By Elia Rocha
This past Sunday was “National Grandparent’s Day”, a holiday which commemorates the invaluable contributions and wisdom of these matriarchs and patriarchs. For the families we work with, often its grandparents who take on many of the childrearing duties, from dropping off and picking up children from care so that parents can go to work or school, to providing a place to live for these previously homeless families, to becoming temporary guardians while parents try to get on a more stable footing (usually they are struggling with addiction, incarcerated, or children have been removed from their care by the Department of Child & Family Services) to adopting their grandchildren when they have been abandoned or their parents have lost their legal rights.
There’s a lot of love on display within these families, but it’s a complicated dynamic. There can be a great deal of ambivalence here, especially when providing security and stability for grandchildren means taking over for their own children. Just how some of these grandparents navigate these relationships and manage to care for all their children is a study in grace.
Of course, it’s not just grandparents who are taking on these parental roles. We’ve seen aunts, uncles, older siblings, cousins, and event great-grandparents step in and offer the love and nurturing that all children need to thrive. It is fitting to acknowledge the indelible love and commitment they embody. Thank you.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
With each new child that enters our program comes a story. A story about who they are, where they came from and all their experiences, good and bad. As a teacher at Children Today, I understand that trauma is part of their story and that a child’s development may be delayed or altered due to stress, anxiety or fears associated with the experiences they have had in their life.
In Dora’s blog post, Regression, she talks about how children can regress (returning to an earlier stage of behavior and physical development) from a traumatic event or prolonged exposure to stress or anxiety. She explains that “regression in children experiencing homelessness can be extreme and long-lasting.”
Being mindful of this fact means that on any given day a child might need more support, more individualized attention or more space than usual. Building a trusting and unconditional relationship with these children allows us to support them and for them to feel safe even when they are grappling with their own emotions.
As a teacher, observations are critical, not only in supporting children in their development, but in understanding their triggers. For some of our children, personal containment is a challenge which can create stress among the other children in the classroom. In the article, “Children and Trauma: The Role of Parents” written by Marsha L. Shelov, Ph.D., she highlights the fact that “mild or severe, a traumatically frightening event matters deeply to a child” and that even if parents choose to forget, “the child remembers.” She talks about the fact that the child needs to remember this life-changing event because it is a necessary part of the child’s healing process. She explains that in order for a child to heal, he or she must learn how to cope with the event and his or her feelings about what happened.
This understanding is critical. Children act out for a reason. Some children act out due to boredom, a need for attention, a desire to test limits, hunger, exhaustion or their excitement in learning something new. However, other children act out for a much deeper reason that even they may not fully understand. We had a little girl that had the sweetest smile, but also a volatile temper. She could be handing a child a toy one moment and then turn around and bite that same child the next. She would often say, “Stop hurting me” or “You hurt me,” whether the teacher was setting a limit, changing her diaper, or laying her down for a nap. She also did not discriminate and said this to several teachers in a variety of situations. In every case, teachers would state to the child what they were doing or intended to do and would assure her that they were not hurting her.
By prescribing to a philosophy of caring, understanding and positive reinforcement, our goal is to support all of our children in their physical, cognitive, social and emotional development. By providing children with opportunities to deal with conflict, and guidance in understanding their options, they learn how to manage their impulses. By allowing them to be more independent they learn to trust themselves and build their self-esteem. But most importantly, creating an environment that allows children who struggle with their emotions the opportunity to express their anger, sadness or frustration with the support of someone who cares, can be life-changing.
The greatest gift that a caregiver (parent or teacher) gives to a child coping with trauma is seeing their sadness instead of simply responding to their behavior. It is allowing the child to express their emotions uninterrupted (within a zone of safety), yet always letting the child know that you are there to help them when they are ready. For a child to know that their feelings matter… that they matter… is powerful.
By Dora Jacildo
When I joined the staff of Children Today, one of the first things that caught my attention was the number of preschool-age children with obvious language delays and who were still in diapers. My first conclusion was that they perhaps were experiencing developmental delays as a result of lack of exposure to rich language and toilet training opportunities, or other undiagnosed issues. I soon learned from speaking with parents and caregivers that many of these children had language and were toilet-trained prior to becoming homeless.
Regression is the act of returning to an earlier stage of behavior or physical development. Exposure to trauma, whether it’s one traumatic experience, or a more prolonged exposure to stress, can result in the loss of acquired developmental skills, especially in language and toilet training. Other typical characteristics of regression include separation anxiety, fear of the dark, fear of strangers, and the inability to sleep by his or herself. Many of these expressions happen when children have overwhelming anxiety or stress.
