The Cool Kids child care program in Esko is launching a new initiative this spring that aims to focus on mental health and resilience in children.

"With COVID, we've seen a lot more challenging behavior," program director Michele Carlson said.

She hopes the new programming will teach children how to better process feelings and situations that make them uneasy, such as the pandemic.

Specialized training will be provided for approximately 12 staff members, giving them tools needed to help children understand and cope with feelings like anxiety and fear.

Carlson hopes the impact of the new training will last a lifetime for the staff and children involved.

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"Once our people are trained, they're trained forever," she said. "Even when the grant ends, we'll still have those people there."

The plan is to embed aspects of mental health into the everyday programming at Cool Kids, according to Carlson.

She said they will aim to break down complicated feelings into simple terms for the children, with a strong focus on mindfulness and resilience training. She wants to help them with things like anxiety identification and what to do when their heart starts to beat too fast.

The initiative will be funded by $10,000 given to Esko Community Education from the Northland Foundation through the MDE GEERS Mental Wellness & Resiliency Enhancement grant.

Funding for the grant was made possible through a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Education and Gov. Tim Walz's Emergency Education Relief Fund, according to the Northland Foundation.

Cool Kids is set to receive the funds in April and begin May 1. It will run until the end of April 2022.

According to Carlson, Cool Kids is already full for the fall, with approximately 90 children ages 0-8 enrolled.

"We're super-excited," she said.

Superintendent Aaron Fischer previously recognized challenges faced by Esko Community Education during the pandemic, citing financial and staffing issues, which ultimately led to a change in operations at Cool Kids.