Just a month after 4-year-old Logan started daycare, his mom, Kristina Winter, got a phone call about his behavior.
“He was acting out towards kids,” Winter says. “If they touched him, he didn’t like it. If they bumped him or teased him a little bit, he would act out.” Logan was having a hard time making the transition from his grandmother’s care at home to daycare with other kids.
Fortunately, the childcare provider was familiar with the Special Needs Program at Resources for Child Caring. The nonprofit organization educates childcare providers, publishes books for early childhood educators, and helps parents identify the best care for their child.
As part of the Special Needs Program, consultants help families and care providers deal with children who are having difficulty in childcare, preschool, or early elementary school. They might have mental health issues, developmental delays, or physical disabilities, or they might be having behavior problems – like biting, hitting, and kicking – that endanger the other children.
“Most of the kids we work with don’t have a visible disability,” explains Carol Stromme, the program coordinator. “Their disability comes from having challenges that make it really difficult for them in a classroom.”
A 2004 preliminary report by the Child Study Center at the Yale University School of Medicine shows that preschoolers are permanently expelled because of behavior problems at six times the rate of expulsion for children in kindergarten through grade 12.
“Behavior is the major concern. That’s what is getting kids kicked out of childcare, and those are the kids we work with a lot to help them stay in care,” explains Stromme. “Our goal is to make sure they can remain in a stable, good-quality care setting.”
Stromme has noticed not only an increase in challenging behaviors among children, but also an increase in the awareness that early assessment and intervention can make a difference. “Centers with staff and directors who are really concerned about the child and family are more willing to work with that child,” she observes.
New tools for teachers
Logan’s caregiver turned to the Special Needs Program for help when his behavior reached a point that might have gotten him expelled elsewhere.
“He shook one little girl,” Winter remembers. “I don’t know why. The teacher had her back turned and she turned around, and [Logan] was shaking [a girl] and she was crying.”
Nina Sutton, a childcare consultant with the Special Needs Program, was called in to work with the provider and Winter. She explained the program and collected information about the situation. Typically, the consultant asks the provider and parents about the behavior and when it occurs, any developmental or communication concerns, the child’s motivations and interests, and what tactics have been tried.
After the parents sign a release, the Special Needs consultant schedules a time to observe the child in the daycare or school setting. “The consultation process is tailored to the child,” says Sutton, who will observe a child as many times as needed and at various times during the day. Most cases require three to six sessions, each lasting one to two hours.
During each observation, the consultant makes notes about the child, the setting, the teacher, and how the teacher and children interact. At the end of the initial session, the consultant gives the teacher one or two specific strategies to try with the child.
Another observation is scheduled a week or two later, giving the teacher an opportunity to try the suggested strategy. The ongoing sessions all include extensive record-keeping, suggestions, and follow-up.
Sutton gave Logan’s teachers ideas for helping him adjust to his new routine and deal with his emotions. When Logan got upset, he was unable to listen to the teachers or be redirected to another activity. Sutton suggested the teachers let him work through his emotions in another area of the room or by crying. The teachers found that after Logan calmed down, it was easier to talk with him about the situation and he was more responsive.
After several observations, the consultant reports on the child’s strengths, the environment, the team of teachers, and the observations themselves. The report includes strategies for the teacher and may include written scenarios or specific wording for the teacher to use. In a final meeting, the consultant reviews the report with the provider and parents and discusses strategies for improving the situation, sometimes suggesting further professional evaluation. To monitor the child’s progress, the consultant follows up once or twice after the final report.
“With the strategy piece, we give the provider a lot of tools for working with the child,” says Sutton. “The visual tools are really big.”
Sutton has created visual pieces by cutting out magazine pictures showing appropriate uses for hands, feet, and mouths. Pictures of inappropriate behaviors such as hitting, kicking, and biting are crossed out to remind children of unacceptable behaviors.
Ready to learn
Special Needs consultants work primarily with preschool children but have served children up to age 10. The services are free and available to parents who live or have childcare in Ramsey, Anoka, and Washington counties. The consultants work with in-home childcare, centers, and unlicensed providers such as friends, family members, and neighbors. The Special Needs Program is unique. Parents outside of the service area are referred to the Minnesota Child Care Resource and Referral Network or the Early Childhood Family Education office in their school system. Both organizations can provide information on services available in their county or city.
According to Stromme, programs like this one help make sure that preschoolers’ behavior issues don’t get in the way of later learning
“If they don’t have that social-emotional development, they won’t be able to attend to learning,” she explains. “They’re not going to be able to settle themselves down enough to [learn]. They have to be ready. And their behaviors are telling us something because their words can’t. Children aren’t going to tell you what they’re so upset about.”
Sutton and Stromme both say that children benefit by staying in one daycare setting. The Special Needs Program works with providers and parents not only to keep them from bouncing from daycare to daycare, but also to give them a more positive experience overall, laying the groundwork for success in school. The teachers also benefit by learning new techniques and forming stronger relationships with children and parents. Teachers often say the program has given them more confidence in their role.
For Winter and her son Logan, the program was successful. “He’s really enjoying daycare a lot and looks forward to it,” she says. “I want to get these issues resolved before he starts school, so he’ll be able to learn and not let his behavior get in the way.”
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