Teach Your Children Well

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As a condition of receiving the money, the human services department was required to show how treating children with behavioral problems early on would save the state money in the long run. In its report, which was presented to the legislature last fall, the department provided several scenarios involving children who, were it not for early intervention, would be prime candidates for psychiatric hospitalization, foster care, special education or juvenile detention.

One of the examples was that of Abraham, a child in one of the two pilot programs, whose name was changed to protect his identity. "Abraham seemed angry and sad," the report reads. "Although very bright and verbal, he was impulsive and immature. Change was difficult for him, and he had temper tantrums at many points during the day. His teachers isolated him from the group when he had emotional outbursts, and the other children avoided him. He clung to his mother, Betty, when she brought him to childcare and kept telling her he didn't like it there. Abraham's father was terminally ill, but no one had discussed the situation with Abraham.

"Children with emotional and behavioral problems can experience negative relationships with peers and childcare providers," the report continues. "These children are at risk of school failure even if they have above average intelligence. Early intervention helped Abraham and his family. If Abraham continued his negative feelings and problem behaviors into public school, he would be a likely candidate for special education. One child diverted from special education would off-set the cost of five children by the Early Intervention Program."

The department concluded its cost-savings analysis by noting, "There is no way to predict the life course of these young children, but $390,212 would be offset if just: Eleven children avoided one year in special education; ten children avoided the average six-month stay in foster care; four children avoided the average 63-day stay in a psychiatric hospital; two children avoided the average 15.6-month commitment for delinquency; and one family avoided TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) for the average twenty months."

Mary Grimmer, program manager of early childhood services at the Mental Health Corporation of Denver, the nonprofit that runs the Denver pilot program (it's called the PEARL Project, or Parent Empowerment Alternatives with Resources and Learning), has already noticed a change. "We've definitely seen kids showing less behavioral problems in class. Kids haven't had to leave the centers as much, and teachers are feeling better equipped to handle problems; they feel more supported and less helpless now," Grimmer says.

The MHCD has assembled a six-person team of clinicians and early-childhood specialists to go into fifteen daycare centers in Denver. Team members hold classes in social skills, anger management and anti-violence for the kids. They also offer family, group and one-on-one play therapy, and they train teachers how to handle disruptive children and to recognize signs of abuse and emotional trauma. The PEARL Project has served more than 1,300 kids this year.

The structure of Boulder's pilot program, dubbed the Child Development Program, is almost identical to that of Denver's. The Mental Health Center of Boulder County regularly sends four clinicians from its Children and Family Services Team into seven daycare centers, where they work with about 400 kids a year on developing social skills, anger management, impulse control and empathy. The clinicians also work with families on parenting skills and improving communication with their kids.

"People tend not to think about mental health until there's a diagnosed mental illness," says Pat Carruth, coordinator for the Child Development Program. "And yet we don't think of nutrition only when a kid is starving. Kids' mental health should be just as much of a concern as their physical health and cognitive development." And children are only becoming more aggressive, she adds.

Janae Weinhold, a licensed professional counselor, children's mental health consultant and attachment-disorder specialist, has some ideas about why kids have been getting more aggressive in recent years. "There's no one cause; it's a systemic problem," she explains. "Young kids are being exposed to more stress now than in any time in history. More and more, both parents are working and spending less time with their kids. Kids are being expected to become independent faster. And children are going into daycare earlier and staying there longer. Some kids are in daycare for ten to twelve hours a day. I like to call ADD adult deficit disorder: Kids aren't spending enough time with their primary caregivers."

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Julie Jargon
Contact: Julie Jargon