Wellspring Educational Services: A Relationship-Based Approach to Whole-Child Development

  • Chrissy D’Agostino, MA

    Education Specialist

    “So this is the fundamental question of our own and our children’s social lives – are you someone who can really see me, hear me, prize me, and be emotionally present for me when it really matters?”

    – Mark Brady, “Are You Here with Me?”


    Wellspring Educational Services’ staff and parent community respond to that question with a resounding “YES.” They are linked by the belief that learning and development depend on warm, trusting relationships. They also believe that positive emotional experiences with peers and caregivers give children a deep sense of social-emotional connectedness; and that resiliency and curiosity can then follow. For many kids with autism, sharing ideas and inner emotional experiences is a core challenge. Wellspring’s educational approach makes addressing this challenge its top priority. Participants in Wellspring’s programs are living proof that positive emotional experiences and play are powerful catalysts for whole-child development.


    Wellspring was founded in 2012 by a small group of professionals and parents who saw a distinct need for trans-disciplinary, relationship-based intervention within the autism/special needs community of the Bay Area and Northern California. Since then, Wellspring has evolved into more than just a school. It has become a hub for innovative therapeutic and family-centered intervention, especially in two primary areas of need for children with autism and their families: behavior and communication. As one dedicated Wellspring mom puts it: “They understand the unique challenges that special needs families face – which enables them to succeed in helping parents change and reshape some really tough patterns of behavior with our kids.”

    Programs at Wellspring are designed and implemented with keen attention to the complex array of strengths and challenges – or individual differences – that makes each child and family unique. Rather than training students to master discrete skills under highly controlled conditions, its school programs and social groups prioritize functional social-emotional development above all. Students engage through challenging and meaningful body-mind-emotional experiences, tailored to help them communicate and relate with others in healthy, creative, and developmentally appropriate ways, across a range of contexts.

    But Wellspring’s team also values the wealth of research showing that parents are the primary drivers of a child’s development across time. Families are invited to participate in school activities and playgroups. Many have benefited from collaboration between Wellspring and their various other service providers. Wellspring team members routinely express the notion that when it comes to their own kids’ education, parents must feel empowered through family education, resources, and community.


    As a 501c3 non-profit organization, Wellspring makes its programs accessible to a diverse range of families, and not only for children with autism. Past fundraising efforts have supported scholarships, as well as inclusive social language groups with neuro-typical peers. Community outreach programs link the local autism/special needs community to the wider public. Wellspring also plans to seek non-public school status for the 2014-2015 academic year to accommodate placements through local school districts.




    Core Academic Programs

    Wellspring’s preschool, kindergarten, and mixed elementary level academic programs for the 2014-15 academic year will continue to focus on functional, standards-based academic skills, participation in group activities, and cooperative play. Curricula are organized around themed units, which evolve based on student interests. Concepts are reinforced across modalities. Small and large group instruction, and rich, multi-sensory experiences encourage hands-on learning, creative problem solving, self-expression, and peer-to-peer connection. For children in the earlier developmental stages, programs focus on functional communication, initiation, and reciprocal interaction; for kids with stronger language skills, programs focus on cooperation, perspective-taking, pro-social language, and critical thinking.


    Social Language Development Groups

    Camp We-Go and We-Go Play social language development groups give kids age 3-12 opportunities for authentic social connections and friendships, including interaction with neuro-typical peers within inclusive/integrated contexts. Activities include constructive art projects, and small group music, cooking, sensory/movement activities, and social games. Unit themes support language growth, concept development, and expansion of imaginative play.

    Parent Education Courses

    Positive Parenting and Hanen courses provide families with individualized coaching from Wellspring’s clinical team. Through Positive Parenting, caregivers learn a set of straightforward strategies to effectively manage challenging behavior and encourage cooperation at home. Hanen’s It Takes Two to Talk (TM) course teaches parents of young children with language delays and/or other developmental disabilities to embed language supports tailored to their child in daily routines. Parents learn how to better understand their own child’s language development process and bring therapeutic intervention into the home.





    Prioritizing kids’ emotional experiences propels them toward positive long-term outcomes, independence and high quality of life, critical issues for children with special needs and their families.


    The POWER of Play

    Play cultivates children’s imagination and creativity, the ability to link ideas logically, to problem-solve in real time, to create models of their inner and outer worlds, and to share those ideas with others. Play skills correlate strongly to language skills.


    HONORING and EXPANDING Unique Interests

    Following a child’s lead is the foundation for positive affect (feelings) and engagement, which spur learning. Meeting each child at his or her (eye) level allows for joint attention and true social communication to flourish.



    Children’s sensory, motor, language, cognitive, and social-emotional systems are fully intertwined. Each system depends on the others for optimal functioning. Consultation and collaboration among professionals across disciplines is critical to the development of the “whole child.”



    Sensory-emotional regulation is key to engagement, communication, and learning. Strengthening mutual and self-regulation skills promotes flexibility, cooperation, and good self-esteem. When regulated and supported within trusting relationships, kids with ASD can move toward rather than away from new and unfamiliar experiences.


    Partnering with PARENTS

    Family members provide the critical spark for child development across time. Joining a supportive community allows parents and caregivers to feel connected, to share experiences, and to engage fully in the learning process with their kids.


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    Chrissy D’Agostino, MA is an Educational Consultant specializing in work with both young children and pre – adolescents in home and community based settings. She completed her MA in Special Education and holds a teaching credential in Early Childhood Special Education. Chrissy works with families and school programs seeking to deepen their understanding of developmental and relationship – based intervention and parenting.


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