On his first day of preschool, Daniel could barely speak a word. A nervous child and unsure of his surroundings, Daniel didn’t play or interact with any of the other children. His only method of communication was guiding his teacher to what he needed, and often he would burst with frustration. “Imagine being in a busy and new environment where you can’t verbally communicate your needs,” says Ashley Saupp, then the Lead Teacher of Way to Grow’s Preschool P.A.L.S. “As an educator, I knew that the best environment and people for him would be those who supported him from where he was at the time, not from where he needed to be.”
“When Daniel first started preschool, he hardly spoke,” explained his mother Berenisce. “I was afraid to send him, thinking that couldn’t tell me what was happening at school, or communicate with his teacher and classmates.” Her oldest son had recently graduated from Preschool P.A.L.S., and even though she was apprehensive, she trusted that Way to Grow would be able to support Daniel and his unique needs.
Surrounded by colorful pictures, toys for interactive play, and stacks of books, Preschool P.A.L.S. is a haven for fun, growth, and social interaction. Yet while the other children happily played and learned together, Daniel struggled to communicate and connect. Determined to help this new preschooler grow to his full potential, Ashley made sure every day was treated as an opportunity for growth. By utilizing a picture communication system combined with speech therapy, over the course of many months, Daniel learned how to communicate and convey his thoughts and needs. “He used to throw his shoes, hide underneath the table, and scream when he was frustrated that he couldn’t get his point across. In time, he relied on me to self-regulate his behavior, and eventually he was able to do it himself,” Ashley explains.
Taking awhile to become interested in interacting with the other children, Daniel leaned on his teacher for support. During playtime, Ashley would have him sit directly next to her, and after awhile they started inviting other kids to play with them. Over time, Ashley was able to slowly move away and allow Daniel space to play with his new friends all on his own. Ashley laughs, “It was almost like I had to wean him off of me!”
If Daniel’s first year at P.A.L.S. was all about change and adapting to new surroundings, his second year was about personal growth. During year two in Ashley’s classroom, Daniel’s spirit and energy came alive as he gained the confidence to participate in class and grew in his language development. He developed friendships and became even more comfortable in the classroom. Having grown so much in his two years of preschool, Daniel’s family placed him in kindergarten the following fall.
However, Daniel and his family quickly learned that elementary school was a very different environment than his former preschool classroom, and the transition proved to be very difficult. “It did not go well,” explains Ashley. “He just was not emotionally and academically ready.” Although not the traditional route, Berenisce knew that Daniel needed a little more time, so he returned to his former classroom for one more year. According to Ashley, “You cannot rush child development. You can guide it, but you cannot rush it.”
Upon returning to Way to Grow’s preschool, Daniel’s third year focused on readiness. By giving him flexibility and more time to learn kindergarten expectations, Daniel adopted a new level of emotional maturity and exhibited a true yearning to learn. As Ashley describes, Daniel had truly transformed: “Our last day together was graduation in front of hundreds of people. What on his first day would have completely scared him, was a huge moment of celebration. He walked across the stage on his own and received his preschool diploma to the cheers of his family and new friends. I was so proud of him.”
Today, Daniel is in 1st grade at Seward Montessori School. He can count to 100, speaks Spanish and English, and is especially interested in reading, writing, and animals. “Daniel is doing so well in his school,” notes his mother enthusiastically. “He likes all of his friends and gets along with everyone!” Given his love of animals, it’s no surprise that Daniel already wants to be a veterinarian when he grows up.As Daniel moved on to kindergarten, Ashley also moved forward. She now leads both our NAEYC-accredited preschools as Way to Grow’s Manager of Education Programming. Looking back at their time together, Ashley is reminded that while children are the focus of any classroom, their teachers learn right alongside them. “Often it’s the case that we think about what our role is and what our impact was on our children, but it shouldn’t always be like that,” Ashley reflects. “Daniel gave me so many experiences and taught me so many lessons that I will use to help other children facing issues like his. We grew together, and that truly speaks to our mission and what we do in the community.”