While it is not uncommon to see a typically developing child regress to earlier stages of development (bed-wetting, sleep problems, unexplained fears), children are especially likely to regress if they have anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress, or depression.
We have learned that the best way to address regression in children experiencing the traumatic effects of homelessness, which can be extreme and long-lasting, is to have the children evaluated and support the staff and parents in implementing strategies to help children deal with stress. We have surrounded ourselves with very talented community partners that on a regular basis conduct speech assessments or developmental and mental health screenings at our facilities, enabling both staff and parents to learn intervention skills that can be readily applied.
These strategies and interventions have taken us years to develop. However, the most important lesson I learned during the first weeks on the job, was that my role was to protect children from situations that are over-stimulating and frightening and to do all I could to restore a sense of safety in the world, even if it was just during our hours of operation.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
In the toddler class at the Play House West we do many different gross and fine motor projects, which helps us prepare for future activities like reading and writing, building and creating, and more organized play and sports. Art is a wonderful way to practice different gross and fine motor skills and movements like holding a paint brush, swatting a canvas with a paint covered fly swatter, working with watercolors, squeezing colored glue onto a canvas, or one of our favorites, dot painting.
Art is also a wonderful way of incorporating a variety of different skills into one activity (cognitive, sensory, social, emotional, etc.) It allows children to focus on an open-ended task that is determined by them. They have the freedom to choose what, where, when, how and why. In the process they have created some beautiful artwork which we have displayed in our classroom.
Gross Motor Artwork
Getting messy is what toddlers do best. At Play House West, we try to do it in style and with a purpose. Here, our toddlers are using their senses, keen eye and swatting abilities to create some beautiful artwork which will be creatively displayed in our outdoor patio area.
Painting is not only fun, but a way for children to express themselves, work independently or together, and learn about cause and effect (observing what happens when paint is swatted… the way the paint “splats” when it is swatted, the pattern that is created by the fly swatter and how colors change when they are mixed together.
Here is some of the artwork we created, artfully displayed in the toddler patio.
Fine Motor Artwork
Painting with watercolors is a wonderful way for toddlers to practice using their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. While some toddlers are very carefree with their brushstrokes, others are more deliberate.
Dot painting is another activity that our toddlers enjoy. This child takes special care and concentration in dot placement and technique. Along with talking about the different colors and shapes of the dots, we also incorporate math into the activity by counting how many many red dots, blue dots, etc., there are.
Art provides the children a sense of freedom. And in the process, they are learning so many new things!
By Elia Rocha
The 2014 federal poverty guidelines considers a family of three earning $19,790 or less as living in poverty. That translates to an hourly wage of $9.51 for a full-time worker. The minimum wage in California is $9.00 per hour, raised this past July 1st from $8.00 per hour. In LA County, to be making a living wage, – meaning earning enough to maintain a safe, decent standard of living within the community – our same full-time worker has to make between $21.62 and $27.15 per hour.
The average fair market rent for a two bedroom apartment in Long Beach is about $1,400 per month. A full-time minimum wage earner would have to spend nearly 90% of their income on rent alone. Child care in Los Angeles County can cost anywhere between $9,000 per year for preschool to $13,000 for infant care. There again, our full-time worker would spend between 48-69% of their income on child care. We haven’t even touched on food, transportation, health care, etc. Obviously, the dollars don’t stretch that far; the math doesn't add up.
Of course, there are subsidies and entitlements; programs that help pay for housing, child care, food, and health care. And, nearly all of the families we work with receive some combination of these supports. Still, since nearly all of the families we work with have lived in shelters, motels, garages, cars, or on the street, and since nearly all of these same families have dealt with food insecurity and infrequent medical care, there are undoubtedly some substantial holes in our safety net.
I won’t talk about what’s right or wrong, who’s to blame, or even the role that government and non-profit organizations should play in addressing the serious issues surrounding poverty (since I work for a non-profit organization which operates in part from government funding, I suspect my opinion on this is probably pretty clear). I do want to try to show, from our point of view, what poverty looks like in a real, day in, day out, dollars and cents way; how it limits choices and opportunities, and how the families we work with find ways to endure, work around, and overcome.
Creating Community from Scratch
A large number of the families we serve come to us from domestic violence shelters. After enduring prolonged abuse from their partner and parent, these families have had to flee for their safety, leaving behind most of their possessions to move to a shelter, usually some distance away from where they lived. Along the way, they’ve lost their source of income (if the abuser was the breadwinner or if the survivor had to leave their work behind) – and in many instances, they've lost the social supports they had in friends and family within their community. So, the women in these shelters turn to each other. Out of necessity, and bonded through a shared trauma, they become one another’s emergency contact, share child care duties, and pool their resources to lift each other up and out.
