By Shannon Saul
In their first few years of life, young children develop essential social and emotional skills, such as regulating emotions, sharing with others and following instructions.
Through relationships with their caregivers and interactions with peers, young children learn to overcome challenges and stay focused on tasks—skills they will need to succeed in the classroom. Many children face challenges to healthy social-emotional development. This can result in challenging or concerning behaviors, such as tantrums, impulsiveness, withdrawal or little or no communication.
Parents and out-of-home caregivers are responsible for supporting healthy social and emotional development of young children. Yet, in two recent surveys, many early childhood educators reported they do not have the training or access to early childhood mental health consultants needed to appropriately support children with challenging behaviors.
In the March-April issue of State Legislatures magazine, we explored how one state is addressing early childhood mental health issues by extending support to early childhood educators and caregivers. Read the full article, "Early Learning: Do Preschool Expulsions Need a Time Out?" and check out a preview below.
How young children learn and grow: It matters
Biology, environment and relationships with caregivers all influence a child’s social and emotional development. Healthy social and emotional development is rooted in nurturing and responsive relationships with family members and other caregivers.
Yet at least 10% of children younger than 5 experience abuse, neglect or other forms of trauma. Such experiences can lead to a range of mental health issues with potential lifelong impact and can be as severe as those experienced by adults.
One in 6 children between 2 and 8 years old are diagnosed with a developmental, mental or behavioral disorder such as anxiety or depression. To effectively assess, diagnose, and treat mental health issues in young children clinicians need specialized training in child development and the unique ways in which young children process experiences and exhibit symptoms.
Well-trained early care and education professionals are critical to supporting social and emotional competence in young children. They build positive and engaging relationships with the children in their care, model respectful and appropriate behavior, weave social and emotional skill-building into daily activities, and can identify warning signs when children need help.
When early educators lack tools and training, children may face consequences
Without sufficient training or support, early childhood educators may mischaracterize behaviors, over-identify children for special education and disciplinary action and impose more punitive discipline. In fact, preschoolers and young children in child care are expelled at three times the rate of K-12 students, and children of color and boys are disproportionally affected.
To address this, legislatures in at least 16 states and the District of Columbia have enacted limits or bans on using suspensions and expulsions in the primary grades, often including prekindergarten. Several states have also invested in training for early childhood educators and paired them with early childhood mental health consultants.
Mental health consultants are licensed mental health professionals and experts in early childhood behavior who work with early childhood educators, and sometimes parents as well, to interpret child behavior and build skills to respond effectively to children’s unique needs. They can help educators create inviting, nurturing classrooms and learn how to identify when a child may need additional services and support. Additionally, their services have been demonstrated to reduce suspensions and expulsions as well as reduce teacher burnout and stress.
Colorado doubles down on early childhood mental health
In Colorado, lawmakers are supporting early childhood mental health in two ways: by restricting the use of suspensions and expulsions in early learning classrooms and by increasing access to early childhood mental health consultants.
Colorado lawmakers passed HB19-1194 in 2019 to limit the use of suspensions and expulsions in publicly funded classrooms, from preschool through second grade. Child care regulations now require providers to outline the steps they will take before suspending or expelling a child and how they will use early childhood mental health consultants or other specialists.
In-state studies have shown that using consultants has successfully transformed classroom environments and that children’s behavior improved. According to Early Childhood Mental Health Specialists Program staff, results included more self-control and fewer acts of aggression, and the number of suspensions and expulsions decreased. In 2016, the state increased funding to double the number of full-time early childhood mental health consultants.
Lawmakers subsequently introduced HB20-1006 to expand access to consultation services once more and establish a professional development plan and certification process to ensure the consistency of those services statewide. The bill is pending while the General Assembly is adjourned due to the COVID-19 outbreak.
This blog was made possible with funding from ZERO TO THREE as part of Think Babies, which was developed to make the potential of every baby a national priority. Funding partners for Think Babies include the Perigee Fund and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which supports the public education aspects of Think Babies. Learn more at thinkbabies.org.
Shannon Saul is an intern in NCSL's Children and Families Program.