How a local program is easing the early education crisis

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

The impacts of COVID-19 continue to hit early education hard. Funding and staffing challenges that have existed for decades have been made substantially worse during the pandemic. Many early learning providers struggle to find and keep teachers and keep their doors open.

Providers in King County also tell us they’re seeing a new problem: children showing increasingly challenging behaviors that keep teachers from providing a welcoming, nurturing environment for all students. That increase in behaviors may not be surprising when you consider research showing how heightened stress and anxiety among loved ones and caregivers can impact young children.

The good news is, there is free, local support available. Thanks in part to funding from King County’s Best Starts for Kids, early childhood educators have access to trainings, consultations and consistent coaching that offer new strategies to address challenging behaviors. This also helps educators create more inclusive classrooms, where each child is given the right support to reach their highest potential.

early education

A more inclusive early education

In King County and nationwide, most teachers of young children do not have the training and resources to provide inclusive education. So, when challenging behaviors of any kind keep teachers from serving the entire 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. These years before a child enters kindergarten lay the groundwork for the rest of their lives. Keeping them in the classroom is critical. That’s especially true when you consider children of BIPOC communities and children with disabilities, who are expelled at a far higher rate than their peers. The U.S. Department of Education reports that Black boys account for nearly half of all preschool suspensions but make up only 18% of those students. And children with disabilities make up 13% of preschoolers, but account for up to 75% of all suspensions and expulsions.

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

In 2018, Northwest Center, a nonprofit serving children and adults with disabilities, created the Inclusion Mentorship Program for Increasing Access in Childcare Team (IMPACT). IMPACT was designed to teach early learning providers how to better serve children of all abilities and backgrounds as a way to increase access to quality childcare for more families. So far, IMPACT has partnered with more than 100 schools and provided 176 professional development trainings. Most of the surveyed directors who have received IMPACT consultation services report being more likely to keep a child with challenging behaviors enrolled.

More services for early education providers

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

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

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

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

For example, after working with IMPACT, early education teachers at Wellspring in Seattle say they now have customized strategies for helping kids process emotions – previously a consistent challenge for teachers.

Children who got frustrated or overwhelmed often refused to participate in daily activities or had trouble following directions. Over the course of nine months, IMPACT helped teachers develop new solutions like using puppets to help teach kids about their emotions, using wiggle cushion seats to help children cope with the urge to fidget, or using visual schedules to help with transitions between activities. What may seem like small changes can have a large impact.

Including 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’re setting them and all of Washington on a path toward success.

Laura Kneedler is the chief mission officer at Northwest Center, 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, including early learning, training and consultation, transition services, job placement and job coaching.

Published June 15, 2022

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