January 10, 2013

Supporting Children’s Mental Health

Programs work to keep behavioral problems from escalating

It’s a startling statistic, but one in five children is expelled from preschool for behavioral problems. That’s a higher rate than for high school or any other school-age group.

Research shows that young children can exhibit behavioral health issues much earlier than once thought, and this behavior can take many forms. Most teachers will tell you their “problem students” range from the boisterous ones who disrupt class to quiet loners who may be hiding deeper emotional problems. But expelling children from preschool is only a quick fix for what can become a larger, looming problem, as those troubled youngsters often grow into troubled teens and adults.

Through research, training, and support for states and communities, EDC is working to prevent early child mental health problems from escalating and to create healthy classrooms for all students.

Promoting wellness from a young age

A number of risk factors can lead to behavioral health issues in young children, including poverty, maternal depression, exposure to violence, and trauma. Even young children can suffer from depression and anxiety, which can lead to them hurting themselves or others.

“Chronic stress experienced by young children may not only have behavioral consequences, but physiological ones as well,” says EDC’s Patricia Fahey, an early childhood education specialist. “It can lead to adverse health conditions later in life, like heart disease and diabetes, because of the physiological changes that happen when children are in stress.”

EDC, along with partners at Georgetown University and the American Institutes for Research, provides training and consultation to grantees of a federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration program called Project LAUNCH (Linking Actions for Unmet Needs in Children’s Health), which promotes the wellness of children ages birth to 8.

States, tribes, and local communities that implement Project LAUNCH adopt a number of strategies to help parents, pediatricians, preschool teachers, and other providers prevent social-emotional issues from developing, and to identify and intervene with children showing signs of behavioral health problems. These strategies include home visits, parenting education programs, and consultation with teachers and physicians.

“Project LAUNCH helps parents and early childhood professionals to not just look for children who are having challenging behaviors, but to look at ways the entire community can support all children’s development,” says Fahey, who leads the Project LAUNCH Technical Assistance team.

EDC also provides trainings and resources for Project LAUNCH grantees to support them in building systems that unite mental health professionals, teachers, pediatricians, and other early childhood professionals in promoting the overall wellness of children in their communities for years to come. In addition, Project LAUNCH communities have benefited from the work of the Bullying Prevention and Research Institute at EDC, which has shared its expertise on identifying and preventing bullying behavior.

Healthy bodies, healthy minds

EDC is also working with the American Academy of Pediatrics, Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the UCLA Anderson School of Management on the Head Start National Center on Health to promote the health and mental wellness of Head Start staff, children, and families. The National Center on Health provides information on medical and dental care access, safety and injury prevention, health awareness, obesity prevention in young children, emergency preparedness, and environmental safety.

Nancy Topping-Tailby is a licensed clinical social worker with a specialty in early childhood mental health, and a member of the EDC early childhood staff directing EDC’s work on the National Center. She says while Head Start has, since its inception in the 1960s, recognized children’s mental health issues, the problem is only recently getting wider public attention.

“The kids with behavioral problems often don’t have the skills they need to learn,” says Topping-Tailby. “It’s more difficult to teach children academic content when they don’t have the ability to pay attention or control their feelings and behavior. The work EDC does supports healthy children who can learn effectively. When you promote children’s healthy development, you help them succeed in school and become productive adults who can realize their potential.”