Want preschoolers to succeed? Help their teachers.

Connecticut offers free mental health services to all preschool programs that request them. As concerns grow about suspensions of young children, the approach greatly reduces troubling behaviors, a new study finds.

Monte LaOrange/The Post-Register/AP/File
Students play Zoo-phonics at Kids Korner Preschool and Daycare in Idaho Falls, Idaho. With concerns about the suspension rates of preschoolers on the rise, a new Connecticut program shows promise in reducing behaviors.

In a preschool classroom in Connecticut, the throwing got to be such a problem that some children would pick up metal trash can lids to use as shields. The administrators felt like the teachers weren’t open to directives, and the four teachers handling the 18 needy children felt woefully unsupported.

It was one of the most discouraging situations that Linda Flach had encountered in more than a decade as a mental health consultant. For several months, she taught the staff stress management techniques and skills to bring calm to the classroom, and she worked with some individual children and their parents.

She still carries around the thank you note from those four teachers, she told a group assembled in Hartford Thursday during a televised event.

The state, in a program seen as a potential model for the nation, pays for mental health consulting for any child-care program, preschool, or parent of a preschooler that requests them. Now a groundbreaking study confirms that Connecticut’s partnership greatly reduces the behaviors most likely to lead preschools to suspend or expel a child. Officials say it's also more cost-efficient than providing more expensive services later on, if a child has failed to thrive in school.

“Behavior is the language of the child. So if we listen, if we really listen, we’re more likely to suspend judgment than we are to suspend children,” said Elizabeth Bicio, director of Connecticut’s Early Childhood Consultation Partnership (ECCP).

State and federal policymakers are ramping up access to quality preschool, amid increasing agreement that the better children’s early experiences, the better prepared they are to achieve in school and other areas of life. In Connecticut in 2015, 23 percent of 4-year-olds were in enrolled in public Pre-K, up from 13 percent in 2004.

Connecticut’s consultants intervene before teachers reach the point of feeling like they have no other alternative to suspension. Over the past 14 years, 98 percent of students directly helped by the program remained suspension-free six months later. And many more children – about 30,000 in all – have benefited from being in classrooms where the teachers learned to improve their methods of dealing with children’s social and emotional needs, Ms. Bicio says.

The partnership succeeds largely because it strengthens the network of adults caring for a child – with consultants sometimes mediating between parents and teachers.

“This is not doing mental-health magic on children in a hallway…. It’s about the consultant giving his or her expertise over to the teacher,” says Walter Gilliam, a child development expert at the Yale Child Study Center, who just published the first randomized-control trial to measure the effects of preschool mental health consultants.

“There will never be enough mental health professionals to help all the children one child at a time…. We need to … embed it within all the people who have an authentic relationship with children,” he says in a phone interview.

Nationwide, about one-quarter of preschool teachers had access to mental health consultation, a previous study showed. But as teachers in Connecticut explained, they at times have to confront children doing things as extreme as drinking paint, eating garbage, and trying to run away.

The issue of suspending preschoolers

The degree to which children get kicked out of preschool has risen as a concern on the civil rights agenda, as well. The latest report from the United States Department of Education shows that black preschoolers are 3.6 times as likely to receive school suspensions as white preschoolers.

Not only is Connecticut providing mental health consultants free of charge throughout the state, it also passed one of the strongest laws restricting suspension and expulsion in preschools.

After a report showed suspensions of children under 7 on the rise in the state, last year the governor signed a law that children in public schools pre-K to 2nd grade could not be suspended out of school or expelled except in extreme cases of a violent or sexual nature that endanger others or involve weapons such as guns.

The new Yale study showed a precipitous drop in disturbing behaviors within three months among the group receiving consultations, compared with the control group.

One result Professor Gilliam found surprising, however: The teachers who had to wait three months to receive services were not more likely to predict needing to expel children than was the group receiving services right away. He speculates that perhaps the control-group teachers realized that “if they can just gut it out and hold onto this child,” they would soon be able to get help.

'Try the pushing hands'

Cindy Laduca, a mother of two boys in Glastonbury, Conn., described how her sometimes-frustrated preschooler would push others when he had a lot of pent-up energy. Through the consultant’s help, the classroom teacher set up a cozy corner where kids could take a break, taught the children breathing techniques to calm down, and put up handprints where a child with extra energy could go push against the wall.

When things clicked for her son, she said, he started directing other children with challenging behaviors to “try the pushing hands.”

Erika Quinones, a teacher at the Honey Bear Learning Center in Stratford, Conn., recalled a day one of the boys was screaming and throwing toys. She stepped outside to take some deep breaths – feeling “like a teacher who would lose her mind for not being able to take care of that child.” That was the day she heard about ECCP, whose services changed her classroom and that child dramatically. She called the consultants “our lifesavers.”

ECCP is managed by the nonprofit Advanced Behavioral Health Inc., which trains mental health professionals to meet the needs of preschools in their area, and closely tracks implementation and outcomes.

One strength of the model, Gilliam says, is that it’s funded by the Department of Children and Families, which also oversees child protective services, rather than Education.

The $2.4 million DCF currently spends on ECCP annually is part of the broader prevention mission, reducing more costly interventions that may be needed later if children don’t get a strong start in life, says Kristina Stevens, a DCF administrator.

“It’s so rare to find that in government,” says Gilliam. “We’re looking long-term enough to realize this is all part of the same system. Children don’t live in departments.”

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