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Program Helps Arkansas Child Care Providers Promote Social-Emotional Development

Young children painting

In the work-driven, hectic world many modern families find themselves in, children are often placed in child care, where parents hope their needs will be adequately met.

But the reality is it isn't always easy for child care providers to deal with the disruptive behavior of some of the students and have complete control of the classroom.

KUAR's Karen Tricot Steward has a report on an ongoing program here in Arkansas that matches child care centers with early childhood mental health consultants who can teach providers important skills to promote social and emotional health in children.

Dr. Nikki Burrow is the director of a program called Project Play at UAMS. It's a program funded by the state Department of Human Services that started as a pilot project in 2005 out of an awareness of the problem of pre-school expulsion.

Burrow: “There was a study that came out of Yale about pre-school expulsion being actually more common than expulsion at any other age. So out of the awareness of how serious these early behavior problems can be, the state felt like we really needed to have a way to address them.”

Burrow says it's often behaviors like aggression or hyperactivity that lead to problems.

Burrow: “But really, most of these behaviors can be managed in the classroom if the teachers have some special skills to address them.”

And so the goal of Project Play is to help teachers gain that skill set, since difficulties related to social-emotional development are quite common in young children. The thinking is that children who know how to regulate their emotions will be able to stay on task with their academic work.

Burrow: “We know that between 10 and 20 percent of pre-school children have very serious behavior problems. Serious enough that they would likely meet the criteria for a mental health diagnosis, like conduct disorder for example. So it is a widespread problem and we know we can't ignore it because there are additional studies that tell us that when children do have those serious problems, about half of them will continue to have those problems on into later childhood and adolescence.”

Project Play partners with childcare programs for about six months, using specially trained mental health professionals who provide support to the teachers and children. Allison Martin is one of the mental health professionals who works with Project Play. She says small changes to the environment can really make a big difference, especially when implemented so early on in life.

Martin: “I feel like most of what I do is teaching teachers different strategies and then trying to help them put that into their classroom and give them some support.”

Burrow says in a national survey of kindergarten teachers, they seemed to understand the concept that key to both academic and life success is kids being able to manage their emotions.

Burrow: “We know that surveys suggest that what they see as most important to school success is being able to get along with your teacher, being able to get along with your peers, being able to sit still and attend to the lesson. And they rate that as far more important to school readiness than knowing your ABC's or being able to count.”

Mary Giles is director at the Sammie Gail Sanders Children's Learning Center in North Little Rock. She says having professionals with Project Play come in to observe and assess how her center was running and give recommendations to the staff has been very helpful.

Giles: “We were able to improve the overall quality of the center because our atmosphere is now conducive to learning because you can hear and you can feel the happiness because the children are now able to relate their needs and their wants and their desires.”

Giles says her center does everything is can not to expel a child. Before Project Play, she says they were having a lot more parent conferences to talk about problems.

Giles: “Project Play was helpful in that they were able to give us some insight and able to help us establish routines. [They were] able to give us information that we could share with the parents so that when we were dealing with the social-emotional pieces of our program, we were able to share some ideas and some strategies not just in the classroom but those strategies we were able to transfer into the home setting so that everybody was on the same page.”

Giles says one of the tips that helped a lot was focusing on positive interactions.

Whereas before she would hear teachers say...

Giles: “Don't run down the hallway.”

Now it's...

Giles: “Walk, Walk, Walk. Instead of don't run.”

It's all part of a focus on teaching children how we want them to behave rather than a focus on punishing them for misbehavior.

Giles: “One of the things that we noticed when Project Play came in was how friendly we sounded and how friendly we looked. We were having some difficulty in that area. Through Project Play's assistance, we've been able to improve that and now I can tell you just walking down the hallway you can hear laughter. Instead of the children fighting all the time, you can actually hear them learning to talk to one another or talk to the teacher saying, 'I don't like it when...' So those things have been very helpful.”

Allison Martin with Project Play explains how she works with teachers on topics like handling peer conflict.

Martin: “So we've got kids that are fighting over toys and they don't know how to work things out when they're playing. One of the things I will teach teachers to do is that we have a four step problem-solving method that's really simply for kids to learn. So the teacher sits down and teaches the whole classroom the steps. Then when she sees kids fighting over a toy, she would go over and be able to walk them through the four steps of problem-solving. So she's teaching them to solve these problems on their own.”

Project Play has consultants in five areas of the state and works with about 25-30 child care centers per year. They hope to expand the program in the future.

Karen Tricot Steward. KUAR News.

Karen Tricot Steward was a News Anchor, Reporter and Content Development Director for UA Little Rock Public Radio.