Unlocking Paul’s Unlimited Potential

From nearly the moment he was born, Paul was dealt a losing hand. His mother, barely in her teens, was living with her dad, had dropped out of school, and lacked effective parenting skills. After her father passed away, Paul’s mother was too overwhelmed to care for her child, so the three-year-old was taken in by his maternal aunt.

Over the next several years, Paul bounced from home to home as custody disputes resulted in constant upheaval. Paul experienced the chaos and turmoil of different households; shifting expectations; and the uncertainty of people moving in and out of his home with children, dogs and babies in tow. Chronic instability was his norm.

Receiving little adult guidance and with no one to model himself after, Paul’s behaviors became unmanageable.

Paul entered Mount Saint Vincent’s K–8 Day Treatment program with a long list of prior school violations, including property destruction, inappropriate language, and frequent physical and verbal aggression toward peers and adults. He was just eight years old.

Mount Saint Vincent’s approach to helping children like Paul casts off the punitive model that punishes children for unwanted behavior. Instead, the agency uses a highly relational and respectful approach. “Instead of asking ‘What’s wrong with this child?’ we ask, ‘What happened to this child and how can we help?’” explains Executive Director Kirk Ward, LCSW. The difference in outcomes is astounding.

Over the next two weeks, Paul’s care team of school staff, therapists, and educational mental health workers reviewed his case, observed his behaviors, and came up with a treatment plan. Their goals as an agency were to raise his self-esteem, help him with emotional regulation, and teach him healthy coping skills.

“When I first asked him to name some emotions, he could only come up with two: happy and sad,” said Child and Family Therapist Courtney Hadjeasgari, MA, LPP. “We worked on identifying various emotions and what they feel like in our bodies.”

School presented its own challenges. At first, when Paul struggled with academic work, he refused to ask for help; he would give up and run out of the classroom, nearly in tears. “He was extremely frustrated,” said Special Education Teacher Alex McCall. “It took some time, but we eventually identified several tools that helped him stay regulated enough for him to focus on his school work.”

Animal-assisted therapy helped Paul build relationships. Learning to interact safely with an animal often translates into the ability to form human friendships. But it was art therapy that helped Paul turn a corner. “It’s 100 percent his platform, where he is the most comfortable and himself,” said Courtney.

Paul recently completed a past-present-future art activity with his art therapist, Christine Ratcliffe, MA. The extensive project detailed what his life had been like and what he wanted it to look like moving forward. “It’s both artistic and incredibly self-aware,” Courtney said.

Six months later, Paul is a different boy. In school, he raises his hand and asks, “I’m stuck, can you help me?” He participates in classroom discussions, offering insightful thoughts and ideas. He was elected to student council and was named “Student of the Week” not once, but twice.

“We’re so proud of him and all the incredibly hard work he has done,” said Alex. “But best of all, Paul is proud of himself.” And that is exactly as it should be.

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Overcoming Fears at Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center

Last weekend, the children in our residential treatment program were treated to something extra special. They stayed overnight at the Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center and were able to do something every child should have the opportunity to enjoy—go to camp.

Breckenridge Outdoor Education Center, however, is no ordinary camp. Their mission is to expand the potential of people of all abilities through meaningful, educational, and inspiring outdoor experiences, with a specialized focus on serving those with different abilities and special needs. Thanks to their program, our children were able to go up a high ropes course, stay in a rustic cabin, catch a fish, eat s’mores, and climb a massive rock wall. Whether it was participating in group activities, encouraging others, or conquering their fears, each child pushed themselves in a different way.



One of the children, Martin, had a particularly memorable accomplishment on the rock wall. He started to climb, but after he got about five feet off the ground, he said he was done. When the staff at Breckenridge refused to let him quit, Martin found it within himself to push further up the wall to an overhang. Then things started to get difficult again, and after trying for a bit, he asked to be let down. But the other children started cheering him on, and with them chanting his name, he figured out how to overcome the obstacle and made it to the top of the wall to ring the bell. Elated with his accomplishment, he came down and immediately wanted to go up again. The next time around he had no problems at all. When he was at the top for the second time, he turned to the group and said with a smile you could see from the ground, and a tone that oozed confidence, “I just love ringing that bell.”

