Children’s Mental Health #1 Concern of Teachers

“Without question, it’s the No. 1 piece of feedback I heard from every single group,” [Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner] Penny Schwinn told Chalkbeat this week. “There is a growing concern about how we can support our children, not only academically but also behaviorally.”

What Commissioner Schwinn heard most on her statewide listening tour, which will heavily influence the department’s new strategic plan, was teachers’ concerns about students’ mental health. While distressing to hear that mental health was the most frequent feedback, at TQEE we are grateful teachers are pulling this critical issue out of the shadows – and that the department is listening.

An approach to education that prioritizes excellent teaching, high-quality curriculum and rigorous standards is essential for Tennessee students to be prepared for life after their formal education has ended, but children will struggle to achieve academically if saddled with anxiety, depression, trauma or other mental health challenges. As the Commissioner and her team finalize the strategic plan, we encourage three essential priorities to address mental health issues in our elementary schools:

  1. Prioritize social and emotional learning;
  2. Invest in trauma informed schools; and
  3. Strengthen home-school connections.

Social and Emotional Learning (“SEL”)

SEL helps students make friends, care for others, resolve conflicts, handle emotions appropriately, and stay focused on a task -– the very skills they will need to be successful on the job later in life. Without these critical SEL skills children become isolated, angry and depressed, preventing them from learning and thriving.  

Trauma-Informed Schools

When children enter school having experienced trauma in their young lives, teachers, school staff and leaders must be equipped and supported with tools and strategies to respond with care and mitigate stress. Trauma-Informed Schools provide increased access to behavioral and mental health services, an increased feeling of physical, social, and emotional safety among students, and positive and culturally responsive discipline policies and practices that increase school connectedness. In 2017, Governor Haslam initiated the Building Strong Brains Innovation Grants – a pilot program to assist school teachers, staff and leaders in creating a trauma-informed culture. Tennessee should continue and expand these grants with a goal that every school has a trauma-informed culture.

Strengthen Home-School Connections

Parent and family engagement is not only about asking parents to volunteer or attend school events. When children present with trauma or troubling behaviors, the best problem-solving approach is to engage the adults closest to that child – their parents/caregivers and teachers – to collaborate on ways to get to the root of the issue and support each other through multi-step solutions. Absenteeism, bullying, and discipline issues are most effectively addressed via a holistic approach that brings adults at home and adults at school together to strengthen the development and growth of the child, propelling the child into a safe and productive space for learning.

Legislative Support Signals Commitment to Improve Tennessee early education

Early education advocates across Tennessee are cheering results of the 2019 Tennessee legislative session that include a slate of approved policy proposals aimed at boosting learning prior to third grade as a strategy to improve Tennessee’s public education system.

Highlights include a new pilot to create a network of early grades literacy and math coaches to help teachers in the state’s lowest performing schools, an increase in funding for evidence-based home visiting (EBHV) programs, and ongoing funding and more robust training and improvements for Pre-K and kindergarten teachers who use the portfolio model to measure academic growth. And the Tennessee General Assembly formed a bipartisan House and Senate caucus to provide exclusive focus on early education policy.

Altogether, approval of these policies delivers a successful outcome to an agenda of the state’s leading early education advocates, said Mike Carpenter, executive director of Tennesseans for Quality Early Education (TQEE).

“This was a very successful legislative session for our youngest students and an indication that Tennessee is committed to building a stronger early education system,” Carpenter said. “All Tennesseans want better education outcomes. The policies supported by the General Assembly and Lee administration move Tennessee in the right direction of building a more robust system of quality education for children from birth to third grade and to accelerate progress that helps Tennessee kids get a smart start in life.  This legislative session was a necessary step to address the unacceptable condition of our student’s proficiency scores and begin to build a foundation that produces better outcomes.”

While in the past decade Tennessee made strides as one of the most improved states in education outcomes, it still ranks in the bottom half of all states. Most Tennessee students in grades 3-12 are not proficient in math or English; by the third grade, most Tennessee students are behind and remain there.

TQEE was formed to address poor proficiency and advocate for strong early education programs that can help students get a strong start that ensures they are proficient before they enter third grade. TQEE achieved success on its 2019 policy agenda, which included the coaching pilot program, maintaining the state’s commitment to voluntary Pre-K and EBHV programs.

Governor Bill Lee’s administration increased financial support to create a coaching pilot to support early grades teachers in low performing schools and the General Assembly provided additional funding to support EBHV programs that help connect parents with community resources to assist parenting, health, development and learning of their young children.

Creation of the coaching pilot is a strategic approach to provide early grades teachers with greater support as the state works toward a goal to increase the percentage of third graders who are reading, writing and doing math on grade level from about 37 percent today to 75 percent by 2025. Embedding instructional coaches in schools to support teachers is proven to be a successful tool to improve teaching and student outcomes.

EBHV is a nationally proven programming that is successfully applied in many Tennessee communities to assist young parents, improve their parenting skills, reduce abuse and neglect, improve health of babies and ready children for learning. Studies demonstrate that EBHV has an impressive $5.70 return for every $1 of public investment through reduction of costs for remedial education, public financial support, criminal justice and other societal impacts. “TQEE thanks Governor Lee, Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, Senate Education Chairman Dolores Gresham, House Education Chairman White, Senator Steve Dickerson and Representative Bill Dunn, and the legislature for supporting strong early education,” Carpenter said.

