Screening Mental Health In Kindergarten Is Way Too Late, Experts Say

This story is part of our NPR Ed series on mental health and schools.

When it comes to children’s brains, Rahil Briggs describes them as … sticky.

“Whatever we throw, sticks. That’s why they can learn Spanish in six months when it takes us six years,” says the New York City based child psychologist, “but also why if they’re exposed to community violence, or domestic violence, it really sticks.”

Briggs works at the Healthy Steps program at the Montefiore Comprehensive Healthcare Center in the South Bronx, screening children as young as 6 months for mental health issues.

That may sound young, too young maybe, but that’s when some experts believe it’s important to catch the first signs that something may be wrong. Many say waiting until kindergarten is too late.

So Briggs sees a lot of babies at the Healthy Steps program, but the crying doesn’t seem to faze her at all. Visiting with baby and parent, she watches the way they interact.

Does the baby look to the parent for comfort? And does the parent respond?

“If a baby feels safe, a baby will explore, and if a baby explores, a baby will learn,” she says, and that’s the basis for mental health.

What can interfere with that learning? Things like divorce, neighborhood violence and poverty. And sometimes the signs are right in front of us. Briggs says half of all children with mental illness show symptoms before they turn 14.

“I don’t want to wait until a child has missed five days of school because his anxiety is so bad that he can’t get on the school bus. That to me is a red flag,” she says.

Instead: “I want to see the pink flags.”

What she means by that is when a child “starts to chew on his shirt a little bit when you say, ‘tomorrow is school.’ Just very early, early warning signs of something going wrong.”

The best place to spot these pink flags, she believes, is in a pediatrician’s office. It’s a place all new parents bring their babies regularly and a place they trust.

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