AUSTIN (KXAN) — Preschool teacher Rohia Sultani calmly approaches a shy, brown-haired student on the playground. The 3-year-old girl, dressed in a black T-shirt, khaki cargo shorts and sporting a long braid reaches out her small, right hand toward Mrs. Sultani’s leg, while keeping her eyes focused on the hopscotch grid painted on the ground in front of her.

The little girl appears poised to step into the first square with her light blue sneakers and hot pink shoelaces. She stares at the letter of the alphabet that’s been painted on a flat, spongy circle made for children to step on.

Preschool teacher working with a student at Kidango’s Baldwin Park campus (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“What letter is this?” Rohia Sultani asks her. “Tuh, tuh, tuh.”

As the timid child thinks about her answer, two boys run over and join the game.

“T!” shouts one of the 4-year-olds, as he and his friend jump from one circle to the next.

Mental health consultant Tena Sloan is standing about ten feet away observing the interaction between Sultani and the students. She visits Kidango’s Baldwin Park campus in Concord, California, which is east of San Francisco, once a week to help teachers better support their students socially and emotionally.

As morning playtime goes on, the two boys move to the Lego station that’s set up on a picnic table in the shade. Teaching assistant Luis Gonzalez is there to help them build whatever their imaginations can think up, but the activity quickly takes a bad turn. One boy grabs the other boy’s Legos.

Mental health consultant
Kidango mental health consultant Tena Sloan observes teaching assistant Luis Gonzalez (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“That was my piece!” he yells.

Gonzalez jumps in, “It’s OK, look, there’s more. [boy’s name], can you help us get more pieces? He’s going to help us get more pieces, is that OK?”

“No!” the boy shouts.

As the child reaches across the table to reclaim his Lego, his classmate grabs his arm and bites it. The pain causes him to unleash a piercing, high-pitched scream.

Sloan did not see the interaction, but Gonzalez gave her the full replay later in the day when they sat down for their regular one-on-one meeting. He also asked for input on how to respond differently with the students in the future.

Preschool student
Diego, a preschool student at Kidango’s Baldwin Park campus (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“I didn’t want to really confront the child who did the biting so maybe guidance on how to deal with something like that,” Gonzalez said.

The two talked through the biting situation for about 30 minutes and came up with ideas on how to prevent it from happening again. They also discussed patterns and potential triggers for the two boys. Sloan also suggested bringing parents into the conversation to see how they can help support the efforts happening at school.

Gonzalez, a former landscaper, has only been in the classroom for about 8 months. His colleague, Sultani, has been teaching more than 15 years and is thankful for the extra support from Sloan, a licensed therapist.

“We’re willing to learn,” Sultani said. “We are happy for this program to come and show us how to meet the child’s needs.”

Mental health consultant
Kidango mental health consultant Tena Sloan meeting with teaching assistant Luis Gonzalez (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

How the program was developed

The consultants at Kidango are a result of a bill California lawmakers approved in 2018, which was written by Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park. She was once a kindergarten teacher herself.

California Assemblywoman Blanca Rubio, D-Baldwin Park (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

“A lot of these issues, the mental health issues, I had no idea how to deal with them,” Rubio said as she sat in her office on the fifth floor of the State Capitol in Sacramento.

If a preschool provides mental health consultation services, the state will increase the amount of annual funding it receives per child by 5%. The consultant legislation follows a 2017 California law that made it much more difficult for state-subsidized preschools to expel children.

Rubio said ending expulsion and adding mental health consultants to a classroom drew concern from parents.

“You should’ve seen how many posts of people just really not happy with what we did that said, ‘Oh, well, leave those kids in there to ruin my kid’s education,’” Rubio said. “I mean it was really nasty comments on our social media because of this, and I thought, it’s a no-brainer — you’re helping children.”

Her goal is to eventually expand the counselor program from kindergarten up to 12th-grade classrooms. Rubio is still waiting for the data on how many children and teachers have been helped through the program, and how many are showing signs of success. KXAN has requested the information, too.

Mental health consultant
Kidango mental health consultant Tena Sloan observing teaching assistant Luis Gonzalez (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

Kidango’s Baldwin Park Center Director Minoo Vasseghi wasn’t sure what to expect when she first heard the program was coming to her campus, but now that it’s been in place a year, she said she has seen it improve relationships between her teachers and children.

“Some of the challenging behavior may not go right away, may not disappear, but it depends on children’s situations,” Vasseghi said.

Before consultants started working directly with teachers at Baldwin Park, therapists would come in and work directly with children.

“There is nothing that I can do once a week for 30 minutes with a child that’s going to have the same impact that teachers can have because they are with those children every day,” Sloan said.

Kidango hopes to eventually roll the program out to all 53 preschool campuses.

The biggest challenge is finding time to pull teachers out for one-on-one meetings and group meetings during the school day. Baldwin Park has worked out a schedule where other staff members fill in as substitutes in teachers’ classrooms during the meetings to keep the required student-teacher ratio.

Kidango has also had to build trust with parents and educate them on what the consultants will be doing, and how it will impact their children.

Research shows consultations may work

In a recent survey, Georgetown University researchers found at least 20 states use early childhood mental health consultations to some degree, and 11 have a statewide program. Texas is not one of them and did not participate in the study.

Every federally-funded Head Start center across the country is required to use a mental health consultant, although the range of services offered varies.

Kidango mental health consultant
Mental health consultant Tena Sloan meets with teaching team at Kidango’s Baldwin Park campus (KXAN Photo/Erin Cargile)

A 2009 Georgetown University study found teachers reported fewer problem behaviors among their students when they were part of an early childhood program that used mental health consultation. A 2007 study found consultations increased staff “confidence and competence in dealing with troubling or difficult behaviors of young children in their care.”

It also found consultations “generally helped improve overall quality of early care and education settings and was linked to reduced staff turnover,” the report stated.

Back at Kidango recently, on a day Sloan was visiting the campus, a child refused to go inside after playing outside. Sultani said he started screaming and threw himself on the ground. As she thought about what to say and do next, Sloan quietly walked over to Sultani and suggested asking him nicely: “What are you feeling?”

The suggestion worked. The child calmed down, walked back inside and even crawled into Sultani’s lap later in the day while she read to the class.

“I was happy, the child was happy and it felt good,” Sultani said.