I Take Three Buses to Get Here
More often than not, the reason that many of the families we work with falter on their way towards housing and financial stability is transportation. When you don’t have enough money for the bus or you can’t afford gas or repairs for the car, you can’t get your children to their child care, you don’t make it to school on time, you miss out on that job interview. Transportation issues may be a temporary inconvenience for some of us, but for these families, they can be the hinge from which their plans for the future swing; they can make all the difference between getting there and not getting there.
Priced Out of Long-Term Planning
It’s easy to become short-sighted when you are living in poverty. If all of your resources and energy are focused on putting one foot in front of the other, on dealing with the immediate crises impacting your family, there won’t be much left to plan for a more stable life. More than that, it is easy to believe that you’ll never climb out of the hole you’re in. So, when families do manage to climb up and out, when they exercise their will to work towards a better future that is really hard to see through all the obstacles in their path, they define success and become examples that I believe we can all learn from.
To read more about the the long-term effects of poverty, check out this terrific NPR article, titled This Is Your Stressed-Out Brain on Scarcity.
By Cheryl Ichikawa
Life is a series of experiences… some good, some bad and some life-changing. Resilience is our response to those life-changing situations. It’s our ability to see beyond the now, to understand that triumphs are often born out of tragedy, that challenges provide us with opportunities to grow, and that we have the power to decide the path we take in life.
I have come to those crossroads many times in my life and sometimes I took the wrong path and had to deal with the consequences. For me, there came a point when I needed to decide whether to stay on the path leading to nowhere or do the work and find something better. I was tired of wasting time being sad, angry and resentful. So, I decided to let go of my sadness and embrace the possibilities of the future. Along the way I met Dora and she introduced me to Children Today. It was here that I gained a deeper understanding about myself and my life.
In Dora’s blog post, Resilience & the Protective Factors, she talks about three supportive factors that nurture an individual’s ability to cope with stressful situations. She talks about the importance of family, community and self-esteem. For me, dealing with death at 16, was traumatic. Fear, doubt, anger and deep sadness consumed me for a very long time. It left me feeling helpless, hopeless and very alone. Talking about it was not an option, so I dealt with it quietly. For many years, I pretended that everything was fine. Until it wasn’t. The “protective factors” that Dora talked about enabled me to find my way back to the path that I wanted to travel.
As a teacher, mother and victim of trauma, I know how resilient children can be. However, I also understand that in order for them to successfully deal with all the challenges in life, they need to have a strong sense of who they are and what they are capable of. For these children (and families), the role that we play in their lives is foundational. We work hard at nurturing their ability to trust themselves and other people. We support their need to be independent, curious, and at times, very silly. We teach them that learning grows out of making lots of mistakes and some really big messes. We offer them alternative ways of dealing with conflict, allowing them to explore their options and helping them find a satisfactory solution. We embrace them for who they are and what they are trying to become. We honor their stories and their life experiences. But above all, we hope that our children and their families find peace and happiness in life.
By Dora Jacildo
Children Today is in the business of resilience. Our top priority is to increase the “protective factors”- attributes in individuals that help them deal more effectively with stressful events- that contribute to children’s ability to cope with very difficult situations. The individualized attention that our teaching staff give children is designed to increase their competence and confidence. The heightened focus on social/emotional well-being is intentional as is our carefully honed ability to form meaningful relationships with the children in our care. We know that we play a critical role in helping children grow into successful and caring adults. The lessons they will learn while at our Play House programs will serve them well into their futures.
Resilience has been describe as “the ability to cope successfully no matter what hurdles one encounters and the ability to steer through serious life challenges and find ways to bounce back and to thrive.” We know that every one of us is born with the capacity for resilience and individuals who respond to difficult life situations with resilience are healthier and live longer, are happier in their relationships, are more successful in school and work, and are less likely to get depressed.
We come into our work with a clear understanding of the protective factors that contribute to a child’s ability to become resilient and make increasing those factors part of our service delivery model. Protective factors fall into three categories: factors within the individual, factors within the family, and factors within the community. (Challenging Behavior in Young Children, 2007)
Resilient children are sociable. They have the ability to engage the people around them in a positive way. Because they get lots of practice socializing, they have good communication skills, and they tend to be flexible and empathetic. These children are able to plan, to think critically and creatively, and to foresee consequences. They know how to ask for help, too. They believe in themselves and are able to take charge of their own lives. They are independent, competent, self-confident, and self-reliant. They can control their impulses and do what needs to be done, even in difficult surroundings.
