Duluth programs help kids thrive after traumaPost-traumatic stress, anxiety and other conditions can affect even the youngest among us, experts say. At least two programs in Duluth focus on the mental health needs of children who haven’t even reached first grade.
By: John Lundy, Duluth News Tribune
Post-traumatic stress, anxiety and other conditions can affect even the youngest among us, experts say.
“Babies can get depressed,” said ElizaBeth Carver, a clinical child psychologist at the Amberwing Center for Youth and Family Well-Being. “The failure to thrive, not eating, not gaining weight — there’s typically reasons for that.”
At least two programs in Duluth focus on the mental health needs of children who haven’t even reached first grade.
At Northwood Children’s Services, which is celebrating its 130th anniversary this weekend, the Little Learner’s Enrichment Center, housed in a building on the Main Campus on College Street, began in 1993.
Jessica Winkels-Hagerl, who has supervised the program for the last three years, said it can have up to 16 children, ages 3-6, all day, five days a week. In addition to Winkels-Hagerl, the program has a therapist and three program coordinators.
Although the time in the program can vary, children typically are enrolled for 9 months to a year, she said. It’s usually at capacity, and there’s often a waiting list.
Like the older children in Northwood’s residential and day-treatment programs, each of the kids in Little Learner’s has been diagnosed with a mental illness.
“We have a wide range of diagnoses for our kids: attention-deficit disorder, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder,” said Winkels-Hagerl, who has a master’s degree in community mental health and counseling. “Some of our kids have been exposed to very traumatic experiences in their early childhood.”
It’s no wonder some babies show symptoms of depression, said Carver, who developed the Zero to Five program that opens today at Amberwing.
“What do you think a baby would do if they always saw a cranky face? Or an angry face? Or a really sad face?” Carver asked. “They wouldn’t want to look at you. So that’s when you look at the parents and see what’s going on.”
At first glance, Little Learner’s might look like any preschool or child-care center: arts and crafts, games, nap time. So might the skills that are being developed, such as following directions, participating in activities, being safe, conflict resolution, problem-solving, sharing.
After all, every 3-year-old has to learn how to share.
“But with some of our kids the first reaction is not to communicate at all or to yell or to hit, so (we’re) really intervening in that and helping them obtain the skills to express themselves and express their needs,” Winkels-Hagerl said.
The program works closely with the child’s family, she said. The therapist is available for family therapy as well as individual and group therapy with the children. A communication log is sent back and forth between the staff and the adults, and quarterly meetings take place involving Winkels-Hagerl, the therapist, the parents and, when applicable, a county social worker.
During the school year, a kindergarten teacher from the Duluth schools teaches the children who are in that age group. Therapists from the Polinsky Rehabilitation Center provide occupational, speech and physical therapy as needed. Those additional supports make Little Learner’s unique among similar programs in Minnesota, Winkels-Hagerl said.
Zero to Five
There’s no rivalry between Little Learner’s and the new Zero to Five program, said Carver, who has been on the Amberwing staff since March and also sits on Northwood’s board of directors.
“They do a great job with what they do, and so there’s no need for me to re-create something that our community has,” she said.
Carver, whose doctorate in clinical psychology is from the California School of Professional Psychology in Fresno, developed a kindergarten day-treatment program in the Robbinsdale, Minn., schools, recently practiced at Arrowhead Psychological Clinic and at one time supervised Little Learner’s.
Zero to Five is an intensive program lasting only four weeks that will focus on assessing each child as well as the parent-child relationship, she said. She plans to work with three to five families at a time.
Carver will go into the home and into the day-care setting, if the child spends significant time there, to help her evaluate the child’s needs.
Much of the focus will be on teaching parents.
In past experiences, Carver said, “I worked with a lot of teenage moms, teaching them (about) being mindful, putting that cell phone away and paying attention and giving your child direct eye contact and smiles and touch.”
It might sound as if working with very young children with mental health problems would be depressing in itself. Carver doesn’t see it that way.
“I feel the opposite,” she said. “I feel like: No, this is hope. We’re getting them at a great time. They’re resilient. I have the opportunity to make some really good changes really quickly.”
Winkels-Hagerl sees it the same way.
“You have the opportunity to teach them so much,” she said. “They’re having experiences as simple as going out for a walk and finding a butterfly. That’s exciting to them still.”