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It's your job to help me feel safe.

YLP works with our tiniest clients

When Ashton joined Catholic Charities Young Learners Program, he would go to bed each night with his bed surrounded by clean pull-ups. He called them his “land mines” and said they would help him to “fight the bad guys” if they came.

To YLP staff, that doesn't sound like a child with an overactive imagination, it sounds like a child who doesn’t feel safe. It sounded like a child who didn't feel safe. If sounds like many of the kids they work with, who don’t feel safe in their surroundings.

While she was pregnant with Ashton, his mother, Tonya, was assaulted in her home. Tonya’s injuries left her battered, bruised and unconscious. For the better part of Ashton’s childhood, their family lived in constant fear that those responsible would return.

His family’s constant anxiety taught Ashton that adults and the world were unpredictable, and therefore, unsafe. In addition to that incident, Tonya was fighting cancer and other health issues. Her treatment took her away from her kids on and off for an extended period of time. 

Because Ashton’s brain was in a constant state of stress and fear, his behaviors were unpredictable and often aggressive. He was dismissed from three different day care centers before he was three.

Tonya knew her family needed help. She reached out to a number of community resources, who eventually pointed her to the Young Learners Program.

The Young Learners Program is a mental health day treatment program for kids ages 3-6. Although the program looks like a pre-school: tiny tables and chairs, brightly colored toys, rugs and cubbies, the focus is therapeutic.

Clinical staff might sit in a circle of children talking about dinosaurs, but instead of talking about dinosaur facts, they might focus on “If a dinosaur was angry, how could he calm himself down?” to help the children understand their own challenging feelings, through the characters in a story. 

Kids and staff at YLP talk a lot about their feelings, staying calm and being safe. Rules and strategies are always presented as a means of learning and staying safe. Staff often say, “No one is in trouble. We’re just keeping everyone safe.”

“When we stress, we regress, and no learning can occur,” said Kara Rogers, Clinical Director of the Young Learners Program. “When kids are under stress, including feeling like they’re in trouble, their rational brain shuts down, and they go into survival mode - often including fight or flight behaviors. Our focus is calming their fear receptors, and giving them strategies to regulate their body and emotions.”

An important component of YLP is family therapy. Staff help parents learn strategies to help their children regulate, as well as understand their child’s behavior and needs as symptoms of their mental health. “Staff really support and encourage you as a family,” said Tonya. “I learned better strategies to get through things with Ashton.”

 “Tonya was always willing to do what’s best for her kids,” said Kara. “In order for a young child with mental health needs to change, the adults around them will need to make many changes too, including creating a consistent schedule and routine, providing predictable care, and responding to their behavior with firm, but caring limits.”

Dealing with trauma is a long process, one that starts with the Young Learners Program, and continues as a child ages. Ashton graduated from the program, though he tried to convince his therapist go with him to first grade.

“We’re just so grateful,” said Tonya. “I wouldn’t be the parent I am without them. Ashton knows he can feel safe. He knows himself better, he knows he can have a relationship with other adults.”  

After some snuggles with mom, Ashton is now able to sleep in his bed at night without feeling the need for extra protection, and he often tells his mom, “It’s your job to keep me safe.”