Big Feelings – Mental Health in Early Childhood Education

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At United Inner City Services (UICS), we believe that people who are taught to become strong will be unstoppable. Throughout the turbulent year we’ve had, that strength has been needed now more than ever: for teachers, for parents, for the community, and especially for Kansas City’s littlest learners. But how do we teach infants, toddlers, and pre-K students how to build strength and resilience at such a young age? 

If there is anything this pandemic has taught us, it’s this: it is perfectly okay to not be “okay”. We, as humans, don’t need to bury feelings we are experiencing.  We are allowed to feel emotions aside from “happy”, “content”, and “calm”.

UICS programming, in addition to pre-K education and arts enrichment, includes support such as the classroom integration of Conscious Discipline approaches, as well as mental health resources and engagement provided by UICS’ Student Success Coordinators. The role of Student Success Coordinators is to support students through social-emotional engagement and behavioral health, either through one-on-one interactions or group activities and to assist teachers in the classroom.

“Our lives have become so out of our control, the mental health needs of everyone, including children, are becoming more and more evident,” says UICS-St. Mark Center Student Success Coordinator, Theresa Brandt. 

“All children aren’t able to verbally express their mental health or emotional needs, but what they are doing is communicating through their behavior.”

At UICS, teachers are trained in the Conscious Discipline approach, and use these learnings to help children communicate their emotions effectively. Conscious Discipline is an evidence-based, trauma-informed approach to social-emotional learning. The approach emphasizes self-control and self-regulation in the lives of adults, such as parents and educators, using a variety of techniques to respond to stress or conflict in day-to-day life. 

Conscious Discipline teaches adults to practice and utilize self-regulation techniques for themselves in order to help their children. Through this model, we know we must compose ourselves in order to help our children reach a place of safety and security. These learnings are then applied to the classroom, in a “teach by example” style of addressing student behaviors. 

In Winter 2020, Student Success Coordinators at UICS-St. Mark Center and UICS-Metro Center hosted a Conscious Discipline workshop for parents and guardians to learn more about how to apply Conscious Discipline techniques at home as well. This opportunity gave caregivers and families the chance to adopt new ways to ensure continuity of social-emotional learning for students not only in classroom settings, but in their homes and external environments as well. 

Learning about Conscious Discipline has allowed parents additional opportunities to engage in conversations with UICS teachers and staff about their child’s development and behavioral needs. UICS-Metro Center Student Success Coordinator, Nanell McAlpin, shared that this additional engagement provides stronger context for staff on what techniques resonate more strongly with students and how a child is growing in their self-regulation skills outside of the classroom.

“I’ve built relationships with parents who attended the workshop who now call or email me with regular updates on their child’s behavior at home, reach out to ask questions, and request additional resources to supplement what they learned by attending the workshop”. 

This approach to engaging students, their families at home, and their families at school as a collaborative unit is vital to supporting a child’s overall development and providing continuity of care in all settings.

Nanell added, “We have to start conversations with parents, realizing some of their own feelings and how their own reactions and emotions impact interactions within the family unit and in the home for students”.

UICS works alongside The Family Conservancy to provide external resources for families in need of additional support. Funders such as the Prime Health Foundation and the Children’s Services Fund of Jackson County provide UICS with the resources necessary to ensure families have access to opportunities and tools for mental health needs.

UICS is proud to provide these resources and additional support to families, and is grateful to community partners and funders who contribute to these efforts and recognize the importance of mental health.