If we want Maine children to succeed, we need to make sure that early learning environments support cognitive, social and emotional brain development. While recent research has made it clear that these skills are inextricably linked, much of the focus remains on cognitive development, and Maine children are falling behind.

In fact, a recent 20-year retrospective study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that children lacking social emotional capacities — such as regulating behavior and emotions, working with others, planning and paying attention — were more likely to struggle in school, earn less and experience poor health outcomes in comparison with their peers. Without learning these critical skills, Maine children are bound to struggle in school and in life.

As a pediatrician who has served Maine children and families for more than 40 years at Eastern Maine Health Care, and more recently in Blue Hill, I am deeply troubled by the increasing number of young children demonstrating severe deficits in social and emotional skills. These deficits can interfere with their learning and ultimately lead to their removal from programs just as they are starting their school experience.

More and more preschool and kindergarten teachers are also seeing children who are not prepared for school and whose behaviors are interfering with their learning and that of their classmates. If we do not address this skills gap early on, these children are likely to experience poor outcomes as they enter the critical period of learning to read and moving toward reading to learn. Unfortunately, students who struggle with managing their emotions and regulating their behavior bring these same struggles to the workplace.

Fortunately, there is something we can do to support these children and the individuals who care for them. We know from brain science that these are skills that can be taught to young children. We also know it is important to teach these skills early before neural pathways in the brain make change more difficult.

The research is clear that we can provide teachers with just the tools they need to effectively address these situations and promote a positive classroom environment. Voluntary programs, referred to as early childhood consultation, pair consultants trained in child development and mental health with teachers in need of support to provide short-term coaching and mentoring. With this one-on-one intervention and training, early care and education teachers can get the support they need to address challenging behaviors by learning new strategies to use and implementing them in their own classroom. It is efficient and cost-effective. And it is working in other states and in communities in Maine.

In Maine, the Early Childhood Consultation and Outreach program in Washington County has seen the same impressive results for the past decade. By equipping the parents and teachers with the strategies, tools and skills they need to promote healthy social and emotional learning and development, Early Childhood Consultation and Outreach is improving outcomes for children and adults in their community.

While Early Childhood Consultation and Outreach will soon be adopted and implemented in Hancock County, it only makes sense to extend these positive outcomes to the rest of the state so all Maine children and their teachers can access this valuable resource. This is why I support L.D. 1321, a bill sponsored by state Sen. Cathy Breen to explore what an early childhood consultation program could do for all Maine children who need to learn how to better manage their emotions, play with their peers and interact with the adults around them.

Now is the time to act. We have the research and data that outline the extent of the challenges Maine faces, and we also have something we can do about it that is both cost-efficient and has a proven track record of success.

Children are our future, and they need our support. Proactive, smart, evidence-based public policy is a critical component of the prescription. If we are serious about developing strong Maine children, we need to provide Maine teachers with the supports they need to help them be successful.

Dr. Bob Holmberg is a pediatrician from Brooksville.