More state support

When preschoolers bite and hit, these mental health experts step in to help

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Pam Sturgeon, an early childhood mental health consultant, works with a boy at TLC Learning Center in Longmont.

A little ponytailed girl gave her preschool classmate a hug. Then it became more of a boa constrictor’s squeeze. Her friend began to cry. The girl moved on, hugging another classmate so enthusiastically they both fell over onto the carpet at TLC Learning Center in Longmont.

It’s the kind of thing that can get little kids in trouble at some preschools and child care centers—and in the most serious and chronic cases removed from their classrooms and schools.

That doesn’t happen at TLC, thanks in part to Pam Sturgeon.

The early childhood mental health consultant is part of a growing group of specialists charged with helping early childhood teachers handle challenging behavior among students—whether it’s biting, hitting, over-hugging or some other problem.

Sturgeon, who visits about a half-dozen Boulder County schools and child care centers each week, is on the frontlines of Colorado’s efforts to prevent suspensions and expulsions in early education. It’s an issue that’s gained national prominence recently, particularly in light of data showing that black children, especially boys, are disproportionately affected by such practices.

Since 2006, 17 early childhood mental health consultant positions have been funded through Colorado’s general fund. That number will soon double thanks to a $1.4 million infusion from the state’s child care block grant approved by the legislature last winter.

Jordana Ash, director of early childhood mental health in the state’s Office of Early Childhood, said the decision to expand the program grew out of increasing concerns about preschool expulsions, a growing emphasis on children’s social-emotional development and efforts to include kids with disabilities.

She said some of the state’s current consultants cover up to 10 counties.

“The capacity needs in our state have long been underserved by the 17 that we have,” Ash said.

Growing momentum

Colorado’s expanded cadre of 34 state-funded consultants represents one of the nation’s largest state investments in the approach. (Officials say there are an additional 20-30 consultants in the state funded through other sources.)

Arizona, which pays for its program with state tobacco tax money, has more publicly funded consultants, Ash said.

“This is a program states have struggled to figure out how to pay for because these are preventive services,” she said.

Colorado’s new investment in mental health consultants is not the only effort to help child care providers deal with challenging behavior and head off suspensions and expulsions.

Several programs around the state provide extensive teacher training on children’s social-emotional development. These include Pyramid Plus, The Incredible Years and “Expanding Quality for Infants and Toddlers.”

In addition, new state rules took effect in February requiring licensed child care centers to spell out how they’ll handle challenging behavior, make discipline decisions and access consultants.

Day in the life

Most of Colorado’s state-funded early childhood mental health consultants are based at community mental health centers. Some also work through early childhood councils or Boards of Cooperative Educational Services, which provide services to multiple member school districts.

Pam Sturgeon, an early childhood mental health consultant, directs a preschooler at a Longmont child care center.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Pam Sturgeon, an early childhood mental health consultant, directs a preschooler at a Longmont child care center.

Sometimes, consultants work with child care staff to promote social-emotional skills before problems arise. Other times, they’re called late in the game when expulsions are imminent.

Even then, they can help diffuse built-up stress and slow down or stop the expulsion process, said Matt Powell, who oversees three consultants including Sturgeon through Mental Health Partners’ Kid Connects program.

Early childhood suspensions and expulsions are worrisome because they can have long-term consequences for kids—not only increasing the likelihood of future suspensions and expulsions, but also the prospect that students will struggle academically, drop out of high school and even go to prison.

Some of Colorado’s consultants are “embedded,” meaning they spend significant time at a particular center. That’s the case for Sturgeon, who spends about two days a week at TLC, a Pyramid Plus center where 40 percent of students have special needs.

In addition to training staff, she visits classrooms and talks with parents about promoting children’s social-emotional skills at home.

During a recent morning at TLC, Sturgeon chatted with teacher Caitlin Moles about efforts to help one child who uses a walker become more independent and to encourage another with speech difficulties to use words instead of letting others speak for her.

While the children played outside, Sturgeon went over the scores she’d given Moles and assistant teacher Lupe Morales on a classroom mental health climate rating.

“You always show that unconditional love and support, which is so important for not only typical kids but especially the ones who are struggling with different things,” said Sturgeon.

Pam Sturgeon brought this and other books in for teachers to use with students after the death of a classmate at TLC Learning Center.
Pam Sturgeon brought this and other books in for teachers to use with students after the death of a classmate at TLC Learning Center.

