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© Salvador Paniagua (CII Development )


In Conversation with Dalila Rodriguez of Children's Institute, Inc.

by Dalila Rodriguez
June 25, 2018

This interview with Dalila Rodriguez, the educational manager at CII, was conducted and condensed by frank news.

Would you start by introducing yourself?

I'm the education manager at CII. Once upon a time, I was a home visitor and then moved my way into a site supervisor position and was there for a couple of years. Now I'm the education manager. I have moved away from being the administrator over programs and getting that one-on-one face-to-face with families like I did back then. My role is to support staff development and to improve the quality of the services that we provide in all aspects, so curriculum and teaching instruction.

What are the services you provide and who are you serving?

We provide early childhood services educational programs for children and families, birth to five. We have a multitude of programs. One of them, for example, is our home-based program. Our home visitors go into the homes for families, we call that Early Head Start. We start with mothers that are pregnant and then up until three years old. So about 2.6, they transition into a center-based program.

Then we have our center-based programs, which we have from birth to five years of age. Those are called Early Head Start and Head Start center-based programs. We have also programs that are solely funded by the state of California. Those are pre-K programs. We serve about 2,000 children in the community approximately.

Within our Head Start framework, it's a comprehensive program. It's not just educational-based services, but rather it looks at the entire family unit. We know that at that early age, in early intervention programs we want to make sure that we're addressing the entire family. There's someone whose sole role is to work with the families to find out what their goals are as a family. 

Then it's the family community partnership team's role and responsibility to build partnerships in the community where we can get resources that are going to support that family. We actually have parents that have finished school, finished their degrees, and work for our agency now, which is amazing to know that, wow, this parent started coming in and asking for help for their child but ended up getting support for themselves, too. We also have a health department. We have a registered nurse on staff as well as a consultant.

We also have our mental health managers. We have a mental health component and we have specialists that go out to the sites. The teacher identifies that there may be a concern with the child experiencing some type of stress or trauma, atypical behavior. They'll write out a referral, they'll send it out to the team. The team goes out and observes the child and then identifies if they qualify for early intervention or if it is a disability ... usually it's both. We all work together: education, disabilities, and mental health. We call it the dream team. All of them have a role in observing on different days and times to see the child's behavior and to make sure that from the education lens, the teacher doing everything they're supposed to be doing to make sure that this child has the environment and the experiences that they need to be successful in the classroom.

Wow. That's a lot. Let's take a step back, can you specific "community" and who you serve?

The Los Angeles population. We concentrate our services to the highest need communities, so for example, our highest concentration of Head Start programs from three to five are in the South Los Angeles area. Our main office is right on Figueroa and Florence. All of the schools, we have about 20+ schools that are within a five mile radius of that center. We have schools in our housing developments over at Nickerson Gardens, Imperial, Avalon.

Are you in Jordan Downs as well?

We're in Jordan Downs, Imperial Courts, Nickerson, Avalon. Yes, we're in all of them. We're also in the South Vermont Green Meadows area, so on the other side of the 110 Freeway. We go as far as Western. That's about as far as we go. The best way I could gauge it is about a five mile radius. We have services out in Compton as well.

What percentage of the kids you're working with are dealing with a parent who's incarcerated?

Percentage-wise, I wouldn't be able to tell you. I could ask our family community partnership specialist because during enrollment, those are some of the things that they may or may not disclose.

Most commonly we find out about it in the classroom. The teacher will usually be the first one to find out about situations like that.

It's not something we really quantify where we're like, "Oh, this many children have this many parents incarcerated." It's not something we track to a certain extent.

How do you engage with children who are dealing with trauma?

It's very case-by-case. Basically the way it goes is if the teacher identifies or the home visitor identifies there's something happening here that's not typical, they'll reach out to their mental health specialist. The mental health specialist observes and then from there, we have to have consent. A lot of the barriers we find is obtaining consent.

Some of the work that our mental health team is doing right now is debunking those mental health stigmas that are out there with our families. A lot of our families, even though they understand and they are asking for help for their child because they know something's wrong, they don't want to be labeled.

That's one of the areas we're working on currently. Our mental health manager and FCP manager just got a grant to do some work with families around that. We just started that journey recently. Let's say they do sign the consent and we do get that acknowledgement from the parents, the mental health specialist and the education team that is working with that child go in to provide some early intervention support for the teacher in the classroom first. Step one will be to set up some classroom strategies that are going to help support that child. Right now what we're working on is in implementing a new social emotional curriculum. It's called Conscious Discipline, which is an adult first approach. Something we've noticed too is that teachers are not equipped.

When I went to school, no one told me this is something that you could potentially experience and here are the strategies for you to use in the situation. It's very much the education component and not as much like these are children that ... these are some of the common things you'll see when you see a child that is experiencing stress or trauma. You really learn as you go.

Part of the adult first model is really helping them cope first. Practicing relaxation exercises, how to breathe, how to channel some of your positive energy into that child, and then be able to understand also what is happening in that child's physiological state.

We've been learning a lot about brain development and what trauma causes to the brain. We call it QTIP, Quit Taking it Personal. It's not about you, it's about what's happening to this child. We're supporting teachers and learning how to first cope with that. Then what you transpire or what you're feeling, you're going to emanate. You're going to transfer that to the child. Our goal is to calm them, so how do we calm ourselves first and then approach? 

