As a mental health care provider, I’d like to share some facts about the importance of good mental health and social-emotional development, especially as they relate to the prevention of aggressive or violent behavior in children. Prevention is the key, and it begins before the birth of a child.
I recently read a book, “Ghosts from the Nursery: Tracing the Roots of Violence” by Robin Karr-Morse and Meredith S. Wiley, that has vastly changed my way of thinking regarding this issue. Nationally, we are seeing greater numbers of children who are charged with and convicted of violent crimes, and we are finding it increasingly difficult to provide adequate services for these children. The authors of this book identify many risk factors associated with aggressive and violent behavior in children, including environmental issues such as deprivation and neglect, exposure to violence, and psychological and physical abuse. Providing services to a family at risk before problems occur costs much less money than building new prisons.
The role of the Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant was created to help preschool teachers and directors who are dealing with an increase in challenging behaviors of children. These behaviors are often cited as causing good teachers to leave the profession. Preschool teachers are no longer “just babysitters,” and preschool has become the new kindergarten. With the increased emphasis on academic skills, many of our children who are at risk of problems are not learning the social-emotional skills they need to be successful in school and life. An aggressive child does not make or keep friends easily. It is difficult to teach a child with poor emotional regulation, or the ability to sit still for longer than 10 minutes.
According to an August 2009 report published by the National Center for Children in Poverty on social-emotional development in early childhood: “The early years of life present a unique opportunity to lay the foundation for healthy development. Research on early childhood has underscored the impact of the first five years of a child’s life on his/her social-emotional development. Negative early experiences can impair children’s mental health and effect (sic) their cognitive, behavioral, social-emotional development.” In other words, parents and caregivers play an important role in supporting children’s healthy social-emotional development. Yet family risk factors such as substance abuse, mental health conditions, and domestic violence can impact a family’s ability to support their children’s development, and may contribute to behavioral problems among children as early as 3 years old. Children of parents with mental illness are at greater risk for psychosocial problems, and even the mental health problems of nonrelative caregivers affect the quality of children’s early experience in their care.
The Early Childhood Mental Health Consultant also provides services to families and their children. However, due to stigma regarding mental health, families often don’t seek the help of mental health providers. The average person will struggle for nine years before seeking the help of a counselor.
There are also barriers within our systems to identify children at risk. Some studies show that more than half of family practitioners and pediatricians report they do not use a standardized tool to screen for developmental delays during routine well-child visits for 2-year-olds.
The good news is that, for such a small community, we have many prevention and intervention services available for children and families, as well as many dedicated, experienced and skilled professionals, including:
RENEW provides group education and a shelter that helps families be safe until they are strong enough to leave a situation where there is domestic violence.
AXIS Community Mental Health offers comprehensive services for both families and children.
Bright Sky Counseling in Durango has services for anger management.
San Juan BOCES provides screenings, assessments and intervention services for children from age 0-5 who qualify with developmental delays.
The Pyramid Model used in our preschools teaches social-emotional skills to children, helps teachers deal more effectively with challenging behaviors, and offers support to parents.
Phone numbers for these services and many more are listed in a very helpful booklet titled “Healthy Families for a Healthy Community: Family Resources,” published jointly by the Montelores Early Childhood Council and the Montezuma County Department of Social Services. This booklet is free and can be found in many places around our community, including the library. If you or someone you know needs help of any kind, this booklet will be useful in finding resources that can make a difference in your life.
It is important for all of us to recognize the value and importance of these services in creating a better community for all, and to show our support by giving whatever resources we are able to give. We just saw a wonderful example of community spirit, volunteerism, and commitment of financial resources during the Third Annual Early Childhood Celebration, when over 100 people volunteered time and other resources to make it a success.
Many of the community agencies and services represented at the Early Childhood Celebration would welcome additional participation from residents, whether it be volunteering to participate on a board of directors, or becoming a positive mentor for a young family experiencing risk-factors that could lead to problems.
I began this column by talking about environmental risk factors that could lead to aggressive and violent behavior in children. These are complex situations that require complex solutions, and a system of services to help. We are making progress here, and we can still do more. Violence is learned behavior. Let me end with a favorite quote from Victor Rivas Rivers: “Break the silence, practice peace, teach peace, and contribute to peace.”
Lisa Henry is a member of Montelores Early Childhood Council, a Pyramid Model Partnership Leadership Team member, early childhood mental health consultant and a psychotherapist with RENEW Inc., providing services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She can be reached at 529-6326 or firstname.lastname@example.org.