For Danette Andersen, creating a supportive, therapeutic, multidisciplinary early educational environment for CASA’s youngsters is a dream come true, marking the capstone of a near four-decade-long career with Edmonton Public Schools (EPSB).

As Principal, Hospital School Campuses for the EPSB, Andersen oversees CASA’s new Pre-Kindergarten Day Program and six other local mental health-focused education programs for kids, including programs at the Royal Alexandra Hospital and the Stollery Children’s Hospital.

Retirement? That can wait, she says.

“I taught for 17 years in a variety of elementary and junior high programs, and I was a behaviour consultant for three years. Then I was asked to join a team working with parents, government, partners and schools around students with special education needs,” she explains.

“I worked on appeals, I was part of ministerial reviews, I met dignitaries and got to talk about programs in Edmonton Public Schools. I did that for the next 17 years. Then, instead of looking at retirement I thought there’s one last gig left for me. I started with kids and I wanted to finish with kids. And these kids are my kind of kids.”

Andersen “thrives” on dealing with the complexities and unique behavioural and developmental challenges of the four and five-year-olds who are enrolled in CASA’s Pre-Kindergarten Day Program, which opened last September.

“This partnership between CASA and Edmonton Public Schools is
a new model, and it’s the only model of its kind in Alberta. Having a child psychiatrist (Dr. Michael Levinsky) overseeing numerous pieces (of the program) for families and children is a first. By providing tertiary care for kids at such a young age, we’re hoping to change their trajectory,” she says.

A total of 14 kids currently attend the program – including seven in the morning and seven in the afternoon – for four half-days each week,
10 months of the year. That will double to 28 kids in two classrooms next September, including 14 in a new Kindergarten Day Program.

Referrals must be made by a physician. Typically, kids who are in the program haven’t been able to adjust to their local community school or daycare. The Pre-Kindergarten Program provides the kind of intensive care such kids desperately need.

“Children (admitted to the program) have to be at the severe end of the scale. Most are severe in terms of social and emotional development and things like disruptive behaviour. So our program is unique in that respect,” says Roberta Walter, Clinical Lead for the Pre-Kindergarten Program.

“We also have speech and language and occupational therapy programs, since it all goes hand in hand. So a child might be delayed in speech but also have mental health issues. It’s not
always clear which came first.”

The program is designed as a tertiary-level, multidisciplinary diagnostic and therapeutic program for kids with severe challenges managing or regulating their emotions and behaviour. Many of CASA’s young kids face associated difficulties with development, executive functioning and learning.

To address that, the program aims to provide intensive family-centered diagnostic review and therapeutic education, developmental intervention and clinical care in a specialized, supportive setting.

Besides parents and family members, classrooms are staffed by a multidisciplinary care team with backgrounds in psychology, psychiatry, pediatrics, social work, occupational therapy, education and speech-language pathology.

“What we’re trying to do is offer a one-stop shopping approach to social, emotional and developmental care,” says Karl Merritt, Program Manager, CASA Day Programs and Clinical Wide Services.

“A lot of referrals are from infant pre-school services, pre-school clinics, or daycares. Some are from parents, some from pediatricians, and some from school divisions, so it’s a variety of sources. But we do need a physician referral so the kids have a medical home here at CASA.”

The official goals of the program include: enhancing  healthy social-emotional, cognitive and physical development; strengthening the family’s ability to support their child’s development and learning; promoting school readiness and preparing children for success in school and community settings; and facilitating transition and reintegration into community-based services.

“All kids will have tantrums in their pre-school years, but not all kids will have such severe tantrums and aggression that they’re kicked out of school or their parents can’t take them shopping with them,” says Merritt.

Although the program is just seven months old, Andersen already sees positive changes in the kids.

“When I first started visiting the classes in September the children were really bubbly, and now when I go in, I see growth. I see that language has developed, I see kids engaged, and I see them starting to take turns with each other. These are the skills that are going to help them when they go on to kindergarten or grade one,” she says. “I also see emerging literacy and emerging numeracy skills.”

So what is the long-term vision for the Pre-Kindergarten Day Program?

“We like to call it a diagnostic and therapeutic resource for the community. To me this is not only about serving the 28 kids per year in our program, but about building capacity with the parents, the families and other professionals,” says Merritt.

“So to me the vision is actually to use our very specialized tertiary programs for professional development and training, and perhaps even for research with the new CASA Research Chair in Child and Adolescent Mental Health.”