Clay case study: Brittany Haines of Growing Room
Ensuring that all children have the best shot at a healthy life requires preventative mental health care and earlier identification and intervention. Health Services Research indicates that the typical delay between the first onset of a mental health issue or disorder and the first treatment contact is 11 years. Considering this delay, what we are currently experiencing as a teen mental health crisis may have actually started a decade ago as a toddler mental health crisis.
Many mental health issues such as anxiety may have surfaced in early childhood as behavioral concerns, sleep issues, or developmental issues. Anxiety at the age of 3 is relatively simple to alleviate, but anxiety at 13 is so much harder once the family dynamics and neural pathways have been set.
In many cases, these concerns often surface in early education centers, where teachers are increasingly themselves on the front lines of a growing mental health crisis. This raises the question of how we can best provide early educators with the support they need to address concerns before the situation becomes an acute crisis for the child.
Starting the Conversation as Early as Possible
Growing Room USA employs more than 100 early education professionals in Columbus, GA, and many more through its franchise locations in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Massachusetts. Since 1989, Growing Room Child Development Centers have provided a loving and nurturing environment for children to develop a love of learning and reach their full potential, with a carefully planned curriculum that focuses on language development along with math, science, social studies, phonics, sign language, art, music, self-help skills, emotional growth and character education.
Brittany Haines, the CEO of Growing Room USA, explains, “Since the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve seen a huge spike in children exhibiting anxiety and behavioral issues. Along with that, we’ve seen our teachers experiencing high levels of frustration, as they’ve struggled to figure out what’s happening with the kids and how to address it. This places an enormous amount of stress on the teachers.”
A large part of the stress, says Haines, stems from not knowing how to address concerns about social and emotional well-being with parents. “It’s not an easy conversation to have. As a parent, it can be difficult to hear feedback that may feel negative about one’s child. But it’s critical to start the conversation as early as possible, so that the child can be ready to succeed when they go to elementary school.”
Up until recently, if a child attending a Growing Room Learning Center was exhibiting behavioral or developmental issues, Haines would call the County and ask to be placed on a waiting list for a specialist to come to the site for a classroom observation and assessment. There are programs and resources in Georgia such as Steps Here and Babies Can’t Wait, but resources are limited and shared with all of the public schools in the County, so there is typically a long waiting list associated. Eventually, Growing Room contracted with a behavioral expert to conduct observations in the classroom and provide training on specific strategies and techniques. But even in that case, with multiple Growing Room Centers in Columbus Georgia, there was typically a wait. When the Behavioral Expert left to start her own family (with twins!), Haines decided to investigate other options for supporting her teachers.
Haines’ search led her to Clay, an early identification platform that provides a comprehensive suite of behavioral and developmental tools for school communities that serve children ages 0-5. “From what we’ve seen, Clay is the first and only solution geared specifically toward early education, using technology to help teachers with behavioral and developmental issues. It’s easy to use, and parents and teachers can both access it and see feedback immediately. That eliminates the wait, so that we can start the conversation and help the kids get the support they need.”
Is a parent’s hunch always right?
Clay recently conducted research using more than 250,000 anonymized data points on 2,726 children ages 3-5, collected via well-validated standardized screening tools recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Of this sample of participants, nearly one third (778 children, or 30.8%) showed some indication of a behavioral concern.
Clay also took a look at how closely a parent’s concern correlated to the likelihood of mental health issues. They found that there was a tight correlation between parental concerns and indicators on behavioral issues, with 95% of the children whose parents reported having “very much concern” actually showing signs of behavioral issues.
With developmental issues, the correlation was not quite as tight: 78% of parents reported having no concern at all, but 25% of their children actually show some signs of developmental issues. Out of 2,200 participants that completed follow up questions:
13.97% showed issues in expressive speech
10.13% showed issues in receptive speech
12.16% showed issues in fine motor skills
5.6 showed issues in gross motor skills
12.2% showed issues in cognition
This research appears to indicate that parents don’t always recognize normal developmental milestones. Why is this the case? For one reason, parents may not have a frame of reference beyond their own children. For example, they may not notice if a child’s language development is running a bit ahead or behind schedule because it has always tracked that way.
In Haines’ experience, parents often do have a hunch that their child may have behavioral or developmental issues, but they don’t always know how to broach the subject. In other cases, however, they haven’t seen it happening at home, or don’t recognize it as unusual because they aren’t frequently exposed to other children. Spatial issues, for example, may not be triggered at home, but are brought to the surface in the presence of other children at school. Clay helps her teachers to not only identify the behavior and determine the right strategy for addressing it in the classroom, it also supports parents with resources to address these issues more effectively at home.
“At the end of the day, it’s about setting each child up for success,” says Haines. “That requires cultivating a strong partnership between home and school. Every child is different, Clay helps us to tailor how we teach to their needs.”