Gov. Jerry Brown’s line-item veto last month of $15 million for a two-decade-old program addressing mental health needs among elementary school children has left districts that relied on the funds with hard choices about whether to keep the program going.
The Early Mental Health Initiative uses unstructured play and social skills instruction to help shy, misbehaving, or otherwise at-risk K–3 students feel comfortable in the classroom and on the playground. The program has been particularly important during tough economic times, said Scott Lindstrom, student support coordinator for Chico Unified. “Parents are at their wits’ end because of financial pressures. We need it now more than ever.”
Brown’s veto was consistent with his position that, instead of funding specific programs, the state should let school districts set priorities for spending money. “While I appreciate the importance of prevention and early intervention services, I believe that school districts are in the best position to determine whether these services should be funded at a local level,” he wrote in his veto message.
The $15 million saved with the veto will become part of general education funding for all school districts, forcing those districts with an Early Mental Health Initiative program to support it by cutting money from other programs that are already stretched thin.
In 2011–12, the program served about 16,000 K–3 students in nearly half of the state’s school districts with elementary students, at a cost of less than $1,000 per child in state dollars. Districts were required to match state funds, often with in-kind contributions such as classrooms and equipment.
Assemblymember Susan Bonilla (D-Concord), who chaired the education subcommittee for the Assembly Finance Committee, said she is concerned the program will disappear in many districts. If young children’s mental health condition is not addressed, she said, “the children are set up to not learn, to not feel like they can be successful in a classroom environment.”
“These are the very children who end up falling through the cracks in the system,” Bonilla said, “and it is costly meeting their needs later.”
Some districts are planning to keep at least part of the program alive. Chico Unified in Butte County will continue the program, but it will only serve about half as many students, Lindstrom said.
San Ramon Valley Unified in the San Francisco Bay Area will rely on parent and school fundraisers to support the program in some schools, said Paul Foucart, director of curriculum and instruction, though it will be much smaller than in past years.
Other districts, such as Elk Grove Unified near Sacramento, have eliminated it, even though the district considered the program “highly effective,” said Carl Steinauer, director of student support and health services. Elk Grove had relied on state funding to pay for program staff salaries, he said. Steinauer said he is pursuing grants to get more counselors on staff to make up for the loss, but those grant funds cannot be used for the Early Mental Health Initiative program.
Jane Claar, coordinator of child welfare and attendance for Twin Rivers Unified near Sacramento, said the program will be eliminated in her district as well unless principals, along with their school leadership teams, reevaluate their budgets at the beginning of the school year and find a way to fund it for their schools.
The heart of the Early Mental Health Initiative is the Primary Intervention Program (PIP), which provides one-on-one, non-directive therapeutic play. A paraprofessional, trained by school counselors or psychologists, spends about 30 to 40 minutes a week for an average of 12 to 15 weeks with the struggling child in a room with toys, such as sand trays and dollhouses.
Young children address their emotional issues through play, Lindstrom said. Being in a supportive environment where nothing is expected of them allows them to work out their feelings and connect to the aide.
“Aides are able to wait for that child to blossom,” he said. “Especially as class sizes are growing, the teacher doesn’t have time. Kids get a deep message of acceptance, a sense of real security at the school.”
Paul Teuber, a school psychologist with Elk Grove Unified, gave the example of a kindergartener named Herbie who had lost his 2-year-old sister in an accidental drowning that he witnessed. The 5-year-old began to withdraw and wouldn’t talk to his classmates or teacher. School administrators suggested the PIP program. After a few sessions, the little boy began to talk to the aide, the only person he would speak to at school. Eventually, he opened up to everyone.
Teuber said Herbie’s mother told him, “I lost one child in the drowning, and I was watching my other child die before my eyes. This program has brought my child back.”
In a letter in support of the program, she wrote: “He needed to go somewhere where he could talk to someone and not be judged or thought of as broken.”
Debbie Root, a school psychologist with San Ramon Valley Unified, said the program is cost-effective because shy students who won’t speak up in class are often retained for another year of kindergarten at a much higher cost to the state. Students who are experiencing trauma at home, perhaps because parents are divorcing or a family member is terminally ill, may not be able to focus in class and end up labeled with attention deficit disorder (ADD), she said, which could require costly Special Education services.
Duerr Evaluation Resources in Chico has evaluated the program for 20 years using feedback from teachers to determine the program’s impact. In the last evaluation, for the 2010–11 school year, Duerr reported that 79 percent of participating students improved as a result of the interventions – a rate that has been consistent over the years. The program was successful with all ethnic and socioeconomic groups.
“This was the single most effective program I had ever studied,” said Scott Duerr, executive director of the firm, who has been doing evaluations for 30 years.
Besides PIP, the program also funds instruction in social skills for small groups of students, typically two to four, to help them learn to empathize, problem solve, and control their anger. Sometimes the groups address specific issues, such as bullying, or help students facing similar problems, such as children whose parents are divorcing.
Lindstrom recalls how one family went to family counseling and the second-grader, who had been in the Early Mental Health Initiative program, taught her whole family breathing techniques to use when they got angry.
Funding from the program can also be used to train teachers in how to help young students, or to provide classroom curricula on issues such as building friendships, handling bullies, and cultural diversity.