Early Childhood Program Receives Grant for Therapeutic Classroom

The New Mexico Center of Excellence for Early Childhood Education of WNMU has been awarded a grant from Freeport-McMoRan Foundation to support a new early childhood therapeutic classroom.

© Western New Mexico University

The New Mexico Center of Excellence for Early Childhood Education of WNMU was recently awarded a $50,000 Community Investment Fund grant from the Freeport-McMoRan Foundation. The grant money will be matched by the university and will be used to establish a therapeutic preschool classroom at the Childhood Development Center.

A therapeutic classroom is one that is designed to facilitate programs that develop children’s foundational cognitive capacities that underpin all later development, including academic achievement. According to Christina Riddle, Program Director of the WNMU Family Counseling Center, the new classroom will be distinguished by its small class size and staffed by teachers and therapists with special training that has prepared them for the role.

The idea for the therapeutic preschool classroom, said Riddle, was “born out of a need that we have identified especially over the last several years.” Citing the pandemic and a world of shifting stressors for children and families, she said the classroom “is something that has been percolating with us for a while, and [we have been] thinking about how we would make this happen.”

To aid their thinking, the staff and faculty of the New Mexico Center of Excellence for Early Childhood Education of WNMU conducted research on what kinds of programs have been created elsewhere. Three of the team members—Riddle, Lab Site Program Administrator Julie Simmons, and Curriculum Coordinator Emily Salgado—were able to take a field trip to St. Louis, where they visited a therapeutic preschool classroom, spoke with the staff, and were able to gather new ideas about how the program could work at WNMU.

The new classroom will have just eight students, allowing for extensive individual attention. It will be staffed by two teachers who have been specifically trained, as well as an occupational therapist and a mental health therapist.

“There are some children who have developmental, behavioral and mental health needs that are best met with smaller class sizes, more intensive support systems, and really a focus on social-emotional development and regulation,” explained Riddle.

In some ways, Riddle said, the classroom will be a more intensive version of what the Childhood Development Center already offers. “The Family Counseling Center is a behavioral health center embedded within our early care and education setting,” she said, “It was pretty innovative to move in that direction 20 years ago when it was established, and it is still very cutting edge. It is a model that, more and more, early childhood settings are saying yes to. There is this need to provide early infant/early childhood mental health support for behavioral needs and emotional needs and challenges.”

The new classroom will allow the center to provide that support in a targeted way. “A lot of the children that could benefit from [the] classroom,” Riddle said, “are children that have had developmental trauma, children that may be in the child welfare system, and children that have developmental needs that make it challenging to learn and to grow and to reach their full potential in a classroom.”

The therapeutic classroom will be designed to meet the needs of children aged 3-5, but because the Childhood Development Center serves children as young as infancy, the center will be able to screen children as young as 2 ½ to see who would most benefit from the program.

According to Riddle, the grant money will be used to buy specialized equipment for the therapeutic classroom and to support the training and assessment needed to get the program started.

The grant is part of a $450,000 investment that Freeport-McMoran Foundation is making in Grant County. “The success of our community investments relies on partnering with communities to think through opportunities to address potential risks to resilience and well-being, and actively working to identify projects and programs that will strengthen communities over time,” said Tracy Bame, President of Freeport-McMoRan Foundation.

According to Riddle, the Early Childhood Education staff and faculty will work to convert the classroom, hire the therapists needed, and train the staff over the summer, with an anticipated opening date of August 2024.


Submit Feedback