Kids have always acted out when their parents are deployed for combat. But preschool teachers working with Fort Carson families are reporting something new as soldiers continue year-after-year rotations in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.
Mary Estrada, a mental health consultant with the Community Partnership for Child Development, describes the changing behavior as "very, very explosive and aggressive."
The simple translation is that children are experiencing "really high levels of stress," explains Noreen Landis-Tyson, head of the program that serves about 1,700 kids in 53 El Paso County classrooms.
"Kids pick up everything that is happening," she says.
Up to 18 percent of the families involved in CPCD's Head Start and preschool programs have at least one parent on active duty, Landis-Tyson says. Reality for many now consists of deployment followed by a homecoming and preparations for another deployment.
"It's an entirely different world than it was six to eight years ago," she says.
Estrada, a clinical social worker who maintains her own practice, visits CPCD classrooms to work with teachers and help evaluate behaviors. For the past two years, CPCD has used a special scale to measure a child's resiliency, assigning numbers to such factors as self-control, attachment and initiative. Estrada has seen lower scores in classrooms with many kids from military families.
Some kids have already been kicked out of other preschools for aggressive behavior, like hitting other kids or teachers. But Estrada says this behavior is how they communicate, since they typically have few words to express their emotions. And kicking a child out of a program, she says, basically amounts to ignoring him or her, while conditioning the child to expect negative reactions from teachers and isolation from classmates in kindergarten and beyond.
"It sets up a pattern," Estrada says.
So it's important to have behavioral specialists "who know what they are doing," in Landis-Tyson's words. They may help kids use crayons, dolls or other toys to express the pain of an absent parent or one changed by combat.
But even as military insurance expands to cover more providers, the local mental health system is struggling to keep pace with the demand for therapy not only for kids, but for soldiers who have their own issues.
Brian Duncan is clinical director at First Choice Counseling Center in southern Colorado Springs, which has nearly doubled in staff over the past 18 months to cope with demand coming from soldiers and their families, who now make up a majority of the practice.
Even with four hires soon bringing the clinic to 21 therapists, Duncan says, demand far exceeds capacity. As many as 150 referrals come in each month, but Duncan has space for only 100 new patients. On Tuesday, Duncan says the first opening for a new patient is two-and-a-half weeks away.
Local school districts also are seeing behavioral problems related to deployments. But while many of those children can benefit from individual counseling and support services, counseling for younger kids often involves whole families.