early intervention

Meet Colorado’s resident expert on early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash, Colorado's director of early childhood mental health

Jordana Ash holds a job that doesn’t exist in most states.

She’s Colorado’s director of early childhood mental health — a position created three years ago within the state’s Office of Early Childhood. A local foundation paid Ash’s salary for 18 months and then the state took over.

The addition of a high-level state job dedicated to the mental health of young children was a win for advocates, coming at a time of growing awareness about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Ash said her role helps infuse both the Office of Early Childhood, where her unit is housed, and other state agencies with programs and policies focusing on child mental health.

Before coming to the Office of Early Childhood, which is part of the Department of Human Services, Ash ran a mental health consultation program in Boulder for 13 years.

We sat down with Ash this week to discuss her background, the state’s work on early childhood mental health and her thoughts on the recent defeat of state legislation that would have limited early childhood suspensions and expulsions.

The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
My first job out of graduate school was in Alameda County, California and I was a child welfare worker. I didn’t have a lot of life experience at that time. I didn’t have children of my own. I didn’t know a lot about child development. But what I could really do is listen to families. We met families at the hardest times.These were families whose children were removed for suspicion of abuse or neglect.

Everybody has a story and if you spend time listening, you will hear about their hopes for their child, things that bring them joy in parenting. To me, it’s about the stories and what parents do every day to try to do better for their kids.

Can you put into context Colorado’s work on early childhood mental health compared to work in other states?
Colorado is really in a unique position compared to other states. My position was created three years ago with philanthropic dollars (from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which is also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat) looking to get a position in state government completely focused on early childhood mental health.

There are very few states that have a position of leadership in state government with (early childhood mental health) being their primary focus. Minnesota has a similar position, Connecticut has a coordinator position. A couple of states are coming along. Other states have recognized that it’s a wise investment to have a position where you can really institutionalize some of those important changes and policies for statewide reach.

Can you talk about the major efforts your unit is working on now?
Our two main initiatives are the mental health (consultant) program and Colorado Project LAUNCH. (See this story for more about Project LAUNCH.)

We are (also) studying the effects of parent adversity on child well-being. We were (also) selected to receive three years of technical assistance on infant and early childhood mental health consultation. We’re hoping that helps us finalize our system of consultation in Colorado so we are a premier program that other states look to.

Last year, the state doubled the number of early childhood mental health consultants available to help child care providers and preschool teachers manage challenging behavior. How is it going?
Our state-funded program of 34 full-time positions is one of the largest (in the nation). We’re working really hard on developing Colorado’s system of mental health consultation so it’s consistent — for state-funded positions, for positions funded by philanthropy for programs that have their own hired consultants — so everyone is working toward the same standard of practice.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?

I can think of a situation where a consultant provided support for a cook at a child care center. Her child was enrolled in the program. This was a 3-year-old with a lot of challenging behaviors. At first, (the mother) was really nervous to talk to the consultant. She confused the role of the mental health consultant with something like social services and wondered if she was going to be judged or somehow scrutinized about her parenting. She had never had contact with any kind of mental health service before.

In getting to know the consultant not only did she find some new ways to interact with her child so that he could be more successful in the classroom and at home, but she also had her first experience with a mental health professional. It reduced the sense of stigma (around) getting mental health help.

She found that she could get a better position at the child care center because her child was successful in his classroom. She wasn’t having to take him home because of his problems.

What advice do you have for child care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behavior and haven’t accessed a consultant? Take a deep breath. We want to understand that that child is telling us something. We might not understand what that behavior means but it’s our responsibility as adults to help figure that out.

We really encourage providers to access a mental health consultant or other support right away when they’re starting to be puzzled or concerned about a child’s behavior. It’s much easier to intervene if you have new ideas sooner in the process.

The role of child care providers and teachers is critically important. So we are not in a position to judge or to evaluate what you’ve done. We’re in a position to partner with you and help you provide the best care you can.

To locate an early childhood mental health consultant, providers can call 303-866-4393.

What advice do you have for parents who know their child is acting up at preschool or child care and worry they could get counseled out or kicked out?
Reach out and connect directly with your child care program about the problem before you start feeling like your child may be at risk of being suspended or expelled. That partnership between parents and providers is the most powerful part of a solution.

I would also say you can talk to your child’s primary care physician as a start. Maybe there’s a developmental concern your physician can help figure out and that’s gonna be a really important piece of the puzzle.

