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The Ripple Effect of Mental and Behavioral Health in the Classroom

By Ashley Mimm, CHS Health Services Operations Manager

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, and at Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning (CHS), there is a strong belief that ensuring it meets children’s mental and behavioral health needs is crucial to their long-term success. According to Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child, circumstances such as persistent poverty may elevate the risk of serious mental health issues in children, impairing school readiness and academic achievement. To mitigate these risks, it is necessary to tackle the problem at home and in the classroom.

Impact of Schools

According to Boston University’s Wheelock College of Education & Human Development, most children in the U.S. who receive mental health services receive them in schools, if they receive them at all.  Proper identification and intervention of mental health concerns during early childhood, including support and referrals to mental health professionals, can ensure that a child receives proper care from professionals in this field before entering the grade school setting.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many children were not in school for extended periods, which meant potential mental and behavioral health issues that would have otherwise been identified in the classroom, were not flagged. Unfortunately, this disproportionately impacted children from marginalized groups. According to the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), children from families experiencing poverty (defined as those in families with incomes under $25,000 per year) have experienced the steepest declines in overall participation in center-based preschool programs and, especially, in-person participation. Without the requisite environment to recognize mental and behavioral health issues, many children were left in situations that exacerbated concerns.

The majority of educational facilities across the country have transitioned back to in-person learning environments, and now more than ever, it is important that we have the tools and resources in place to serve our educators and children. With this comes challenges, as most educators need more training in identifying and understanding potential mental health issues in children, meaning they feel unprepared to deal with the challenges.

There is much work to be done. According to USA Facts, an estimated 122 million Americans, or 37% of the population, lived in 5,833 mental health professional shortage areas as of March 31, 2023. The nation needs an additional 6,398 mental health providers to fill these shortage gaps.

CHS’s Approach

As part of its whole-child approach, CHS has been innovative in its plans to invest in the mental and behavioral health of all children under its care by creating the foundation of an effective workforce that is highly trained and prepared to serve children and implementing proactive intervention strategies for all children enrolled at CHS through processes like social-emotional learning and family-focused supports such as a parenting curriculum. Additionally, CHS will offer targeted support consisting of small group and individual skill-based work with children on social-emotional skills, provide classroom accommodations and consultation, and help families coordinate referrals to external resources needed to obtain the mental and behavioral health care they require.  Many children enrolled at CHS may have already experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and stressors before their enrollment. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asserts that toxic stress from ACEs can negatively affect children’s brain development, immune systems, and stress-response systems. These changes can affect children’s attention, decision-making, and learning.

CHS has also invested time in understanding the role of Positive Childhood Experiences (PCEs) and how families and educators can lay the building blocks for a child’s lifelong learning, health, and behavior by engaging in stimulating, nurturing care and play with young children and babies. Research has shown that children thrive with access to safe, stable, nurturing relationships and environments.

Another key component of the whole-child approach is educating families on the signs and symptoms of mental and behavioral health concerns. Engaging caregivers as experts, who can provide a more comprehensive record of the child’s behavior outside the learning environment, is crucial to reducing mental and behavioral health issues. In addition, equipping families with the tools to address their children’s mental and behavioral health and the adults in the child’s life is another linchpin of success. CHS will collaborate with local mental health organizations to provide counseling services and early intervention for families for mental health and behavioral concerns.

To help position educators for success in the classroom, CHS has established a Child Study Team, a unique resource whose role is to connect through a multidisciplinary approach to implement a plan with strategies that will help find solutions to behavioral or mental health concerns and provide resources, feedback, and ideas on how to incorporate these in the classroom and the home. This will include the health services manager at the center, the evaluation and educational support coordinator, teachers, curriculum & instruction coaches, behavioral intervention specialists, the family success advocates, the family, and any additional support from the leadership team. CHS will also offer training for teachers and staff focused on the importance of self-care and mental well-being.

These steps are being taken as CHS changes the language and the approach to behavioral and mental health for children and their families. Breaking down barriers requires concerted action and building trusting relationships between all the adults in children’s lives.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning are subsidiaries of Milton Hershey School and will be staffed and operated independently of the Milton Hershey School core model.

Catherine Hershey Schools for Early Learning admits students of any race, color, national and ethnic origin to all the rights, privileges, programs, and activities generally accorded or made available to students at the school. It does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national and ethnic origin in administration of its educational policies, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, and athletic and other school-administered programs.