FIU’s Center for Children and Families revolutionizes treatments for childhood mental health and behavior disorders.
—By Ayleen Barbel Fattal and JoAnn C. Adkins
For Kayla and Tim Riera-Gomez, the troubling phone calls from their son’s preschool started when he was only 3.
Christopher was misbehaving. He yelled at teachers. He threw things.
He had temper tantrums. His crying fits lasted as long as an hour. By the time he was 4, the school was threatening suspensions.
“At first, we thought it was willfulness, this kind of strength-of-personality that if we can get through it, he was going to do amazing things for the world,” Kayla said. “Then it progressed. We were receiving calls from the school, sometimes two and three a day.”
The parents were left wondering how a 4-year-old could get kicked out of preschool. They realized something more than just willfulness was afflicting their young son. And they realized he wouldn’t just grow out of it.
The parents were a happy couple that enjoyed professional success. Kayla is an attorney and Tim is a lobbyist. When Christopher was born, they thought they were starting a happy new chapter in their life. But the emotional fallout of Christopher’s daily challenges left them tired, confused and feeling helpless. It took a toll on their marriage. Christopher picked up on the stress, which only led to more behavioral issues.
Kayla and Tim talked to Christopher’s pediatrician. They met with the principal at his school, who offered to work with the family to help Christopher. But they were still left wondering — why was Christopher so mad?
They hired a behavioral aide that attended preschool every day with Christopher, but did so without a diagnosis since mental and behavior disorders are typically not diagnosed in children that young. Without a diagnosis, they could not bill the behavioral aide’s assistance to insurance. The expense was high, and they knew it could only serve as a temporary solution.
“Your child is the only one with an adult shadow. That doesn’t make them feel any better among their peers,” Tim said.
It was around that same time, Tim heard about FIU’s Center for Children and Families (CCF), a nationally recognized clinical center committed to improving the lives of children and families struggling with mental health concerns.
Kayla didn’t want to hear it. She knew little of their programs but thought the center was for families with bigger problems than theirs. Tim persisted. He talked to co-workers who had participated in some of the center’s programs. They talked about the positive effects on their children and on them as parents. Kayla finally decided to test it out. She attended a seminar by psychology professor Katie Hart on early interventions for children with behavioral, social-emotional and learning challenges. Kayla walked into the room on FIU’s campus with an open mind. She was hoping for some tips, maybe even some convincing that they could help. As Hart began speaking, the stoic mother was reduced to a puddle of tears.
“It was like Dr. Hart was inside our house,” Kayla said. “She described everything happening in our house, every fear we have.”
It was then that Kayla understood what CCF was offering her and her family. CCF’s psychologists understood the issues. They have seen it all before. They have studied it. And they continue to study it today. In that moment, Kayla went from “this isn’t for us” to “we need your help.” Kayla and Tim enrolled Christopher in the center’s award-winning Summer Treatment Program.
CCF was founded and is led by William E. Pelham Jr. — a pioneer in the field of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) research and treatment. He is the architect of the intensive Summer Treatment Program, where children receive 360 hours of treatment in just eight weeks — an equivalent of seven years worth of weekly one-hour sessions. The internationally lauded program has been replicated at many sites throughout the world.
Treatment plans are focused on improving problem-solving, academic performance and social skills. Parents also attend weekly training sessions to help develop the skills they need to support their child’s progress and improve their child’s behavior at home. For Christopher, he started each day with the simple task of writing his name. It was part of a daily routine, along with classroom learning, peer interaction and recreation. The structure is similar for each of the age groups, which range from pre-schoolers to teenagers, and the format is based on evidence-based treatments developed by the center’s top researchers. The day-to-day activities seem like traditional summer camp. But it’s the nuances of the behavioral therapy where change arises.
Nationwide, 20 percent of children suffer from a mental health disorder.
In Miami-Dade County alone, 1 in 4 children live in poverty and are two to three times more likely to develop mental health problems. Early diagnosis and intervention can make the difference between healthy development and a life plagued with lingering challenges.
Since its founding in 2010, the FIU Center for Children and Families has helped nearly 7,000 families. Ninety percent reside in Miami-Dade County. The center’s faculty has helped countless more around the world through research breakthroughs and the development of new treatments. In addition to the Summer Treatment Program, CCF offers infant and early childhood services, family and couples counseling, parent training, video teleconferencing therapy, school-based services, and customized treatment for children.
Research remains at the heart of all they do. With more than 40 faculty — including psychologists, psychiatrists, linguists, public health experts, and education researchers — CCF is the largest center in Florida conducting child mental health research. Its researchers have secured more than $70 million in grant funding and are currently addressing a number of questions for children with ADHD, anxiety and substance use. They continue to explore new methods of delivery for proven treatments, including whether parent training can be effectively conducted in families’ homes via the internet rather than in a clinic. The researchers continue to seek answers about what factors put children at the greatest risk for mental health problems. Pelham points out that while great strides have been made in understanding the adolescent mind and treatments for mental health disorders, there is still much to learn.
The center’s faculty members are also preparing the next generation of child mental health providers through training. As part of a partnership with Miami-Dade County Public Schools and The Children’s Trust, they have provided professional development for more than 6,000 teachers and staff in nearly 400 schools.
“Our goal at the center is to provide excellence in research, education and service regarding mental health in childhood,” Pelham said. “Not only serving and involving families in South Florida but also conducting research that informs the nation and the world about the nature, causes and treatment of mental health problems in childhood and adolescence.”
For the Riera-Gomez family, pictured above, their experience with CCF transformed the dynamic of their family. The tantrums became fewer. Kinder words were used in their house. Christopher started opening doors for people. Tensions started to settle. For Christopher, who a year ago was being shadowed by a behavioral aide in preschool, he is now thriving. His parents did not receive a single phone call about his behavior from his teacher during this past school year.
“We’re happy. Christopher is happy,” Tim said. “We’re happy that he’s happy.” ♦