By Ken Kessel, LCSW, Richard Kahn, PhD, RD, and Susan Perkins
Summary of Ken Kessel’s Presentation on Mental Health Consultation in Head Start Preschools on 2/18/21

Ken Kessel, LCSW, specializes in Infant Mental Health and works as a Mental Health Consultant in various Head Start preschool programs. Bringing a wide range of experiences in therapeutic preschools, inpatient and outpatient mental health settings, foster care, substance abuse, medical settings, international youth programs, and geriatrics, Ken focused this workshop on the clinical work of Mental Health Consultation in Head Start programs. Ken frames his approach as Characteristics of the More Knowledgeable Other and conceptualizes this “other” as the indispensable and ever-present, often older, partner in emergent development. He states that the More Knowledgeable Other (MKO) embodies certain essential characteristics, chief among them a functional knowledge of how development emerges and how to recognize and support it. This requires an ability to read and exchange meaningful cues and prompts with the child, and a capacity for attunement that generates attunement in the child. Ken pointed out that MKOs are able to adapt to speech and sensory issues. He went on to say that it is incumbent on MKOs to create and live in a space of joint attention with the child, following the child’s lead, in order to make room for the child to then follow the adult’s lead. Living together in this space of shared interest also serves to prolong the capacity for attention, focus and the ability to elaborate, support communication and social fluidity, and strengthen self-regulation.

One core point was about the value of shared curiosity as a way of activating multiple developmental skills. We are often outcome-oriented in our interactions with children, and much of our communication can be in the form of questions. Ken feels that a richer engagement happens when both parties become curious together about the process. Communication thereby becomes more natural and conversational. Discovering how to be interesting to each other can activate all the developmental skills we are working with and breathes life into the methods we use. Methods, skills and knowledge are important; what animates them are our sensibilities.

Ken’s last point was about institutionalized norms. On the one hand, norms can support and guide pedagogy. However, he posits two risks. One is subjugation to the need for accountability, with staff spending a significant amount of time and energy on what is expected, to the detriment of their attention on the children, or providing supervision and mentoring. The second is the risk of the curriculum becoming mechanical. He feels that some changes arising from the pandemic safety precautions have freed teachers and practitioners to innovate, involve parents, create community and pay more uninterrupted attention to individual children. He emphasized the importance of integrating these new sensibilities into the classroom flow when children return to the classroom.

The enthusiastic Q&As led to the formation of a peer support group for mental health consultants to address their need to connect with each other as they often work in isolation. If you’re interested in joining this peer support group for Head Start and early childhood mental health consultants, please send an email to Ken Kessel, LCSW at