Maine now has an opportunity to provide children the support they need for health social and emotional development. Credit: Stock photo | U.S. Navy

Over the past decade, there has been an increase in research about how important the early years in a child’s life are, when the brain is literally being built. Providing strong foundations is key to children’s later learning and development. We know that thinking and communication are taking shape in these early years, but we often don’t give enough attention to another critical aspect of development — the social and emotional.

With legislation like LD 1321, An Act To Promote Social and Emotional Learning and Development in Early Childhood, we have the opportunity to provide that for Maine children now.

Social-emotional development is the ability to express and understand feelings, to focus and follow directions, to self-regulate behavior, and to build and maintain relationships. These capacities are developing while children are also learning to count, read and speak. Early emotional experiences are built into the brain just like the more visible skills of language and reading. Parts of the brain that are involved in social-emotional development interact with parts of the brain that are involved in thinking functions — such as judgment and decision-making. We can’t develop one part of the brain and neglect another.

That is why early care and education programs have devoted significant attention on promoting young children’s social-emotional development. Approximately one in six children experience a developmental delay or disability that may affect their social skills competency or their ability to communicate. Unfortunately, many Maine children also experience significant adversity, such as exposure to violence, poverty and substance use. Whether a child is experiencing frustration because they struggle to communicate or because of trauma, these experiences can increase the likelihood of children displaying challenging behaviors.

Research shows that severe behavior problems during preschool years are predictors of behavior and academic difficulties in later school settings. A recent survey of Maine early care and education staff found that on average they reported having five children with challenging behaviors in their classroom during the previous year. Research also shows how consultation programs are effective. An evaluation of a statewide consultation program in Connecticut found teachers who participated in the program reported children as having significantly lower measures of problematic behaviors, compared with teachers who did not receive the service.

A model for these services already exists in Washington County, which successfully promotes healthy social-emotional development. One of Maine’s most rural counties, Washington County’s youngest generation has been adversely affected by high unemployment, exposure to substances, trauma and lack of access to helping professionals. The Early Childhood Consultation and Outreach program provides trained mental health consultants to preschools, parents, early elementary classrooms, child care providers and Head Start centers. The program is available to any child up to age 8 who resides in Washington County, at no cost.

This program — offered by Community Caring Collaborative in Machias, and recently expanded to Hancock County through a partnership with Healthy Acadia — is a vital resource for changing educational and emotional outcomes for young children. Utilizing best practice techniques through its direct coaching services, it is addressing children’s unmet social and emotional needs. Consultants support parents and caregivers working with young children gain skills to help children communicate their feelings, soothe themselves and experience safe, predictable environments.

These trauma- and poverty-informed supports result in stronger emotional well-being for children and greater success across environments. Teachers have reported improved behaviors and better learning outcomes, and parents consistently see behavioral improvements after intervention.

LD 1321, which the Legislature passed last month, will address the gap in early childhood programs for Maine children by providing access to voluntary and free consultation services to caregivers. As the Early Childhood Consultation and Outreach program shows, this intervention gives adults the skills and tools they need to better understand, address and respond to problem behaviors in young children.

This program has reshaped the trajectories for children and families in need in Washington County at precisely the time and stage in a child’s development where it is most necessary. This work should serve as a model for effectively addressing the social and emotional needs of young children in all Maine communities and ensure they develop a strong foundation for their futures.

Charley Martin-Berry is executive director of the Community Caring Collaborative.

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