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Answering the SOS, Part I: A Promising Approach to Mental Health in the Very Young

By Melissa Mincic  |  August 31, 2022

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, 1 in 6 children between the ages of 2 and 8 were diagnosed with a developmental, behavioral or mental health disorder such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety or depression. The number jumps to more than 1 in 5 for children living below the federal poverty level.

The depth of the problem is reflected in the fact that children in early education settings are suspended and expelled at three times the rate of school-aged children, and Black preschoolers are 3.6 times more likely to be suspended than their white counterparts.

Outside of family, early childhood educators are often the biggest influencers for healthy child development. Given the increased stressors they’ve faced throughout the pandemic, many educators are fighting to keep their heads above water. Anxiety, stress and burnout have spiked amid severe child care staff shortages, and many providers―most of whom are low income―have experienced hunger and increased difficulty paying for basic needs. Moreover, many are carrying student debt.

A Buoy for the Early Childhood Education Workforce

Infant and early childhood mental health consultation is a prevention-based approach to facilitating children’s healthy social and emotional development by pairing a mental health consultant with early childhood educators in various settings. The approach builds caregivers’ capacities and skills to facilitate young children’s social and emotional development before more intensive behavioral interventions are needed. Services are commonly provided in child care and other early childhood educational settings and can vary depending on program type.

Supports such as infant and early childhood mental health consultation benefit children and early childhood educators alike. They improve children’s social and emotional skills, enhance classroom quality and reduce challenging behaviors and suspension and expulsion rates. With supports, early childhood educators are less depressed, have greater job satisfaction, feel more supported in addressing children’s challenging behaviors, and consider the workplace to be more positive. Early educators who use supports regularly experience less classroom stress and are less likely to request expulsions.

State Legislatures Throw Early Educators a Life Preserver

Although decisions concerning early childhood mental health professionals are generally made at the local level, some state policymakers have acted to increase the numbers of consultants and enhance their training and professional development.

Increasing Numbers of Qualified Consultants

Like early childhood educators, early childhood mental health specialists are currently in short supply. Increasing consultation capacity can provide educators some much needed support. Colorado HB 1053 increased the numbers of trained mental health professionals available for on-site consultations supporting varied early childhood settings from the prenatal period through age 8.

Providing Ongoing Professional Development

Because early childhood mental health consultants often work as independent practitioners and have varied training requirements across states, ensuring they are prepared for the job is important. Colorado HB 1053 also provides a statewide professional development plan and defined consultation model including expected outcomes. Utah HB 337 offers child care providers education and training on evidence-based best practices for mental health supports and interventions.

Beyond pre-service and in-service trainings, consultants and early childhood educators also benefit from reflecting on their work with children and families and building relationships with colleagues. This practice is known as reflective supervision. Washington SB 5237/HB 1213 requires reflective supervision in addition to professional development for early childhood mental health consultants to meet national competency standards.

Helping Early Educators Stay Afloat

Best practices from the field suggest additional policy options for supporting and retaining early childhood educators. Expanding professional development and increasing compensation are among them, and American Rescue Plan Act funds can be used for these purposes

Requiring Prenatal-to-3 Professional Development

Age-appropriate early care and education requires a broad range of child development and cultural competencies, and training specific to children ages birth to 3 is one area of professional development that could use a boost. It’s sometimes difficult to distinguish typical behaviors from potential concerns, and early childhood professionals need knowledge of what’s developmentally appropriate for children at various ages to accurately identify and support them. Further, consultants trained to understand cultural differences in attitudes and beliefs about mental health can better meet the needs of all children and families in care.

Increasing Consultants’ Compensation

Meeting national competencies requires early childhood mental health consultants to demonstrate extensive expertise and skills. Beyond knowledge of child development, consultants must demonstrate cultural sensitivity; provide services in classroom and home settings; and work at child, family, program and broader system levels. To help recruit and retain qualified professionals, compensation is another place to look.

While policymakers have given increased attention to early childhood mental health during recent legislative sessions, consultation is not the only solution to issues currently facing early childhood educators. Other supports and systems, such as home visiting programs, play distinct roles in answering distress calls from the early childhood field. Part II of this series will discuss ways legislators could leverage early mental health consultation and other systems to better support the early childhood workforce and the children and families they serve.

Melissa Mincic is a senior policy specialist in NCSL’s Children and Families Program.

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