Since the onset of the pandemic, a greater number of parents have reported that their children ages 3-5 years old are experiencing more social-emotional challenges, including increasing levels of challenging behavior. On top of navigating the ongoing pandemic, this uptick in behavioral issues will present an added difficulty for an already-strained early educator workforce.
While early educators are being forced to navigate ongoing external stressors such as low pay, limited benefits, and high turnover, their well-being has significant influence over the mental health and behavioral outcomes of children in their classroom. Children thrive most when relationships with early childhood teachers are stable, responsive, caring, and consistent. When teachers are suffering from depression or job stress, relationships can become disrupted, and children can demonstrate more challenging behaviors that lead to higher levels of expulsion. Conversely, educators that have the capacity to foster supportive relationships with the children see lower rates of challenging behavior in the classroom.
Unfortunately, even before the pandemic, there were limited federal investments to support early childhood educators who needed or wanted additional resources to respond to their own personal stressors or the challenging behaviors presented in their classrooms. Accessible and age-appropriate interventions can be implemented to support teachers and children, and could successfully reduce the rates of exclusionary discipline, such as expulsion and suspension, in early learning settings. These practices disproportionately impact marginalized populations, such as children with disabilities, children from low-income families, and children of color.
To address rates of exclusionary discipline, some initial action has been taken. Some states and Head Start programs leveraged legislative or regulatory changes to restrict the use of harsh discipline in early education. However, these restrictions do not necessarily provide educators and children with alternative options for managing behavioral challenges and promoting everyone’s well-being.
In 2014, the federal government promoted the use of early childhood mental health consultations, or ECMHC, to reduce rates of exclusionary discipline and a myriad of states have begun implementing ECMHC. Thus far, one randomized control trial has been published based on Connecticut’s successful efforts to implement ECMHC through their statewide program: the Early Childhood Consultation Partnership. That randomized control trial, conducted by Dr. Walter Gilliam at Yale University, found that the program significantly decreased the levels of problem behaviors children were exhibiting.
Despite promising evidence, there has been a chronic underinvestment in systematic mental health supports in early education and care settings. Successful or widespread implementation is further complicated by a national workforce shortage of early childhood mental health professionals.
Most recently, the American Rescue Plan, which includes a total of $39 billion in child care funding, includes “mental health supports for children and employees” as an allowable use of the $25 billion in stabilization funds. But with a range of competing priorities, states and providers may struggle to leverage the money for this purpose.
On March 26, 2021 BPC’s Early Childhood Initiative will host Dr. Walter Gilliam and Dr. Chin Reyes, who recently completed a second randomized control trial studying ECMHC in Ohio. Their findings, and the discussion that follows, will be an important step to better understanding the full impact of ECMHC for children and teachers. Further, it will be an opportunity to discuss an evidence-based use of ARP funds to support the mental health of children and educators.
Register and join the discussion here.