Caring For Our Children

Article Originally published in the
East Coast Sandplay Network Newsletter
May, 2000

            It looks like once again education will be used as the kingpin in the 2000 electoral bowling match. What kind of academic programs and interventions are we ready to spend money on? Do we need vouchers and charter schools or should we shore up the existing system with new buildings and more qualified teachers? Can schools make a difference for children from impoverished inner city neighborhoods and drug dealing infested streets?  New York Times Headlines March 2, 2000: A Life of Guns, Drugs and Now, Killing, All at 6. Who really cares about our children? Who is willing to seriously help  them get the best education possible?  
             The New York City Public School System uses Chapter I funds to meet most “special needs” services for children. Learning Difference students have separate services that they must qualify for. But most Chapter I programs are for English as a Second Language (ESL) students. Thus children with diagnosed emotional problems are treated through ESL, referred to outside services or not treated at all. The availability of therapists depends on the district and is limited by funding and regulations. Thus many emotional problems go untreated because the system does not consider this  “their problem”. This is a backwards way of working with serious academic failure. One cause could be emotional. If a child is so preoccupied with emotional upset or problems at home, it is easy to see that this would impact on his or her ability to learn. They often fall behind, develop maladaptive school habits and generally don’t work at their potential. We must remember that the outcome of a child’s Preschool years or first year at school sets the stage for their attitude towards learning in general. This is the most critical time and it is important that their learning curve goes up, not down. 
One important ingredient of a good program is a good teacher. They are motivated by a caring attitude. Good teachers don’t say  “How much of my time will it take?” or complain that their work day is too long. They are there for the children in an unconditional way that upholds the highest standards of their profession. They are creative and engaging because they want to help their students grow and develop. But many students can’t access the rich academic environment that even a good teacher provides. 
            Perhaps the answer resides in how many programs have been devised to help children develop emotionally as well as academically? Teachers usually know when a student is not working up to their potential. But few teachers are trained to be able to work with an emotional block to learning that they may see in their students. School administrators need to look at this whole area of emotional health as a school related issue. Otherwise, even the best inner city programs will fail. If the policy of the school system does not expand to mandate emotional health as part of the academic program offered, especially for Preschool to 2nd Graders, then the kind of caring for our children that inner city schools need to provide will not occur. Head Start was predicated on giving children at risk the same exposure to the early childhood educational opportunities that middle to upper socio-economic families can afford. But even Head Start provides very little one on one therapy for students. 
            There is a leap of caring here that needs to be addressed. Are we going to include emotional health in a child’s all around education? Are we going to commit to helping families raise successful students? And what would such a commitment
look like? These are the real questions that confront educators. These are the issues that should be on the agenda of policy makers. How much would preventative therapy cost and who would be hired to cover this area? How would it affect Early Child Education as we know it? Isn’t this the core issue, not better built schools or vouchers but dealing with the real problems that children face and committing to help them at the earliest possible age. We need to provide our children with the best possible chance for success by strengthening families and communities with positive support and effective programs that fit their needs. Yes academic standards do need to be raised. But there is a missing ingredient here and until the policy makers and school boards are willing to commit to expand their mandate to include therapy for emotional health, no amount of band-aid problem solving will bring about the improvements that are so desperately needed. 
            For the past 10 years I have worked to design such a program. It is called Developmental Sandplay Education. I developed this model at St. Luke’s School in the South Bronx, NY. Here a trained Sandplay Therapist works with a Bank Street Trained Teacher in a preschool program two days a week. This team approach is fundamental to assessing, testing and treating the emotional problems of 3 and 4 year olds. The program has also been used with kindergarten and first grade students. 
            Sandplay is a method of therapy that was developed in the mid–twenties by the English Pediatrician Dr. Margaret Lowenfeld. It consists of a tray with sand in it and a sufficient number of toys or miniatures so that the child can create a world of their own. As an expressive technique which is not dependent on verbal ability, Sandplay offers the three year old an age appropriate method for self-expression and therefore, self understanding through self-confidence. Goals for classroom success and goals for therapy are matched so that the child experiences one-on-one weekly therapy and ongoing classroom work that helps them successfully deal with Separation, Socialization, Self-Esteem, Motivation and Skill Building. As the children develop a language of toys, they play out fantasy solutions and try out new skills that help them adjust to the emotional demands of school. This encourages them to enjoy the learning process. As children learn to overcome their fears and frustrations, they begin to have energy available for classroom learning. The severity of the block to learning needs to be analyzed and addressed both in Sandplay therapy and in the academic environment.   
            Parents are also key to the success of the program. Parents have to be willing to put their child in therapy and to meet with the teacher-therapist team at regular intervals during the year to evaluate the progress of their child. Family intervention is used in cases where the family’s problems are impacting on the child’s ability to concentrate on learning. These issues are addressed within the bounds of confidentiality. At the Preschool level, this information does not go into the child’s school file. Parents are pleased to be given techniques for raising a strong child at home by using positive and constructive parenting skills. Thus the child is presented with a consistent expectation of
his or her behavior at home and at school because parents are taught how to work with the Developmental issues of their preschooler. 
As a model for preschool education, Sandplay and a Developmental approach to academics addresses the needs of at-risk youngsters. It is innovative and far-sighted. By
giving teachers and parents insights into the emotional needs and stresses of preschool age children, it promotes emotional strengths and encourages the natural abilities of the child. Developmental Sandplay Education is successful because it teaches the child to channel their instincts into becoming a caring and competent person. By assisting parents in making the changes necessary for the social, academic and emotional well being of their child, this program ensures the best for the student and the family. Isn’t it time we began to think of all children as deserving of the best care that we can give them? 

Alison Van Dyk, M.A., RPT is a Sandplay Therapist who has created the Developmental Sandplay Education model for Early Child Education as an approach to overcoming emotional blocks to learning. She has been a Child Psychotherapist for over 20 years and has made a video about her preschool program in the South Bronx entitled, Playing To Learn.