Ohio seeks to boost early childhood mental health services

By Ann Sanner - Associated Press

COLUMBUS (AP) — An Ohio initiative seeks to boost access to mental health consultants in an effort to curb the number of children expelled or suspended from kindergarten, preschool and other early childhood education settings.

Officials set aside $9.1 million for the initiative in the state’s two-year budget, which will benefit 75 counties, according to the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. The funds allow for up to 64 mental health consultants who will work with teachers and at-risk students in programs such as Head Start, preschool and child care settings. Some consultants already are in classrooms.

Preschoolers and kindergartens are expelled at a higher rate than high school students in Ohio, which is in line with the national trend, said Dr. Valerie Alloy, who leads the department’s early childhood mental health initiatives. During the 2012-13 academic year, nearly 4,000 out-of-school suspensions and expulsions for fighting and disruptive behaviors were reported for Ohio’s kindergarteners.

Disruptive behavior can be associated with childhood trauma, abuse and neglect.

Alloy said children’s behavior can go beyond the typical biting and kicking seen in the early developmental stage, to behavior that’s more severe and continuous. “Those children present a danger in the classroom when you’ve got 25 other little ones and one or two adults in charge,” Alloy said in an interview.

The initiative will help train teachers to address behavior issues while putting consultants in the classroom to help prevent expulsions. It also will create a way for families or preschools statewide to call mental health counselors to help intervene with children at risk of expulsion.

Alloy said the goal is to address any mental health and wellness issues early to give children a better chance at success.

“Birth to 5 is the most critical time for a child’s brain development,” she said, noting it’s when children learn to form attachments and regulate themselves emotionally. She said the initiative seeks to prevent disruptions in this developmental process that affect their ability to learn and relate to others.

“We call it ‘get the right care to the right child at the right time,’” Alloy said.

By Ann Sanner

Associated Press