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Creating Early Learning Environments that Focus on Staff and Student Social-Emotional Health and Wellbeing

Generally speaking, in the year 2020, there is consensus among early childhood education professionals that considering the social and emotional needs of students should be a priority. It is also common to hear that supporting the same needs of teachers and other school staff is important. Neither of these ideas are new, and both have been addressed in the planning and execution of services provided by the Charlotte County Early Childhood Programs since the doors opened over 50 years ago. What is new, is the depth of understanding…the absolute certainty, that social-emotional learning and trauma-sensitive practices need to be the cornerstones of our early education programs.

Our Head Start, Early Head Start and Teen Parent Programs often serve children struggling with multiple life-stressors, trauma and behavioral/developmental challenges. These programs serve children living with families experiencing financial insecurity, homelessness, substance abuse, incarceration, violence, hunger and other stressors.  For this reason, the importance of identifying and addressing the individual needs of each child is even more urgent than usual. By providing emotionally stable, trauma-sensitive and trusting early learning environments, the chance of future academic success is greatly increased.

Leadership staff working in our district-based programs recognize that stress and trauma negatively impact the brain, social-emotional development and a child’s ability to function in an early childhood educational setting. “Behavior problems” are often a symptom or side effect of a stress disorder or a response to trauma. Actions or attitudes that may appear anti-social, apathetic or aggressive may be the result of feelings of helplessness or loss of control. While challenging behaviors and developmental concerns are often results of exposure to multiple adverse risk factors, what happens at school and in the classroom can make a tremendous positive impact on child and family outcomes. Building trust and forming loving relationships with very young children must come before academic learning can be successful.

Working with children struggling to develop social-emotional strength and resiliency can be very challenging and stressful work. Supporting teachers, family advocates and other staff members as they learn skills and implement strategies is the most important piece of a complex puzzle. The provision of staff training, and the development and implementation of policies and procedures are important, fairly straight-forward steps. The more complex issue will be operating a program that implicitly supports the mental health and social-emotional well-being of faculty and staff. Early childhood teachers working with disadvantaged populations may face challenges such as increasing job demands, stress and burnout, limited psychological safety among peers, lack of coping strategies and a perceived inability to meet student needs. Creating supportive, healthy environments that provide psychological safety, a sense of belonging, and predictable consistent work environments can make staff feel valued and may increase retention. Increasing professional competencies by providing specialized training and strategies can also increase teacher success and decrease stress.  

Program leaders are committed and excited to work toward shifting our philosophy and reconsidering our mission to better meet the needs of all children and families. As we plan for our next grant cycle, write action plans and create School Readiness Goals, social-emotional well-being and trauma-informed care will be at the forefront. We will work closely with parents, community partners, staff and the governing body to implement plans, monitor progress and to ensure that all children feel safe, valued and respected in a quality, loving early childhood setting. 

Nicole Hansen - CCPS Pre-K Programs Coordinator