Ensuring the mental well-being of our youngest members of the community

JUF grant supports preschoolers, parents, and educators in post-pandemic landscape

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Starting preschool is always a time of big change for a child. But for many little ones born during the pandemic, entering preschool can feel downright overwhelming after spending their formative years isolated at home.

In fact, recent national studies bear out that mental health challenges among very young children have skyrocketed during the pandemic. Here at home, local early childhood programs have reported that mental health needs have doubled.

These days, children need extra support--and so do their teachers and families. That's where JUF's Mental Health Initiative comes in, enabling JCFS Chicago's Virginia Frank Child Development Center and the JUF Early Childhood Collaborative to team up to serve 1,800 preschoolers and their families. With the help of a new JUF grant--part of the expanded allocation of grants from the JUF Mental Health Initiative--Virginia Frank clinicians are offering mental health training to Chicago-area Jewish early childhood educators and are coaching their families in how to meet the growing mental health needs of their children.

The end goal? To bolster the social-emotional and mental well-being of thousands of young children in the Chicago Jewish community.

"We are very grateful that JUF has recognized the need and is supporting the mental health and well-being of our early childhood community," said Linnet Mendez, associate director of outpatient behavioral health at JCFS Chicago and director of the Virginia Frank Childhood Development Center.

Long before the pandemic--20 years ago--Virginia Frank started facilitating mental health consultations for Jewish early childhood centers, primarily to strengthen bonds between teachers, students, and families. But now, as early childhood teachers report a staggering increased need in helping children navigate disruption to their routine, socialization, trauma, and loss, Virginia Frank, Mendez explained, is expanding its consultations to 10 more early childhood centers to be identified by the JUF Early Childhood Collaborative.

Mendez said she's optimistic that expanding their services will be a win-win-win for teachers, families, and students alike. "There's a lot of research about the impact of how early childhood mental health consultation can support the teachers and staff who are with kids all day and have those direct relationships with families," she said.

For Mollie Bass, a mixed-age preschool teacher at Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, the teacher training workshops have helped her "detangle classroom dynamics," think through her students' struggles, and broach the topic with the families of the children. "Parents are thankful for and happy for both their child and themselves to find a caring Jewish community," Bass said.

The hope, says Mendez, is that through consultations and trainings, educators can learn to identify--and sometimes even prevent--potential issues before they grow into full-blown problems in the classroom.

Because, ultimately, it's all about helping to foster happy, healthy children. "Early childhood care and education is really about supporting relationships between teacher and child in order to allow the child to have optimal development and learning," Mendez said. "If teachers can offer a secure relationship, then children feel safe, and can learn and move forward in that process of separating from their parents--and becoming their own person."

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