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

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.

She has one goal: to provide support that benefits all the children in the classrooms where she works with teachers, students and families—in early childhood centers and preschools across the Yavapai Region. As she gains the trust of both teachers and students, they learn to see her as a resource.

First Things First is Arizona’s early childhood agency and was created to help babies, toddlers, and preschoolers get ready for kindergarten. It funds programs like Jodi’s. Locally, 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.

Jodi 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.

Jodi described helping a classroom of young children learn how to name and process their feelings. She introduced a chart with words and pictures representing different emotions. It also had space for pictures of the students. Each child moved his or her picture to match the feeling words of how they felt that day.

One day, a little boy put his picture by the word, nervous, Jodi said. “I asked him what he was feeling that made him want to put his picture there. He said 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 felt nervous and having the chart helped him name that and be able to talk about it.”

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

“She helps teachers realize when their buttons are being pushed and know when to seek support from other staff,” Sherry 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 childcare centers, Sherry 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.

First Things First is a voter-created, statewide organization that funds early education and health programs to help kids be successful once they enter kindergarten. Decisions about how those funds are spent are made by local councils staffed by community volunteers. To learn more, visit FirstThingsFirst.org or call 480.93.6566.