Speaking For Kids

Healthy Mental Health Starts at Birth

Today is SAMHSA’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.  This year’s focus is how, with the help of caring adults and informed child-serving systems, children can demonstrate resilience following traumatic experiences.  While intervention is crucial to ensure healthy mental and emotional development, a strong socioemotional foundation that begins at birth is critical.  Programs that serve families with young children prenatally through age three ensure that young children are socially and emotionally on-track while reducing exposure to traumatic experiences such as abuse, neglect, or domestic violence.

Why does children’s mental health matter in the early years?  Children with social, emotional and behavioral problems have more difficulty with language development and acquiring the “soft skills” needed to succeed in school and life such as perseverance, attention, motivation, self-confidence, effective communication, and conflict resolution.  Left untreated early in childhood, socioemotional challenges can result in poor educational achievement, long-term mental health problems, and anti-social behaviors that lead to increased school discipline and delinquency.  To prevent these issues, parents and caregivers need access to information and resources to support their child’s social and emotional health in the first three and five years of life; and need resources to maintain healthy relationships and access basic needs to avoid traumatic experiences such as domestic violence and abuse/neglect.

Programs that serve young children from birth through age three and their families often target children who are most at-risk of experiencing social or emotional problems.  According to the 2012 Michigan Right Start report, one in ten Michigan births are to teen moms and one in six are to moms without a high school diploma.  Teen moms and moms of any age who have not been successful in school themselves are typically least prepared to understand the developmental and socioemotional needs of their children and lack the skills to navigate the systems necessary to provide needed interventions.  Many programs that serve children from birth through age three target these challenged families, and provide parents with the foundational tools they need to ensure their child’s healthy development – physically, emotionally, and socially.  These programs ensure that young children have access to early and regular screenings for developmental delays and socioemotional challenges.  Children whose social and emotional problems are identified and addressed early on are more likely to succeed in the early learning programs that have been shown to increase school achievement and later success in the workplace.  In addition, their parents are more likely to be able to participate successfully in education and job training programs, and to maintain employment.

Unfortunately in Michigan, between 10 and 14 percent of all young children birth through age 5 experience social, emotional and behavioral problems; yet most do not receive mental health services—even when their mental health conditions have been identified.  This is due to the vastly insufficient resources available for mental health treatment.  Creating a consistent source of funding for children from birth through age three and their families will not only expand access to the family support programs that serve families with young children from birth through age three but could also expand access to mental health treatment that young children need to succeed in life.

-Mina Hong

Baby Steps Are Good, But Bold Leaps Are Required

We applaud the efforts of the Michigan House of Representatives to re-instate $5 million in their version of the Department of Human Services’ budget to support extended learning options.  These programs provide young people with experiences that cut down on summer learning loss, improve school attendance, connect classroom learning with life relevance, as well as reduce violence, substance abuse and teen pregnancy and other behaviors that place young people at risk of school failure.

Not only do these programs result in better outcomes for kids, they also leverage public and private resources, and join the efforts of the nonprofit and for-profit sectors in a community to assist the work of schools and families.  Even in the short-term, this investment will come back to the state many times over.  And, while these programs improve educational success for all students participating, they are most impactful for the students who face the most extraordinary educational challenges – kids from low-income families and kids of color.

Directed by the federal government, and led by a wide variety of education stakeholders, Michigan has committed to eliminating educational gaps by 2022.  Gaps between children of different races and ethnicities; gaps between children from low-income families and those from families with more income; gaps between children receiving special education or English Language Learners and others who don’t receive those services; and even those gaps within every school between those who perform at the top and those who perform at the bottom.

Eliminating those gaps is not only a worthy task, but an essential one if we want Michigan, our families and our communities to regain their economic footing.  A return to state investment in quality extended learning programs is a step in the right direction, but $5 million isn’t nearly enough.  As recently as 2004, Michigan prioritized $16 million to support these programs, in addition to the federal resources available that even when taken together, served only a fraction of those who could benefit.

More investment is essential to support quality before- and after-school, summer, and other out-of-school-time programs; and assist community development of innovative options for their young people.  We urge the Senate to embrace at least the $5 million starting point, and we urge the Legislature to understand the key role that these programs play in getting to the educational success that we need for all Michigan’s young people.

-Michele Corey

Will Kids Benefit From the 2012 Elections?

Elections are an opportune time to ensure that elected officials prioritize the needs of children and families.  Decisions to vote for one candidate over another can change or maintain the trajectory of the government and the decisions that will take place over the next two, four, or six years – decisions that may have significantly longer implications.

Televised debates provide an opportunity for large portions of the population to hear from candidates on key issue areas.  Thus far, televised debates for the 2012 elections have been among the Republican Presidential candidates and priorities related to children have been practically nonexistent from the conversation.  A recent report by Voices for America’s Children – Michigan’s Children’s national affiliate – found that in the first twenty Republican Presidential debates, of the over 1000 questions asked by moderators, less than two percent have focused on child policy issues.  This is despite the fact that the federal budget includes over $374 billion in investments in child health, safety, education and security.

Why should candidates be talking about key children’s issues like high quality early childhood education, K-12 education, high school dropout prevention and recovery opportunities, access to health care, and family security?  The single best predictor of economic prosperity is a state’s success in educating and preparing its workforce.  Growing educated and skilled workers and leaders in the 21st Century starts at birth and extends through young adulthood – from cradle to career.  The right mental, emotional and physical supports make all the difference in preparing children to succeed in school and life.  Unfortunately in Michigan, we struggle to do this.

Twenty-two percent of Michigan children live in poverty and even more devastating is the one in ten children who live in extreme poverty – this means that in an average size classroom, about three students are living in households with an annual income of $8,784 or less (for a family of three).  Child poverty rates are even higher for children of color and the correlation between poverty, race/ethnicity, and child outcomes is clear – low-income children and children of color have less opportunities to access a consistent source of medical care, high quality early childhood programs, and a high quality K-12 education and are more likely to struggle in school and life.  Improving child outcomes for all children by strengthening public policies is critical to Michigan’s economic recovery and should be a top priority for elected officials.

So how do voters learn about candidates’ positions on key children’s issues?  Candidate information is everywhere during an election year – on TV, on billboards, in the news, on the radio, and even at your door as they and their supporters canvass neighborhoods.  But the best way to learn candidates’ positions is by talking directly to them to learn their views and policy priorities; and once elected, the relationship is already in place to continue to have conversations with elected officials on issues that matter to constituents.  Unfortunately, this level of relationship building isn’t an option that’s feasible to many individuals – particularly children and families of color most affected by public programs – who for a variety of reasons are disengaged from the process.

In the upcoming months, Michigan’s Children will work with our federal, state and local partners to keep you updated on election advocacy opportunities.  We’ll be working with our national partners to ensure that child policy issues are included in televised debates, we’ll be providing you with an easy-to-use to toolkit on how to get engaged in election advocacy and we’ll work with our partners to inform you of opportunities to engage with candidates in your local communities.  And most importantly, Michigan’s Children will continue to promote your routine engagement in policy discussions after the elections and beyond.

Stay tuned for more!

-Mina Hong

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