COVID-19 and the Head Start Community

Mental Health Support

Creating Safe Spaces for Staff and Families

Monterey County Office of Education (MCOE) Early Learning Program, Salinas, California

Using COVID funds, the wellness committee was created to support the MCOE Early Learning Program in developing a strategic plan to create a culture of wellness, positive morale, and respect for staff. By taking care of ourselves and our staff, the program provides an environment that promotes healthy child development, safety, and positive relationships with children, families, and coworkers. The Early Learning Program wellness committee, comprised of different program positions, hosted staff recognition events, special projects, professional development opportunities, as well as incorporating standing items for wellness during staff meetings. The events consist of self-care strategies (paint and relaxation workshops and an online wellness platform), wellness activities (spirit days, food experience days), a new policy to reserve funds for staff wellness, wellness jeopardy game and bingo), and other fun resources. Staff had the opportunity to attend weekly reflective practices sessions with the program’s mental health consultant and get referrals to the county Office of Education's employee health and wellness coordinator for additional wellness resources.

Additionally, we created the “El Cafecito Club,” a parent support safe space for parents to talk about the challenges and successes of raising their children. The sessions were facilitated by the MCOE Early Learning Program mental health consultant and the special needs coordinator. This parent support group offered training reinforcement, self-reflection, and peer-to-peer learning opportunities for parents to explore their strengths and needs, learn about parenting strategies, and get resources. Parents left the “El Cafecito Club” feeling inspired, energized, and excited to put into practice what they learned to strengthen their families.

Weekly Empowerment Groups, “Manna Mondays”

The Health Federation of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA 

In the past few months, Early Head Start staff has connected families with community agencies, such as Women Against Abuse, for therapy, early intervention services, support with medical appointments, food and clothing donations, and more. The Health Federation of Philadelphia offers weekly visits with child development and school readiness activities, weekly empowerment groups, and monthly socializations to help parents and children cope with isolation and mental health. According to one parent, she looks forward to “Manna Mondays,” a weekly empowerment group for parents conducted by the infant mental health consultant. The self-care tips help the parent feel more relaxed, and the group gives her a safe space to share her story. The parent expressed her gratitude via text to a child family educator: “Thank you for everything you have done. I have gone far because of you. I thought I couldn’t do this by myself, but you showed me how to do this. When I am down, you remind me to breathe, and you helped me solve the problem.” 

Employing a Family Service Manager 

Monroe County Board of Education, Monroe, PA

The grantee used CARES Act funds to employ their family service manager throughout the summer month as an extra layer of support for children and families. Staff connected families to mental health resources in the community, as a large percentage of their funded enrollment struggle with mental health and social and emotional issues due to the pandemic. Some of these issues include being confined at home, having all their children at home all the time, and unemployment.

Commitment to High-Quality Virtual Learning and Family Supports

Community Action Corporation of South Texas (CACOST), Alice, TX

While the COVID-19 pandemic dismantled family routines, traditional educational instruction, social networks, and the economy, one thing that remained constant was the support and stability the agency was able to provide to children and families. CACOST’s Head Start birth to 5 program continued to provide high-quality educational instruction, virtually in spring 2020 and with a mix of virtual and face-to face instruction in fall 2020. Staff worked diligently to ensure virtual lessons were engaging, individualized, and accessible for children and families. This was implemented through facilitated learning activities and self-paced digital applications associated with the program’s current age-appropriate curricula. In order to ensure all children were able to participate in virtual learning, CACOST purchased tablets and internet hotspots to loan to all families in need. The grantee then provided parents with Google training to make the transition to virtual learning less stressful during these already taxing times.

Families were also supported through parenting classes, mental health supports, meals for children, and referrals to services. Parent, Family, and Community Engagement (PFCE) staff adjusted in-person parenting classes, “Abriendo Puertas,” to virtual sessions via Zoom. In spring 2020, CACOST offered parents the opportunity to attend four virtual curriculum sessions with topics on how to transition in the changing environment. Parenting classes were a lifeline to families going through trying times and dealing with the stress and anxiety of isolation, being overwhelmed, and worrying about their finances. In addition to evidence-based parenting classes, the program’s licensed professional counselors offered mental health services to families going through emotional, physical, and financial stress. PFCE staff also provided a general COVID-19 resource guide based on expressed need, daily informational flyer postings, and 73 referrals for services such as health care and utility, rental, and food assistance. Surveys conducted with families indicated there was a need for nutritious meals.

