Special Needs

29 States Now Offer Mental Health Services to 3-Year-Olds

| by Suzanne Venker

For years I’ve been lamenting the great social experiment in which
America has been engaged these past several decades: sending our babies
and toddlers off to day care in record numbers. While the correlation
between long hours in child care and increased behavioral problems in
young children has been clear for some time, apparently we’ve up the
ante. According to Sue Shellenbarger’s work and family column in The Wall Street Journal, 29 states in America -- along with a few cities -- now offer mental health services to our nation’s three and four-year-olds. Mental health services to our nation’s 3 and 4 year olds.
“From 9.5% to 14.2% of children under 6 have emotional problems serious
enough to hurt their ability to function, including anxiety or
behavioral disorders,” writes Shellenbarger. Another study by the
Archives of General Psychiatry found depression in children “as young
as 3.” Lynn Hopson, executive director of a New Haven, CT preschool
says, “We’re seeing more and more children with challenging behaviors
every year.”

What, we ask ourselves, has happened to cause these little ones
such distress? In our hearts, we know. We know instinctively, whether
we admit it or not, that parents abdicate too much of their
responsibility to substitute caregivers. Despite common sense and hard
evidence, Americans refuse to connect the dots between the existence of
routine child care and the physical and emotional well-being of our
children. Instead, we allow ourselves to be swayed – even if it goes
against our gut. In learning about the mental health trend,
Shellenbarger’s response was this: “The idea of assigning mental health
workers to child care centers and preschools is jarring; I was
skeptical when I first heard the idea. Children so small shouldn’t need
mental-health help.” This paragraph is then followed by the word
“However.” Apparently Shellenbarger was sufficiently convinced that
mental-health programs benefit “entire classrooms of children by
reducing behavior problems and supporting overburdened teachers.” Maybe
they do. But it’s a mistake to think that’s all there is to it.
Children are masterful at hiding their true identities; just because
they comply doesn’t mean the problem is solved.

The issue of child care in this country is not unlike divorce.
Since the 1970s, Americans have chosen to believe it’s better for
children if their unhappily married parents divorce. This is not unlike
the argument that children whose mothers are unhappy at home are better
off in day care. But Judith Wallerstein’s 25-year landmark study about
children of divorce, which she chronicles in her book, The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce,
demonstrates that it isn’t as simple as we think. Yes, children will
adapt to whatever their circumstances may be -- they have no choice --
but the effects of divorce become shrouded behind subsequent negative
behaviors or depression. Indeed, almost every point Wallerstein makes
about America’s divorce culture can be applied to the child care
culture. “A depressed child,” writes Wallerstein, “often goes unnoticed
in school. [Children] learn to comply with adult demands but without a
growing inner sense of confidence and direction.”

According to Shellenbarger’s article, the purpose of having
mental-health specialists in preschools is, among other things, to
“provide targeted, expert help to teachers and parents on ways to
interact with children.” But it’s not preschool teachers who need help
in learning how to interact with children. It’s parents. Parents are
the folks who need an education in how to parent, and we can
start by telling them that too much child care is a bad thing. To be
sure, age-appropriate preschools are harder to find these days; but
they do exist. When I was searching for a preschool for my children, I
found two schools that operate like old-fashioned nursery schools. How
could I tell? One was in the name – Eliot Chapel Nursery
School – but the most obvious way to determine whether a preschool
functions as a preschool (vs. a day care) is in the number of hours the
children are allowed to attend. This has been a great source of
conflict for nursery schools that wish to remain nursery schools. Until
recently, nursery schools allowed parents to drop their 3 and 4
years-olds off for 2-3 hours at a time – several days a week. Today the
average “preschool” (often a pseudonym for day care) offers parents the
option of dropping Johnny off every day -- for up to six hours.
This didn’t happen because preschool directors all the sudden decided
children prefer to be in school all day, or because they believe – as
President Obama does – that kids this age need more academic
instruction. On the contrary, it happened because parents demanded it.
They demanded it for their own reasons – whatever they may be – and the
choice of preschools to cave into these demands has resulted in “9.5%
to 14.2% of children under 6” suffering from “emotional problems.”

The truth is that the emotional well-being of our youngest citizens
has been at stake for several decades, but it takes about this long to
see the results of any social movement. If you’re like Obama, you
believe America should “invest in early childhood education by
dramatically expanding programs to ensure all of our young children are
ready to enter kindergarten” – which means you believe the more
exposure children have to child care and preschool, the smarter and
better socialized they will be. If, on the other hand, you know
instinctually, or from experience, or from the plethora of research now
available, that it is children’s emotional development that matters during the early years, you will agree with the critics
of these new mental-health programs -- who they believe “hit the wrong
target,” writes Shellenbarger. As Lisa Snell, education director for
the Reason Foundation, says, “Negative behavior in general seems to be
an unintended consequence of every child going to preschool at younger
and younger ages.”

What Americans need to know – but do not know because the media
won’t tell them – is that the early years are critical for children to
develop intangible traits such as as empathy, trust, and confidence. The best and only way for a child to develop these traits is by spending the bulk of their waking hours with a parent.
As Diane Fisher, Ph.D., said in a 1997 congressional testimony,
“Science cannot quantify important social qualities such as compassion,
courage, character, and moral vision. These traits are inextricably
linked with attachment and emotional development. Do we really believe
these and other important values can be reduced to learning objectives
and effectively taught in all-day early childhood group settings?”

Indeed, the idea that very young children require formal
instruction is patently false, and shows a marked ignorance on the part
of those who argue otherwise. It’s true that children from low-income
families -- whose parents are often divorced, drug-addicted, or poor --
can benefit from high-quality child care (“high quality” being the
operative phrase); but to suggest this same theory applies to the
middle-class is simply false. If we spent half the amount of time,
money, and energy trying to strengthen the American family as we spend
on child care – and the subsequent mental health programs to fix the
problems brought on by child care – America would be a much stronger
nation.