Specialized Preschools Help Toddlers Counter the Trauma of Homelessness

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It was naptime at the Magic Carousel Preschool and Academy in Ventura, but 2-year-old Justin was having none of it.

“Are you ready for nap, Justin?” asked child development specialist Maria McDaniels gently as another preschool worker dimmed the lights and other children in the class moved toward cots laid out on the floor.

The little boy turned his head sharply and squealed. He looked worried.

Unperturbed, McDaniels grabbed a pinwheel from behind a bookcase and sat down next to him.

“Ready?” she said. “Smile. Take a deep breath.”

The two began blowing on the little wind turbine to make it spin, and Justin’s face softened. After a couple of minutes, he walked with her to his cot.

Naptime struggles are not unusual for this age group, but Justin, whose name has been changed because he is a minor, had good reason to feel anxious about going to sleep, McDaniels explained. The toddler is one of two homeless children enrolled at the preschool as part of a recently launched program called Step Up Ventura. The program—which plans to enroll a total of 15 homeless students at the preschool—hires specialists to work with the children on behavioral and developmental skills, including taking regular naps.

Children like Justin, who currently lives in transitional housing, frequently have trouble falling asleep because they’ve moved around a lot, often sleeping in different beds each night and in environments they don’t feel safe in, McDaniels said. This unpredictability affects them in other ways too: they may find it hard to trust adults, feel secure at school and manage emotions, and they are often developmentally behind other children of the same age, said program director Mary Kerrigan.

Step Up Ventura, which started in August, is the newest of several preschool programs for homeless children operating throughout the state. Others are based in Kern, Riverside, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, San Mateo and Yolo counties, according to the First 5 Association of California, which represents and helps coordinate county-level programs that receive money from the state through First Five California. Programs are usually free to homeless families, or require a nominal fee. Step Up Ventura, for example, funds its specialized staff through private donations and asks parents to obtain county-administered childcare vouchers for low-income families to offset the basic preschool cost.

The programs vary in setup and approach. Some are located on-site at homeless shelters, others are stand-alone preschools, and at least two—the program in Ventura and one in Riverside—help children who are homeless integrate into regular preschool. Many provide specialized support for the children, such as developmental screenings, behavioral intervention and individualized education plans. Some also offer assistance to the children’s caregivers, such as parenting education, therapy and help getting a job or accessing social services.

According to Kidsdata.org, almost 30,000 California children who are kindergarten age and younger are homeless and attending public education programs. However, the number of very young homeless children is likely much higher because few of them are already attending school so they’re not counted by the California Department of Education, said Jessica Berthold, Communications Director with First 5 Association of California. Notably, children in preschool through Grade 5 make up more than half of the state’s school-age homeless population, suggesting young children may be at a heightened risk for homelessness.

The California Department of Education defines homelessness as living on the street, in a shelter, in a hotel or motel, or doubled up with other families because of loss of a home or economic hardship.

In Santa Barbara, the Storyteller Children’s Center has served homeless and traumatized children for almost 30 years. The center operates what it calls a “therapeutic preschool” for about 100 children at two sites, with teachers trained to recognize and address problem behaviors and developmental setbacks common among children who have experienced harrowing events, said Executive Director Donna Barranco Fisher. The center also provides speech and language therapy, dental and vision screenings, healthy meals, and support services for the families. It’s funded through state, federal and foundation grants, and private donations.

Children at the center may be living parks, in cars, or in substandard housing with multiple families crammed into a one-bedroom apartment, Barranco Fisher said. Some have witnessed extreme domestic violence or been abused, she said. The effects of these experiences on the children can manifest as aggressive or inappropriate behavior, withdrawal, speech delays and difficulty socializing with others, she said.

“The children have experienced so much trauma, they don’t know how to process it,” she said. They “have the types of behaviors that prevent you from learning the way you should learn because you’re so filled with anxiety, so filled with emotion it doesn’t allow you to be open to learning.”

Homeless children benefit from specialized preschool programs because at regular preschools, their behavior may not be recognized as a response to traumatic events, Barranco Fisher said. According to a report by the National Center on Early Childhood Health and Wellness, preschoolers are expelled at three times the rate of children in kindergarten through 12th grade, suggesting many preschools are ill-equipped to handle trauma-related behavior.

Ted Lempert, executive director of the advocacy group Children Now, said homelessness is harmful to the health and wellbeing of children of all ages, but especially to those of preschool age.

‘There’s so much research now on the first five years and how much a child’s brain and social development is set in those early years,” he said. “You put homelessness on top of that and it really has such a detrimental effect.”

Lempert agreed specialized preschool programs for homeless kids are a good idea.

“Of course, a better solution is to not have them homeless,” he said. “It’s sort of sad we have to be talking about this.”

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