Innovative therapeutic program helps preschool children cope with difficult emotions and lead more positive lives.
When Lucy*, 5, first arrived at One Hope United’s Elgin Child & Family Resource Center, she was extremely sensitive to loud noises, covering her ears and experiencing severe anxiety whenever another child would cry out—which, at a child care center, can be often. When she was frustrated or experienced even the slightest discipline, “she would scream at the top of her lungs, as if she were afraid for her life,” pounding on the wall and stomping her feet, her mother, Krista*, explains. “I knew right away I needed help.”
Lucy’s behavior was related to traumas she had experienced as a very young child. She witnessed physical abuse by her biological father toward her mother, and while he never physically harmed Lucy, when she would have tantrums as a 2- and 3-year-old, hewould rush toward her with raised fists in an attempt to make herto stop. “She went through a lot,” Krista says.
While those traumas were fortunately in the past, their effects were disrupting Lucy’s education and potentially that of her classmates. In addition, adverse childhood experiences can have long-term effects on children’s health, behavior, and life potential. It’s for children like Lucy that One Hope United began Pathfinders, a unique program that combines aspects of our family counseling programs with our early childhood education centers to help children cope with negative emotions and adopt healthier behaviors.
Pathfinders therapist Tara Cassidy says the program is a collaboration with the child, their family, and their teacher.
Sometimes it’s the teacher who notices an issue and alerts Tara, who will then engage the child’s family to offer support, which is covered through private insurance or Medicaid. She will observe and engage with the child in the classroom, with their family, and in individual sessions, and craft a treatment plan that often involves the family due to the child’s young age. The evidence-based treatment is called Attachment, Self-Regulation, and Competency.
One boy who was predisposed to depression learned deep breathing and created a book of coping skills. “On one page he put all the things that he liked to do, so if he was feeling down, he could just go in his book and see, ‘I could go ride my bike,I could go take a walk,’ things that would help him get out of a low mood,” Tara says.
Another child who struggled with tantrums learned to express her emotions and tell her loved ones why she was upset. Her coping skills included coloring and walking the dog—a therapy dog that was part of her treatment. Tara also taught her family to recognize when the girl needed help and step in with an activity. “Because they’re so young, sometimes they don’t just say, ‘I need to go use a coping skill,’” she says.
It’s important to make the sessions and treatment fun so the kids will want to continue. “They may think we’re just playing, but we’re really doing therapy,” Tara says. “If they don’t have fun, they won’t want to be there, and they won’t learn as much. People learn better when they’re enjoying it.”
Krista says that Lucy is “a completely different little girl” as a result of Pathfinders. Through the program, Lucy has increased her self-esteem, developed confidence, grown more talkative,made more friends, and no longer covers her ears at loud noises. “I can’t say enough how amazing the program has been for my daughter. It changed her life and gave her the chance for a much better life altogether.”
Pathfinders is also offered One Hope United’s Aurora Early Learning Center and Joliet Early Learning Center, and could expand to more, which Tara would be happy to see. “This is the first program I’ve been in where the kids are so little, and it’s great,” she says. “The earlier you help them, the better off they’ll be.”
*Name has been changed.