“I love how you’re just down there on their level, talking to them, striking up conversations.”

After that, Sturgeon stopped by a classroom that had just experienced a major loss—the unexpected death of a student at home over spring break. She’d helped the teachers navigate the delicate process of talking about death with preschoolers—providing books and leading conversations as the kids contemplated where their classmate had gone, what heaven was like and whether there were horses there.

Looking at the evidence

A small but growing body of research indicates that early childhood mental health consultants help both teachers and children.

There’s evidence that such services improve teachers’ classroom management skills while reducing negative interactions between staff and students, as well as job-related stress. For kids, consultation can speed up social skills development and reduce expulsions, which happen more often in preschools than the K-12 system.

Still, there are caveats.

Mary Louise Hemmeter, a professor of special education at Vanderbilt University, said variations in how consultants practice makes it unclear what exactly produces results.

“That’s why the research is probably not as strong,” she said.

For example, some consultants may focus on helping a teacher deal with one challenging child, more than supporting all staff members to develop their skills. It’s the latter that will make a bigger difference in the long run, said Hemmeter.

“The important task we have is to define what it is we deliver through mental health consultants,” she said.

Join Chalkbeat on May 24 for a keynote address and panel discussion on early childhood suspensions and expulsions. More details here

leading the state

Three things we heard at a gubernatorial candidates forum on early childhood

PHOTO: Ann Schimke | Chalkbeat
Jared Polis, the Democratic candidate for Colorado governor, and Lang Sias, the Republican lieutenant governor candidate, spoke at forum on early childhood issues.

Stark differences in how Colorado’s two would-be governors plan to tackle early childhood issues were clear at a candidate forum Monday evening.

U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, the Democratic nominee, envisions free full-day preschool and kindergarten for all Colorado children — a sweeping and pricey expansion of what’s currently available.

Republican lieutenant governor candidate Lang Sias, who stood in for gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton, said Republicans would focus public funds on narrower programs that benefit the poorest children.

Currently, Colorado funds early childhood programs for some of its young children. The state provides half-day preschool to 4-year-olds with certain risk factors, but the program covers only some of those who qualify. In addition, the state reimburses districts for just over half the cost of full-day kindergarten, leaving districts to pay for the rest or pass on the cost to families through tuition. Last spring, lawmakers expanded the state income tax credit for child care costs, but most families still need to come up with hundreds or even thousands of dollars a month.

Monday’s event at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science represented a rare opportunity to hear candidates address early childhood issues, which are often overshadowed on the campaign trail by topics such as housing, roads and health care. While the forum highlighted some of the big early childhood ideas championed by each campaign, it also left plenty of unanswered questions.

Stapleton, Colorado’s state treasurer, was originally slated to speak at the forum, but backed out citing family obligations. Sias, a state representative from Arvada and a member of the House Education Committee, spoke in his place.

Polis and Sias didn’t debate each other at Monday’s forum, or otherwise interact. Polis went first, giving a short statement about his early childhood platform then answering several questions posed by moderator Bill Jaeger, vice president for early childhood and policy initiatives at the Colorado Children’s Campaign. Sias followed suit.

The event was sponsored by Constellation Philanthropy, a group of funders focused on early childhood issues. (Constellation is a Chalkbeat funder.)

Here are three things we learned from the forum:

The candidates have different ideas about which young children need help and how to provide it

In discussing his plans to create universal full-day preschool and kindergarten, Polis talked about using a public-private financing mechanism that’s sometimes called “social impact bonds.”

In this kind of financing — also called “pay for success” — private investors or philanthropists pay up front for social programs and get repaid with interest if those programs save public money by reducing the need for costly services such as special education or reading remediation. If a project doesn’t yield the hoped-for savings, the investors lose some or all of their money.

Polis said if he wins in November, he’ll immediately “work out how to partner with philanthropy to create more early childhood education for all income levels.”

Currently a version of social impact bonds is being used to pay for full-day preschool for some students in the Westminster school district north of Denver, a fact Polis mentioned Monday. Still, the financing mechanism is relatively untested in Colorado’s education sphere and it’s unclear how it might be scaled to pay for something as ambitious as statewide full-day preschool and kindergarten.

When talking about the Republican ticket’s early-education priorities, Sias described early childhood education as “incredibly important” but “very inequitably distributed.”

