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Early Intervention Program: Supporting and empowering SFUSD students and teachers

Filed Under: Education, Family, Health, Help, Immigrants, Programs, Youth

What can a teacher do if a child seems out of control, to the point where the entire classroom is disrupted?  In some classrooms, the child is removed from the classroom, followed by meetings between the teacher, parents, and school administrators to decide how to deal with the unsafe behaviors of the child. Instituto Familiar de la Raza’s (IFR) Early Intervention Program is completely shifting this script.

IFR’s Early Intervention Program Manager Cassandra Coe explains, “All kids want to know three things: Am I loveable/do you love me? Am I good/am I bad? Am I safe/will you leave me? When negative or threatening experiences make a child question whether he’s loveable, good, or safe, he can internalize that he is the problem. So, when a child acts out, he is often just actualizing his fears.”

Going back to our imaginary classroom, when the child is isolated from everyone else, his fears are realized, and he feels bad, unloved, and unsafe. Cassandra and her dedicated team of mental health consultants offer a different model. Placed in numerous classrooms throughout San Francisco, Early Intervention mental health consultants help school staff, administrators and parents understand the emotional dynamics facing some children.

“A child expresses problems in the only way he knows how to,” offers Cassandra. “When the only way he can express emotions is to act out, we adults interpret that as misbehaving. However, once you understand the child’s behavior is actually pain, it is a turning point. Now you can begin to understand the meaning behind the child’s behavior. You can help the child distinguish that it’s not about who he is, but what happened to him.”

IFR’s Early Intervention consultants build relationships with school employees so they can safely reflect on their challenges. It allows them a moment to step back and ask what’s happening rather than what’s wrong.  Providing early intervention support at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, Mental Health Specialist Elia Dominguez offers: “Consultation helps teachers and administrators increase their understanding of the impact of stressors/trauma on families and children. In turn, this understanding increases their capacity to empathize and build relationships with families.” When teachers find they can help a child because they now understand he’s in pain, they feel the rewards of their chosen profession.

The theory behind Early Intervention has seen incredible real-world impacts. In fact, children aren’t the only beneficiaries of this increasingly popular model. As one administrator at Bryant Elementary School noted about Mental Health Specialist Maria Blanco: “Having IFR and the mental health consultant and model has allowed Bryant to grow towards meeting its goals now 6 years and counting…[Maria] is a powerful advocate for meeting all people at our school where they are at and forming relationships to allow further change.”  

As it turns out, our imaginary classroom isn’t imaginary at all. Now, however, many schools and classrooms facing incredible challenges recognize IFR’s mental health consultants as valued allies. As Maria offers, “”When I see that a mutually stressful relationship between teacher and child shifts from that ‘child is manipulative’ to ‘oh, let me understand what is happening here,’ I feel like my work has begun.’

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