Jordana Ash holds a job that doesn’t exist in most states.
She’s Colorado’s director of early childhood mental health — a position created three years ago within the state’s Office of Early Childhood. A local foundation paid Ash’s salary for 18 months and then the state took over.
The addition of a high-level state job dedicated to the mental health of young children was a win for advocates, coming at a time of growing awareness about the long-term impact of childhood trauma. Ash said her role helps infuse both the Office of Early Childhood, where her unit is housed, and other state agencies with programs and policies focusing on child mental health.
Before coming to the Office of Early Childhood, which is part of the Department of Human Services, Ash ran a mental health consultation program in Boulder for 13 years.
We sat down with Ash this week to discuss her background, the state’s work on early childhood mental health and her thoughts on the recent defeat of state legislation that would have limited early childhood suspensions and expulsions.
The interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
My first job out of graduate school was in Alameda County, California, and I was a child welfare worker. I didn’t have a lot of life experience at that time. I didn’t have children of my own. I didn’t know a lot about child development. But what I could really do is listen to families. We met families at the hardest times.These were families whose children were removed for suspicion of abuse or neglect.
Everybody has a story and if you spend time listening, you will hear about their hopes for their child, things that bring them joy in parenting. To me, it’s about the stories and what parents do every day to try to do better for their kids.
Can you put into context Colorado’s work on early childhood mental health compared to work in other states?
Colorado is really in a unique position compared to other states. My position was created three years ago with philanthropic dollars (from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation, which is also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat) looking to get a position in state government completely focused on early childhood mental health.
There are very few states that have a position of leadership in state government with (early childhood mental health) being their primary focus. Minnesota has a similar position, Connecticut has a coordinator position. A couple of states are coming along. Other states have recognized that it’s a wise investment to have a position where you can really institutionalize some of those important changes and policies for statewide reach.
Can you talk about the major efforts your unit is working on now?
Our two main initiatives are the mental health (consultant) program and Colorado Project LAUNCH. (See this story for more about Project LAUNCH.)
We are (also) studying the effects of parent adversity on child well-being. We were (also) selected to receive three years of technical assistance on infant and early childhood mental health consultation. We’re hoping that helps us finalize our system of consultation in Colorado so we are a premier program that other states look to.
Last year, the state doubled the number of early childhood mental health consultants available to help child care providers and preschool teachers manage challenging behavior. How is it going?
Our state-funded program of 34 full-time positions is one of the largest (in the nation). We’re working really hard on developing Colorado’s system of mental health consultation so it’s consistent — for state-funded positions, for positions funded by philanthropy for programs that have their own hired consultants — so everyone is working toward the same standard of practice.
Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?
I can think of a situation where a consultant provided support for a cook at a child care center. Her child was enrolled in the program. This was a 3-year-old with a lot of challenging behaviors. At first, (the mother) was really nervous to talk to the consultant. She confused the role of the mental health consultant with something like social services and wondered if she was going to be judged or somehow scrutinized about her parenting. She had never had contact with any kind of mental health service before.
In getting to know the consultant not only did she find some new ways to interact with her child so that he could be more successful in the classroom and at home, but she also had her first experience with a mental health professional. It reduced the sense of stigma (around) getting mental health help.
She found that she could get a better position at the child care center because her child was successful in his classroom. She wasn’t having to take him home because of his problems.
What advice do you have for child care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behavior and haven’t accessed a consultant?
Take a deep breath. We want to understand that that child is telling us something. We might not understand what that behavior means but it’s our responsibility as adults to help figure that out.
We really encourage providers to access a mental health consultant or other support right away when they’re starting to be puzzled or concerned about a child’s behavior. It’s much easier to intervene if you have new ideas sooner in the process.
The role of child care providers and teachers is critically important. So we are not in a position to judge or to evaluate what you’ve done. We’re in a position to partner with you and help you provide the best care you can.
To locate an early childhood mental health consultant, providers can call 303-866-4393.
What advice do you have for parents who know their child is acting up at preschool or child care and worry they could get counseled out or kicked out?
Reach out and connect directly with your child care program about the problem before you start feeling like your child may be at risk of being suspended or expelled. That partnership between parents and providers is the most powerful part of a solution.
I would also say you can talk to your child’s primary care physician as a start. Maybe there’s a developmental concern your physician can help figure out and that’s gonna be a really important piece of the puzzle.
Connecting with a mental health consultant in your area is a really good solution to start looking at the causes of those challenging behaviors and to start putting in place some interventions while other tests or other assessments are being done.
For help locating a mental health consultant, parents can visit: http://www.coloradoofficeofearlychildhood.com/ecmentalhealth
What are your thoughts on the bill killed during Colorado’s 2017 legislative session that would have limited suspensions and expulsions in preschool and kindergarten through second grade?
The fact that the bill made it as far as it did meant lots of people were invested, were having great conversations about this problem in a way we never (had) before. Stakeholders were for the first time …. considering issues of disproportionality and implicit bias in a way that was a first. We had never had that kind of visibility to the early childhood time period and this very complex issue that affects children’s trajectories way into their school years.
Would you like to see a similar bill pass next year?
As an office, we’d be super interested in whatever’s put forward.