“We want to focus our public spending on those who are least able to afford it on their own,” he said.

He cited a proposal for education savings accounts that allow families to set aside money tax-free for educational expenses, including early childhood education.

“We realize that is more focused on middle-class and above families,” he said, “but by targeting that money using that program, we feel we will have more available to target the folks at the bottom of the spectrum who really cannot avail themselves of that opportunity.”

Education savings accounts don’t typically work for low-income parents because they have no extra money to set aside for future expenses.

The candidates would take different approaches to strengthening the early childhood workforce

In a field marked by low pay and tough working conditions, recruiting and retaining qualified teachers is a chronic problem. The candidates had ideas about how to bulk up the workforce.

Sias advocated for a residency program to help turn out new early childhood teachers, similar to what he’s previously proposed to help address the K-12 teacher shortage. He said such programs are data-driven, helping retain teachers for longer periods and improving student results.

He also floated the idea of recruiting midlife career-changers to early childhood work — “folks north of 50” — and hinted that they would work in the low-paid field.

“Is that an opportunity to tap into … folks who would like to fill those spots who maybe don’t have the same set of issues that millennials do in terms of how long they want to stay and how long they need to be committed, and frankly how much they need to be paid?”

While some middle-aged people do enter the field, mediocre pay, a maze of state regulations, and the growing push to boost providers’ education levels could make it a tough sell.

Polis talked about creating partnerships with colleges to beef up the credentials of people who currently work in the early childhood field.

He said it’s important to “bridge the skills gap” for those whose hearts are already in the work. He didn’t address how he could dramatically expand preschool and kindergarten simply by focusing on the existing workforce, where turnover can be as high as 40 percent annually.

Neither candidate talked about how he would boost compensation for early childhood workers, whose median pay in Colorado is $12.32 an hour, Jaeger said.

Both candidates agree that Colorado can do much better by its youngest residents

When asked how Colorado is doing overall in supporting young children and their families, both candidates agreed that the state has a long way to go.

Sias emphasized that low-income children continue to be left out. Polis talked about the lack of uniform access to full-day kindergarten.

Both candidates expressed interest in working with bipartisan coalitions on solutions.

“There’s so many people in our state who want to do right by their kids,” said Polis. “It’s really going to take folks from across the spectrum coming together.”

Sias, who argued for a combination of business-minded acumen and public money for early childhood, asked the audience to partner with lawmakers in finding what programs work.

He said he and Stapleton are “more than willing to work across the aisle with folks that we like and respect, and have knowledge in this area.”

Early Childhood

Jeff Bezos says he will use his riches to open Montessori preschools

PHOTO: Nick Hagen
A student in a Detroit Montessori program. Jeff Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The latest effort to improve early childhood education for poor children comes from the richest man alive: Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Bezos announced today on Twitter that he would be pouring $2 billion into two major initiatives, including “a network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

The preschools, Bezos wrote, will be free for students and inspired by the Montessori approach, in which children direct their own learning in an environment that is prepared for them to explore. Montessori instruction has traditionally been available only in private schools, but new efforts to make the model more accessible have taken hold, and recent research suggests that it benefits children from low-income families.

Bezos also signaled that he intends to apply his famously stringent standards to the new schools. The hands-on CEO reportedly still reads emails from Amazon customers and has been known to berate executives when the customer experience suffers. At the preschools, he wrote, “The child will be the customer.”

Much about the initiative is unclear, from what “tier-one” means to where, when, and how many schools will open. Bezos’s announcement did not acknowledge the current bipartisan movement to fund preschool more widely, so it’s unclear whether his network might ever seek public money or how it might interact with — or even crowd out — existing efforts to expand preschools.

It’s also not clear how much transparency to expect from Bezos’s effort, which he called the Day One Fund. A number of wealthy individuals, including Mark Zuckerberg, have organized their giving through a limited liability company, rather than a nonprofit. This approach does not require disclosing who receives grants and allows the organizations to give to political causes and invest in for-profit companies.

Research has pointed to long-run benefits of early childhood education programs. One recent study found that the benefits extended to multiple generations — the children of children who participated in the federal Head Start program were more likely to graduate from high school and attend college.

In addition to preschools, the Day One Fund will tackle homelessness, according to Bezos, who crafted his giving strategy after asking his Twitter followers how he should spend his wealth.