Preschoolers in Emily Byassee’s class at Early Connections Learning Centers frequently erupt in violence. They become upset. They might hit another person, throw a toy or in many cases start screaming.
“They have all these big emotions in their tiny little bodies, and if they don’t know what to do with it yet, they just do what they can,” said Byassee, a lead teacher of 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds at the early childhood education center in Colorado Springs.
The school’s approach to helping those students in their moments of crisis falls outside the norm in Colorado. Its staff includes three behavioral health specialists who primarily divide their time between 18 classrooms at the school’s three full-day, full-year early learning centers, helping students learn how to manage difficult emotions and coaching teachers on effective ways to guide students through distress.
Teachers are also trained on how to create a classroom environment that promotes kids’ social-emotional development through a specialized approach called Pyramid Plus that was developed from a national model.
The behavioral health specialists have helped reshape teacher morale, so much so that their presence in the classroom has become a teacher retention tool, according to Diane Price, president and chief executive officer of Early Connections Learning Center.
Lawmakers think this type of program could be replicated statewide and have brought forward House Bill 1006, which would build upon an existing program that addresses mental health in early childhood across Colorado.
The state needs an estimated 438 early childhood mental health consultants to serve kids who receive care through a licensed care program, according to bill sponsor Rep. Emily Sirota, D-Denver.
The bill passed out of the House Public Health Care & Human Services Committee in January.
“We know those earliest years are really the foundation of success for them in life and the greater investments we make earlier on the better chance we have for that child to be successful,” said Rep. Julie McCluskie, D-Dillon, another bill sponsor.
The bill, also sponsored by Sen. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, and Sen. Tammy Story, D-Conifer, would boost the number of qualified early childhood mental health consultants to support adults who work with children and families in a range of settings — including childcare providers, pediatricians’ offices, perinatal health care providers, maternal behavioral health professionals, home visiting programs and child welfare, according to Sirota.
The program would be managed by the Colorado Department of Human Services, with an allocation of $129,760 for 2020-21 in order to fully establish the program by 2022.
The legislation also requires the Department of Human Services and the Department of Health Care Policy and Financing to look into funding options for the program.
Colorado now has 34 state-funded mental health consultants specializing in early childhood education, Sirota said during a House Public Health Care & Human Services Committee meeting in January.
The kinds of investments Early Connections Learning Centers has made in behavioral health supports are unusual for early childhood education facilities, said Bill Jaeger, vice president of early childhood and policy initiatives at the nonprofit Colorado Children’s Campaign.
The state has a real lack of investment in early care and education and, consequently, the limited dollars available usually go toward ensuring early care and education is offered, Jaeger said.
At Early Connections Learning Centers, the behavioral health specialists step inside classrooms to instruct teachers on ways to work with students who have different needs and provide one-on-one support to students with behavioral health challenges.
The three behavioral health specialists don’t belong to the cohort of state-funded mental health consultants, but their work is grounded in a similar mission.
Sam Raboin, one of the centers’ behavioral health specialists, devotes part of her classroom time to modeling behavior for students, showing them the basics of how to play with others or sit at a table, and demonstrates to teachers how to react and support a child on the verge of a meltdown.
She also can swoop in when a child needs help to calm down or manage their feelings, working with them through whatever underlying stress, anxiety or trauma is fueling the behavior.
Many of the centers’ students carry trauma with them from home. In addition to serving homeless students, the centers work with students who have absentee parents, have been exposed to drug abuse and have experienced physical abuse. Staff try to understand the circumstances their students face so that they can better relate to them and their families, Price said.
How trauma bubbles to the surface differs among children, Raboin said. While some act out with physical aggression, others turn inward, becoming quiet and introverted as they struggle to work through emotions.
Raboin and her colleagues emphasize a positive approach to instruction, avoiding words like “no,” “stop” and “don’t” — which their students might hear frequently at home.
They want to prepare students to be successful in kindergarten and equip them with skills and tools they can use when they’re out of their teacher’s care to feel safe with their emotions.
“It kind of lays the foundation for them to be able to build on that for themselves as they get older,” Raboin said.
Making sure kids get to be kids
Early Connections Learning Centers hired its first behavioral health specialist in 2013 after its board and staff determined it would need the help of professionals to focus on students’ social-emotional development.
Staff noticed that children were so used to spending their time on devices that they didn’t know how to play with each other, said Price, president and CEO. Others were angry, were acting out and weren’t developing socially and emotionally the way previous classes of preschoolers had.
In the 31 years Price has worked for Early Connections Learning Centers, she’s seen a big change in children as the world has changed and, with it, school expectations. With a heightened emphasis on academics, Price said, classes sometimes miss out on kids simply being kids and the basics of learning to play, share, ask and express feelings.
“We don’t want to miss those things because those are critical to their overall child development in order for them to progress, problem solve, make good decisions,” Price said.
McCluskie can empathize. She worked as a teacher and administrator in Summit County schools for about a dozen years and observed the mental health needs of kids increasing, including in the youngest grade levels.
She was especially upset when a preschooler expressed thoughts of self-harm. Teachers and the school principal were devastated.
McCluskie compares the development of social-emotional skills to the way students gain ground in academic learning. Both play out as a set of building blocks.
When children arrive at school with well-developed behavior management and social-emotional skills, they’ve got a better chance at succeeding in school, McCluskie said.
She’s optimistic that strengthening Colorado’s program of early childhood mental health consultation is an important step in tackling rising rates of depression, anxiety and suicide within the state’s teen population.
Through the legislation McCluskie is sponsoring, the state would be able to provide more effective support to those adults responsible for working with children, according to Sarah Davidon, director of research and child and adolescent strategy at the advocacy and policy organization Mental Health Colorado.
Davidon testified in favor of the bill in January, emphasizing the need to invest in the program’s infrastructure.
“We know for a fact that without an infrastructure to support boots on the ground, they can’t do their jobs well,” Davidon told lawmakers, adding that tens of thousands of children and families stand to benefit.
Elevating a focus on early childhood mental health also has the potential to re-energize Colorado’s early childhood education workforce, which lawmakers recognize is suffering a shortage.
“We’re in crisis stage right now,” Price said of the teacher shortage at Early Connections Learning Centers, noting that the shortage has been ramping up for at least the past 10 years.
At one point last year, Price had 11 openings and froze enrollment while also relying on center directors to help cover classrooms.
But the mental health program is helping. Price said her teachers are no longer leaving due to struggles with behavioral issues among children, which used to be one of the top reasons behind teacher turnover at her centers.
Across Colorado, early childhood education is seeing turnover rates as high as 40%, McCluskie said, with nearly 30% of teachers who exit the field pointing to children’s social-emotional distress as the cause.
“So many of our educators are leaving the profession, not simply because it is a low wage profession, but also because it is a really hard job to do,” Sirota said, “and so many of our educators do not feel as though they have the necessary training and tools to truly address what they are seeing coming into their classrooms and to be that support for children and families that they want to be.”