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Region Stories

These stories illustrate how early childhood programs and services funded by First Things First make a difference for young children and families in communities across Arizona.

Early childhood teachers in Yavapai County learning ways to support social-emotional development of children

early childhood educators siting in a children's classroom

As an early childhood mental health consultant, every day can look different for Jodi Oen. Many days she’s observing classrooms, watching how children interact and how the educators in the classroom are responding to the children.

“Pre-COVID, I would typically go into each classroom for three hours once a week to develop relationships of trust with the teachers and with the students,” Oen said. “I am there as a resource for them.”

Although the interactions may be different in the wake of coronavirus, the goal is the same: to work with early childhood centers and preschool teachers, students and families in the Yavapai region to provide support that benefits all children in the classroom.

The First Things First Yavapai Regional Partnership Council funds early childhood mental health consultation as a strategy to expand the skills of early childhood professionals to support the social and emotional development of the children in their care.

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Oen is a consultant with Smart Support of Southwest Human Development. As a mental health professional with expertise in children’s social and emotional development, she provides support in three different ways. Sometimes there’s a plan focused on a specific child. Other times a plan is put in place that evaluates the classroom as a whole. With a programmatic plan, the consultant works with the center director.

Oen described helping a classroom of young children learn how to name and process their feelings by introducing a chart with words and pictures representing different emotions that had space for pictures of all of the students. The children could move their pictures to match the feeling words that best represented how they felt that day.

“One day I noticed one of the little boys had put his picture by the word, nervous,” Oen said. “I asked him what he was feeling that made him want to put his picture there. He said that he knew his mother was not going to be able to pick him up from school that day so he would be riding home with someone else. He did feel nervous about that and having the chart helped him name that and be able to talk about it.”

For Sherry Birch, director of the Sonshine Learning Center in Black Canyon City, Oen has helped her teachers learn how to work with children with challenging behaviors.

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“She helps teachers realize when their buttons are being pushed and know when to seek support from other staff,” Birch said. “We learn what our triggers are so that when we get to them we know to grab another teacher and that helps alleviate and keep stress levels down, the feeling of being overwhelmed.”

Mental health consultation is a must in child care centers, Birch said. “Having that person who can give an outside perspective makes a tremendous difference. She has been instrumental in sitting down with me and meeting with parents, giving parents the confidence to work with us as a team to help their child when there are concerns,” she said.

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