RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now to one of the biggest challenges American schools face right now - meeting the mental-health needs of students. This morning, we're going to focus on the youngest brains in the system - preschoolers. In 2012, some 6,700 children enrolled in public pre-K around the country were suspended. Experts argue that suspending a 3 or 4-year-old, no matter how bad the behavior, is a bad idea. New research out this week highlights a powerful alternative to simply sending a child home. Cory Turner of the NPR Ed Team has the story.
CORY TURNER, BYLINE: It's play time for Ms. Terrie Walker's preschool class. They're bouncing off the walls of a small YMCA gymnasium in a low-income neighborhood of Bridgeport, Conn. While most kids play tag, one boy, wearing bright orange socks, heads straight for a crate in the corner.
There, among the balls and cones, he finds a long, plastic stick, and he starts swinging it at the nearest child. Ms. Terrie, as the kids call her, quickly steps in. But listen to how she does it.
TERRIE WALKER: It's too high. OK, let's put it low. All right, there we go. High five.
TURNER: In many preschools, the words no, stop and don't get thrown around like glitter, but not in Ms. Terrie's class. Instead, she turns the boy's stick into a game - a bar that he - and soon everybody else - wants to jump over.
WALKER: Yes, you did it.
TURNER: Social worker Maria Santos, who's been watching and coaching Ms. Terrie, can barely contain her excitement.
MARIA SANTOS: That's, like, the perfect example of gentle redirection and, you know, telling children what to do instead of what not to do, right, because that's how they're going to learn.
TURNER: Santos is part of a program run out of Connecticut's Department of Children and Families that's meant to help any pre-K teacher or childcare provider in the state who's having trouble with a disruptive child. It's called the Early Childhood Consultation Partnership, or ECCP. And before we get to how it works, it appears that it does work.
WALTER GILLIAM: The children who got the intervention had a significant decrease in the types of challenging behaviors that are likely to lead to a classroom expulsion or suspension.
TURNER: That's Walter Gilliam at Yale. He and his research team have studied the program for years and just published their latest findings. While it's tough to know if ECCP has long-term benefits, the short term results, just reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, were impressive. That doesn't surprise Michelle Genest. She's assistant director of childcare at that Bridgeport Y and calls ECCP phenomenal. Because so many kids there struggle with poverty, hunger and trauma, Genest says, disruptive behavior is a common challenge.
MICHELLE GENEST: We've had children attempt to run out of the building, throw furniture. We've had children severely injure other children.
TURNER: Still, Genest says, suspension never makes sense. And she sees ECCP, which costs just over $2 million a year, as a vital investment in the mental health of Connecticut's most vulnerable kids.
GENEST: You have to start it now. And if you pump all of your resources in to making productive little people, they are going to grow up to be productive members of society.
TURNER: Here's how it works - for three months, Maria Santos drops in and out of Ms. Terrie's classroom, offering subtle pointers. The boy with orange socks acts out when he's bored, so give him a front seat at circle time. When he lashes out, it's not anger, but frustration. He's 3, and words don't come easily for him. On this day, after free play, Santos sits with the boy and a little girl at the blocks table. When he snatches a toy from her...
UNIDENTIFIED CHILD: That hurt my feelings.
SANTOS: That hurt your feelings? Can you help us come up with a solution to our problem? You both want to play with that wheel.
TURNER: With Ms. Terrie watching, Santos deftly gets the kids building together.
SANTOS: Oh, so now there's a bridge, and there's a stop sign at the end of the bridge.
TURNER: A big part of Santos' job is also building figurative bridges between teachers and parents - in this case, between Ms. Terrie and the boy's grandmother. The problem is many pre-K teachers, they don't have the time to do this alone, and they're certainly not paid to do it, often earning less than parking attendants and bellhops. And it's not just teachers who welcome the help.
ANNIE: Caitlyn helped me kind of view our daughter, Ruby, in a new lens.
TURNER: Annie, a mother in Greenwich, Conn., struggled to make sense of her 4-year-old's defiant behavior. With the help of ECCP consultant Caitlyn Dunn, she and her husband, Greg, who are also expecting, had several breakthroughs with Ruby, including this one.
GREG: She was very nervous about her baby brother coming, and she was afraid that we would love baby brother more than we love her.
TURNER: But being 4, it was hard for Ruby to say that. Instead...
LIZ BICIO: Behavior is the language of the child.
TURNER: That's Liz Bicio, a licensed clinical social worker and director of ECCP. And those may be the seven most important words in this whole story, so I'm going to play them again.
BICIO: Behavior is the language of the child.
TURNER: Not only that, says Bicio, behavior is usually a symptom of something else, often stress, though it can be an early red flag for mental illness. With her consultants, she wants to help teachers and parents get past the symptom to the source. If you don't...
BICIO: It's kind of like saying you have a major illness and part of it is a cough, and we're going to give you a cough drop.
TURNER: To be clear, ECCP isn't just focused on disruptive kids. Bicio's two dozen consultants spend much of their time working classroom-wide, helping teachers build vital social-emotional skills in all of their students. That can mean teaching kids the turtle technique.
If something bad happens, go into your shell, take three deep breaths and think calm thoughts. Or my favorite - setting up a cozy corner. Ms. Terrie in Bridgeport, she has one. Five-year-old Madison points me to it - a nook in the back wall padded with pillows and stuffed animals.
MADISON: If you cry for your mom, then you can go in the corner.
TURNER: Oh, really?
TURNER: Have you guys ever needed to use the cozy corner?
MADISON: I did because I was - I didn't want to school that one day.
TURNER: Instead of punishing big feelings, teachers need to respect and help kids manage them. For Ms. Terrie, that also means...
WALKER: Let's do some meditation. Everybody's eyes are closed. Let's go. Breathe in. Breathe out.
TURNER: Since ECCP began, it's reached more than 30,000 children. And of the many preschoolers it's helped directly, 98 percent were still suspension-free six months later, which means more kids on Ms. Terrie's big, red rug celebrating their graduation to kindergarten.
UNIDENTIFIED CHILDREN: (Singing) I'm that star up in the sky. I'm that mountain peak up high.
TURNER: Cory Turner, NPR News, Bridgeport, Conn.
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