Voices’ Blog

Circle Preschool Program, a Best-Practices Model for Trauma-Informed Early Education

Posted:  -  By: Cassie Price

Dr. Kathy Ryan and Denise Powers co-lead the Circle Preschool Program, a trauma-informed therapeutic preschool.

In school year 2015-2016, public preschools in Virginia made 318 suspensions to 167 students, according to “Suspended Progress,” a Legal Aide Justice Center report that cited Virginia Department of Education data. Many suspensions likely resulted from a lack of resources available to public preschool providers to deal with children’s negative behaviors. Nevertheless, we know this kind of exclusionary discipline can be harmful to young children, often further jeopardizing the very children who are most in need of additional support and services. Therefore, we applauded the January 2018 decision of the Virginia Board of Education to approve guidelines to reduce suspension and expulsion in public preschool.

Untreated Trauma in Preschoolers Can Lead to Expulsion for Misbehavior

We know trauma underlies the poor behavior that leads to the suspension or expulsion of some preschoolers. As part of the Greater Richmond Trauma-Informed Community Network (TICN), a 175-member-strong collective-impact group spearheaded by Greater Richmond Stop Child Abuse Now (SCAN), we have been working to mitigate childhood trauma. While SCAN has taken the lead in developing and disseminating trauma-informed best practices, we have focused our efforts on advocating for trauma-informed policies and practices on the state level.

Last month, a couple of us from Voices visited Circle Preschool Program, designed by SCAN for preschoolers who have experienced such severe trauma that they are not able to manage in a typical preschool setting. As SCAN executive director Jeanine Harper explained, “Circle Preschool Program is a therapeutic preschool that recognizes the impact of trauma on early childhood brain development.”

SCAN launched its Circle Preschool Program in St. James Episcopal Church at 1205 W. Franklin St., Richmond, Va., in February 2011 to fill a gap identified by a SCAN-administered assessment into Richmond-area preschool expulsions. The assessment showed many kids were expelled for exhibiting aggressive, inappropriate behaviors that often resulted from unaddressed trauma. Circle Preschool provides trauma-informed services to preschoolers and their parents/caregivers and gives them an opportunity to heal.

During our after-hours visit to Circle Preschool, we met with clinical coordinator Dr. Kathy Ryan and lead early childhood specialist Denise Powers in what looked like a fairly typical preschool classroom, full of children’s artwork, books, toys, and child-size tables and chairs. But we soon learned the Circle Preschool classroom is anything but typical during its operating hours.

High Ratio of Trained Staff to Children

For starters, the classroom never has more than eight children at a time. In addition to Kathy, who has a Ph.D. in clinical social work, and Denise, who has a master’s in early childhood special education, the preschool has a full-time therapeutic aide and two part-time aides. An occupational therapist spends two hours a week at the preschool. Such an unusually high ratio of highly trained, trauma-informed staff to children ensures children get the individual attention they need to learn how to cope with their trauma and eventually integrate successfully into a mainstream kindergarten classroom.

“We chose a neurosequential model of therapeutics developed by Dr. Bruce Perry, a child trauma specialist,” Kathy told us. “His model led us to focus our interventions on self-regulation and the development of safe relationships. We help the children develop the ability to self-soothe, to respond in a way that is not aggressive, to bounce back from little upsets or aggravations.”

Denise chimed in: “Envision a child with all those triggers being in a regular preschool classroom with all the noise and stimulation. The child can’t learn because he can’t self-regulate. He can’t take in early literacy or early math and can’t develop healthy relationships with other kids. Some of our kids have limited experience with books, children’s scissors, or toys that promote growth. Some can’t effectively engage in any one activity. Part of our work is getting them to think in a new way.”

And that can be slow going. Most children attend Circle Preschool for two years to give them the time they need to unlearn negative behaviors and thought processes and develop resilience. Before they start elementary school, Kathy and Denise try to meet with each child’s kindergarten teacher to ensure a smooth transition and discuss an individual education plan if one is needed.

“Our program focuses on the three Rs: regulate, relate, and reason,” Kathy said. “Take the second R: A big part of developing safe relationships and the capacity to relate to others is understanding the components of positive, secure attachment. We help these little ones learn there are safe people in this world.

