It was the last day of preschool and 4-year-old Daniel was being sent home early. Separation anxiety had triggered behavioral challenges that disrupted the classroom. Although teachers had been working to help him, Daniel and his mother needed more support. This difficult day would be the beginning of a beautiful journey toward a happy, healthy life at school and at home.
When a therapist at The Family Conservancy (TFC) was introduced to Daniel, she recognized his need for authentic connection and the ability to process feelings and emotions in a healthier way. Understanding 90% of brain growth takes place between ages 0-5, it was critical their team provide the necessary training for Daniel’s teachers at school and his mother at home. And for Daniel, establishing foundational skills now that he could use the rest of his life was paramount. As a Children’s Services Fund partner that serves those who don’t have access or the ability to get mental health services, The Family Conservancy could provide just what Daniel (and many young children like him) needed through their in-school early childhood mental health program and outpatient counseling and therapy services.
Compounded Challenges Require More Support in Jackson County
Children’s Mercy Kansas City completes a community needs assessment every two years. The findings in their latest report from 2019 show just how great the need for early childhood mental health (ECMH) support is, rating mental and behavioral health issues as a “major problem,” The report also states participants feel issues among children and teens are growing worse in the area. Parents have reported statistically higher levels of anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders in kids ages 5-17. The TFC staff noted more preschoolers are expelled from school than any other age.
Children whose mental health needs go unmet translate into more than family issues. Other children are affected by the classroom environment. Teachers’ stress levels climb. Repeated unhealthy cycles impact the entire community — from hospitals and schools to local organizations and businesses who provide services to help and/or funding to meet the need.
There are other factors, too. The pandemic caused depression and anxiety for parents, job losses and financial struggles, which limits their ability to be emotionally available for their children. With a high turnover in school staff and teachers, and equity and socio-economic pieces at play, kids in Jackson County need more support early in life.
Proactive Support Early for Life-Long Resilience
Taking a proactive, classroom approach for every child, TFC’s early childhood mental health program includes prevention and early intervention to support the most challenged kids. They go into schools and come alongside teachers to train them in everything from foundational basics to more advanced tools and techniques. Teachers are more equipped to recognize mental health struggles and help children work through them, keeping kids in the classroom and avoiding expulsion. In doing so, the TFC team and teachers give children the opportunity to build life-long skills and thinking patterns for resiliency.
TFC is uniquely positioned in Jackson County. Having established relationships with many childcare providers, they can assess a school’s needs in advance and offer up to a 2-year program. Their mental health specialists and early childhood social learning specialists make them equipped to support teachers directly in the classroom until the team is confident they can continue on their own.
Therapy In-School and Beyond
After Daniel’s last-day-of-school expulsion, the TFC therapist offered outpatient services, not just for Daniel, but also for his mom, who was walking through a divorce. Through child psychotherapy, the therapist was able to track underlying separation anxiety triggers and incidents of rage in the classroom to his primary teacher’s absence and his parents’ divorce. It took several months, but as they worked through his feelings of abandonment, Daniel eventually felt more safe and connected. He’s now able to talk about his feelings and is aware of how his feelings affect others. His therapy is ongoing, but progress is evident: He’s not been sent home from school for a single day during Kindergarten — a big win for Daniel, his mom, his teacher, school and the community.
CSF Funding is Critical to Meet the Actual Need
Funds from the CSF (from 2018-2022) have enabled TFC to provide developmentally appropriate activities at the Jackson County Family Center while building relationships with schools and teachers. Their team of clinicians is critical to both ends, playing a key role in earning the trust of teachers, kids and parents. Their foundational work in the classroom and additional outpatient therapy gives every child a sense of belonging. And yet there’s more work to be done.
When asked what optimal financial support would look like for TFC, Deborah Bowman, their Early Childhood Mental Health Manager, responded, “Although we have a great 2-year program, teachers and schools really need a minimum 4-year program. If we want to go into more vulnerable spaces, we need more time with them.” Cindy Lamb, Clinical Director at TFC, added, “And we need more clinicians. The ECMH department is dependent on the funds we receive from the CSF.”
Want to learn more about The Family Conservancy? Check out their host of therapy services — from play and cognitive behavior therapy to EMDR and child-parent psychotherapy — that are working to address the mental health needs of Jackson County kids.