When a young child has challenging behaviors or shows signs of mental health conditions in preschool or day care, child care providers often turn to specialized consultants for help.
Early learning consultants can help children express themselves with language instead of violence or aggression, refer them to other specialists outside of the classroom, and work with teachers on how to address future behavioral concerns.
It’s work that advocates say is critical for children and providers to thrive and essential for avoiding preschool suspensions and expulsions, which can have lasting effects on a child’s life.
But Washington only has so many of these consultants and child care advocates want the Legislature to fund more of them.
“There’s just not enough of us,” said Erika Larson, an infant and early childhood mental health consultant at Holding Hope of Child Care Aware of Eastern Washington. “We could double our staff and still have plenty of work to do.”
The group is asking for an annual $1.75 million for infant and early childhood mental health consultation, which could help hire about 11 more consultants statewide.
Child Care Aware of Washington estimates that the state has about one infant and early childhood mental health consultant for every 12,937 children. The recommended ratio is one consultant for every 300 children.
At any given time, Holding Hope, one of the state’s leading programs for this work, has a waitlist of about 100 providers who need mental health support for a child in their care.
Janet Fraatz, director of infant and early childhood mental health consultation at Child Care Aware of Washington, said their budget request is a small investment and can be the first step toward fully setting up a mental health system statewide for some of the most formative years of children’s lives.
“There is a mental health presence in K-12 schools, but in child care, there isn’t,” Fraatz said. “It’s critically important that we invest in them.”
Importance of early support
One of the biggest goals of an early learning mental health program is to avoid expulsion from preschool or day care for young children.
A 2005 study – the first to look at expulsion rates for preschoolers nationwide – found that young children, especially Black and Latino boys, were expelled from state-funded preschool programs at a higher rate than their K-12 peers. In 2017, an analysis from the U.S. Education Department drew a similar conclusion.
When a young child is expelled from pre-K, they can develop behaviors that lead to difficulty later in life. It can also limit chances for social and emotional learning and cause kids to have lasting negative views of themselves, school and teachers.
If a child is expelled from an early learning program, their chances for expulsion become much greater in middle or high school, Fraatz said.
“The earlier we can provide intervention the better,” Larson said.
Expelling a child from preschool can also be hard on families, especially those who struggle to find child care in the first place, Fraatz said.
“The parent still needs full-time care for their child, so now they’re desperate,” she said.
The goal of Washington’s early childhood mental health consultations is to eliminate situations where kids are getting expelled from pre-K programs for behavioral issues.
Creating sustainable change
Larson is one of four consultants in eastern Washington. She works with between five to eight schools at a time, spending around six to 12 hours a month at each site.
Her job involves talking with teachers, families and children to improve communication, provide mental health referrals for children and support teachers.
A child’s behavior can often be a symptom of something larger, such as trouble at home or broader societal factors, Fraatz said. Sometimes, a child just doesn’t have the language to explain what they’re feeling, so they act out with anger or violence.
Consultants’ work can often start with one child but can spread through the whole school, Larson said.
The hope is to create sustainable change, so providers have additional options to help kids even after someone like Larson has left a school.
During her experience working with a mental health consultant, Mackenzie Gussenhoven, lead preschool teacher at St. Aloysius Gonzaga Catholic School in Spokane, said she learned to be more patient with her students and see their behaviors more objectively.
She said she now has more knowledge to help deescalate difficult situations and teach kids how to process emotions.
“You want kids to be able to identify their emotions and handle them in an appropriate way rather than hurting others or hurting themselves,” she said.
Helping children with challenging behaviors can also help providers, who hold jobs known for high turnover and low retention rates, Larson said.
Gussenhoven said working with a mental health consultant helped her feel validated as a teacher, find ways to work through burnout, discuss her concerns with her supervisor and better communicate with parents, who can often be defensive about their child’s behavior.
Larson said she works with staff members to ensure they are heard by supervisors and get the support they need through training, professional development or mental health coaching.
“Teachers have their hands full,” Larson said. “Sometimes it’s hard to feel seen, heard and supported.”
The Legislature has until March 7 to pass a budget for the next year and a half. Lawmakers will likely release their spending proposals, which could include the funding request for early learning mental health support, toward the end of this month.
by Laurel Demkovich, Washington State Standard
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