MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — From the street, Washburn Center for Children in Minneapolis looks like any other building with a preschool.

From the slide on the playground outside to the toys inside, it all looks so familiar. And that’s by design.

“We want kids in a typical setting,” said Natalie Kendrick, who works at the school.

Washburn is a therapeutic school — a place for little people with big problems.

“They blurt out answers, they swear, they might spit, they bite,” Kendrick said.

The room in which the children learn looks familiar. That’s because the school’s goal is to get the kids ready for mainstream kindergarten and avoid the terrible spiral that happens if they don’t get help.

“And then what happens is they can’t take in their ABCs and 123s, and their reading and writing, because they’re so flooded with their social emotional issues,” Kendrick said.

And because children often communicate those issues through play, therapists keep a close eye on the toys.

“If there’s been some significant domestic violence, you might see…figures hitting each other,” Kendrick said. “You’ll see the figures yelling at each other. You’ll see kids falling out of windows.”

Catching children with such issues is crucial.

Students with emotional and behavioral disorders have the highest rates of school failure and absenteeism. In Minnesota, approximately 4,000 students (kindergarten through 2nd grade) are suspended for behavioral problems each year.

Washburn also helps those children get back in school.

The Washburn room in which 1st – 3rd graders learn has a two-way mirror, and three therapists for six kids – all of which have been kicked out of school.

“They are just little people who want to play and have fun,” said Lauren Nietz, who works for Washburn. “But when they’re triggered, when they’re disappointed, when they’re sad, when something happens, their reactions are way bigger than any mainstream kid you’ll find.”

In the room they work on school skills – playing and sharing – because they’re only there for half of the day, and back in regular school for the other half.

“We talk to the teachers regularly, we go visit the kids in school, and we try to come up with some shared language for teachers and us to work together,” Nietz said.

For the most difficult cases, they confer with therapist Dr. Anne Gearity and try to identify issues and triggers while working with the kids on solutions.

“Usually, something pretty hard has happened, and they get a chance to heal, and they get a chance to go back to school and be successful. And that’s important; they deserve it,” Nietz said.

With the littlest kids, teddy bears are often breakthrough tools, helping therapists learn about problems or even solve them – like with a little girl who was selectively mute in school settings.

Therapists said they’d listen to what the girl would say when she was speaking for the bear and use that information to help girl with her issues.

That scenario actually happened twice, and, in some ways, those are two of the of the therapeutic preschool’s greatest success stories.

“Those couple children in particular just flourished and talked a lot and went to kindergarten,” Kendrick said. “[They] talked a little too much in kindergarten, which we were really proud of.”

In both programs, family therapy also plays a key role. And the therapists say that in the best cases, changes the kids make also help change the family dynamic.

To learn more about the services Washburn offers, and to see some of the other stories we’ve done, just go to wcco.com/washburn.


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