanklin 17:51
Yeah, I've seen that with both of my girls, getting them to recognize that school, you know, it looks a lot different. And their muscle is a little weak on that one. Are you seeing any improvements to the testing and approval processes to get children that in need all the complete help they need?
Emily Roberts 18:13
The short answer to that is not so much, not as much, or as quickly as we feel like the need is. Standardized testing is still the exact same whether we're doing it via Zoom, or whether we're doing it clinically, or in a school setting, that has not changed because that is a slow process to develop standardized testing that is relevant in this arena.
Megan Cawlfield 18:42
I think that parents and teachers and advocates are a little bit more on guard of their child's development right now because they understand that might be at risk because of what has happened. And in those ways, the awareness factor has increased over the pandemic, but the services available to them, maybe not so much.
Emily Roberts 19:02
Or harder to find. What type of service do I really need. Parents are out there searching. That's where we can help you do that search, research what's available in your state in your city. Find funding. That is a huge need out there that we can still search out that, research it alongside, you give you pointers on how to dig, and even what you're looking for.
Traci Shanklin 19:32
Yeah, that's really critical because there is like I call it the rabbit holes because you go down one rabbit hole thinking you have an answer. And then it either doesn't play out or you can't get it the response back fast enough or there's too much testing involved. It's maddening.
Megan Cawlfield 19:52
Yes, and that is one of our key excitements for Virtual Milestones is to have a place where it's not impossible to have a conversation with a professional who has experience, otherwise, you're having to go through lots of leaps and bounds only to get redirected to another leap and bound. And then to have a place where it's just connected in one place is really what we're striving for.
Traci Shanklin 20:15
I know you guys launched at the beginning of the pandemic. If you could just give me a little history, were you on the verge of launching, and then the pandemic had happened, and it just all came together? Or did you launch because of the pandemic?
Megan Cawlfield 20:30
The conversation began a little bit before the height of the pandemic, but once the pandemic hit a spot where we realized that therapeutic services were being compromised, and it was difficult for families to get the therapeutic services that they were needing and that we saw the developmental delays and all the depression that we were seeing it coming. And we said, you know, this is really got to be addressed, we really have to be able to educate families on what they can do during this pandemic. We began using our virtual resources and realizing for the first time how virtual resources were so valuable, and we hadn't really been tapping into them ever before. We were always working with kids on the floor, you know, in homes. And this was the first time where we experienced how virtual services were very valuable, and how educating the parents was very valuable in their own home and how we really could do things together by having conversations. So, it really was the pandemic that kind of showed us what we were able to do, and showed us what families were capable of. And so, the conversation began before the pandemic, but once the virtual aspect came into our experience, it was really not a question of, do we do this; it was just we have to do this. It was we have to be able to provide the service because we believe in it.
Traci Shanklin 21:57
Yeah, it's the comprehensiveness of it all. I mean, that's what I'm hearing, and full disclosure, I have not employed VMA. But I will, because I'm desperate to have somebody help me navigate all of the stuff that's coming at me, and like I'm a fairly intelligent woman who has really gone way out to try to find solutions, and I'm still seeking them. And that says something to me about the system, and the need for what you guys are doing, so I applaud you on this, I think it's going to be great. I'd love to hear if you have any personal success stories or any cases that you're super proud of?
Emily Roberts 22:42
I've had a lot of opportunities to work with the transition between early childhood/early intervention into early childhood, early childhood, that's the three to five into schools, that transition is typically really hard and really overwhelming, because a parent will go into a meeting, an IEP meeting, and which means an Individual Educational Plan. So, to have the opportunity that I've had to go into those personal IEP meetings and sit beside that parent and hold their hand and even ask pertinent questions, that principal will say, or someone in special education will say, this doesn't have to be so scary. I'm here to hold your hand; we'll get through this; what to look for in that paperwork, because there's a ton of paperwork, sign here, sign here, sign here, and to really be able to look at it and walk them through it has been, you feel like a friend to that parent, when you get to do that.
Megan Cawlfield 23:54
The success moments for me have been really getting children ready for school. And the challenges that parents have had homeschooling their children, getting to understand why their children have been struggling, perhaps and why they have been just getting by, so being able to learn alongside parents as they are actually helping their children virtually learn or realizing why their child has been struggling, or how they can help them actually get ahead so that the pandemic didn't get the best of them. There's no parent too smart for a consultation. You know, we can always help because we're getting to know the parents and we're getting to know the child, and we're working together. And our goal is education. We provide so much education that there's hardly any room to fail because we're right there taking each challenge with the parent and making sure the parent knows what to do and can ask the questions and feel comfortable with that conversation.
Traci Shanklin 24:53
I can tell you both are incredibly thoughtful and passionate about what you're doing, and I'm just really glad that you joined us today on this podcast to kind of share your vision and what you guys have to offer. So, for our listeners, how would they find your resources?
Megan Cawlfield 25:13
Well, we are on the web at www.virtualmilestonesacademy.com. We're also on Facebook.
Traci Shanklin 25:21
Do you have any closing thoughts or anything you'd like to add before we sign off here?
Megan Cawlfield 25:27
We just want to say thank you so very, very much. We feel so appreciative of this opportunity to speak with you, and we're just so humbled and we respect what you're doing so much. It's amazing, and we just look up to what you're doing. And we're so glad to be here.
Traci Shanklin 25:42
Well, thank you, Megan Cawlfield and Emily Roberts for joining me on the podcast today and being part of this conversation. If you'd like to check out Virtual Milestones Academy or anything else that you've heard on the podcast, please visit our website at www.multiemployerfunds.com. That's www.multiemployerfunds.com. If you enjoyed listening to the podcast, please subscribe to us. We are now on Spotify and Google Podcasts in addition to Apple Podcast, but you can also find and subscribe to us on many of your favorite podcast platforms. Thanks again for joining the conversation where listeners connect with leading experts throughout the financial and investment world. Be part of the change.
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