Connecting with a mental health consultant in your area is a really good solution to start looking at the causes of those challenging behaviors and to start putting in place some interventions while other tests or other assessments are being done.

For help locating a mental health consultant, parents can visit: http://www.coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/ecmentalhealth

What are your thoughts on the bill killed during Colorado’s 2017 legislative session that would have limited suspensions and expulsions in preschool and kindergarten through second grade?

The fact that the bill made it as far as it did meant lots of people were invested, were having great conversations about this problem in a way we never (had) before. Stakeholders were for the first time …. considering issues of disproportionality and implicit bias in a way that was a first. We had never had that kind of visibility to the early childhood time period and this very complex issue that affects children’s trajectories way into their school years.

Would you like to see a similar bill pass next year?
As an office, we’d be super interested in whatever’s put forward.

'class of 2031'

An earlier start: Once rare, more Denver charter schools are embracing preschool

Caroline Hiskey, a preschool teacher at KIPP Northeastern Elementary in Denver, reviews letters with the help of "Phonics LIon."

In many ways, the new preschool in Denver’s growing Green Valley Ranch neighborhood looks like any other preschool.

At playtime, a little girl trots toy dinosaurs across a table heaped with plastic animals. Nearby, a 4-year-old boy shows off a picture he drew with lots of red scribbles and dots. There is the usual collection of books, tiny plastic chairs and colorful rugs.

There are also telltale signs that the preschool is run by KIPP, one of the country’s largest college prep charter school networks. The classrooms are all named for colleges, like in KIPP’s higher grades. The preschoolers wear blue polo shirts emblazoned with the school’s logo. A crisp blue banner in the hallway proclaims them the “Class of 2031.”

Across Denver, a growing number of preschoolers are getting their first dose of formal education at charter schools that have retrofitted their models to meet the needs of younger students. The trend is fueled by a growing awareness that getting kids in the door early pays off later academically and by a hunger among parents for affordable, high quality preschool options.

It also signals charter leaders’ increasing willingness to navigate the complicated — and often unfamiliar — early childhood funding and regulatory landscape.

At least six Denver charter schools, most serving large low-income populations, have launched preschool programs in the last five years. Besides KIPP — which enrolls 48 preschoolers at its Northeastern Elementary School — they include two locations of Rocky Mountain Prep, Highline Academy’s school in Green Valley Ranch, Academy 360 in Montbello and REACH Charter School in central Denver. (A couple charter schools offered preschool even earlier, but have since closed.)

There’s little dispute about the need for more quality preschool programs. Several neighborhoods in Denver, including parts of Montbello and Green Valley Ranch, are considered “child care deserts” because of the dearth of licensed preschool and child care slots, according to a recent report from the Center for American Progress.

A banner outside the preschool classrooms at KIPP Northeastern Elementary School in Denver.

Lindsey Lorehn, the school leader at KIPP Northeastern Elementary, said when the school first opened in a smaller location with kindergarten and first grade in 2015, “What we heard pretty resoundingly from families was they wanted a high quality early childhood education program.”

The school’s new building, nestled among recently built homes in Green Valley Ranch, made that possible. Its three preschool classrooms opened this fall, just as a highly regarded child care center in the same neighborhood was closing its doors. There already are 41 children on KIPP’s preschool waitlist.

Rocky Mountain Prep, which offers preschool to both 3- and 4-year-olds, has more than 150 children on waitlists for a spot at one of its two Denver schools and about 30 children on the waitlist at its newest school in Aurora.

Of the six charter-run preschool programs in Denver, four have Level 3 or 4 ratings, markers of quality under state’s child care rating system. Like other new preschools, KIPP’s program has the lowest Level 1 rating, which means it’s licensed but hasn’t yet gone through the lengthy process required for a higher rating. Leaders there hope to reach Level 3 by next year.

While preschool programs run by charter schools aren’t new, experts say they make a lot of sense educationally — with one major caveat. They must be developmentally appropriate and not overly academic. In other words, plenty of play and lots of time devoted to social-emotional skills. No rote memorization, drill-and-kill tactics or long sit-down lessons.

“There’s no doubt you’re gonna get better outcomes if you start with those children at a younger age,” said Geoffrey Nagle, president and CEO of the Erikson Institute, a Chicago graduate school focused on child development.

Many charter schools initially launched with a K-5 or K-8 structure mainly because of the way school funding was allocated, he said. Their leaders later realized, “We have to go upstream and get these kids earlier.”

