In Los Angeles County, Latino children make up the majority of toddlers under the age of five who are ready to benefit from early education. These benefits include success in future school years and a higher chance of graduating from high school and going to college.
But for children with learning disabilities, going to preschool or an early education center could give them another crucial advantage: They are less likely to end up being placed in a special education program.
That’s because from an early age, they are surrounded by childcare providers and educators who are trained to identify warning signs in the first few years of their life.
Nancy Zambrano experienced that advantage first hand when her young son Nicolas started going to Dignity Health’s early education center Hope Street Margolis Family Center, where the two-year-old was found to have difficulty with speech.
“I didn’t realize that he wasn’t using that many words. They helped me to realize that here. I was a new mother, so I had no one to compare him with,” recalled Zambrano, a native of Ecuador who came to Los Angeles while she was pregnant and didn’t know anyone in the city.
“They evaluated him and determined that at two years old, he had the language ability of a 13-month-year-old. That’s what he was delayed in,” she said.
Fortunately for Zambrano, the Center’s staff guided her each step of the way and referred her to a regional center where her child could get the speech therapy he needed. Once there, he was also diagnosed with another condition that he got treatment for.
“It was great because in a month he was already improving, and the best thing was he got speech therapy in both languages, English and Spanish,” said Zambrano.
“Parents shouldn’t be afraid of what their child might have. They have to deal with it maturely and take action, like Nancy did. They should see it as a challenge, not a problem,” said Dr. Lucia Liberman-Bert, social services coordinator and clinical manager of the Hope Street Family Center, who worked directly on Nicolas’ case.
Some behavioral, learning and developmental disorders can start at an early age, including attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), dyslexia and even signs of autism.
The importance of detecting social-emotional abilities is that behavioral and emotional problems at an early age impede learning and pose future risks to the school setting, academic achievement and long-term vocational success in adolescence and adulthood, according to the study “From Neurons to Neighborhoods: the Science of Early Childhood Development.”
In his book “Disconnected Kids,” Dr. Robert Melillo, founder of the Brain Balance Centers and author of numerous studies on the brain, writes that about 1.5 million school-aged children (one in five 5 to 6 years olds) will be diagnosed with some kind of neurological disorder that will get in the way of learning and social interaction. “In the last decade in the United States, the number of students in special education classes has grown by 49.6 percent,” Melillo says in his book.
Samantha Coelho is the assistant director of the Brain Balance Center in Huntington Beach, where she works with children and adolescents who have been diagnosed with these kinds of disorders. The center offers physical therapy and cognitive support under the program created by Dr. Mellilo, which seeks to balance both hemispheres of the brain.
“Parents come to the center because the behavior of their children does not allow them to properly focus on school. These children have negative behavior, not because they are undisciplined, but because they are asking for help because they cannot learn,” said Coelho. “In most cases, teachers are the ones that have identified the problems and alerted parents.”
Alan Romero, who was diagnosed with ADHD at 8 years old, attended the Brain Balance Center, where he received these therapies with successful results. In most cases, children who complete this program end up performing at their grade level, overcoming a delay of two or more grades, Coelho said.
Unlike Nicolas, in Alan’s case it wasn’t until he started first grade that his teachers alerted his parents that his learning was delayed.
“As a teacher and as a director, I have seen cases with children who have no control of themselves or have no socialization. Teachers in our schools can identify whether a child may have ADHD. They receive this type of training and know how they can intervene or support them to correct the behavior,” said Celia Ayala, director of LAUP (Los Angeles Universal Preschool).
LAUP currently provides financial assistance to 500 schools and homes with early educational programs for 20,000 children across Los Angeles County.
“You may think it’s just a little kid or that the teacher isn’t patient with him. But when he finishes first grade, goes to second, then third grade, and the problem now is that something is impeding his learning, then you know you have to act and support him as much as you can,” recalled Alan’s father, Oscar Romero.
“If we wait until the child has failing grades in second or third grade, we are failing them because then they lose confidence in themselves,” says Ayala. “It’s a difficult conversation because to parents, our children are perfect, but we have to listen to the experts.”
Yet some mothers like Julia Mendoza still believe that their children are best raised with their grandparents. “I have no plans to put my child in preschool. I don’t think anyone can care for my child better than my mom,” said Mendoza, whose son is three years old.
Mendoza’s son is typical of many children of immigrants whose parents are hesitant to enroll them in an early education center. According to Barbara DuBransky, director of program development for First 5 LA, nearly half (47 percent) of immigrant children up to five years old are being raised in an “informal” environment.
Ayala believes that grandparents actually contribute a lot to a baby’s development, but do not replace the benefits of quality early education.
“We know that grandmothers and aunts can do a lot to provide a loving environment, but not everyone is trained to observe, evaluate and diagnose. Teachers are prepared for this.”
Liberman-Bert stressed that one of the major problems within the Latino community is fear and lack of information. “Fear of [not having] legal documents, [not speaking the] language, the fear that the child could be abused. None of that is more important than the wellbeing of the child. The earlier [we intervene], the better,” she said.
Early detection of special needs is not only crucial; it’s also convenient. Regional centers operated with state funds provide support for children’s development for toddlers up to three years old, often at no cost to parents.
Zambrano is a clear example that the support her son received in school was crucial.
“You have to get informed,” she said. “Read the flyers they give you from the time your baby is born in the hospital. Put it into practice, observe if babies are doing what they are supposed to be doing and don’t be afraid. Take action!”