USF team receives grant to help caregivers support preschoolers’ mental health

Kids sitting on the floor of a preschool classroom

A USF research team has received a $50,000 grant from the Caplan Foundation for Early Childhood to launch a new project that will help caregivers identify early warning signs of mental health issues in young children.

The project, titled “Project Begin Well,” will increase caregivers—including parents, early childhood educators and school personnel’s—mental health literacy and use of critical support services available for preschool-aged children (3-5 years old). The goal of the project is to encourage the early adoption of supports for young children and to reduce stigmas often associated with using mental health services.

Through online trainings and a resource website accessible free of charge, caregivers will explore topics such as understanding the differences in typical and atypical behaviors in early childhood, strategies for risk identification of problem behaviors and how implicit biases contribute to differences in school discipline for Black and Latinx children.

Previous research has found that significant barriers to seeking mental health services for children include a lack of knowledge about services available and a distrust of professionals working in the field.

Through Project Begin Well, the USF research team aims to tackle these challenges, and to give parents and teachers the knowledge and tools they need to support children’s social-emotional development, said Nate von der Embse, PhD, an associate professor of school psychology at USF and principal investigator of the study.

“With the support of the Caplan Foundation, we are excited to develop important resources that will improve early childhood mental health and access to critical services,” von der Embse said.

Project Being Well will be conducted in collaboration with The School Mental Health Collaborative (SMHC), a national research and technical assistance center that conducts research and informs policy and practice related to the promotion of the social-emotional and behavioral success of all students. The SMHC is led by researchers across multiple universities including the USF College of Education and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“The aspect of the project that I’m most excited about will be looking at the effectiveness of the training for both caregivers and educators,” said Gabrielle Francis, a USF doctoral student who will serve as co-principal investigator of the project. “We are trying to create a training that is easily accessible to educators and caregivers because it is free and online but also because it’s only an hour and can fit into any busy schedule. However, the most important part of this is whether it leads to increases in knowledge and skill. I’m really excited to see what educators and caregivers can get from what we are doing and using that data to inform future edits.”

The research project is expected to begin this spring with online resources becoming available in the fall.

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