Mary Clare – Play as a Pathway to Healing
Mental Health and Disabilities Coordinator is a not a position you will find in most early childhood centers, but a conversation with Mary Clare Monahan – SouthSide’s in-house Mental Health and Disabilities Coordinator– makes it clear just how critical a position this is. Often, Mary Clare’s involvement with a student begins with the screenings that teachers and parents complete for each child annually. These screenings identify children who are struggling with behavioral or emotional challenges. Once these children are referred to Mary Clare, the first step is to meet individually with the parents and classroom teacher. Together, a strategy is created to deal with the challenges the child is facing, both at school and at home. These may include individualized play therapy sessions in Mary Clare’s office, individualized support in the classroom, identification of effective behavioral strategies for both teachers and parents or referrals to outside professionals.
Mary Clare’s role is not just confined to working with our students, however. She also provides support for families, and since she is also fluent in Spanish, her help is not limited to English speakers alone. She offers individual counseling and crisis intervention to parents and guardians, and she works to connect parents with service providers in the community who can help them create safe, stable homes. “Building parent capacity” is the terminology Mary Clare uses, and in her opinion, the pre-K years are the optimal time to introduce mental health services for those who need them.
“The earlier issues with children can be addressed, the better. Children with a strong social-emotional foundation are much more likely to succeed in school and make healthy friendships.” For Mary Clare, emotional health always comes back to the family. Mary Clare knows that the key to success is for the families to have the skills they need to create strong bonds and a stable home environment. More and more research underlines the importance of early childhood education, and the science is undeniable – a child’s experience from birth to five years of age significantly shapes his or her future. “Toxic stress experienced by children living in poverty is a hot topic right now. Especially given SouthSide’s high need population, it is important to be truly ‘trauma-aware’ when viewing a child’s behavior, how they self-regulate, and their attachments. This is a critical time to intervene.”
Mary Clare first became interested in social work in high school and college. For a few summers she worked in Alabama with Migrant Head Start. It was there that she was exposed to the challenges faced by families in crisis. These often included dealing with the effects of isolation, especially for those who had recently immigrated. It was also during this time that she realized how much she loved working with children.
During her years at SouthSide, Mary Clare has worked with children in several capacities. She worked for two years as a teacher in a two-year-old classroom before leaving to pursue her Master of Social Work with a focus on children and families, from Washington University in St. Louis. She then returned to SouthSide and has served as the Mental Health Coordinator for the past 3 and a half years.
When asked what brought her back to SouthSide, Mary Clare is quick to respond. “We have great families – they are so involved. They play a big role in making the school what it is.” She continues, “Seeing the progress families make over time is the best part of my job. My favorite thing is when a family comes back with another child or has a niece or nephew enroll in the program. It’s building these strong ongoing connections that I love.”
Learn more from Mary Clare herself!