Jessica McQuillen never saw herself as a preschool teacher. Instructing at an elementary school was always the goal.
But sometimes life doesn’t go as planned.
She went down a winding road that led her to the job as the only arts and music teacher at Charlotte’s Thompson Child Development Center, a preschool facility on Clanton Road. Most children come from families that have struggled with substance abuse, mental health, poverty or other issues.
McQuillen, 44, uses the creative process through Thompson’s art program – which she established – to develop social skills, manage behavior, reduce anxiety and increase self-image, which tends to be more difficult for these students.
This is why a scribble is significant to McQuillen. It’s a sign of progress.
“With art, it’s just another way that they can talk,” McQuillen said. “They can express themselves before they even learn words.”
Social and emotional development is key in early childhood. Kids can’t be successful in subjects like math or science until they hone those skills, McQuillen said.
In art classes, McQuillen surveys her students to figure out what they might enjoy next: One week, some kids were really into cars, so she searched through her recyclables and found stuff the kids could use to create toy cars. Another week, she helped a boy create a mermaid costume just for fun.
“They make different creations that don’t look the same as anyone else’s, so that makes them feel like an individual,” said Joy Anthony, director of the Thompson Child Development Center.
McQuillen stumbled upon the Thompson preschool by accident.
She studied elementary education at a small college in Boston and received her master’s in theater education at Emerson College. McQuillen taught for a time in Boston but landed at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center in February 2011. She was laid off in May that same year.
‘Through the back door’
Later that year, she was hired at Thompson as a full-time teacher. “I always say I came into early childhood education through the back door,” she said.
After learning about her arts background, the center’s director at the time handed McQuillen some books and pamphlets and told her to create a new art program for Thompson based on what she read.
She read about the various teaching and learning methods, including the Reggio-Emilia approach, which ended up being the primary influence for the center’s creative arts program.
“The creative arts program here, in theory, is not therapy, but in practice it is,” Anthony said of McQuillen’s program. “It’s therapeutic for children and parents alike; it makes everyone just happy and emotionally stable.”
Inside the ‘atelier’
Inside the “atelier,” or art studio, McQuillen acts as the puppet master for her students. She lets them do what they want – explore their surroundings, throw paint at designated easels, spray water guns at a designated white board – only lightly pulling the strings when necessary.
The atelier, a word adopted from the Reggio Emilia, serves many functions – the primary being to give children a separate, designated space for making art. They come to the airy, window-filled space once a week in small groups.
“They’re coming from such a pure place with their expression,” McQuillen said. “They’re not censoring themselves or being influenced by the outside world as to what’s right and wrong.”
During music class, “Miss Jessica” dumps a tub of instruments on the carpet in front of the toddlers. She gives no instructions, and she doesn’t enforce a beat. She just lets the kids dive for their favorite instruments and cut loose – whether it’s banging a drum or hugging a maraca throughout McQuillen’s song.
She tells the story of one little girl who was afraid to play along. Her mom had always been particular about how her daughter wore a bow in her hair and how her socks were rolled. So, whenever art time came around, she was too scared to create anything.
But after days of just observing other kids, she decided to join in the fun. She started to throw paint onto the easels with a twinkle in her eyes. That’s the power of art, McQuillen says.
Social and emotional development is key in early childhood “because they can’t actually be successful in math, science and all of these other areas until they get this area really honed, and that comes in a variety of different ways,” McQuillen said. Developing those skills “can be as simple as setting up for snack or working together in the classroom.”
Beyond the studio
McQuillen never rests. Even in the mornings when she’s not teaching an art class or during the minutes between classes, she’s thinking of new improvements.
Her most recent idea: To provide weekend family art and music sessions.
Last winter, McQuillen experimented with free, open art and music classes for Thompson students and their extended families. Two class series emerged: monthly Family Art and the bi-monthly Music Together classes.
To her surprise, the studio was full on a Saturday morning in February for the first art class. She had families painting whatever they wanted while listening to global music. The February session was called “Paint the Rhythm! Paint the Beat!” and McQuillen enforced a strict no-talking policy to enhance the creative experience.
Steven Holley brought his 4-year-old, Burrell, to the class. It confirmed to him that he’d made a wise decision to enroll his son at Thompson in December.
Holley, 34, says he was raised by “old-school parents” who always told him to listen to them because they said so. That method helped Holley move ahead in life, but it wasn’t working with Burrell. So he sought the advice of other parents, and turned to Thompson.
“Most school districts, they treat all the kids as a number – ‘We met our quota. ... We did our job, that’s it.’ ” Holley said. “Here, it’s more inclusive of the family. They’re building the foundation for the kids, so they can succeed when they move on from here.”
The teachers at Thompson, including McQuillen, channeled Burrell’s energy into what he loves the most: drawing and building. They designed lessons to that passion, and encouraged Holley to do the same.
“Kids have meltdowns, they have their tantrums – they’re only 3 and 4 and 5, and (the teachers at Thompson) take the time to figure out what soothes the children instead of just putting them in the corner, time out, or whatever,” Holley said.
Anthony said some parents have formed a weekly support group of sorts, where they talk about problems at home and learn how other families have combated them. And even more is being done to reach out to families, Anthony said.
“They might be children that have challenges in their own classrooms, and they have a place (the art studio) that’s different that gives them an opportunity to have different kinds of successes,” McQuillen said. “It’s really a team effort between the teachers, the staff, and the specialists, like myself.
“It doesn’t happen overnight.”