Early Childhood

Preschool Programs That Treat Trauma Lay Groundwork for School Success

By Lillian Mongeau — January 23, 2015 2 min read
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Preschool programs focused on treating children who have suffered from trauma continue to spring up across the country with the aim of preparing the most fragile young learners for kindergarten and beyond.

A Chicago-based program recently featured on The Hechinger Report serves children as young as 2-years-old who have witnessed or been subject to violence in their homes or neighborhoods.

Treating children early can help keep them in school later, according to Margret Nickels, a clinical psychologist at Chicago’s Erikson Institute who spoke to Hechinger:

Early recognition and treatment of emotional problems in young children would likely decrease disciplinary action and reduce the number of children misdiagnosed as special education students, she [told Hechinger]: "If we understand that this kind of exposure to stress literally disables children in many ways that are needed for school success...then we understand why they're not listening. It's because they can't. They're not aggressive because they're just bad. It's because they don't know what else to do. So it becomes an issue of, 'What do we need to teach them?' rather than, 'Why are they doing this to us?'"

A program called Head Start Trauma Smart, which was featured on PBS Newshour in July, provides similar services for children in Kansas City. PBS looked at the case of one 5-year-old girl, Desiree Kazee, who had become withdrawn and prone to tantrums after suffering abuse, the incarceration of her mother, and the death of a close family member. With time and treatment, her father told PBS, Desiree learned how to handle strong emotions and became more outgoing.

A 2013 study published in JAMA Pediatrics, a medical journal, found that 41.2 percent of children younger than 18 from a representative survey had been physically assaulted in the previous year. For children ages 2- to 5-years-old, that rate goes up to 43.9 percent. Witnessing violence can also be traumatic for young children. According to the JAMA study, 14.4 percent of children ages 2- to 5-years-old had witnessed violence in the past year.

Though some neighborhoods, especially in urban areas, have a higher concentration of this kind of trauma for young children, the problem is widespread enough that a quick Google search for “preschools with therapy” turns up programs in California, Missouri, and Minnesota. Some have even worried that there are too many programs with therapists for small children.

“The idea of assigning mental-health workers to child-care centers and preschools is jarring; I was skeptical when I first heard the idea,” wrote Sue Shellenbarger, in a 2009 column for The Wall Street Journal. “Children so small shouldn’t need mental-health help, it seems, and having therapists or counselors working in classrooms seems to risk stigmatizing them with labels, or simply interfering with the innocence of childhood.”

After reading the research and visiting a program in New Haven that offered therapy though, Shellenbarger concluded that the services were often, sadly, necessary.

For more information and research about children’s mental health, visit the Georgetown University Center for Child and Human development website or the Child and Adolescent Mental Health section of the National Institute of Mental Health website.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Early Years blog.