While Matt Sloan worked with a handful of children to improve their castle of wooden blocks, Yolanda Cano was needed at the door.
In the brief seconds while Cano checked in a new preschooler, the inevitable happened: over at the sand pit, two children broke into a heated scuffle over a beloved toy truck. Though nobody was in immediate danger, Sloan set the blocks aside and burst into action, separating the two before their battle for the truck worsened.
“You have to be everywhere at once these days,” said Cano, who works with Sloan as teacher assistants at a full-day child care classroom at Evergreen High School in east Vancouver. “There’s just a lot going on.”
In May, representatives from the Educational Opportunities for Children and Families and the Head Start program in Washington, which provides early learning and child care to young children throughout the state, were lobbying Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell for continued federal funding for their services as part of the Senate’s reconciliation package.
At the time, the package featured an estimated $52 million to help with staff wages and classroom services. When the bill finally passed in August after months of tumultuous debate, however, that $52 million had been reduced to zero.
“This is going to continue to have a significant impact on our ability to provide service, period,” said Rekah Strong, the chief executive officer for the EOCF.
Further cuts, further challenges
Last year, worker shortages and COVID-19 outbreaks forced Head Start and EOCF organizers to close six classrooms in the Vancouver area. This fall, Strong estimates that they’ll be forced to hold off on opening another three classrooms — amounting to about 36 more kids they’ll be unable to serve.
For every 10 infants that need care in Southwest Washington, she said, there’s just one spot available. For every 10 toddlers (kids aged 2 to 3), there’s only four spaces.
The largest issue, she said, remains being able to provide teacher assistants and mental health counselors with competitive wages and benefits.
“When you look across the entire early learning community, the fact were still earning $15-$16 an hour for teachers expected to have full qualifications,” Strong said. “When you compare to K-12, it’s about half the salary. The other issue is not being able to retain this talented staff, and I can’t blame them.”
Among the biggest changes in demands in recent years for these teachers has been the integration of mental health services. For toddlers, they may have missed out on the initial years of social interaction with other toddlers — if not properly addressed early, it may lead to further disparities in neurological development as they proceed toward an older classroom setting in the coming years, they said. In just a short time, they’re already seeing the extent of what that lost time in brain development has done to young children.
“These are amazing teachers, but when you have classrooms full of special needs and challenging behaviors, that can get really overwhelming,” said Tricia McMinn, a mental health coordinator at EOCF.
Prior to the pandemic, she said, about 10 percent of a classroom consisted of students with more advanced special needs. Today, it’s closer to half the classroom.
EOCF manages dozens of locations across Southwest Washington. Sloan and Cano’s classroom, which is a portable building behind Evergreen High School, care for between 10 and 17 preschoolers aged 3 to 4each day.
Lately, they operate with just two teacher assistants at any given time. Cano said they need at least four.
Beyond giving them a place to be during the day, Head Start and EOCF locations provide assistance in critical social-emotional development — something that’s only become more necessary for young children following a time of isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic.
New focuses in counseling
As young children have shown increased needs for social-emotional support and behavioral assistance, families have reached out for help at home, too.
McMinn, a former child therapist, works with families to help them learn about areas in which their child needs support. That work includes “trauma-informed” approaches intended to account for individual students’ lives and upbringing when evaluating outbursts or behavioral incidents.
“You can’t discipline a child or reprimand a child or tell them something’s wrong with a kid if you don’t have an understanding of how they’re developing,” said Tamara Harris, a supervising teacher at Silver Star’s early care education center and a teacher helping out at Evergreen on Friday.
Rather than resorting to punishments, Harris has worked to direct families to mental health coordinators like McMinn for group meetings to learn better ways to approach the behavioral struggles.
“A lot of parents are feeling really stressed out, maxed out,” McMinn said. “Trauma-informed classrooms provide support for kids who have experienced trauma in the past.”
Those requests for parent consultations have doubled since the pandemic started, she said. Since then, however, the number of behavioral reports has significantly decreased — a huge positive, McMinn said.
Flexibility in moving forward
Without the prospect of continued federal funding, Strong said EOCF and local Head Start programs have little choice but to seek other funding partners.
“We have to be creative and develop relationships with our community and businesses,” Strong said. “Having to go out and fundraise and try to raise other dollars in the community — that’s typically not our teachers’ strength. It puts a different pressure on us.”
With improved funding, they hope they can better address many of these new demands on the early learning and child care community. In addition to getting classrooms like the one in Evergreen to feature four teacher assistants, McMinn suggested they could significantly benefit from classroom support specialists in mental health in every classroom.
“I’m just concerned that things are going to stay the same or get worse,” said Harris. “It’s disappointing to know that someone (in Congress) could have said yes, but they didn’t. Instead it was no, or instead there were other things. What is more important than giving small kids an amazing start to help create the productive society we’re trying to make?”
Until then, teacher assistants like Cano and Sloan will do their best and continue to fly back and forth across crowded, chaotic classrooms.
“A lot of people don’t know how challenging it can be,” Sloan said. “We’re doing what we can to hold down the fort.”