Home Visiting’s Powerful Human Stories

Take a step back from the compelling financial return on investment of evidence-based home visiting (EBHV) policy to study the true impact of this vital program through the lives of Tennessee children.

While home visiting boasts a remarkable $5.70 positive return for every $1 investment, it’s most powerful performance measure is best viewed via the experiences of thousands of Tennessee children around the state whose lives – and futures – are improved.

Home visiting is a voluntary program that works by deploying professionals to visit families in their homes to coach parents on how to support their child’s healthy development as well as offer connections to additional community resources and services to meet their child’s health, developmental and learning needs.

This evidence-based solution has repeatedly proven to strengthen bonding between mothers and infants, improve parenting skills, reduce abuse and neglect, improve health of parents and babies, and ready children for their school years.

The experiences told by Hunter and his mother Tyne in Nashville, and Itzel, Carlos and Alia in Nashville, and, through a terrific report in The Commercial Appeal by Jennifer Pignolet, the story of Shante and Ja’Mykal in Shelby County, illustrate the amazing impact of home visiting. Their stories demonstrate the real bottom line – home visiting works. By voluntarily accessing local community home visiting resources, parents are placing their children on a path to life-long success.

The preservation and expansion of these vital programs is essential for Tennessee’s most vulnerable children and families, but there are still far too many families with no access to help. At the current level of funding, Tennessee can provide home visiting services to only 1.7% of the children who would qualify for services. And of the 95 counties in Tennessee, 45 counties have no home visiting services at all.

These are the stories that go beyond ROI:

Sometimes a picture says a lot.

Hunter is building a tower out of colored blocks with his mom and his friend Tevri at home. It’s a photo that was years in the making, in part because of his involvement in one of Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee’s most successful development programs.  The “I did it” badge he’s wearing reflects the confidence and accomplishment Hunter has experienced through his family’s participation in the program.

After she became pregnant, Hunter’s mother Tyne was referred by a friend to Healthy Families Tennessee, a home visiting program that provides weekly support for parents from pregnancy through when their child enters kindergarten. That’s how she met Tevri, a PCAT visitor.

“[Tevri] would just come once a week and she would go over where I should be at in my stage of pregnancy and just help me get ready for the baby,” Tyne says. “And then after Hunter was born, she would still come by on a weekly basis and teach me about his milestones.”

As Hunter got older, Tevri would mark his progress on everything from word acquisition to motor skills, often working with Hunter outside, drawing shapes with sidewalk chalk and mastering colors. The program provides what Tyne calls a “full spectrum,” helping her son master everything from letters and numbers, to recognizing emotions, to how to deal with them effectively.

Read the rest of the story here.

Itzel is protective of her mother today, forgiving her with words even though she didn’t have the easiest childhood.

“My mom didn’t know any better and she definitely didn’t have anyone to turn to,” she says.

Itzel’s mother called her names and made her daughter feel unwanted and unloved. It’s tough to grow up strong when you are neglected and told that you are a burden.

As a young adult, Itzel found support four years ago at a community baby shower on the Tennessee State University campus. Newly pregnant and “completely scared,” she learned about Healthy Families, an evidence-based home visitation (EBHV) program from Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee (PCAT) designed to support parents from pregnancy through kindergarten.

Determined to be a better mother than her own, Itzel was attracted to an opportunity through Healthy Families to obtain strong parenting skills and to make certain her daughter has a bright future.

Read the rest of this story.

Starting at home: visitation programs seek to aid vulnerable children in Shelby County

By Jennifer Pignolet, The Commercial Appeal, October 11, 2018

After three years, Cassandra Ruffin knows the first rule of visiting the Dennard family.”You cannot come into this home with only one book,” Ruffin said. 

So although she’s there specifically to check in on 3-year-old Ja’Mykal, she arrives at the Oakhaven town home with a bag of children’s books for the boy and his two older siblings. 

The three children sit on the edge of a tan couch and the carpeted living room floor, tearing into a picture book about a bumpy pumpkin and a Disney-themed alphabet paperback. Their mother, 33-year-old medical assistant Shante Dennard, helps Ja’Mykal turn the pages and reads aloud to him. 

It’s that interaction that Ruffin wants to see between Dennard and her children. 

Ruffin is a parent educator with Porter-Leath, an early childhood organization in Shelby

County. She’s known the Dennard family since before Ja’Mykal was born. 

The family is part of a bi-weekly home visitation program called Parents As Teachers that provides social services and support to about 300 clients with young children, all done out of the client’s home. Many families, but not all in the program, live below the poverty line.

Read the rest of the story.

Proven Results

Together, We're Making a Difference

We’re proud to champion quality early childhood education for our great state of Tennessee, and with your help we’re accelerating progress.

Effective Policy

We develop sound, evidence-based policy that strengthens early learning.

A Strong Voice

We amplify the voices of early education advocates from across the state.

2020 Elections

We help elect pro-early education candidates for the state legislature.

#MyEarlyEducation to support the Tennesseens for Quality Early Education
Get Involved! Support Early Education and Join Our Coalition