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Supporting Kids’ Emotional Development

February 6, 2013


When he's angry, I would take out a picture of his dad and tell him that his dad loves him, and he would carry it around.

Valerie Butts

A divorce mother of a 3-year-old

When Valerie Butts and her husband were going through a divorce, her 3-year-old son was having problems. Her son acted very angry with her because he wasn’t seeing his father.

Butts, however, found free counseling services through Foothill Family Service (FFS), a nonprofit that provides mental health and social services to at-risk children and families.

FFS has “made a major difference,” Butts says. “It’s helped me learn how to understand what he’s going through.”

The need for free counseling services comes as preschoolers are being expelled at alarmingly high rates — almost three times the rate of children in K-12 schools, according to the Yale Child Study Center’s recent report, Prekindergartners Left Behind.

But there’s good news: When child care workers have access to mental health experts, the expulsion rate is cut in half.

Support for parents

Families come to FFS through child care recommendations, fliers and word of mouth.

Through FFS’ Early ESTEEM program, lower-income families of children under age 5 can receive free counseling services at its offices as well as children’s homes and child care centers.

The Early ESTEEM program, which started with a First 5 grant in May 2001, has helped 545 children and their families in its first three years. In addition, the program has trained 1,688 child care providers.

Parents, staff and children work together to encourage positive changes.

Therapists meet with the family and observe the child at preschool, “then we develop a plan together,” says therapist Marlen Jimenez.

Butts says FFS taught her a number of ways to redirect her son’s anger.

“If he’s throwing a fit because he can’t get his way, I might say ‘come over here and help me cook dinner,’” Butts says. “Also when he’s angry, I would take out a picture of his dad and tell him that his dad loves him, and he would carry it around.”

The results are dramatic: At least four-fifths of the children FFS works with show improvement.

At least 80% of the children showed improvement on tests that measured how well they functioned in general, how well they functioned in child care, and how much their behavior improved as reported by their parents.

FFS “ends up covering all the bases in these children’s lives,” says FFS therapy intern Laura Rios.

Advice for child care

FFS provides similar coaching to child care staff.

“Right now I’m working with a child, Matthew (not his real name), who was just annoying,” Jiminez says. “The teacher was frustrated because she was doing what she could to help him make friends, and it wasn’t working. He was very imaginative, but people would try to join in and he would get angry.”

The teacher learned how to show Matthew how to include others by saying something such as, “Matthew, that sounds like a really fun game. Maybe Anita would like to play too.”

Help on wheels

FFS has also outfitted two vans for therapy sessions.

“We put in carpets and a portable table and benches,” says Pat Kocsis, clinical coordinator for Early ESTEEM. “We take parents and children into the van and do assessments and play therapy.”

Jimenez recalls a situation in which a family lived in a small garage. There were four kids under age 6.

“They had no way to make it into the office,” Jimenez says. “And we would all go into the van. Their child, Tim, was having problems with aggression.”

Jimenez says when she noticed Tim and his sister would fight over a toy, the parents would give the toy to one and give the other something else. This often continued the conflict. Jimenez helped the mother teach them how to brainstorm a solution. For example, each one could get the ball for a few minutes.

Recovery from trauma

Besides basic behavioral problems, FFS works with children who have endured severe trauma.

Debra Zabel says her 3-year-old granddaughter survived years of abuse and neglect by her mother.

“She was doing sexual acts with her dolls and I was not sure if that was done to her or if she just watched it,” Zabel said.

Zabel added that her granddaughter also had a lot of other problems, including night terrors in which she used to be up two or three times a night.

The therapist suggested that Zabel turn the TV off, have a night light and massage her to help her go back to sleep. Now, Zabe’s granddaughter sleeps through the night.

“For any kids that have gone through something like this, (this program) is really important,” Zabel says. “It not only helps the kids, it helps the parents. As a matter of fact, we adopted her last week!”

Why Early Intervention

Intervention for young children is essential because:

  • behavioral problems dealt with at an early age are less likely to show up in a more extreme form later;
  • some problems, such as speech impediments or autism, can be treated more effectively if caught early;
  • negative emotions can develop and remain over time.

“The earlier you can get to the family, the more effective,” it is, says Pat Kocsis, clinical coordinator for the Early ESTEEM program. “Parents of kids this age haven’t built up a lot of resentment for the child, whereas with a child who is 10, there’s a lot of resentment there.”

Resources lacking

Although programs like Early ESTEEM make a big difference, the preschool expulsion rate reflects some underlying problems — problems that make it difficult for preschool programs to do as well as they would like in supporting healthy emotional development, says Niki Harmon, child development coordinator at Pasadena City College.

For example, in many preschool programs, there are not enough teachers for the students, Harmon says. And even when the state subsidizes preschool programs, each preschool student receives less than half the funding that K-12 students receive. In addition, not enough teachers are trained to work with children with special needs, according to Harmon.

“We don’t have the funding for a full-time person that would help us with the emotional needs or behavior of children,” says Maria Nila, a child care provider at Hill Grove Children’s Center. “So Foothill has been instrumental to us.”

Originally written by Lynlee Murray.