Individual Water Bottles and Mental Health Books

Kanawha County Board of Education, Charleston, WV

The grantee bought water bottles for each child, which is filled with fresh water every day at the filling station. The grantee purchased children's mental health books for teachers to read in the classroom and discuss during this time of uncertainty. 

Partnership with Medical Clinic to Ensure Health Needs are Met

Venice Family Clinic (VFC), Los Angeles, CA

This program provides Early Head Start services to roughly 400 children and families in Los Angeles County. VFC used its partnership with a medical clinic to ensure that both the physical and mental health needs of the families they serve continued to be met. Along with weekly distributions of food and educational resources, the grantee continued to provide in-person services for all of their family child care homes and recently opened limited center-based services. The grantee also collaborated with University of California Los Angeles to provide 1,000 hot meals to their community. This partnership allowed the university to continue to employ food service staff impacted by the campus closures and provide food for needy families communitywide.

Staff Training on Trauma-informed Care

Mississippi County Arkansas Economic Opportunity, Inc., Blytheville, AR

The program supported the mental health needs of children during the COVID-19 pandemic by ensuring all teachers received training on trauma-informed care. Mental health consultants regularly visited classrooms to model interventions and bring helpful materials, such as books about dealing with grief and feeling charts to help children identify their emotions.

The Three “Rs”: Reconnect, Re-teach, and Reassure

Clinica De Familia, Inc., Las Cruces, NM

This grantee hired a behavioral specialist to support children using the three Rs recommended by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): reconnect, re-teach, and reassure. Specialists are using the three Rs as they work with and support children re-entering the school setting or receiving services virtually. The Ready Rosie and Creative Curriculum guide teachers' and home visitors' work with children and include social and emotional skill development activities.

Mental Health Telephone Conferences and Use of STEP Curriculum

Yeshiva Kehilath Yakove, Inc., Brooklyn, NY

The mental health consultant held telephone conferences on different topics, including parental self-care, stress reduction, basics of discipline, and sibling rivalry. They also had phone conferences for families on mindful eating because many parents were stress eating during the pandemic. Parents could call in any time to speak to the mental health consultant. The program also encouraged peer-to-peer support, where parents helped each other through the crisis, and distributed literature weekly on topics like stress.

The program provided direct services to parents to support their children through the Systematic Training for Effective Parenting (STEP) Curriculum. It includes information on parental confidence, verbal positive reinforcement of children, setting safe limits, stating rules clearly, and keeping the entire household on a schedule. Family advocates supported families in creating schedules and organizing the home to create areas for personal space. Family advocates also provided sample daily schedules.

The program supported parents in talking about the COVID-19 pandemic with their children. They encouraged parents to give their children clear and developmentally appropriate information. The program also recommended books for explaining COVID-19 to children, such as “Hey Mr. Corona”.

The program recommended community webinars on wellness, trauma, and grief. They also referred parents to the CHAZAK, Doors of Hope, and Jewish Board Family Services for mental health support and consultations. They referred new mothers to the SPARKS program for postpartum mental health support. Families were supported by the program, the community, and each other during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Telehealth Clinical Care Services for Parents

Sunbeam Family Services, Inc., Oklahoma City, OK

This program offers a virtual telehealth clinical care service that meets with parents privately and confidentially to offer counseling support. This includes therapy, mental health services, and weekly packets sent home to families with information about services available if parents were reluctant to ask. Lists of mental health clinicians in the community are also offered. Parents' primary concerns were managing a 24/7 parenting routine. Guidance and resources were provided to inform families of community agencies offering support services, such as the United Way. Access to the CDC website and other information websites was offered.

Identifying Emotions Through Videos and Stories

Municipality of Humacao Humacao, Puerto Rico

Mental health consultants create videos and stories that help children identify and organize feelings and emotions. Videos are uploaded onto the program's YouTube channel. Teachers also create referrals for children they feel may benefit from the support or due to Ages & Stages Questionnaires® (ASQ) scores in ASQ-3 and ASQ-SE. The mental health consultant observes children during virtual classes and offers feedback and strategies to their teachers. Currently, all support is provided virtually, by phone, and through Microsoft Teams.