Involving the Parents and Guardians

“And we can’t focus just on the kids—we have to focus on their caregivers too. Sometimes the parents or caregivers have their own trauma and attachment issues. They have to come in to be a part of the therapy on a regular basis.”

Kathy checks in with the children’s caregivers every morning, holds caregiver group meetings once or twice a month, and meets individually with each caregiver every other week. Such a strong emphasis on caregiver engagement is consistent with SCAN’s belief that the most powerful antidote to adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) is parental/caregiver buffering.

“In some other programs around the country, the funding follows the children, but not the parents,” Jeanine told us. “Because SCAN is privately funded, we wanted to develop a best-practices model to include caregivers.”

Additional Support and Resources

In addition to this focus on developing safe relationships, Kathy shared with us an example of how she worked with a four-year-old child who needed help with the first R: regulating his behavior. The child had experienced repeated starvation and abandonment in his first year of life. As a result, he displayed aggressive behavior toward other children, making it impossible for him to remain in a typical preschool setting. He had well-developed motor skills and loved playing with balls, but he couldn’t play successfully with other children.

“At Circle Preschool, he was given the opportunity to develop relationships with adults who didn’t retaliate for his misbehavior,” Kathy told us. “We often started the day by having him throw a large exercise ball back and forth with the teacher, thereby utilizing his adeptness and interests to engage him in a repetitive, rhythmic, and relationally safe activity. We used other sensory motor activities to help him build his ability to tolerate frustration and develop the social skills he needed to function in a school environment.

“Dr. Perry highlights the need to provide relationally safe, regulation-based sensory motor activities that are rhythmic, repetitious, and relevant to the child. The example of the four-year-old boy I just shared illustrates how Circle Preschool staff utilized the boy’s strengths and interests to provide regulating sensory motor activities and thus build safe relationships in a group environment.”

Next Kathy and Denise ushered us into Circle Preschool’s sensory room, which is adjacent to their preschool classroom and filled with large, vinyl-covered foam manipulatives.

“The room allows children to use ‘heavy work’ through gross motor activity and thus develop stronger motor regulation skills,” Kathy explained to us. “The freedom to move the equipment in multiple configurations allows them to be ‘in control’ in a safe way, to create a plan and execute it safely. Creating a plan and following through with it are ways to build executive function skills in the brain. Ultimately, this enables children to apply planning and execution for more abstract and cognitively demanding school activities.”

We realized from Kathy’s explanation that the sensory room helps children with the third R: reason.

“The room also allows children to have a quiet space to work through intense feelings with the support of an adult,” she continued. “Most preschoolers have difficulty talking about trauma in a coherent manner. The use of the sensory space allows another expressive activity for the child to work through what has happened to them.”

A Best-Practices Model

Circle Preschool, with its highly trained staff and innovative resources like the sensory room, shines as a best-practices model for developing resilience in young children who have experienced trauma. But scaling up Circle Preschool’s exact model could be challenging and would almost certainly involve some public funding, given the large number of children who could benefit from such an individualized program. Many of the program’s strategies are applicable in other settings, however.

Through her work on a trauma-informed school committee, Denise offers her insights on the importance of a low teacher-to-child ratio, trauma-informed teacher preparation, and necessary school supplies. Both Denise and Kathy share their training and strategies with teachers, social workers, and counselors at schools with a large population of kids affected by trauma.

Policy Recommendations

We are thankful to Greater Richmond SCAN for its pioneering trauma-informed work through the Circle Preschool Program. For our part, we are offering the following policy solutions that aim to improve and extend trauma-informed practices throughout the commonwealth:

  • Require professionals working in early childhood education and mental health treatment to be trained in developmentally appropriate and trauma-informed practice for classroom and clinical settings. State-supported professional development opportunities should include trauma-informed practice.
  • Explore funding options through Medicaid for young children to receive mental health treatment in educational settings.
  • Ask state policymakers to prioritize adding support personnel, including licensed mental health professionals, to educational settings.
  • Engage parents/caregivers regularly in educational and clinical settings, recognizing that prevention starts with parents/caregivers. Consider having Medicaid funding follow the child and the parent, rather than only the child, is as usually the case now.
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