Detectives: City Connects coordinators in early education programs

News headlines keep echoing a dismal fact: across the country, children are dealing with the trauma of living through a global pandemic. 

This is true for both school-aged children and for young children ages 0 to 5. And as City Connects Coordinator Elizabeth Planje explains, working young children in preschool programs to provide services and promote healing requires a different lens.

“You do have to be a little more curious to find the root cause of what’s bothering very young children,” Planje says. She’s the coordinator at Sacred Heart School, in Lynn, Mass., as well as a therapist. At Sacred Heart, she works with students as young as 2.9 years old. “The older kids can tell you more about what’s going on, but with younger kids you have to be more of a detective.” 

This means observing, thinking, and testing out ideas across all four City Connects domains — academic, social/emotional, physical health, and family — to understand children’s needs.

Planje tells the story of a young child who screamed every time he went to the restroom. It took some reflection, but eventually Planje and the teachers theorized that the child was experiencing sensory overload. The sound of flushing was too loud for him. The solution: he now goes to the restroom wearing headphones that muffle the noise. 

Planje says that for preschoolers, emotional reactions often present as bodily reactions like screaming, so she helps children learn to regulate their bodies so that they can then learn how to heal.

For Planje, helping another child meant additional careful reflection. This child was withdrawn and struggling with holding a pencil and writing. During a whole class review,detective work led Planje and the child’s teacher to focus on the health domain where the child had had hardships. This meant working with Mom to secure an appointment with a doctor, which produced a diagnosis of anemia that was then treated.

City Connects has not always been in preschool settings. The model was initially launched in elementary schools. In 2009, we started an early childhood planning process. In 2010, we introduced the model in early childhood settings. And since 2017, City Connects coordinators have been working in more than 70 early childhood sites in four states in public, Catholic, and charter schools. Most of these sites are in elementary schools, but some sites are free-standing centers.

There are unique challenges to implementing City Connects in early childhood settings. High staff turnover is one challenge. Another is that across the range of programs — public school settings, large centers, small centers, and family-owned — resources vary. 

“What we are learning is how to adapt best practices to ensure that every child and family in a City Connects’ early childhood setting has access to comprehensive services,” Joan Wasser Gish says. She’s the Director of Strategic Initiatives at Boston College’s Center for Optimized Student Support, the home of City Connects. She also serves on the Massachusetts Board of Early Education and Care.

“The impact of the pandemic has made it clearer than ever that in early childhood programs providing wraparound services like access to food, stable housing, parenting support, diapers, health care, mental health care, and responsive, caring relationships can be vital to supporting families and fostering children’s healthy development,” Wasser Gish adds.

Here in Massachusetts, for example, the Department of Early Education and Care (EEC) has a Strategic Action Plan, a vision for 2020 to 2025, that calls in part for prioritizing wraparound services for young children, the kinds of services and supports that City Connects coordinators provide.

 The plan was approved on March 10, 2020, the same day that Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declared a state of emergency to control the spread of COVID-19. EEC revised the strategic plan to reflect the damage caused by COVID-19 and the efforts it will take to rebuild the state’s early education and care system, which was struggling even before the pandemic. 

EEC plans to: “Invest in community-level collaborations as a connective tissue to ensure comprehensive and wraparound supports for child development and family opportunity through Coordinated Family and Community Engagement”

This is similar to the community partnerships that City Connects builds to bring support and services to students in Boston, Salem, and Springfield, where coordinators are already working in early childhood programs.

“Early childhood programs already have so many strengths. Early educators understand the importance of supporting the whole child, focusing on family engagement, and connecting families to community-based resources,” Wasser Gish says. 

“Our hope is that City Connects can contribute to this work, adding what we’re learning about providing comprehensive wraparound services to address the complex mental health needs of children and families and promote the kind of healthy child development that transforms students’ lifelong outcomes.”

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