Grace Pouliot: Honors student in elementary education helps caregivers in Sierra Leone

When she was in high school, Grace Pouliot decided that she wanted to be a University of Maine Black Bear.

“I knew the university because my sister had come here. It had the program that I wanted and it was a really comfortable size for me,” Pouliot says.

So while her classmates were filling out applications to multiple colleges, Pouliot only applied to UMaine.

Fast forward four years, and Pouliot is now a senior majoring in elementary education, getting ready for her student teaching placement and working on her Honors College thesis.

“UMaine has such an incredibly supportive atmosphere. We have some truly wonderful professors here who are so welcoming and so helpful, and so eager to help students,” she says.

A little over two years ago, Pouliot was introduced to the Servant Heart Research Collaborative, a project started by UMaine alumni Allen ’73 and Patty Morell ’73, working with the Child Rescue Centre in the West African country of Sierra Leone. Pouliot wrote a series of training modules to help caregivers in their work with children who have experienced trauma. Sierra Leone has had its share of hardships — civil war, Ebola, devastating flooding. The training modules are based on attachment theory.

“It’s the idea that the relationship we have with our caregivers when we’re birth to 2 years old really has a huge impact on the rest of our lives in terms of how we continue to create relationships,” Pouliot says.

“In a way, the relationships we have with our caregivers become the working model for the rest of our life,” she says.

For her honors thesis, Pouliot is doing a content analysis of the training modules she created for the Child Rescue Centre, focusing on the educational objectives, and discussing the goals and outcomes.

After she graduates in May, Pouliot hopes to start out as a middle school math teacher, before eventually earning a master’s degree to become a guidance counselor.

“My classes at UMaine have made me much more confident in my abilities,” Pouliot says. “I’m not the same person I was when I came to the university, just in terms of professional skills, maturity, self-confidence and independence.”

South Berwick, Maine

Elementary education (concentrations in mathematics and English language learning)

Year in School:

Describe your honors thesis:
It’s a project that I was introduced to through the Honors College and it was a pair of donors, Allen and Patty Morell, who wanted to set up a collaboration with the University of Maine Honors College and the Child Rescue Centre in Sierra Leone. For the past two years, I’ve been writing training modules based on attachment theory for caregivers in Sierra Leone, who work with children who have experienced trauma.

My research project is looking at the modules we’ve created, looking at the educational objectives that we’ve written for each of the modules, and doing content analysis. So, looking at what critical thinking skills are the caregivers applying in these modules, and are the goals and outcomes different for, say, module one than for module six.

What is attachment theory?
It’s the idea that if a child has secure attachment with a caregiver, the child will feel comfortable, safe and confident enough to explore the world. So if you think about a little infant in a room with a mother, if the infant feels comfortable and securely attached with the mother, the child will crawl around, explore, play. And if anything were to happen to the child — if it were to bump a knee or something scary were to happen — it would immediately return to the mother and it would be comforted and calmed.

There’s some really positive correlations between secure attachment as a child and attributes later in life like lower stress, more positive workplace relationships, more confidence and higher self-efficacy.

Describe the training modules that you created:
We created a series of six training modules for caregivers. It starts off with an introduction to attachment theory, then it builds. We have topics like childhood resiliency and temperament. Finally, our sixth module is on caregiver self-care. It’s a training session, so it’s designed to have a group of caregivers in Sierra Leone come together and be led by the Child Rescue Centre staff. It has some lecture components. It has some workshop components, such as role-playing. And each module is supposed to be about an hour.

Who are these caregivers?
It’s a mixture of parents and other caregivers. At the child rescue center they have “aunties,” and it would be kind of a foster home set up where the aunties were taking care of the children. Since then, some of the politics in Sierra Leone have changed, and they’ve been moving away from a foster care model with aunties to a forever-home model, where the children are put into a home with relatives or neighbors, instead of living with professional staff. They live in the forever home, but they still have a caseworker, so there’s still professional staff to watch over them.

Are the children all orphans?
Some are orphans, but for some, living with their parents is not an option.

