By Mike Candelaria
At the Early Learning Coalition of Brevard, reading, writing and arithmetic are joined by social and emotional readiness. With 4,600 children in state-funded Voluntary Prekindergarten (VPK) programs through the Early Learning Coalition of Brevard, Sky Beard is pleased. Beard is executive director of the coalition, which works to ensure young people from birth to kindergarten are set up for eventual success in school. In addition to those in VPK — the largest enrollment total of any county in Florida — approximately 3,500 children and their families each month are part of the School Readiness childcare programs, with another 600 children on waiting lists.“There’s a tremendous benefit for children being able to experience a developmentally appropriate, high-quality early education program in their prekindergarten years,” asserted Beard.Yet, there remains an area of “huge” concern regarding children across the county and, in fact, throughout the country: mental health.
Mental Health as a Priority
While news accounts, both near and afar, often focus on the ultimate tragedy of teen suicide, more subtle issues can begin their ripple effects in the very young, according to Beard. As a result, although mental health is becoming an increasingly prevalent topic in middle and high schools, “there’s also a need to start that conversation much earlier,” she added.“People ask, ‘You’re talking about 2-year-olds, so how can you be talking about mental health?’ You absolutely can be talking about mental health with 2-year-olds,” said Beard.“
WHERE DO YOU LEARN RESILIENCE? WHERE DO YOU LEARN THAT YOU’RE IMPORTANT? WHERE ARE THOSE FOUNDATIONS TAUGHT? THEY’RE TAUGHT VERY EARLY ON.”
BEARD POINTS TO POSSIBLE CAUSES OF MENTAL HEALTH CONCERNS, INCLUDING TRAUMA IN A CHILD’S HOUSEHOLD SUCH AS ABUSE, NEGLECT AND EXPOSURE TO ILLEGAL SUBSTANCES.
“When children have those kinds of traumatic experiences in their early years, it has an impact on their brain development,” she explained. “It has an impact on their ability to manage their world.”Beard also added that early problems are typically manifested in developmental delays and other noticeable behavior/discipline patterns.In response, the coalition is not only working to “spark increased community conversation,” according to Beard, but also providing greater support to centers of early learning. Coalition staffers visit and observe classrooms, make recommendations and bring in families to help identify needs for further services, among other actions.
In these cases, the emphasis is not simply on preparing the children to learn how to read and write. It is all about getting them ready socially and emotionally. “If we’re only looking at what we would consider the classical educational needs of children — do they know their alphabet letters, do they know their numbers? — we’re missing a whole piece of their needs,” Beard concluded.
“IF WE’RE NOT LOOKING AT THE WHOLE CHILD AND EVERY COMPONENT OF A CHILD’S DEVELOPMENT AND THE FAMILY THEY’RE WITH, WE’RE NOT SERVING THAT CHILD AND THAT FAMILY IN A HOLISTIC MANNER.”