Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation

January 06, 2016
By Carol Singer

One of the things we focus on most intensively here at JFCS East Bay is early intervention in the lives of children who have been exposed to trauma. Because we know that children who are routinely exposed to domestic and community violence can experience significant impacts on brain development, leading to behavioral and learning challenges at home and in school, intervening early is key to improving the trajectory of those children’s lives. Our Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation program, which takes place within underserved preschool sites, was developed to bring about this rerouting.

To continually improve our services and infuse them with the most updated research, I recently attended Zero to Three’s annual training conference in Seattle. Zero to Three focuses on cutting-edge research, best practices, and policy issues for infants, toddlers, preschoolers, and families. One highlight of the conference was a session with Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness. Dr. Harris has done a lot of work looking at how early Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as exposure to violence and trauma, can cause changes not only in brain development but also in the way a person’s immune system develops and responds to illness. ACEs can even alter the way DNA is read and transcribed. Dr. Harris and her team have begun screening for ACEs as part of their routine pediatric check-ups, but she emphasized that our overall “public health system needs a comprehensive approach to addressing the issues.” Mental Health Consultation programs like ours are part of the solution to diagnosing and treating ACEs.

Another session I attended with great interest was with Dr. Deborah Perry, an associate professor at the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human Development. Dr. Perry is one of many people working to establish national standards of care for Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation. Her presentation focused on the profoundly disastrous impact of preschool expulsions on the lives of children and how having Early Childhood Mental Health Consultants in the classroom can decrease expulsion rates. Because ACEs can manifest as behavior issues, exasperated preschool teachers often react by expelling routinely disruptive—and likely traumatized—children. Research has proven that rates of school expulsion are consistently lower when teachers have on-site access to a mental health professional for consultation. Consultants like ours can help teachers gain skills and confidence in their abilities to support children’s social and emotional growth, enabling teacher, child, and community to thrive.

I came back from the conference feeling very proud that we are already ahead of the curve at JFCS East Bay. Our preschool consultation services bring our early childhood experts into schools to provide guidance to teachers and parents on childhood trauma, child development, behavioral issues, and positive discipline. We are currently serving twenty-six under-resourced preschools in Oakland and other areas of Alameda County. It was invigorating to learn that the approach we have long taken in providing these services is gaining momentum across the country. Everyone deserves a strong start in life, and we will continue working steadfastly toward that goal.

—Carol Singer, LCSW, Director of Clinical Services