Training clinicians to help children with social and emotional difficulties

More than 50 mental health clinicians and 14 Head Start teachers are increasing their ability to help young children experiencing social and emotional difficulties, thanks to training provided through the South Dakota Early Childhood Mental Health Collaborative.

The project focuses on training professionals to work with and to identify children birth to 5 years of age with social/emotional, behavioral and developmental disorders. These can include autism spectrum disorder and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorders.

An estimated 9.5 to 14.2% infants and children up to 5 years old experience social or emotional difficulties that can impair their development, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty.

This collaborative project brings together clinicians from Southeastern Behavioral Health in Sioux Falls, South Dakota State University faculty and the Inter-Lakes Community Action Partnership Head Start, which serves children in 14 eastern South Dakota counties. The five-year project, which began last year, is made possible through a $2.2 million Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration grant.

This fall, more than 165 professionals attended a grant-sponsored workshop featuring nationally recognized play therapy supervisor and autism specialist Robert Jason Grant. The workshop drew early childhood educators, special education teachers, speech pathologists, occupational therapists, birth-to-five professionals, school counselors and mental health professionals from South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa.

Being able to learn from a world-renowned professional is extremely beneficial and having him be so engaging keeps you actively engaged. It is a testament to his ability and passion for what he is teaching."

Ian McClure, home-based therapist at Southeastern Behavioral Health

McClure, who completed his master's in counseling at SDSU in May 2019, is taking coursework in play therapy, which he uses with school-age and adult clients.

Training clinicians

"We are increasing the number of professionals who can deliver mental health care services to children birth through 5 years of age," said assistant professor Staci Born of the SDSU Department of Counseling and Human Development. Born is a licensed marriage and family therapist and registered play therapist who leads early childhood mental health workforce training as a part of the grant.

During the first year of the grant, 40 clinicians learned to use a developmentally based system to diagnose mental health and developmental disorders in infants and toddlers. Furthermore, 15 professionals are learning to use play therapy and four Southeastern Behavioral Health clinician are receiving level one training in Theraplay®. These evidence-based forms of therapy help children learn social-emotional skills, develop positive self-esteem, form healthy attachment relationships, and build resiliency.

"This grant is an opportunity to strengthen the workforce for play therapy and make it more accessible to people," said Holly Kelly, a home-based therapist at Southeastern Behavioral Health. The Iowa native earned her bachelor's degree in biology from the University of Sioux Falls and then her master's degree in counseling at SDSU.

"Educating more people will help us reach clients in the surrounding rural communities," said Kelly, who is among those learning to use Theraplay®.

Supporting teachers, screening children

On the prevention side of the grant, assistant professor Christin Carotta of the Department of Counseling and Human Development is working with ICAP Head Start teachers and children. The research team helped the teachers screen the 200 children in the Head Start program using the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment. This tool assesses their ability to take the initiative to meet their needs, to self-regulate, and to develop attachment and positive relationships.

"This is a standardized measure of three key protective factors linked to positive child development outcomes and resilience," Carotta said. "Children need this foundation to make friends and to be successful academically when they enter school-;and later in the workforce," Born said.

The research team then used the data to generate individual child and classroom profiles. "This information assists Head Start teachers in tailoring their instruction to meet the needs of their students and helps identify children and families who might benefit from additional evaluation and referral for services," Carotta said. This also provides important public health information regarding early childhood mental health needs in South Dakota.

The Head Start teachers use a social-emotional learning curriculum to help students learn these types of skills. Through the grant, the teachers received additional classroom resources and training through a 10-session emotional learning e-course to help them become more adept at implementing this curriculum.

This year, the teachers are using a new curriculum with an integrated social-emotional learning component. Through the grant, they will receive additional classroom materials and training to help with this transition.

In addition to screening students again this year, Carotta will provide further support for the teachers using their feedback from focus groups conducted last year.

"We are hustling right now," Born said. "Our activities already have traction-;we are training clinicians to deliver services, improving curriculum delivery and bringing people together through what will be an annual workshop."

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