How a local program is easing the early education crisis

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Northwest Center’s Greenwood Daycare. (Photos by Scott Eklund/Red Box Pictures)

The impacts of COVID-19 continue to hit early childhood education hard. Funding and staffing issues that have existed for decades have worsened significantly during the pandemic. Many early learning providers struggle to find and retain teachers and keep their doors open.

Providers in King County also tell us they see a new problem: children with increasingly challenging behaviors that prevent teachers from providing a welcoming and nurturing environment for all students. This increase in behavior is perhaps not surprising considering research showing how increased stress and anxiety in loved ones and caregivers can impact young children.

The good news is that free local support is available. Thanks in part to funding from King County’s Best Start for Kidsearly childhood educators have access to training, consultations and consistent coaching that offer new strategies for coping with challenging behaviors. It also helps educators create more inclusive classrooms, where every child receives the right support to reach their full potential.

early education

More inclusive early education

In King County and across the country, most teachers of young children lack the training and resources to deliver inclusive education. So when challenging behaviors of any kind prevent teachers from serving the whole class, children are often expelled – even if those challenging behaviors are due to disabilities, medical conditions, trauma, or other factors.

Expulsion at such an early age can have lasting consequences. Those years before a child enters kindergarten lay the foundation for rest of their life. Keeping them in the classroom is essential. This is especially true when considering children from BIPOC communities and children with disabilities, who are expelled at a much higher rate than their peers. The U.S. Department of Education reports that black boys make up nearly half of all preschool suspensions, but only make up 18 percent of those students. And children with disabilities represent 13% of preschool children, but represent up to 75% of all suspensions and expulsions.

Organizations here in the Seattle area are working to change that.

In 2018, North-West Center, a non-profit organization serving children and adults with disabilities, created the Inclusive Mentoring Program for Improving Access to Team Child Care (IMPACT). IMPACT was designed to teach early learning providers how to better serve children of all abilities and backgrounds to increase access to quality child care for more families. So far, IMPACT has partnered with over 100 schools and delivered 176 professional development trainings. Most principals surveyed who received IMPACT counseling services reported being more likely to keep a child with challenging behaviors enrolled.

More services for early education providers

More recently, IMPACT has helped King County create a more inclusive approach to the services the county has provided at early learning centers for nearly 100 years.

Historically, King County child health consultations included health and safety support from registered nurses, who could help teachers implement safe sleep practices or increase vaccination rates. Now, the Northwest Center’s IMPACT model has expanded into King County work and offers a more diverse multidisciplinary team that includes psychology, mental health, occupational therapy, early childhood educators, and other areas of practice. So, in addition to health and safety support, providers can:

  • Identify potential developmental delays in young children and refer their families to additional support, including therapeutic services.
  • Understand health and well-being holistically, identifying correlations between traumatic experiences and children’s mental and physical health outcomes.
  • Provide strategies to reduce challenging behaviors.

The result is that teachers have the specific tools needed to better serve all students, regardless of student experiences and abilities.

For example, after working with IMPACT, preschool teachers at Wellspring in Seattle say they now have personalized strategies to help children manage their emotions – a constant challenge for teachers.

Frustrated or overwhelmed children often refused to participate in daily activities or had difficulty following instructions. Over the course of nine months, IMPACT has helped teachers develop new solutions such as using puppets to help teach children about their emotions, using movable cushion seats to help children cope with desire to move or the use of visual schedules to facilitate transitions between activities. What may seem like small changes can have a big impact.

Inclusive classrooms foster a sense of belonging and create space for all students to reach their full potential. If we can provide inclusive learning for every child in King County, we set them and all of Washington on the path to success.

Laura Knees is the Northwest Center’s Chef de Mission, leading a team of nearly 200 direct service professionals who provide services to children and adults with disabilities and their families, including early intervention therapy, inclusive early learning, training and counselling, transition services, job placement and mentoring.

Posted on June 15, 2022

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