At dinnertime on a Tuesday night, nine parents sat in a Commerce City preschool classroom discussing the difficulty of setting rules for their small children.
Some said they bark orders too often and are trying to cut back. One mom said she wished one blanket rule — “just love each other” — would cover it. But inevitably she finds a dozen more specific things to list off: Don’t bite, don’t hit and so on.
Over the next hour, the parents and two facilitators talked through more effective approaches, including giving kids fewer direct orders, defining “non-negotiables” and letting little things go.
The parenting class was part of a federally-funded initiative called Project LAUNCH that aims to help parents, preschool teachers, pediatricians and other adults in Adams County boost mental health in young children. It reflects growing national awareness that children stand a greater chance of succeeding in school and life if they get mental health support in their earliest years.
“We have so many kids with social and emotional needs,” said Lisa Jansen Thompson, executive director of the Early Childhood Partnership of Adams County. “It is just increasing.”
The Project LAUNCH work in Adams County is a five-year, $2.6 million effort funded by a federal grant program that pays for similar efforts in states and tribal areas across the country.
Getting kids reading well by the third grade used to be the “north star” for many early childhood advocates, Jansen Thompson said. But now, abundant data show the need to start earlier — well before kids enter school. That’s when key lifelong skills develop, such as the ability to form close relationships and manage strong emotions.
And if that development hits a roadblock, a new set of problems can crop up, like kids getting suspended in preschool or having pitched battles at home.
Competition was stiff for Colorado’s Project LAUNCH funding. Eleven communities submitted letters of interest within a 48-hour period. The Adams County proposal, which focuses on Spanish-speaking families in the southern portion of the county, ultimately won out.
But the story didn’t end there. The outsized interest in early childhood mental health — along with the success of an earlier Project LAUNCH site in Weld County — inspired a first-of-its-kind effort by eight private funders to replicate the program in four other Colorado communities.
That initiative — called LAUNCH Together — last fall awarded a total of $8 million to grantees in Denver, Pueblo, Jefferson County and, working as one team, Chaffee and Fremont counties. The private funders include seven foundations and one health care provider.
“We were not trying to prove that a privately funded model could do this better,” said Colleen Church, director of programs for the Caring for Colorado Foundation, one of the funders. “We were really building off what had worked.”
She said interest in early childhood mental health had been growing among funders for several years, elevating it to the level of traditional child health priorities such as ensuring kids have access to medical care and are fully immunized.
The funders hired a Denver-based organization called Early Milestones Colorado to lead the privately funded effort.
While the details differ in the five communities participating in Project LAUNCH and LAUNCH Together, the primary strategies are the same. They involve special training for preschool teachers, parents and the staff of home visiting programs, which send professionals to work with parents of babies or young children. The idea is to help the adults with whom children interact learn how to foster social and emotional skills in kids, and spot red flags that might require outside help.
There are also efforts to get new mothers screened for depression and to make sure children are routinely screened for developmental milestones at doctor check-ups — and if problems arise, give families quick access to mental health services.
Janine Pryor, coordinator of the Chaffee County Early Childhood Council, said because of the LAUNCH Together funding, “We’re sending people to trainings that no one here could ever afford.”
Leaders of the various LAUNCH efforts say their goal is not just to alter the experience that kids and families have now at preschools, doctor’s offices and in their homes, but to make systems-level shifts that ensure changes continue after the grant money runs out.
At the same time, they want to raise public awareness about the importance of early childhood mental health and reduce the stigma that so often accompanies it.
“We’re going to try in our region to really get the word out and develop messages that will resonate with everyone,” Pryor said.