Meeting Young Children’s Mental-Health Needs in Georgia

A child care provider in a rural North Georgia community was recently struggling to support a young student. The girl was in foster care and had already been suspended three times for aggressive behavior during the first five months of school—and the staff didn’t know what to do to help her.

With guidance from Bright from the Start: Georgia Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL), the staff scheduled a meeting with the child’s foster parents and the family’s Georgia Families 360 care coordinator to discuss supports and strategies needed to help the child thrive in the classroom.

These situations are becoming more common across Georgia, but not all children receive this level of support. Nearly half of the state’s population of children in foster care is under the age of 6, and between 25 and 40 percent of children in this age group enter foster care with significant behavioral problems. Research indicates they are:

  • seven times more likely to experience depression;
  • six times more likely to exhibit behavioral problems;
  • five times more likely to feel anxiety;
  • three times more likely to have attention deficit disorder, hearing impairments, and vision issues; and
  • twice as likely to suffer from learning disabilities, developmental delays, and language impairment.

These mental-health issues are not limited solely to children in foster care.

Research shows more than 15 percent—or one out of seven—children ages 2 – 8 have at least one diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disability. At least 10 percent of children ages 0 – 5 experience significant social-emotional problems that negatively impact functioning, development, and school readiness. Unmet mental-health needs contribute to the preschool expulsion rate that’s more than three times higher than in K-12.

“The most powerful aspects of the Get Georgia Reading Campaign is its focus on determining what children and communities need, identifying what support services are or can be available to children and families, and finding ways to scale those support services statewide,” said Dr. Garry McGiboney, deputy superintendent of policy and external affairs at GaDOE. “The remarkably effective work in North Georgia to provide mental-health services to children and families is an example of what can be done in schools and communities across the state.”

Mental-health supports and services available in Georgia include:

  • Georgia HOPE provides counseling and mental-health services for 21 North Georgia counties. With seed funding through the Georgia Apex Project, the agency’s School-Based Mental Health Program is focused on intervening early to address childhood mental-health symptoms. Therapists are placed at select school sites to provide mental-health assessments and counseling sessions.
  • Georgia Apex Project, a pilot program supported by the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, seeks to increase school-aged children’s access to mental-health services by building connections between and capacity of community mental-health providers and schools/school-based mental-health programs.
  • Project AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience in Education), a five-year effort of the Georgia Department of Education (GaDOE) that’s supported by a federal grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Agency, seeks to connect children, youth, and families with behavioral health services and provides Youth Mental Health First Aid training designed to help school personnel and other adults understand mental-health issues among youth ages 12-18.
  • Georgia Families 360, Amerigroup’s managed care program in charge of coordinating health care—particularly physical and behavioral health services—for the children in foster care, children receiving adoption assistance, and select youth in the juvenile justice system. In addition to a wide range of physical health services, Georgia Families 360 covers behavioral health services with a care coordinator assigned to each enrolled child.
  • Governor’s Investment in FY18 State Budget adds $2.5 million in state funds to expand behavioral health services to include children ages 0-4.
  • Social Emotional Engagement-Knowledge and Skills (SEE-KS) is implemented in nearly 30 school districts in Georgia, including pre-K and Head Start classrooms. This framework includes coaching to help teachers integrate social-emotional engagement strategies into existing lesson plans that, in turn, increases positive interactions between students and teachers. (Read this blog post to learn more about how SEE-KS is being implemented in Georgia.)

Susan Adams, assistant commissioner of Pre-K and instructional supports at DECAL, said we cannot wait until Georgia’s children enter grade school to begin to offer mental-health services.

“That’s why DECAL is always looking to connect with existing systems supporting children in elementary school in order to find ways to expand those services, or create new ones, to support the preschool population,” she said. “We take what we learn in one community and think about how the experience might inform state policy or how the services and supports might be replicated in another community.”

Georgia leaders are actively seeking ways to better support young children with mental-health needs. The Georgia House Study Committee on Mental Illness Initiative, Reform, Public Health, and Safety published a report last year that recommends creating the Georgia Children’s Mental Health Reform Council to develop a state strategic plan to provide comprehensive, accessible, and coordinated mental-health prevention, early and timely interventions, and appropriate treatment services.

“The common agenda that Georgia leaders developed provides us all with a road map, allowing us to use data to provide clues about what is needed—like mental-health services for young children—and what is possible,” said Get Georgia Reading Director Arianne Weldon.

By ensuring that new innovations are deeply rooted in our state systems, local school districts, and child-care centers, state and local leaders can help create the conditions necessary so that all children in Georgia have access to the mental-health supports and services needed to thrive in school and beyond.

Find out more about our recent “Learning Journey” to explore innovative approaches to meeting the mental-health needs of children in preschool and the early grades.