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Clap, Slap, Snap: Enhancing Learning with the Neurosequential Model in Education

Steve Graner stands in front of a room of 30 school workers from Mount Saint Vincent’s K–8 school. As he claps his hands, slaps his legs, and snaps his fingers in turn, he rhythmically chants, “Six times six is (clap) 36.” The audience follows his lead, clapping, slapping, and chanting along. The exercise is part of Graner’s training for teachers on the Neurosequential Model in Education, or NME. NME uses rhythm-based learning, combining body movements and word association to increase memory recall. “This technique helps struggling traumatized children learn vocabulary words, practice skip-counting, memorize math facts, and more — all by combining movement and rhythm,” Graner said.

NME is based on the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics (NMT), a strengths-based, highly relational model of therapy developed by child trauma expert Bruce D. Perry, M.D., Ph.D., founder and senior fellow of Houston-based ChildTrauma Academy. NMT focuses on identifying areas of the brain that are underdeveloped, and applying interventions that bolster development in those areas.

Graner, project director for NME at The ChildTrauma Academy, provides NME training to teachers across the country, who then return to their schools to train their own staff. “I first teach the core concepts of brain development and how stress and trauma affect growing brains,” Graner said. “We then explore interventions teachers can apply in the classroom to help traumatized children learn.” When the curriculum was first developed in 2013, just five teachers signed up; by September of this year, Graner expects there to be as many as 95 trainer candidates.

Graner visits facilities like Denver-based Mount Saint Vincent in order to learn about effective interventions that are in use in residential and day treatment care facilities. Mount Saint Vincent provides clinical treatment and academic instruction for children aged five to 12 with emotional and behavioral challenges due to trauma, mental illness, abuse or neglect. “What we learn from sites like this are other activities and how they can be applied in different settings,” Graner said. The interventions are often modified slightly, but the core concepts are retained.

Mount Saint Vincent Supervising Lead Clinician Jessica Pfeiffer, LCSW, SSW, AAT, serves on Graner’s international advisory committee, which supports the development of new interventions for NME. “The use of NME is woven throughout our everyday activities with the children in our school,” Pfeiffer said. “Participation in the advisory committee allows Mount Saint Vincent to share its expertise in NME with other treatment providers that are integrating trauma-informed care within their organizations.”

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Create a Calming Bottle

This calming bottle activity is used by our staff as a way to help the children identify feelings of anger or worry and to create a coping tool.

Materials needed:

  • Clear water bottle filled with water
  • Foil
  • Glitter
  • Beads
  • Safety scissors
  • Hot glue gun
  • White glue
  • Drinking straws
  • Food coloring

Step 1

Open the water bottle and pour a little of the water out. Then, give the water bottle to the child.

Step 2

Have the child use the scissors to cut shapes out of the foil and cut the straws into small pieces.

Cut up foil and straws.

Cut up foil and straws.

Step 3

Help the child add food coloring, glitter, beads, the cut-up straws, and foil shapes to their water bottle.

Add pieces to bottle.

Add pieces to bottle.

Step 4

Place glue inside the water bottle to help the glitter separate.

Add glue to bottle.

Add glue to bottle.

Step 5

Cap the water bottle and hot glue the lid in place. (This is an adults-only step.)

Hot glue the lid in place.

Hot glue the lid in place.


Once completed, have the child shake the calming bottle. When all the materials inside are moving around quickly, explain that this is what it looks like when we are upset. Then, have the child set the water bottle down. As the materials inside begin to move more slowly, have the child take deep breaths to calm down just as the bottle is calming down.

