Hutchinson She's rarely had a child removed from her program because of bad behavior, but Hadley Day Care Center director Becky Eikleberry says she has witnessed a growth in aggressive and inappropriate behavior in younger children.
Behavior, she said, that affects those children's ability to cope and succeed later in life.
"Very aggressive hitting and biting, pushing and shoving" are some of the behaviors Eikleberry has seen. "We know 2-year-olds will do that, but this is continuing through 3, 4, 5, even age 6. A lot of it is to get attention, because they don't get the amount of good attention they need. The lack of respect for adults has also increased."
Mental health is at the foundation of a child's readiness for interacting with the world and success in school, said Virginia Elliott, vice president for programs at the Hutchinson-based United Methodist Health Ministry Fund.
Recognizing that need, the agency is introducing a new mental health initiative for young children and inviting requests for proposals on how to identify and then intervene to address problems early on. The pilot program is backed by an initial $600,000 in grant funds.
If not addressed at preschool age, by the time the children get into school, "there will be some really big issues for them," Eikleberry said.
That's because critical skills for how to relate to others or how to deal with adversity are learned at that early age.
"They'll use poor judgment because they're so stressed or because they don't know what decisions to make," Eikleberry said. "In the after-school programs, we've seen kids there that are totally out of control. ... These issues can continue all through their school years, and that makes a lot of difference on what kind of adults they'll become."
While stories of monster children are becoming more prevalent, actual data on such behavioral issues in child care and preschool is lacking, said Ken Moore, president of the Health Ministry Fund.
"We had one project we funded early on in Sedgwick County that created a greater awareness," Moore said. "It showed the need for child-care providers to have some skills and ability to refer kids out. That started it."
But it's a new field, Moore said - one that is important to figure out how to address.
"We've identified this as one of our three priorities for the 2010 to 2012 funding period," Moore said.
Eikleberry says unstable homes, with lots of economic or job pressures, and children having access or being subjected to "inappropriate games and television" may cause or contribute to the behavior. She also blames a lack of family mealtimes.
"Early toxic stress — such as that caused by difficult family situations, violence or loss — may short-circuit the development of important skills and abilities for relating positively to others and dealing with adversity," Elliott said.
That's why the Health Fund is particularly interested in community-based approaches to early screening of pregnant women, new mothers and children from birth to age 6.
In the pilot phase, the Health Fund anticipates funding two or three programs, with at least one urban or semi-urban and one rural community selected. The maximum individual grant award will be $250,000. The projects selected for funding are to start by June 1, 2011, and can extend for a period of up to three years.
"We're still learning a lot about this field," Moore said. "That's one reason we issued the RFP the way we did, to have experts in the front line communicate to us how to create a better system of identifying kids and getting them to the services that are effective."
The Health Fund expects certain stakeholder groups to be represented in proposals, Moore said. Examples include Mental Health Centers or mental health providers; early childhood education; family physicians, pediatricians and/or other primary medical care providers; and consumers represented by parents or other primary caregivers of at-risk children or children receiving services. Projects with even broader representation - such as faith communities, social service agencies, government and K-12 public schools - are preferred, he said.
The deadline for submitting a proposal for a young children's mental health grant is Jan. 10.