By Annie Oeth
Mississippi has seen a dramatic rise in early childhood developmental and behavioral health screenings.
An increase of this type was one of the goals of Mississippi Thrive!, an innovative partnership between the University of Mississippi Medical Center and Mississippi State University’s Social Science Research Center.
“In 2017, Mississippi was dead last, 50th in early childhood developmental screenings,” said Dr. Susan Buttross, principal investigator of Mississippi Thrive! and UMMC professor of pediatrics, referring to the state’s ranking in the annual National Survey of Children’s Health, which is funded and directed by the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration’s Maternal and Child Health Bureau. That year, 18.6 percent of Mississippi’s children received developmental screenings as part of pediatric care.
Five years later, Mississippi is 34th in the country in childhood developmental screenings, with a 15.5 percent rise in the screenings that will pinpoint developmental or behavioral health problems in young children and connect them to treatment, so they’re prepared for school.
Among the pediatric providers who received developmental and behavioral health training through Mississippi Thrive!, the rate of children screened was more than 85 percent, far outpacing the national average of 34.8 percent. Increased screenings open the opportunity for children to receive interventions that prepare them for school.
“Children are our future,” Buttross said. “If we give children a healthy start and make sure their families have the support and information they need, then these will be happy, healthy children who are ready to succeed in school. Mississippi can have a more educated workforce that will attract higher-paying jobs, but it all starts with children who are ready to learn.”
After five years, the Mississippi Thrive! mission is being furthered with statewide partners as a part of the Early Childhood Development Coalition. The agreement creating the coalition was signed during a celebration at the Mississippi Children’s Museum, an event that drew a broad base of Mississippi Thrive! collaborators, including Mississippi Families for Kids, Families as Allies, the Barksdale Reading Institute, as well as other early childhood developmental and behavioral health stakeholders.
Funded by $17.4 million from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the Child Health Development Project that became Mississippi Thrive! is a model to the nation, said Dr. Christina Bethell, director of the Child and Adolescent Measurement Initiative at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“I hope you aren’t shy,” Bethell told the audience during the signing ceremony, “because the country is watching.”
The Early Childhood Development Coalition will be led by Buttross and Dr. Heather Hanna, co-principal investigator of Mississippi Thrive! and assistant research professor and director of the Systems Change Lab at the SSRC.
The coalition will include two subcommittees, Mississippi Help Me Grow and Enhanced Pediatric Medical Home Services, both aimed at reaching children and families and connecting them with the care that will prepare them for school.
“These subcommittees, one that will reach out to families through the community and the other that will enhance the pediatric care already available with training on developmental and behavioral screenings and care, will help Mississippi’s children flourish and strengthen families,” Hanna said.
Stephanie Watts, director of New Vineyard Church Community Development Center in Jackson, said participation in Mississippi Thrive! was life-changing for her and for the children in the center’s care.
“Mississippi Thrive! has opened my horizons to how important developmental screenings are to the child and to the family,” she said. “This is the way children can get what they need to be successful in life.
Ruth Patterson, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Mississippi School of Medicine, said the program “went to pediatric health care providers and offered enhancements to what they were already doing well.”
Mississippi Thrive! also included an early childhood development program that trained 15 allied health fellows in early childhood developmental and behavioral health. Training and outreach were provided to more than 3,000 childcare professionals, home visitors, families, and over a third of Mississippi’s pediatricians. Additionally, the program trained 99 pediatric and family medicine residents in developmental health practices, and direct coaching and support was provided to 13 pediatric practices across the state.
One of the program’s facets, Reach Out and Read, distributed more than 25,000 books to children and families through 31 pediatric and family medicine practices. The project also embedded VROOM, an app that provides families with age-appropriate tips to promote early childhood development. Several of these initiatives have received post-project funding to continue to improve the early childhood system in Mississippi.
The project has partnered with the Child and Adolescent Health Measurement Initiative at Johns Hopkins to create a state engagement model that will link children and families with health and wellness resources seamlessly.
During the celebration, Sen. Nicole Boyd of Oxford, a proponent of early childhood developmental and behavioral health screenings, was honored with the 2023 Mississippi Thrive! Champion for Children Award.
While Mississippi has seen improvements for children in developmental screening rates, “we’re not done yet,” Buttross said. “We have gone from 50th, and we can surely go from the middle to the top because we’ve got the drive and the organization to do it. Let’s make Mississippi thrive.”