I was in the Head Start program in Highland Park, Michigan when I was 3 and 4 years old. My first memories of that time are of all the toys. I grew up in a neighborhood where you didn’t always feel safe and secure. Things were pretty bland. Then, I would go to this classroom with all these vibrant colors and kids to play with and people smiling. My mom told me my behavior improved during that time. Now, working at Starfish Family Services’ Thrive by Five that makes complete sense. Kids behave better and learn more when they feel safe and secure. My mom was going to work, and I had a place to look forward to going to.
Our Head Start teachers focus on making sure that they are aware of mental health challenges and disabilities in their classrooms. From the onset of enrollment, we’re having conversations with parents like, “How do you feel your child is developing?” And from those conversations, we’re able to create an individualized plan for each child. One of the benefits of Head Start is the opportunity to help parents identify behavioral or emotional challenges that interfere with a child’s success in school. We create an individualized learning plan for each child, and then focus on the social and emotional development and mental health of that child and the connections between mental health and behavior.
I think one of the most important skills that Head Start helps a child develop is social-emotional learning. I tell people, we are not born with sympathy and empathy, we are taught that. And that’s because of social norms. In Head Start, we teach kids from an early age how to problem solve. “If somebody takes a toy from me, do I snatch it and fight?” We have our six steps of conflict resolution where we teach children: “No, this is how you problem solve.” As they grow up, they know how to talk through problems and not be physical—because it was taught to them.