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Program Works to Help Toddlers and Preschoolers Succeed in Akron

photo of Lauren Pannell
Lauren Pannell (left) teaches calming exercises using a pinwheel at Wonder World Child Development Center in Akron.

In recent years, many Northeast Ohio schools have seen an increase in the number of mental health issues affecting students. Part of the reason is a lack of access to care. But a growing number of local pre-schools are trying to help identify mental health and behavioral issues early-on. This follow-up to our series, “Navigating the Path to Mental Health,” looks at how one program is helping parents, students and teachers.

It’s a typical school day at Wonder World Child Development Center near the Akron Zoo. In the classroom for four-year-olds, the kids are learning calming exercises from Lauren Pannell, a coordinator from the TAPS program. TAPS is short for “Toddlers and Preschoolers Succeeding.” But part-way through, a little boy named Raashan is getting annoyed that it’s not his turn.

And with that, he heads into the hallway – and calms down. By himself.

photo of Steve Jewell
Dr. Steven Jewell of Akron Children's Hospital says at some point, most children will experience symptoms of mental health challenges.

Dr. Steven Jewell, the director of pediatric psychology and psychiatry at Akron Children’s Hospital, says that’s one example of the struggle every child will have at some point with mental health symptoms.

“They will have periods of time when they are depressed. Periods of time when they are anxious.  Periods of time when they are irritable and acting out. The vast majority of those will be self-limited.”

That’s the key-word: “self-limited.” While Dr. Jewell says 90 percent of kids can handle the symptoms with minimal support, where does that leave the other 10 percent – and their parents? Jewell gives an example of one of his recent patients.

“A kid who was struggling with ADHD symptoms and extreme anxiety symptoms both. And parents were having trouble sorting out how much of this is the kid just not wanting to do their homework [and] how much is it their anxiety over the homework? And spending time with them and helping to educate them and pointing out to them the symptoms that are occurring -- you can just see the light bulb go on over their head.”

But bringing parents into the mix is not always easy. Steve Case is director of early childhood programs with Child Guidance & Family Solutions. The Akron nonprofit provides mental health and behavioral health services. He says not all parents have insurance that covers mental health treatment. Some may be concerned about the stigma of a diagnosis.

“Working with people in an environment that’s familiar to them helps create comfort and can sometimes tear down those walls. Another piece is that it does ensure that you see them consistently. In our field of work, having that rapport is critical.”

Toddlers And Preschoolers Succeeding
And that’s where the TAPS program comes in. Case and his organization administer the program, which is

photo of Steve Case, Liz Menefee, Lesley Hoover
Steve Case, Liz Menefee (center) and Lesley Hoover of Child Guidance & Family Solutions in Akron.

grant-funded and works collaboratively with parents, preschoolers and teachers.

“We actually work in childcare centers where the TAPS provider [is] working with the kid to help build their social and emotional skills, so that they’re hitting their friends less. And they’re able to follow directions and able to work more cooperatively. But it doesn’t just work with the kid, it works with the preschool teacher as well as the parent.”

One of the goals of TAPS is to address the larger issue of what happens when childhood mental health symptoms go unchecked.

“It can introduce trauma and stigmatization as a result of their perceived academic failure. It can then lead to serious problems with forming relationships and regulating their emotions and behavior. So over time, this can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health conditions in the teen years.”

Improvement at Wonder World
At Wonder World Child Development Center in Akron, TAPS Coordinator Lauren Pannell says Raashan has shown a lot of improvement over the past year.

“There’s one strategy I use called the ‘FLIP it’ strategy. And that stands for ‘Feelings, Limits, Inquiries and Prompts.’ So, addressing the feelings and saying, ‘wow, Raashan, I see that you’re frustrated.’ Limits is, ‘I see you’re so frustrated, but we have to keep our friends safe. So we need to have our hands to [ourselves].  Inquiries is just asking that question, ‘I wonder -- if we are feeling upset -- what can we do? Maybe we can take a walk?’”

The Principal at Wonder World, Tyla Sherman, says TAPS can also help parents who may not know how to access mental health resources. The program places a resource right in the building.

“You’re not waiting two or three weeks to find out.  Or having parents that may be frustrated with a situation and you’re doing all these referrals where they have to keep taking off work or calling in or doing all these things that cause them more stress to handle a situation.”

Raashan’s Father, Raashan Wahid, Sr., says life at home for his son and his daughter has improved thanks to the advice from Miss Lauren.

“Some of the strategies that we’ve talked about we’ve implemented and seem to help. Especially our daughter: getting her to understand in terms of kids antagonizing one another she learned to back off when she may need to back off.”

The TAPS program is currently in more than 40 schools. The goal is to expand it to every preschool in Summit and Medina Counties.