Teach Your Children Well

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That would be wonderful for the students, as well as for the people who work in daycare, says Solano. She started teaching at the Renaissance Children's Center in February. "There are things I think I can handle and things I'm not sure I'm handling right," she says, "so I've gone to the therapists with certain situations."

Demetrey, in particular, has been a handful. "He's really impulsive, and he's destructive to toys in class," says Danuser. "He fires up really fast, but it takes a long time for him to calm down. You never know what will set him off."

"A lot of parents have been complaining about Demetrey," says his mother, Tiffany Martin, who suffers from her own mental illnesses, including depression and anxiety. "I've had to pick him up once from school and once from daycare because he was so out of control. I couldn't believe he was my son. He got into a fight with another boy at daycare, and when the teacher asked him to find something else to do, like color a picture, he said, 'No, I don't want to.' He's been really difficult. I've even taken away his Game Boy and his scooter, but it hasn't helped. We're at a standstill."

Martin says Demetrey's two older brothers also had problems in daycare. But with Prosser's help, their behavior has improved dramatically. She plans to meet with the child-care providers at Renaissance to come up with a plan to help Demetrey as well.

In January, U. S. Surgeon General David Satcher issued a report on children's mental health in which he said that "the burden of suffering by children with mental health needs and their families has created a health crisis in this country. Growing numbers of children are suffering needlessly because their emotional, behavioral and developmental needs are not being met by the very institutions and systems that were created to take care of them."

Satcher went on to report that one in ten children in this country suffer from mental illness and that only half receive treatment. The statistics in Colorado aren't much better. Of the more than one million kids under the age of eighteen, 8 percent, or approximately 86,460 kids, have mental health problems, according to the state's Division of Mental Health Services; of those, 60 percent, or 51,876 children, are not getting treatment.

The reasons for this are legion, but many mental health professionals and parents attribute the scarcity of help primarily to a dearth of child psychologists and psychiatrists, to a lack of public understanding about children's mental health needs, and to the difficulty in getting HMOs to cover mental health treatment.

"I think one of the reasons this hasn't surfaced as an important issue in the mental health community is that parents don't want to admit that their child is out of hand," says Oxana Golden, director of the child-care division of the Colorado Department of Human Services. "It's difficult for parents to think that something may be wrong with their child."

The fact that adolescents and adults are already on waiting lists for treatment makes it even harder to focus on the needs of young kids, Golden explains. "The whole mental health system is underfunded to begin with. It's so hard just to keep up with the needs in front of us that it's difficult to think beyond that. We don't have too many professionals on the mental health side or on the early childhood education side who are trained to deal with problem kids. And most mental health centers don't work with kids under school age."

Even though research points to the first three years of life as being the most critical in a child's development, the mental health needs of young kids are still confounding. The reason for that is simple: Before kids can talk, it's hard to know what's really going on with them. It's also hard to distinguish the "terrible twos" from something more serious, such as an underlying mental illness, says Golden. Even when kids are old enough to talk, they usually don't understand -- or can't express -- the cause of their behavior, so they typically aren't diagnosed with a mental illness until they're much older.

But the warning signs often appear early. "I hear over and over from child-care providers that they know at age two or three if a kid is going to be bound for juvenile justice," Golden says.

To address the problem, in 1997 the Colorado Department of Human Services created the Early Intervention Program for Young Children. The program's mission was to get therapists from mental health centers in Denver and Boulder to go into daycare facilities that serve mostly low-income families and help kids with behavioral problems. The state legislature agreed to fund the two pilot programs at a cost of more than $350,000 a year.

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon