Therapeutic Preschool: The Safe Place

Sumner Mental Health Services provide therapeutic support to the Futures Unlimited Preschools in Wellington KS.  Specifically they provide support via the provision of Mental Health Case Management and a role called Individual Psychosocial Rehabilitation workers (IPR), for children classified with Severe Emotional Disturbance (SED).  Provision of these services is made available via the USA Medicaid system, and each of the children receiving these services must have met diagnostic classification to receive services.

I really want to spend time reflecting on the role of these IPR workers and the amazing early intervention and skill development they provide to kids between the ages of 0 – 6 years with respect to emotional regulation.  However before I do, one feature of the classrooms really stood out to me and I think there’s some direct application others may be able to use.

Firstly the therapeutic preschool enviornment, like our Kindergartens in Australia, are a wonderful sensory environment, with lots of different activity stations, bright and lively colour, lots of structured, predictable schedules and developmentally appropriate activities for children .  One of the things that Sumner Mental Health and Futures Unlimited have incorporated into their preschool classrooms, which really interested me was the SAFE PLACE.

In each room there is a corner where a little wall juts out and in this space are a variety of sensory toys.  The idea behind this space is that at any point during the day, when the students become dysregulated, upset or need some “emotional space”  they can take themselves to the “Safe Place” and chill out, calm down and then when ready rejoin the group.

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During my visit, I had opportunity to witness the “Safe Place” in action.  After lunch the preschool children had some outside exercise time in the playground.  One of the male students struggled with the transition from exercise to circle time on the mat when they came back into class.  This boy was not a child allocated an IPR who could sit with him, rock him, hug him or co-regulate him, so when his teacher attempted to move him into the next class activity he became upset and tearful.  Instead of creating a scene however or requiring the teacher to stop the class activity and attend to his emotional needs, I witnessed this child get up, take himself to the “Safe Space” corner and cuddle a big green frog.  He kept himself there for a couple of minutes, huddled in the little alcove, cuddling the frog and when he seemed to have calmed down, taking the frog from the safe space, he rejoined his classmates and was able to participate in the classroom activity.

What was clear to me was the expectation and permission that self regulatory self-removal from the activity was acceptable and in fact preferred.  There was little to no disruption to the preschool activity, the teaching or the other students and the time away from task for this child was minimal.  The materials provided in the “Safe Space” were highly sensory and what’s more,  just outside the wall of the “Safe Spaces” were mini trampoline’s for indoor physical movment & activity.  I also really liked that the children could bring items from the “Safe Space” as transitional items to help them rejoin the class, without any comment, restriction or intervention on part of the teacher.

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