These children also have varied talents, interests, activities, and coping strategies. They choose environments that reinforce their dispositions and reward their competencies. And, they ascribe their success to their own efforts and abilities, not sheer luck. Above all, they are optimists. They have goals and aspirations. They believe in achievement and are motivated to persevere and succeed.
The most important protective factor of all is a competent, caring person who is absolutely committed to the child, whom the child can love and trust in return. Children need to have at least one loving and available person who supports and accepts them unconditionally. When a parent or guardian is unable to fulfill this role, another adult in the child’s life can satisfy this need. It also helps when families have high expectations and give children the support they need to fulfill those expectations.
When children receive support from outside the family, they have a chance to feel connected to other people and the core values of the community. Community support comes to the child in the form of relationships. Like a parent, caring and competent teachers, neighbors, or friends can act as positive role models and make a child feel loved and valued.
By believing in the child, expecting a lot from him, and supporting him as he extends his reach, a caring adult can help him to believe in himself and to develop competence and confidence. A caring adult can also help a child expand his ability to cope with stress by creating a supportive environment and gradually enlarging the challenges he must face.
It helps if a child’s school is a warm, safe, and predictable place, with consistent teachers, peers, schedules, and limit-setting. When a child knows where to go, what to do, and who will take care of him, he is free to be himself and to focus on learning.
Children enrolled in our programs are guaranteed that they will have a sense of belonging, they will have a primary caregiver who is absolutely crazy about and committed to them, and they will develop the skills necessary to increase their self-esteem and self-concept. They will be protected, loved, and nurtured in a way that openly communicates to them that they are important in this community and they have valuable contributions to make.
Preschoolers at the Play House North are painting a colorful mural. This sensory activity helps children build social skills as they learn how to work together in a shared space and take turns using different materials.
Young children learn with all of their senses. This art activity gives children the opportunity to actively use their sense of touch to explore the different textures of the materials. As they paint, they can see how each material paints differently. They are also experimenting with mixing colors and exploring how different textures create different patterns.
Children are also developing motor skills as they use their hands to hold the brush and their whole arms to make the brush strokes.
Best of all, they are also learning that they can create something beautiful together!
By Elia Rocha
When I was little, my mom used to read to me from a book which contained Oscar Wilde’s fairy tales. The book was a Spanish translation of his complete works and it was only until years later that I realized that the stories there were first conceived in English; that El Príncipe Feliz was actually The Happy Prince, and that El Gigante Egoísta started out as The Selfish Giant. No matter. I love Oscar Wilde to this day, and even if I had never read anything else by him but those fairy tales he would still remain a hugely influential writer for me, because it is through him and his beautiful, lyrical, and haunting stories that I can trace my love of books and reading.
In the story, The Happy Prince, a young royal who ignored the suffering of others during his lifetime, is reborn as a gilded and bejeweled statue and placed on a pedestal in the center of the city by the town councilors for all to admire. From his vantage point, he can see the pain and destitution of the city’s poor for the first time. Deeply moved, he asks the help of a passing swallow to peel the gold leaf from his body and pick the jewels from his eyes and sword and distribute them to help alleviate the suffering of his people. Touched by the prince’s plea, the swallow delays his flight south for the winter to help his new friend. When the statue is no longer beautiful, the town councilors tear the prince down. The swallow, having missed his chance to fly south for the winter, dies of cold. Later, God asks one of his angels to bring him the two most precious things in the city. The angel returns with the swallow, and the broken heart at the center of the statue.
All these years later, I remember this story. I remember being moved by the friendship of the prince and the swallow and feeling angry that the town councilors would blindly ignore the love and sacrifice so evidently on display. But, it is more than the power of the story itself that makes it so memorable. Who knows how many times my mom read this to me. How many times I sat on her lap, or lay in bed next to her, while she recounted this allegory. How many times I stopped the story to ask a question or to ponder the reasons that the characters did what they did. This quiet, intimate ritual provides the ideal context and space to think these big thoughts.
For many of us, books and stories are the first time we recognize that ideas can exist outside of our own direct experience. They are our first introduction to complicated moral, philosophical, and social questions. And, unlike movies or TV shows, they require the reader or listener to be an active participant and provide the pictures to go along with the words. When we are young, they also require a loving guide to lead us through the worlds these stories inhabit.
Various members of the Children Today staff contribute to these blog posts.