We work on setting a plan with the family. The teacher, the family, the administration, the specialist all get together and have a multidisciplinary team meeting. We acknowledge the parent for whatever things that are happening in the home. Sometimes the home and the school can be very different. It could be that they're great at school and then at home, the parent is really not able to know how to work with the child, or vice versa.

There are times when we refer to our overall CII mental health program, which are more intensive therapies like Parent Child Interactive Therapy. PCIT. The Parent Child Interactive Therapy program is one of the ones that we refer to the most. Again, it's parent-centered, so it's focusing on the parent's role and how they interact with the child.

How does CII decide where there needs to be a physical presence? 

The CII's overall mission has always been to work with children and families that have been impacted by some sort of trauma, violence, things that are happening in the community. We acquired the grants over in the Watts/South Los Angeles area about four years ago. 

Head Start has very rigorous requirements that we have to follow. Sometimes agencies do not keep up to par with what the Office of Head Start requires.

What is the Office of Head Start?

The Office of Head Start is the grant that we acquire from the federal government. This is how we get the money to offer the services that we provide.

Is everything is government funded here?

Not everything, but mostly. Most of it comes from the Office of Head Start, which is a federally funded government program. That's a nationwide program. We also have state funding, which is the California Department of Ed. For example, this school is a state funded school. They're solely state funded.

Are the national and state guidelines different or at all contradictory?

They're not necessarily contradictory. They're different in the sense that they don't have the comprehensive component. Early Head Start and Head Start that come from the federal government require the comprehensive model.

And the state does not require that.

The state funded programs are more modeled towards families who are experiencing poverty, but are working and/or are going to school, so they qualify for these services. They're still families experiencing poverty. With Head Start, what we find, is that it's more intergenerational poverty where they are not coming out of that cycle. With State funded, we see that they're more young parents that are wanting to go to school but cannot afford childcare. There are immigrant families that have come here and are having trouble finding work, or they may work but they're not making very much. They're making minimum wage.

Are there guidelines where you are dealing with immigrant families?

No. At this point, we don't ask for immigration status. In terms of second language learners, for example, this population here Mid-Wilshire and Otis Booth, this location is highly Korean. They are also coming in with ESL, second language needs. They're also experiencing the same types of immigration issues and poverty issues that all of our Hispanic families are. It's just that we have to modify in terms of language and making sure that we have translation and things like that available for them.

One of the things that I know our family community partnership team has been working on is doing workshops and informationals at parent meetings regarding immigration.

What we know will happen is domestic violence will rise because mothers will no longer feel empowered to call 911. That's the first signal that that you know things are going south in that direction.

We know our families are experiencing things that are beyond even our comprehension. When you hear the things that happen, it's just like, "Okay. Wow. Where do we start?" I know that's going to be one of the things we're going to see. I know from experience with knowing families that your automatic instinct is don't call the police. Don't go to certain events. Don't go to these things because then you just don't know. Now, with the whole separation of families, who knows what ... That's just an added layer of fear. Fortunately, I feel like we've built a good rapport with the community that we've been working with to support them in still coming to us. It seems like they're still bringing their children to school.

Part of the work that we're doing is trying to really let families know how much more we have to offer because of the type of funding that we have. That we're not just focused on the child's education, we're focused on the whole family's success as a family unit and getting them out of poverty and trying to support the steps that they need to do that. If they've experienced trauma, then getting them the tools and the resources that they need to be able to not only help their child but to help themselves to overcome.

What do you feel is CII's most urgent work?

One of the overall common trends amongst families is wanting the best for their child and wanting to learn how to support their child through the educational system or understanding development and milestones. For us, we have this window of opportunity to get the families in and build trust with them so that they know that we have their child's best interest in mind. While we will get to the educational pieces, we know coming in as an agency that understands trauma, that we're not going to get to the educational pieces now.

We need to focus on their approaches to learning, their social emotional development, their social emotional wellness.

Part of the early childhood services side is really helping parents understand development and understand how the environment in the family impacts their child. We can't get them to write their name until we can help them self-regulate and sit in a chair. If your child is still running rampant in the classroom, they're not really ready to learn how to do one plus one, or know their shapes, or know their colors because there's something happening.

Educating the family is our highest priority in terms of really supporting them as educators and advocating for them to say, "Okay, I understand what is good for my child. I understand that learning in terms of academia will come when I have the foundational pieces in place." 

Do you feel like CII is on the right path in the way you're working with these families?

Taking a look at our data is very important to us and really analyzing it and understanding what it's telling us so that we know whether or not we're on the right track and what different things we can do to approach it. We can make assumptions all we want, but at the end of the day, what type of data do we have to support that? As of now, it seems like we're on the right track.

Some work we're doing this year is really getting teachers more trauma informed-style trainings that are going to help them understand the process of trauma. What to look for and how to understand it and then build some empathy around it so that they can cope. Then they can do their best to support that child and their family. It's all around understanding the brain. They call it the survival state, the emotional state, and the executive state. They're all pieces of the brain and how they work and how they work when under stress, when under trauma. Then how do we get to the executive functioning? It's really interesting work. I love the adult first approach to it.