By Shantel E. Meek, Ph.D., Senior Policy Advisor for Early Childhood Development, Administration for Children and Families
Last year, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper (MBK), an initiative that brings together the public and private sectors, communities, businesses, schools, and individuals to close opportunity gaps and ensure all of our nation’s youth, including boys and young men of color, have the tools they need to realize their incredible potential. The initiative sets a vision for supporting our youth from cradle to college and career by focusing on six important milestones across the life course. The first of these milestones is ensuring that children enter school ready to learn.
The My Brother’s Keeper Task Force Report recommends building a strong foundation of social-emotional and behavioral health, fostered by warm, enriching, and secure relationships with adults like parents and early learning providers, as an integral component of entering school ready to learn. Social-emotional and behavioral health is robustly associated with school readiness and achievement and outcomes in adulthood, such as higher likelihood of high school completion, degree attainment, and lower likelihood of drug use and arrest.
At the same time, teachers and child care providers report that their most pressing training need is in fostering children’s behavioral development. In fact, only 20% of providers who serve children under age 5 reported receiving any training on facilitating children’s social-emotional growth in the past year. Lack of training and competencies in this area may contribute to higher rates of expulsion and suspensions. Data consistently show that young boys of color are disproportionately the subjects of expulsions and suspensions from early learning and school settings, which may contribute to social-emotional challenges and set them on a negative trajectory before they even step foot in the kindergarten classroom. Last year, the Departments of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Education (ED) released a joint policy statement on preventing expulsion and suspension in practices in early learning settings.
The concern for the mental health and behavioral wellness in young children of color has become even more alarming after the release of a recent study in The Journal for American Medical Association analyzing suicide rates in children over the past 20 years. Researchers found that, while the overall suicide rate remained stable, the rate for black children, ages 5 to 11, increased significantly. Data over the past several years indicate that the suicide rate in American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) youth is more than double other groups.
As a response to the pressing need for more preventive support for the early education system and the children and families it serves, this week the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, in partnership with the Health Resources and Services Administration, and the Administration for Children and Families, three agencies within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, launched the new National Center of Excellence in Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health Consultation (IECMHC). The Center of Excellence (CoE), funded at about $6 million over the next four years, is tasked with building strong, sustainable mental health consultation systems in States and tribal communities across the country through the development of state of the art tools and the delivery of training and technical assistance. IECMHC is a multi-level preventive intervention that teams mental health professionals with people who work with young children and their families. The model builds the capacity of teachers and families to promote social-emotional and behavioral development and has demonstrated impacts for improving children’s social skills and adult-child relationships; reducing challenging behaviors, expulsions and suspensions; increasing family-school collaboration; increasing classroom quality; and reducing teacher stress, burnout, and turnover.
Importantly, the work of the CoE will also have a focus on tribal communities. Work will be steered by an advisory group of experts in the early childhood mental health field and will include up to four tribal experts to ensure that the work is culturally responsive to the needs of AI/AN children and their families. The unique strengths and needs of tribal communities warrant an intentional focus and strong partnership with tribal nations. As the work of the CoE moves forward, it will include a thorough consideration of racial and ethnic disparities in exclusionary discipline and other areas, and result in a set of tools and training that are culturally responsive and relevant, address issues of implicit bias, and benefit all children, their families, and their teachers.
Today’s announcement is an important step forward in boosting the quality of early education around the country, and ensuring that States and tribes can support their youngest children, including boys of color, in achieving optimal social-emotional and behavioral health and school readiness. We hope that the launch of this new CoE will spur discussion and encourage States, tribes, communities, schools, and early childhood programs to prioritize this issue. We all share responsibility for taking care of our youngest children.