A Learning Journey to Georgia HOPE

Every day, children across Georgia deal with mental-health issues as a result of circumstances beyond their control—incarceration of one or both parents, drug use in the home, poverty, homelessness, and countless other factors—that require access to support and services.

Get Georgia Reading Campaign partners—including representatives from the North Georgia Early Education Empowerment Zone (E3Z), Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE), and Amerigroup—recently engaged in a “Learning Journey” to explore innovative approaches to meeting the mental-health needs of children in preschool and the early grades.

“We have a wealth of resources in our state, including dedicated leaders, innovative programs, and strategic investments, and the Campaign is constantly looking for opportunities to facilitate and bolster connections across sectors and across the state to leverage those resources,” explained Get Georgia Reading Director Arianne Weldon.

While touring a Head Start center in Dalton, participants learned how Georgia HOPE, an agency that provides counseling and mental-health services for 21 North Georgia counties, is working with child-care and pre-K program providers to ensure there’s a continuum of mental-health support from child care through elementary school.

“The earlier you begin to treat mental-health symptoms, the higher the likelihood that they won’t turn into chronic conditions,” explained Rachel McCrickard, the APEX Project Coordinator at Georgia HOPE.

Family Resource Agency of North Georgia strives to meet the educational, social, health, emotional, and psychological needs of children and families served by the Head Start/Early Head Start and pre-K programs. Nita Thatcher, the program’s disabilities, transitions, and mental health coordinator, noted the benefits of Georgia HOPE’s mental health classroom assessment.

“When we remember that the foundation of effectual mental health begins early in life with our earliest experiences, we see the value of receiving guidance for reflective practice, allowing us to establish positive social-emotional outcomes for children,” she said. “The foundation of early childhood education is social-emotional wellness. A deficit in this area has lifelong implications as it interferes with a child’s ability to self regulate, relate to others, and learn.”

At Woodlawn Elementary School in Chatsworth, Learning Journey attendees saw how Georgia HOPE therapists partner with school-based counselors through the School-Based Mental Health Program there and at Spring Place Elementary in Murray County.

Georgia HOPE in School from Alan J. Sanders on Vimeo.

The nationwide school counselor-student ratio is 1:471 and, due to limited funding, each counselor in Murray County is required to serve two schools. Schools partnered with Georgia HOPE receive additional mental-health supports and services that students can access on site without missing school. Georgia HOPE therapists work closely with school-based counselors and teachers to help them recognize signs of mental-health issues children may face.

“Students and families are able to access mental-health services despite barriers such as transportation,” said Dr. Jill Rogers, the coordinator for exceptional student services at Murray County Schools. “This partnership allows them to feel secure in the fact that the mental-health provider is a trusted member of the school community rather than an unknown outside entity.”

Ensuring students feel safe, welcome, and supported is a priority for Murray County Schools.  The research-based Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) has been implemented there for grades K-12 since 2008, resulting in a 37-percent increase in high-school graduation and a 61-percent reduction in disciplinary referrals.

With training support from GaDOE and the Regional Educational Service Agencies (RESAs), more than 900 schools in over 50 percent of school systems are implementing the evidence-based PBIS framework. The Pyramid Model of PBIS is tailored to support preschool-age children, and DECAL provides training and technical assistance to early learning providers across the state.

Research shows that school environments affect student attendance, engagement, and learning—and school leaders in Murray County noted that efforts to address climate laid an important foundation on which to layer the enhanced mental-health services provided in partnership with Georgia HOPE.

“Educators have observed that students are much more willing and able to participate in learning once these needs are addressed,” said Dr. Rogers.

State leaders from DECAL, GaDOE and the Metro RESA are working together to strengthen positive learning climates from birth through third grade in Metro Atlanta. They are integrating training on the classroom practices from the Pyramid Model of PBIS—originally designed for child care classrooms—into the school-wide model used in K-12 schools. This innovative research-informed approach is helping teachers and administrators understand and apply developmentally appropriate practices in classrooms in a way that better supports children’s social-emotional development during their first few years of elementary school. Some of the resources are available in this tool kit.

Through the Learning Journey, the group explored the possibilities of connecting and integrating existing mental-health efforts, and proposed investments to support a population-based approach that expands services for all children. Several next steps were discussed including:

  • Strengthening support for mental-health development across the early years and early grades. In the regions where Georgia HOPE already provides mental-health services in elementary schools, staff will seek to engage child-care and pre-K providers.
  • Strengthening learning climates across the early years and early grades. In the regions where Georgia HOPE already provides mental-health services in elementary schools that implement PBIS, DECAL and GaDOE leaders will deliver training on classroom practices from the Pyramid Model to increase the understanding and application of developmentally appropriate PBIS practices to improve classroom climate from pre-K through third grade.
  • Connecting Georgia Families 360 staff with DECAL and GaDOE leaders to provide an overview of the services and supports available to children in foster care so that these system leaders are aware of all benefits and can better respond to children’s needs.
  • Expanding Project AWARE training, which is currently focused on ages 12-18, to help early childhood and elementary school staff and other adults detect and respond to mental-health challenges in children under age 12.

“It was inspiring to be a part of this conversation, lifting up the great work underway in North Georgia to support our youngest learners while exploring the potential for embedding this approach in our state systems,” said Weldon. “We look forward to supporting the action steps that have emerged from this initial conversation while continuing to seek out new connection opportunities.”

Find out more about the mental-health supports and services available in Georgia—and why they are so vital for young children.