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Meet Donna Shea of The Peter Pan Center for Social & Emotional Growth in Boxborough

Today we’d like to introduce you to Donna Shea.

Donna, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
It started with motherhood 30 years ago. I am the mom of two sons misunderstood for most of their young lives by myself, the people around us and the educational system, Between the both of them, we struggled with ADHD, anxiety, sensory challenges, and hidden learning disabilities. I was the mom who did the walk of shame from library story hours and the playgroups that keep moms of young children sane.

In 2001, I graduated at the age of 38 from Lesley University, having earned a degree in behavioral science. I was in a very self-directed program that had a thesis requirement for my final semester. I decided to take a look at the experience of mothers of ADHD kids. My professor asked if I had ever read the original story of Peter Pan. I had not, so he suggested I do so and decide if Peter Pan could have had ADHD. I thought he did, so the thesis became entitled Mothering Peter Pan. It included a focus group of moms who were also raising more-challenging-than-the-average-bear kids. And from that, came a center that opened in 2002 in response to the needs of both misunderstood children and their moms.

Fast forward 15 years later. The Peter Pan Center has grown into a bustling social-emotional learning center where parents find support, tips, and strategies for understanding and guiding their children, navigating the educational system and where kids and teens enjoy a fun and nonclinical approach to learning self-regulation and social skills. The center was started for the needs of my sons and continues to be that to this day, with new programs for young adults to be launched this coming fall. In helping my own family, I have been able to help hundreds of other kids and families find a safe place for understanding, acceptance, and support.

Has it been a smooth road?
I don’t think anyone’s road is smooth in life or in business. That’s just life. I like to focus more on being resilient, coping with the challenges that invariably arise on any given day and always moving forward.

If I had to think about challenges and obstacles of the past though, one is of a logistical nature. Finding the right space (we’ve moved four times – hopefully, this is it!)

As an entrepreneur, there is always the challenge of enough time to wear all of the hats of your business. I read somewhere that entrepreneurs are people who will work 80 hours a week to avoid working 40. That is very true!

Working alone for many years had its ups and downs. You live in a work bubble for the most part. I have to say though, that in the last three years, in finding the right partner at Peter Pan, Lonnie Ouellette, and the amazing staff that we now have at the Center, in large part thanks to Lonnie’s management skills, to have that camaraderie at work now is a great feeling.

So let’s switch gears a bit and go into The Peter Pan Center for Social & Emotional Growth story. Tell us more about the business.
The Peter Pan Center has been at the frontier of social-emotional learning long before we realized that this was an area that kids had begun to lag in with the advent of societal changes around work schedules, structured sports and activities and younger and younger ages, and the demands of our culture as we know it now. Fewer and fewer kids have the “go out and play” experience after school where these skills are learned.

We specialize in developing social skills for children and teens, as well as providing activity and community-based social learning opportunities. Different from a clinical approach, we don’t think kids who struggle need treatment, they need guidance and practice in real social situations. Our programs look very much the same as indoor recess. It has been an honor to receive the Boston Parents Family Favorite Award from our families multiple times.

What makes me feel proud of what we do, is when a child exclaims how much they love it here. Most of these kids have experienced some social rejection and come through the door bearing some social scarring. When I get a hug from a child or a parent, it is an amazing feeling to have been able to touch someone’s life that way. When I see a child make a new friend, it makes my heart happy.

I am also a seasoned public speaker and present workshops for parents, and professional development seminars for educators, daycare providers and other groups interested in the social-emotional well-being of children.

How do you think the industry will change over the next decade?
I think that those of us in the social-emotional learning field will continue to see children who need support. We have moved from a focus on ADHD kids to an influx of children with social communication challenges and on the autism spectrum. I’m not sure if it’s so much an increase in autism or we are better able to see what is going on with kids than we were when my sons were young.

I do think that big shifts are happening now that we in the field will need to understand and adjust our services around. We are the last generation that remembers socializing without the internet, devices, and apps. It is a very different social world now and we’ll need to keep up with the times.

In response to the needs of kids not only locally, but everywhere, I have teamed up with my friend and fellow social-emotional learning colleague, Nadine Briggs. Together, we have published six books, with a seventh one being finished on social-emotional learning, friendship skills and managing strong feelings. We have plans for much more and all of our work can be found on Amazon. We have also developed the Social Success in School Initiative that brings our work into schools and give kids the social know-how to develop a school community of kindness and manners and tools to prevent children from being victims of bullying.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Kerri Cotter (professional head shot only)

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