As I began my new role as a Mental Health Consultant at Educare Head Start at Long Beach Unified School District, I was immediately introduced to teachers, staff and students. I was briefed on the high needs of the school and the community, as some students were presenting severely dysregulated behaviors such as hitting, yelling, cursing, running out of the classroom, and having frequent tantrums. My supervisors and I understood that these children had been exposed to severe or chronic stress or trauma, and that their nervous response system was being activated during normal classroom routines and transitions.

Children who have been chronically exposed to unpredictable and harmful routines at home (i.e. stress, yelling amongst adults, witnessing/experiencing physical violence), when placed in a safe and loving environment with structure and boundaries (i.e. preschool setting) will misconstrue a redirection as a threat, loud interaction between peers as life threatening, and sharing or taking turns as an exertion of power and control.

But understanding the stem of behaviors and being able to tend to these very big and triggering behaviors in the classroom are two very different things. Understanding behaviors as communication is one thing, applying your knowledge of the behavior at the time and place of the triggering behavior is another. Part of my role at Educare is to help teachers identify how to respond to the big emotions and unsafe behaviors children display in the classroom. Helping teachers understand the importance of our own regulation to assist children was the number one intervention shared, but tending to these behaviors day-in and day-out can be taxing on the teachers, as well as caregivers who receive daily reports of the “unsafe and inappropriate” behaviors their child is displaying in the classroom.

It was also important to incorporate parent engagement when addressing the dysregulated behaviors presented in the classroom. If chronic stress and/or trauma continues to be present at home, symptoms and behaviors will continue to arise in the classroom.

My goal was to provide a space for parents to have open discussions that would allow them to share the challenges they face as parents, receive validation for their hardships, and find community amongst each other.

Parent engagement, coffee and talking are some of my favorite things, so I decided to hold a series of parenting groups and call them “Parent Coffee Talks.” I invited parents to join me over coffee to discuss topics such as child development, ages and stages of children, healthy brain development, the impact of violence on child development, parenting styles, parenting stress, parent well-being, and intergenerational understanding of parenting and family cultures, to name a few.

As a mental health professional, I understand and know how parent engagement impacts positive outcomes for children in treatment. I am also acutely aware of the direct correlation between a parent’s well-being and the child’s well-being. It was my honor and privilege to engage parents in discussions about their well-being and to begin their journey of understanding their own up-bringing, current life stressors, and the impact stress has on their parenting style. Parent Coffee Talks became more than just a “group” that came together to learn about “parenting skills.” These talks were a safe space where parents could validate their challenges, reflect on their childhood experiences, and gain a greater understanding of their children’s current developmental, emotional and physical needs.

One of the fathers that consistently attended the Parent Coffee Talks stated, “I used to think these classes were just for the women to come gossip, but I learned a lot about myself and how to better respond to my children and others in my life.” When parents feel validated and supported in their struggles, they are better equipped to be emotionally available to their own children and provide the support and encouragement the child needs. It was my pleasure to be able to sit with parents and begin the dialogue of what healthy parenting means to them, how to develop skills, and how to honor their histories and their hopes for the future.

As we kick start the new school year, we are planning to host three Parent Coffee Talks to accommodate the parents’ different work schedules. We also hope to develop a fathers-only group with collaboration of some community agencies to bring awareness to the unique needs of fathers. At these talks we will continue to explore how severe or chronic stress and trauma impacts children and how parents can best support their children. Sometimes, this topic can be challenging and uncomfortable. But, when parents come together to seek and share solutions, a beneficial community of encouragement and solidarity is formed.

Priscilla Gomez, MSW is The Guidance Center’s Early Childhood and Trauma Care Clinician at Educare Los Angeles at Long Beach, where she provides outreach and education to parents reluctant to engage with teachers or mental health providers, direct mental health treatment to families and It’s About T.I.M.E. to support teachers and staff. Before joining The Guidance Center team in 2016, Gomez worked closely with children, teens and parents, providing individual and family therapy in a variety of settings. She has also been a family advocate, and run parent educational classes on the importance of age appropriate behaviors, how to develop healthy communication and how to create safe spaces to foster healthy and hopeful family well-being. Gomez earned a Masters of Social Work degree in Community Mental Health at California State University, Fullerton and a Bachelors of Art in Ethnic Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.