Shake calming bottle.

Shake calming bottle.

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Becoming Young Yoga Warriors

School may be out, but that doesn’t mean the fun and learning stops at Mount Saint Vincent. Lucretia Miller, the School Social Worker, took the week long break from classes as an opportunity to try out a yoga group with some of the children in residential treatment.

Thanks to The River Power Vinyasa Yoga, Miller is trained in the young warrior yoga model, which is very cognizant of the mental health components of yoga. Over the course of the week, she has focused on how the children can use breathing as a tool to decrease stress and increase body awareness.

“I’ve talked to them about how they might not always have Silly Putty when stressed, but they always have breath,” said Miller.

When the yoga group meets, they start with a welcome and talk, and then move into a sun salutation to warm up their bodies. Next, they do active movements, typically by playing a game that involves different yoga poses. One of the games, called the Wave Game, has each child pick a card with a pose on it and then execute the pose in a circle—like a wave.

“The games are a great way for them to not only learn the poses, but to also get energy out in a safe way,” said Miller.

After doing active movements, the children work to calm their bodies by doing drawings of the warrior poses and listening to the stories behind them. Finally, the children do savasana, or the pose of total relaxation.

Being still can be challenging for children, especially children who have trouble regulating their emotions. Miller helps the children during savasana by talking about their mat being a safe place, and that they need to ask permission to go on another mat. Then, she asks them to close their eyes and visualize her creating a safe and happy “bubble” around them, which she does by touching their head, and then squeezing their feet. After they are in their bubble, Miller sprays essential oils, which helps deepen their mindfulness and relaxation.

Overall, the children are enjoying learning about the culture of yoga and how to use breath as a tool.

“Yoga teaches them to see the light in everyone. We are all a part of a community where we’re learning from each other,” said Miller.

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The School Moves Up a Grade

Gone are the mismatched desks, the wobbly chairs, and the dings in the drywall. Thanks to a successful investment partnership campaign, generous donors raised more than $200,000 to refurbish Mount Saint Vincent’s 10-year-old Sister Daniel Stefani School and provide it with new furnishings and much-needed equipment. In addition to new desks, carpeting, and updated curriculums, each classroom is now equipped with the very latest in academic technology: interactive whiteboards.

“It feels like we’re celebrating our tenth anniversary in a brand new school,” said School Director Lori McClurg. “The students love the new whiteboards and Zuma rocker chairs. I’d like to give a big thank you to the donors who made our wish a reality.”

“My students were so excited about the new furniture,” said teacher Myra Marcus. “They were actually reluctant to sit on the chairs or use the desks for several days. Of course, they got over that fairly quickly.”

The Sister Daniel Stefani School serves the children in residential treatment at Mount Saint Vincent and also up to 30 additional students from across the Denver metro area. All of the students served suffer from the effects of trauma, mental illness, abuse, or neglect.

Because of their past trauma, many students have difficulty with sensory integration, which is the process of accurately organizing environmental or bodily sensations in order to produce an appropriate stimulus response. Sensory overload can cause frustration, anxiety, or stress. Desk chairs that rock or standing desks equipped with swinging footrests allow fidgety children to stay calm and focus on their schoolwork.

While all the new improvements are much needed, the interactive whiteboards are just about everyone’s favorite new feature. They have games to help with spelling, videos to complement the weekly reader, and timed skills games like math facts. “The touch-screen technology gets students up and out of their seats,” said teacher Molly Priebe. “We’re moving from paper and pencil into a new, interactive way of learning.”

The children expressed a great deal of enthusiasm about their new surroundings. One eight-year-old girl likes her new desk because there’s more room inside. A 12-year-old boy likes the “cool colors” of the carpet and the artwork in the main hallway. “I really like my new chair,” one student said. “Mine helps me stay focused,” another added. A 10-year-old boy may have summed it up best. “Everything is awesome,” he said, “because it’s all brand spanking new!”

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