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Child Guidance & Family Solutions

Young girl hugs stuffed puppet
Makayla Ulery hugs Carlos, a life-size puppet that behavior specialist Lauren Woods uses to demonstrate pro-social behaviors to preschoolers.

Believe it or not, preschool isn't all fun and games. A nationwide study by Yale researchers found that preschoolers in state-funded programs are expelled at least three times more often than students in grades kindergarten through 12th combined.

Most of these expulsions are directly related to social and behavioral issues found in young children.

How many children, then, would you guess were expelled from the Wilbeth-Arlington YMCA in Akron this past year? The answer – for the first time in years – was zero.

Most of the credit for this statistics-defying feat goes to the Specialty Child Care Program of Child Guidance & Family Solutions. This progressive pilot program places behavior specialists in local child care centers in order to reduce or eliminate the occurrence of preschool expulsions. Currently, the program serves two Akron locations: the Wilbeth-Arlington YMCA and Kids-Play on South Main Street. 

To facilitate the program, behavior specialist Lauren Woods visits these two centers on alternating days to work with the children and train staff members. Teachers learn how to deal with aggressive behaviors ranging from spitting to throwing chairs, she said. Over the past year, she's come in contact with approximately 200 children and 75 staff members.

Thanks in part to a $50,000 grant from Akron Community Foundation, Child Guidance & Family Solutions was able to send a behavior specialist to work with children at two additional child care centers. The expansion of the program allowed Child Guidance to impact nearly 400 children and 50 staff members. 

Setting children up for success

According to Woods, it is imperative that people address the issue of preschool expulsions now, because having aggressive tendencies at a young age often translates into disastrous consequences as an adult. 

"Some of the kids, when they act out aggressively at (age) 3 or 4, they're smaller and not really doing a lot of physical damage," she said. "If we can get that under control before they're a lot bigger and causing more harm, we can prevent them from being expelled from school or being involved with the juvenile court system."

One prevention tool that Woods introduced is the Devereux Early Childhood Assessment program, more commonly known as DECA. This kit allows teachers to assess every child in the center and evaluate kids' resilience skills during times of stress. The teachers are then given a profile of their class so they can learn the strengths and weaknesses of each child.

"Research has shown that when kids (score highly on the DECA), then they are resilient and can withstand the changes and stresses of life," Woods explained.

One of the key goals of the Specialty Child Care Program is to help staff members learn how to notice and address these stresses, along with the social-emotional needs of children. Teachers at the child care centers are introduced to the "stop, think and take a deep breath" technique, which helps children calm down in a stressful situation. 

Woods also conducts Incredible Years sessions at the centers, using puppets to model pro-social behavior for the preschoolers. The Incredible Years program is aimed at curbing aggressive behaviors in children and was the recipient of $10,000 in grant money from Akron Community Foundation in 2006.

"(Incredible Years) has been proven to reduce conduct problems with young kids, to increase pro-social behaviors, and to improve relationships between parents and children," Woods said. Recently, she asked the class how Carlos – her child-size puppet – could adjust to some of the changes he was experiencing at home, like the introduction of a new baby. The children were able to generate coping strategies for Carlos and, in turn, learn to deal with similar problems in their own life, she said.

In the year since Woods started working at the YMCA, the center has seen remarkable changes, said Assistant Director Bonnie Demboski.

"Instead of being frustrated and ready to give up, we now know how to (deal with difficult behavior)," she said. "We take a deep breath and talk to them. It's helped me as a teacher."

The numbers back up Demboski's observations. According to Ken Ditlevson, Early Childhood Services director at Child Guidance, there were zero expulsions between the two centers in the past year, compared to 15 in the previous year. Also, parents' time away from work has been lessened because they haven't had to pick up their children due to bad behavior, he said. Both of these statistics emphasize the importance of this program.

"Without a doubt, we need to make the preschool experience a positive experience for our children because our children are our future leaders," Ditlevson said. "It's very important for kids as a whole to be successful so they'll feel good about school and want to continue."

In addition to helping teachers, the addition of a behavior specialist at the centers has also been a blessing for the parents. 

Stephanie Ulery's 3-year-old daughter, Makayla, has attended the YMCA center since she was 4 months old. But, after the addition of a new baby brother, Makayla started displaying anti-social behavior while playing. 

Ulery contacted Woods, who spent time with Makayla in class. Since then, she has noticed a remarkable improvement in her daughter's behavior.

"When something like this comes up, you don't know who to go to," Ulery said. "If you go to your doctor, you'll most likely get referred to a specialist you don't know. With Lauren, the kids all know her because she goes to each classroom, and they're a little more open and they talk to her."

Akron Community Foundation's contribution to the Specialty Child Care Program is part of the foundation's pro-active plan to prioritize funding to early childhood education programs in Summit County. This decision came as a result of research that showed the majority of a child's core brain structure is formed by age 3, meaning that early learning initiatives are critical to a child's future success. 

So far, this initiative has helped touch the lives of hundreds of children and teachers throughout the county, and it's not finished. Ditlevson said he's received many requests from local child care providers asking for help, and he hopes to continue expanding the Specialty Child Care Program to accommodate them. Getting funding is the first big step.

"We're really thankful for the Akron Community Foundation and the support we have received," he said. "It is definitely going to make an impact in the county."

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