by Rebecca Nagaishi

In the past, children were considered ready for kindergarten if they could say the ABC’s, count, identify colors, and write their first name. New brain research is helping us understand that there is much more to readiness than the academics.

Readiness also means developing a group of skills referred to as executive function—skills used by all of us to organize, plan, remember things, prioritize, and pay attention. For 3- to 5-year-olds, we see these skills in action when a child is able to follow directions, express his feelings using words, raise her hand instead of interrupting, and adjust emotionally to expected and unexpected transitions in the classroom.

Children are not born with these skills—they are born with the potential to develop them.

Children who are easily distracted may disrupt the classroom in preschool, may struggle to plan and organize their work in early elementary, may become adolescents who fall behind in homework, have difficulty completing projects, and struggle to gain academic skills. Teachers can lose patience and disengage. These children believe themselves to be poor students. This negative feedback loop places children at risk for low self-esteem, depression and anxiety, dropping out of school, adolescent pregnancy, or involvement with the juvenile justice system.

Teachers and other professionals involved with early childcare education are uniquely involved in the social-emotional development of young children.

That’s why Family Services, through its Forsyth County School Readiness Project (FCSRP), is placing mental health professionals in the classrooms of 3- and 4-year-olds in its Head Start program. These professionals coach and consult on-site so that teachers can maintain classroom environments that are rewarding to teach, less stressful to manage, and more conducive to learning. Because they are in the classroom and not off-site waiting for referrals, coaches can introduce specific skills and strategies to teachers, enabling them to provide children consistent reinforcement within an emotionally supportive learning environment.

Within two years of launching FCSRP, 93% of the teachers reported reductions in behaviors such as hitting, running around the classrooms, crying, and not following instructions as children increased their capacity for self-regulation. Our teachers report increased confidence in their own abilities to provide emotional support to the children, increased knowledge of strategies/skills to support children’s social-emotional health, and a greater ability to manage stress within the classroom.

Promoting positive social-emotional development among our youngest children is far easier than trying later to address difficulty learning, difficulty forming healthy relationships, and lifelong physical and mental health problems.


Funded by a grant from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, the Forsyth County School Readiness Project serves 126 preschool children whose early years are threatened by the constant stress of living in poverty. You can help expand access to opportunities like FCSRP for the thousands more vulnerable 3- and 4-year-olds by donating to Family Services and becoming a champion of community solutions.

Rebecca Nagaishi is the director of the Family Solutions Division, which encompasses outpatient counseling, comprehensive adoption services, and educational programming to strengthen families.