Nationwide, the prevalence of charters with preschool programs varies by state.

In Colorado, 33 of 149 charter schools that include elementary grades, or 22 percent, offered preschool last year, according to state education department officials.

Figuring out how to pay for preschool is one of the challenges for Colorado schools, charter or otherwise. The state funds some preschool slots for at-risk children, but most are half-day spots and there’s not enough to meet demand. There’s also limited state funding for preschoolers with special needs.

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
A preschooler at KIPP Northeastern Elementary School plays with dinosaurs.

A 2015 report from the Fordham Institute designated Colorado as offering charters that wanted to provide preschool a “somewhat hospitable” climate — the middle of three ratings. The state was dinged for its relatively low level of state preschool funding and because most charter schools have to seek the funding through their authorizing districts, which the report authors described as a barrier.

But it’s not a problem in every district. State officials say Denver Public Schools is exemplary when it comes to sharing state preschool funding with charter schools and community-based providers.

Even so, Denver charter schools that offer preschool usually have to cobble together dollars from lots of sources — the state, the city, the school district and in-house fundraising. Many offer the programs free to families or charge a sliding-scale fee.

James Cryan, CEO of Rocky Mountain Prep, said the rest of his program helps subsidize preschool, which is a money-loser.

In Denver, the number of charter schools offering preschool is likely to grow.

KIPP officials say they’ll include preschool in their planned southwest Denver elementary school, which could open in 2018 or 2019.

A spokeswoman for STRIVE Prep, Denver’s second largest charter network, said via email that leaders there will “absolutely” consider adding preschool at five planned elementary schools if those school communities see it as a need and priority.

In 2012, when Rocky Mountain Prep first launched preschool with the opening of its Creekside school in south Denver, there weren’t many charters in the city offering preschool. Subsequently, a number of charter school leaders contacted Cryan to ask how his team had untangled preschool licensing and funding rules. Since then, most of those leaders have added preschool.

“Where I’m excited is that I think high quality charter (schools) help provide new options and innovative approaches in the Pre-K space,” he said.

While there’s already lots of research showing that high-quality preschool boosts student achievement, there’s also evidence showing the impact of certain charter preschool programs.

A recent study by Mathematica Policy Research found that KIPP students who started in preschool had an advantage in reading over their peers who started in kindergarten. It also found positive effects in both math and reading for kids who attended preschool through second grade at KIPP. More than two-dozen KIPP schools have preschool nationwide.

Cryan said internal data from Rocky Mountain Prep show that students who start in the school’s preschool program at age 3 enter kindergarten more than half a year ahead in reading compared to peers who didn’t attend at age 3.

So how do charter schools, particularly ones that advertise rigorous college-prep environments in the upper grades, create preschools suitable for little kids who may not be adept at sharing toys, much less holding a pencil?

It was a worry for Aidan Bassett, KIPP Colorado’s director of early childhood education and a former early childhood special education teacher with Denver Public Schools,

“You think, ‘Charter — oh, it’s gonna look like kindergarten in preschool,” she said, “And that was not what we wanted.”

To prepare for the preschool launch at KIPP Northeastern, Bassett visited a KIPP preschool program in Washington, D.C., where she was pleased to see a focus on play.

She said it’s a key part of the Denver program, which runs eight hours a day and offers dance, Spanish and art as “specials.”

While KIPP sometimes has very structured ways of doing things at higher grades, Bassett said teachers can tweak them to work better for preschoolers. For example, they might urge 4-year-olds to keep “all eyes on” whomever is speaking, a gentler version of the “tracking the speaker” approach used with older kids.

While, KIPP’s version of preschool looks familiar, there’s no mistaking the school’s emphasis on early literacy.

KIPP’s preschool teachers make a concerted effort to expose kids to a wide variety of language and vocabulary in and out of structured lessons. A list taped to a shelf reminds teachers to “push in” words — empty, full, float, sink, funnel, measuring cup, carefully — related to a current story or theme during the natural course of children’s play.

But even formal lessons come with plenty of lightheartedness.

During circle time on a recent morning in a classroom named for Emory University, teacher Caroline Hiskey used a puppet named “Phonics Lion” to lead the kids through a series of animated jingles about different letters of the alphabet.

“Get your pans out,” she said, as the children followed her mime of shaking a frying pan. “Ready … Say, ‘S, s, sizzling sausages’. Say, ‘Ssssssss.’ Take a bite.”

Wanna go outside?

