Therapeutic Preschool: Building Emotional Regulation

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Dr Rick Gaskill: Clinical Director Sumner Mental Health Services

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 observed the absolute value of the IPR role in the preschool setting as I watched an IPR with a 6 year old child with significant emotional disturbance.  From the outset of allocated time, the IPR provided this child with one to one, undivided attention, co-regulation and supported emotionally and developmentally respectful redirection when necessary.  Enacting her role, the IPR was regularly in physical contact with the child in the classroom.  During circle time the child placed herself in the lap of the IPR, leaning back and cuddling into the worker, while the worker provided gentle touch, stroking and running her fingers through the child’s hair.

The IPR worker scaffolded the child from activity to activity in transitions, keeping distractions to a minimum and providing nothing short of opportunities for success for the child, all of this done through largely relational based interaction and regulation.  At the outset of their time, I watched the IPR prepare the child for her impending departure and watched her regulate the rhythm of the hour for the child, so that in the 10 minutes before the IPR’s departure, they moved to a corner and engaged in a quiet activity, drawing together so that their separation provided drawings that could be swapped as transitional objects.  The IPR giving the girl the drawing she had done and vice versa – the child then able to take and keep a piece of her precious IPR worker.  In the two minutes prior to the IPR leaving – the teacher joined the dyad and a process of “handover” occurred and here again while the IPR made her exit, the teacher provided hugs and relational interaction to enable the child to succeed in the moment emotionally.

What really stood out to me was the fact that this child, in the hour supported by the IPR was able to experience success and a baseline level of emotional regulation, contrary to descriptions that had been given of her.  Her IPR remained attuned to her emotional state and danced the dance of catching early signs of emotional dysregulation, such that the child was able to be redirected, be that via comfort, movement, touch or scaffolding to another activity.

Imagine the long term benefits we could achieve if our kindergarten/preschool children who struggle emotionally, received opportunities like this at the time when their brains are still actively organising neural networks.  Could we start to create early changes in neural templates from over active stress response systems and emotional dysregulation to enable younger children a better platform for self regulation?

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