You mentioned the politics of Sierra Leone. What can you tell us about the country and its history?
Sierra Leone has had a pretty sad and tough history. It’s usually one of the poorest nations in the world. Starting in the early 1990s, they had a terrible civil war that lasted 15 years. Lots of families were displaced and the whole population of the country was scattered. A lot of the parents we’re working with experienced trauma from the civil war and they’re now trying to raise their own children. More recently, in 2014, Sierra Leone was hit by the Ebola crisis pretty heavily. Then in 2017, the country experienced three days of heavy rainfall that led to massive flooding and mudslides in the capital of Freetown.

There’s a lot of cards stacked against the families we’re working with. A lot of the parents are illiterate. Their children might not be, but the parents are.

Have you been to Sierra Leone?
I have not. There’s only one airport in the country, so travel is kind of difficult. Also, with the Ebola crisis and flooding, the timing hasn’t been right. But I don’t think I can go the rest of my life and not visit.

Why UMaine?
UMaine was the only school I applied to, and I applied early decision. As soon as I could get my application together and as soon as applications were open, I applied. When I first walked on campus, I said: “This is a place that feels like home.”

Have you worked closely with a mentor, professor or role model who has made your UMaine experience better?
Julie DellaMattera, is my honors thesis adviser. She was also an adviser to the Servant Heart Research Collaboration. She’s been wonderful. Every week she puts aside time for me to meet with her.

Everyone who works in the College of Education and Human Development Advising Center has been so supportive as well. My freshman year I was here every week, getting help signing up for classes or just asking how to get involved in different activities and projects on campus.

Describe UMaine in one word:

What is your most memorable UMaine moment?
Honestly, passing teacher candidacy. I felt like I had done everything I could to prepare for it. I’d taken the PRAXIS, and I’d put together my portfolio. So, it was a big moment where I felt like I was putting myself on the line and saying, “I want to be an educator!” So I was so incredibly happy when I got that email saying that I had passed.

What do you hope to do after graduation and how has UMaine helped you reach those goals?
As an elementary education major, I’ll be certified to teach K–8. I’m hoping to teach mathematics at the middle school level. Down the road, I want to go back to school and get my master’s in educational counseling and become a guidance counselor.

Have you done any internships related to your major, and how have your UMaine classes helped prepare you for those experiences?
Last fall, I interned in the academic counseling office at Maine Central Institute in Pittsfield. I’d been saying I wanted to be a guidance counselor for a while, and I had the opportunity to work in that office with Emily Wagner and it was fantastic. Even though MCI is a high school, and I eventually want to work in a middle school setting, it really solidified that this is what I want to do, that this is my dream job.

I’d taken a class early for my major where we used the TeachLivE simulator. Just having that opportunity to practice interactions with students in a way that’s safe, and you’re not going to embarrass yourself, or say something totally off-base, it made me feel so much more confident going into a school and working with kids.

What’s the most interesting, engaging or helpful class you’ve taken at UMaine?
EHD 100, the 1-credit introduction seminar to the College of Education and Human Development. Just in terms of being helpful, that was awesome, learning how to sign up for classes, how to get around campus. I really loved that there was a community service aspect to that class as well. It just felt like such a nice little introduction to UMaine and how to be successful here.

Have you gained any hands-on or real-world experience through your coursework?
My first semester I was in the infant-toddler room, which was really awesome, but it did teach me that I don’t want to work with infants and toddlers. I said, “Elementary education is for me, not early childhood.” For teacher candidacy, I did my 30-hour placement at a school in Rollinsford, New Hampshire with fifth and sixth graders. Then in ERL 319, my language arts methods class, I was in a kindergarten class. Right now, I’m in EHD 400, teaching seventh and eighth grade science. Next semester I do my student teaching.

What difference has UMaine made in your life?
UMaine has really instilled in me a sense of connectedness and pride in my state. There’s not a day I walk across this campus without someone saying hi to me or asking how I’m doing. And it’s really instilled in me a great sense of community and the importance of having those personal connections.

Contact: Casey Kelly, 581.3751