Getting ready for preschool by focusing on child and family mental health
Getting preschoolers ready for their first day of class involves a daunting checklist – school supplies, transportation plans, new budgets – but for children and families who have experienced trauma, the preparations can be even more complex.
"In order for children to thrive and be ready to learn, their needs have to be met," said Sherrie Segovia, clinical manager and mental health coordinator at the Hope Street Family Center in downtown Los Angeles. "It's not just about the academic aspects – about reading and writing and arithmetic – but it really is about relatedness."
How a child relates to others close to them and experiences the world through family members is critical, said Segovia. When family members are struggling with mental health issues, it can have a strong impact on the child.
"Young children are extremely vulnerable to the care-giving environment," said Segovia, who runs counseling sessions for parents and families at the Center.
"When the parents are taking care of themselves and when their needs are met, then they’re much more apt to be able to take care of the needs of their children," she said.
The Center, which is part of Dignity Health California Hospital Medical Center in downtown Los Angeles, started in 1992 as a small home-visit program. Today, it serves about 5,000 children and offers counseling, an Early Head Start program, preschool, parenting workshops and ESL classes. The emphasis, said Segovia, is to treat the entire family holistically and address the mental health of those that are seeking to take care of their young children.
It's part of a growing recognition that the development of a child is shaped profoundly in the early years of life. Even babies and toddlers can face a gap in proper mental health care, according to the American Psychological Association.
Fostering a supportive environment can be challenging, even for parents dedicated to improving the home life of their children.
"I felt really, really bad about myself, and I thought, 'oh my God, I'm not doing good enough,'" said Sandra Serrano, 30. As a new mother, she began to feel isolated and depressed raising her daughter in a small apartment downtown. "And I really didn't want her to be isolated the way I was being isolated too.
"I had a lot of negative thoughts going in my head, and at some point I thought, 'this is not good, this is not good,'" said Serrano.
Serrano brought her 18-month-old daughter to Hope Street Family Center, just a few blocks away from her apartment, and began to attend parenting courses while her daughter joined other toddlers in class.
Serrano said she saw a marked change in her daughter, who had previously been withdrawn and timid at home.
"She would just go crazy in the classroom, touching this and that, being so happy to interact in such a large space," said Serrano.
The counseling also got Serrano to confront her own troubled upbringing, which included violence that she still struggled to understand.
"We recognize that there are inter-generational patterns of abuse," said Segovia, who said that parents shouldn't feel bad if they're having a tough time raising kids while also dealing with a past trauma.
"There's an opportunity for change," she said.
Serrano said she is still coming to terms with the violence that she witnessed as a child, but she smiles broadly when describing her daughter, now 7, who's heading into 2nd grade.
"I broke that chain," said Serrano. "It will never pass through her and I'm really glad."
This post has been updated to correct the spelling of Sherrie Segovia's first name. KPCC regrets the error.