Less plastic, more trees: New effort seeks to reinvent preschool playgrounds and capture kids’ imaginations

This play structure at Step By Step Child Development Center in Northglenn will go away under a plan to create a more natural and engaging outdoor play space.

Michelle Dalbotten, the energetic director of a Northglenn child care center called Step by Step, doesn’t like her playground.

Sure, it’s spacious, with a high privacy fence bordering an adjacent strip mall parking lot. It’s also got a brightly colored play structure surrounded by lots of spongy rubber mulch.

But Dalbotten and her staff have long noticed that the kids get bored there. They clump together in the small shady area or on a few popular pieces of equipment. Sometimes, they start throwing trucks off the play structure or shoving their friends down the slide.

Something about it just doesn’t work.

Recently, Dalbotten found a solution in the form of a new grant program called the ECHO initiative, which aims to reinvent more than 100 preschool and child care playgrounds across Colorado over the next few years. Think mud kitchens, looping tricycle trails, vegetable gardens, stages, shady reading nooks and dump truck construction zones.

The idea is to create outdoor spaces that capture kids’ imagination, connect them with nature and keep them active in every season. Such efforts grow out of a recognition in the education field that healthy habits start early and boost learning.

The current preschool playground at Step by Step is covered by rubber mulch.

Step by Step staff members had talked many times about their stagnant play space. But it was hard to envision anything different until they attended a design workshop with experts from ECHO, a partnership between the National Wildlife Federation, Qualistar Colorado and the Natural Learning Initiative at North Carolina State University.

“We knew we were missing the boat somewhere because (the children) weren’t super-engaged and we had a lot of behavioral issues,” Dalbotten said. “But we just couldn’t see past it, I guess.”

For child care providers, it’s a common challenge, said Sarah Konradi, ECHO program director with the regional office of the National Wildlife Federation

“This is a very new idea to a lot of folks,” she said. “It’s hard to sort out as a layperson.”

ECHO, borne out of a decade of research from the Natural Learning Initiative, will hand out $355,000 in grants over the next three years. The initiative prioritizes centers that serve children from low-income families or other vulnerable populations.

Fourteen centers — Step by Step and Wild Plum Learning Center in Longmont are the first two — will get $10,000 awards for serving as demonstration sites willing to host visits for other Colorado providers.

Leaders at Step by Step say kids and teachers often congregate in the limited shady spots.

Around 100 other centers will receive ECHO’s $5,000 seed grants and expert assistance to revamp their outdoor spaces.

Such transformations can have a big impact on children who may spend thousands of hours a year at such centers, said Nilda Cosco, director of programs at the Natural Learning Initiative.

“When we do a renovation of the outdoor learning environments as we call them — not playgrounds — we see increased physical activity … more social interactions among children … less altercations,” she said.

“The teachers have to do less because the children are so engaged. There is so much to do.”

ECHO, which stands for Early Childhood Health Outdoors, is the latest iteration of a program Cosco started a decade ago called “Preventing Obesity by Design.” That effort revamped outdoor space at about 260 child care centers in North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas.

Cosco said such makeovers can ”prevent obesity by counteracting sedentary lifestyles. Children walk more, exercise more, are conversant with healthy eating strategies.”

Dalbotten and her staff have big plans for their play areas, which sit behind a plaza that houses a bingo hall, Dollar Tree and Big D’s Liquor store. They’ll get rid of the colorful play structure and the rubber mulch in favor of a more natural look. There will be trees, shrubs, small grassy hills and a winding trail leading to a wide array of activity areas.

This porch will get new lighting, fencing and foliage to make it a more attractive outdoor space at Step by Step.

The center’s smaller toddler playground will get a similar reboot and its tiny yard for babies — mostly bare except for a couple low-hanging shade sails — will be expanded to include a shaded deck where teachers can sit or play with babies. A barren concrete porch on the side of the building will be remade into a cozy activity area decorated with bird houses, planter gardens and butterfly-attracting foliage.

At the recent design workshop Dalbotten attended, ECHO leaders displayed photos from other centers around the country that have gone through outdoor transformations. She saw one that stuck with her.

“There were kids everywhere,” she said. “It was super cool looking. I was like, ‘Oh look, we can be that. We can have kids everywhere.’”

PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The play space at Johnson Pond Learning Center in Fuquay-Varina, NC, after a makeover.
PHOTO: Natural Learning Initiative
The outdoor play space at Spanish For Fun Academy in Chapel, Hill, NC, after a makeover.