Communities in Texas are seeking to improve the outcomes of the almost four million children under 9 years of age in the state. Research shows that only 29 percent of Texans under the age of 6 have had a developmental screening and the majority (58 percent) of 3- and 4-year-olds in the state are not involved in early education, which has been shown to improve school readiness and reduce the negative impacts of poverty.
Texas LAUNCH — a partnership among the Maternal and Child Health division of the Department of State Health Services, Aliviane, Inc., and the Texas Institute for Excellence in Mental Health (TIEMH) with funding from SAMHSA — seeks to address this need by implementing best practices to improve the developmental, social, and emotional health of young children. The initiative is focused in three Texas communities: Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Ysleta del Sur Pueblo, a small tribal community close to El Paso.
“We are part of a national initiative, Project LAUNCH, and have three of the 55 sites across the country. The goal is to identify children who need additional support as early as possible, and provide resources and access to services to their families,” says TIEMH researcher Erica Shapiro. “We also want to make sure that those resources and services are evidence-based, which means that they have been researched and shown to improve the developmental and social-emotional outcomes for children.”
In the three sites, the Texas LAUNCH team is working with the local community organizations to implement several strategies: screening children for for developmental, social and emotional delays; training parents through Incredible Years, a standardized but flexible curriculum that has shown to reduce challenging behaviors in children and and increase positive parenting behaviors; and using mental health consultants to address challenging behaviors in childcare and elementary classrooms.
“Each community has its own dynamics and looks a bit different,” says Judy Willgren, the project local lead. “In San Antonio, we are working with an organization that was already focused on mental health consultations, and now they are working with childcare centers. Fort Worth already had an early childhood alliance, and they are successfully building a continuum of mental health and behavioral health services. They are implementing a no-wrong door initiative, so no matter where a child and family come in—WIC, schools, Head Start—they are connected to the resources they need. Ysleta del Sur Pueblo is a small tribal community, where we are integrating our strategies with tribal needs, such as preserving the Tigua language.”
“Each community is getting to see what the others are doing and be part of the conversation,” adds Holly Gursslin, a TIEMH project coordinator. “The tribal community is hearing from San Antonio and learning what the next steps may be for them, and Fort Worth is learning from Ysleta del Sur Pueblo how to adapt strategies to meet the needs of a specific cultural group.”
The team is also building infrastructure by expanding the early childhood competency of the workforce that serves infants, toddlers, and young children.
“For instance, Fort Worth is working on something called the LAUNCH Academy,” Gursslin says. “The academy trains childcare directors in early childhood topics and LAUNCH strategies, and once they ‘graduate’ the academy offers continuous support through staff trainings at their childcare centers. The centers enhance their workforce which in turn enhances their services, and they receive a certificate saying that they are graduates of the LAUNCH academy, which shows that they went through specialized training and could then implement evidence-based practices. It’s a great way of building infrastructure within the community.”
Texas LAUNCH is entering its third year, and team members are excited about the changes already in motion. For example, after observing the positive effects of the LAUNCH strategies, the Tuy Pathu Early Learning Center in Ysleta del Sur Pueblo is having all parents of enrolled children participate in the Incredible Years program, and all children are screened for possible social and emotional delay.
“Communities are accomplishing so much!” Gursslin says. “They are getting trainings, developing coalitions, changing policies… they are really making early childhood a priority. The strategies we are implementing are about wrapping children in the best possible systems that will support them from the moment they walk into a classroom or a physician’s office, and beyond. I’m really impressed by how the Texas LAUNCH communities have been able to take these ideas, adapt them, make them look so different, and yet create such a large impact.”