Preschool Wellness: A Whole-Body Approach
By Lara Sando, PhD, Matthew Ruderman, MEd, PhD, and Maya Lindemann, RN, BSN
“If the police find me,” Eduardo said to a classmate, “I’ll get to be with my dad in prison.”
Even though Eduardo is only 4 years old, incarceration already loomed large in his vision of his future.
And he is not alone. One out of every five preschoolers in his Santa Monica, Calif., school district has been identified as “at-risk” or “vulnerable” in social-emotional development, which is the foundation on which children learn to navigate the world.
Recognizing how childhood experiences like Eduardo’s can impact long-term emotional and physical health, the three of us teamed up to create the Preschool Wellness Consultation (PWC) model, designed to buffer adversity and help children thrive.
We knew we needed a whole-body approach to a whole-body problem for preschoolers, their families, and their teachers. So the model integrates our expertise as a cross-disciplinary clinical team, combining psychology, social work, nursing, nutrition, and occupational therapy. We envisioned creating a supportive net that would hold not only children, families, and teachers, but also school administrators and service providers.
In the PWC model, trained mental health consultants offer tiered education and training for the entire classroom, the individual child, and the child’s family, to surround each at-risk child. As a result of these early interdisciplinary interventions, children develop holistic wellness strategies that enable them to eat healthily, recognize and appropriately express feelings, and solve problems and negotiate conflicts. Their teachers and family also learn to identify and address the child’s physical and developmental needs in areas such as language, vision, and dental health. Collectively, these strategies build physical and mental well-being and resilience.
Here in Santa Monica, we are putting the PWC model into practice through a local initiative called the Pinwheel Project. With coaching and support from mental health consultants, we see teachers doing a beautiful job helping children appropriately recognize and express their feelings and interact with other students. We also see teachers maintaining an attitude of curiosity and exploration as they seek to understand children’s behaviors through the lens of their specific histories and current stressors. As teachers learn to respond to children’s needs using a trauma-informed approach, we see positive effects rippling out to strengthen families, the rest of the school, and the wider community.
As a result of the Pinwheel Project, Eduardo’s teacher has grown in her understanding of the root causes of his behaviors and is now able to help facilitate his emotional and social growth. Eduardo’s mother has developed effective strategies for giving him the support he needs and is grateful for the coaching she has received. Eduardo himself has made meaningful connections with our team and appears more engaged with adults and peers alike. Additionally, a nurse, dietician, and dental service providers have coordinated much-needed treatment for an abscess that was causing him chronic pain, and have helped his mother learn how to prevent further oral health issues.
Many of us experience adversity at some point in our lives. But significant adversity in childhood can cause lasting individual and societal harm. Supporting children and their families to build resilience can help them create different futures. Eduardo provides inspiration.
The authors are members of a Clinical Scholars team in Santa Monica. Lara is a program coordinator at Providence Saint John’s Health Center; Matthew is a staff psychologist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center; Maya is a school nurse at Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District.
Photo caption (left to right): Community partner Dr. Susan Samarge-Powell and Clinical Scholars Lara Sando, PhD, Matthew Ruderman, MEd, PhD, and Maya Lindemann, RN, BSN, plan preschool wellness consultation activities.