Armed with only a bag of toys, Wendy Sun, PsyD, brings mental health services to families in South Central Los Angeles, an area notorious for poverty and violence. Her mission? Visiting parents and other caregivers at home to help them develop good relationships with their children, from birth to age 5.
Wherever families need us, we go, says Sun, a clinical supervisor in the early intervention division at the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic. For these children, research shows that healthy attachment is the primary protective factor, says Sun. Without it, they are at risk of developing mental health problems, perhaps because of their chronically stressful environments. Safe spaces within their homes allow the children to focus on learning and emotional development, not just survival, adds Sun, whose clients are referred to the First Steps Program by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, the Department of Mental Health clinics, the Department of Public Social Services, and area preschools and day-care centers.
And the results are impressive: 55 percent of the children come to the program with delayed communication, a number that decreases to 40 percent after the six-month program. In addition, 35 percent of children come with fine-motor problems, compared with 5 percent upon follow-up.
On a typical visit, Sun brings toys, such as soft blocks, and encourages parents to get down on the floor with their children. By manipulating the blocks, children develop their fine-motor skills, and when parents and children build together, they learn teamwork and cultivate attunement.
"Through play, children learn and develop," says Sun. "Play increases a child's positive affect, and little ones start to use more words and communicate better, and we see a decrease in temper tantrums and acting out."
As the families bond more closely, Sun and her colleagues teach the parents to recognize and respond to the behavioral cues that their children are, for example, becoming frustrated with a task. Sun shows parents how to soothe their children by removing them from overwhelming environments or giving them favorite toys.
Sun says she was attracted to working in South Central Los Angeles because, as a Taiwanese immigrant, she sympathizes with her clients, many of whom are also from other countries.
"This population has so many needs, and they don't have the financial status to get those needs met," says Sun. "I know I can't change the world, but I am trying to do my little part to improve some people's quality of life."
This article is part of an occasional series highlighting the work of early-career psychologists.