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Liliana Gonzalez

Photo: Liliana Gonzalez I graduated in 2013, and now I work as a bilingual school psychologist for the Oceanside Unified School District, with the preschool assessment team, where I do all the bilingual assessments for preschoolers. We work onsite at Ditmar Elementary, and I’ve been at the school for 3 years. 

 

Spring 2016


The grant definitely helped me with understanding how to assess children of multicultural backgrounds, especially Latino children. Even though I grew up speaking Spanish, I improved my Spanish skills significantly, so I can better work with the children and families. My Spanish was already good — I was proficient before — but it helped me develop my professional Spanish so I can communicate more effectively with Latino families.

My professional Spanish improved through seminars and immersions, where we took Spanish classes and learned the terminology to talk about assessments. We also learned about communicating in context, how to use professional Spanish when needed but also when to use language that was more understandable to parents. Not all parents would probably understand the terminology — so we learned about how to use the right language in the right situation.

 

Preschoolers

I’m very happy working with the preschool population. I like working in preschool because we work so closely with the families. The preschool kids are young, of course, so the parents are a huge part of the assessment. In an elementary or middle or high school, there’s not as much interaction with the parents. The kids at this age can’t really speak for themselves yet, because they’re so little. I’m certified to work with any age group, but I started to work with preschoolers in my internship — a year before I graduated. I realized I enjoyed working with them. During assessments, I may play with kids on the floor. We’re not sitting at a table, like you would with older kids. I look for different developmental signs: if they’re playing with cars, are they rolling them around on the floor? Do they pretend play in an age-appropriate way? Can they grasp things? (Fine motor skills.) Can they do a puzzle? (Cognitive skills.) Do they walk appropriately? Play is their main form of activity at this age. They don’t know how to sit and answer questions, so we have to work at their developmental level to get some of that information.

 

A perfect fit

When I was looking for a job, they needed a bilingual school psychologist who had preschool experience. So this job was a perfect fit. Not everyone loves working with preschoolers, and some people maybe aren’t into being on the floor! Some people like high school age kids, or doing counseling. And maybe they don’t want to work with the parents as much. For me, it’s a perfect fit.

I live in the community, and I see some of my families at the grocery store, not just at school. It’s fun when I see them out in the community, in different places. I see lots of siblings. I have 2 kids right now who are siblings of an older child who I assessed 2 years ago. The parents remember me, and they know the process now, so that’s neat, too.

 

Knowledge of Mexican cultures

Besides improving my Spanish, the grant also helped me understand that different parts of Mexico have different kinds of cultures. I went on 4 immersions to 4 different states: Oaxaca, Chiapas, Yucatan, Queretaro. We lived in homes with a host family, and went to a school site daily to work with the children. It’s nothing like a tourist experience! I also learned to understand the school system in Mexico. In Oaxaca, there are lots of political protests about education, teachers protesting about salaries, for instance, and school is often canceled. So kids typically miss out on lots of school. Other rural kids might not go to school at all. When they move to the U.S. and start school here, it helps that I understand this fact. They might be referred for a learning disability – and someone without my background might think the child really has a disability.

Before going on immersion I wasn’t familiar at all with Oaxaca and the influence of indigenous culture there. There are over 20 diff indigenous languages in that state! Each subculture has its own way to dress and its own rituals and festivities. When I was growing up, I thought every Mexican family was just like mine — they spoke Spanish, they were Catholic, they celebrated the same holidays . . . I had no idea there were such differences. Now I know I can’t assume people are like me, just because they come from Mexico.

Where I’m working now, in Oceanside, we have a large Oaxacan population, and I definitely understand the people there better because of my Oaxacan immersion experience. I’ve heard that the Oaxacan population in Oceanside is the largest outside of Oaxaca. Lots of families here are migrant workers. Lots of them speak one of the indigenous languages other than Spanish as their first language. I've learned that the parents might be ashamed that they speak an indigenous language, and they may not be open to sharing this fact because there’s prejudice. Other Hispanics might look down on them. That’s how it is in Mexico, so they hide it. Usually they speak their language at home, but not out in public. I understand how to talk to them and gather the information I need to help their child, without making them feeling shameful.

We might be assessing a child who’s from Mexico, and everyone naturally assumes the child speaks Spanish. So when we give the child a test in Spanish, and she doesn’t do well, I look into whether it’s maybe because she isn’t exposed to Spanish in the home. These are preschool kids who are so young that they don’t have a lot of experience of hearing language spoken outside the home. It may not be a matter of disability if the child doesn’t do well in Spanish. It may be just a language difference.

 

Language in the home

Lots of families think, “Oh, let me just speak English at home, to help out my kids.” But I tell parents, the research shows that the more you speak to them in their native language now, the better they’ll be able to speak English later on. They’ll get their English at school. They should build a strong foundation in their native language while they’re little. It’s normal to switch languages as a young child, and learn more than one. They don’t get confused. It’s really not hard for small kids to grow up with more than one language at a time. For instance, my own parents were from Mexico. My mom is from Jalisco and my dad is from Zacatecas. They always emphasized speaking Spanish at home. We weren’t even allowed to speak English at home. I grew up in L.A. area, and I learned English when I went to school.

 

Career change

As an undergrad, I was studying to be an interior designer, and I had a part-time job in a school. My job at the school was to give all the English learners a state English language development test. It’s a standardized test for all students who are learning English, if it’s not their first language.

During that time, I began to realize that the test didn’t really measure English language proficiency. It was a culturally-biased test. For instance, they were supposed to look at 4 pictures that tell a story. There was a house, a backyard, people picking up items and giving money to a woman. It was supposed to be about a yard sale. But lots of my kids lived in apartment buildings and didn’t even know what a yard sale was — or what was happening in the pictures. Or maybe they didn’t recognize the items in pictures in a vocabulary test, since these items didn’t exist in their household.

One day I met the school psychologist and asked him about his job, and I found it really fascinating. Around that time, I realized that I was enjoying going to work more than going to school to study interior design. I was really enjoying working with the children who were bilingual. I discovered I had more of a talent for working with bilingual kids and families than doing art. It was more meaningful, more fulfilling, and I realized that this is what I wanted to do.

My parents are so extremely proud of everything I’ve done. I can’t even describe it. They both have just a first grade education. To have their daughter go through graduate school and become a school psychologist is something they’re very proud of.

 

Connecting with families

There was one student when I was working at this elementary school who was a 5th grader. He had moved to the U.S. in second grade, and he’d never even gone to school before that. They put him right into the second grade, in an English language classroom. Of course he was still behind, even by the 5th grade, when I met him. Sometimes, you really need to explain to other professionals in the school, shed some light on situations like these, and take away some judgment from them so they can really understand. Also, this boy’s dad was young and illiterate and had never been to school. For him, to talk to a school professional, of course it was intimidating. The school might think this dad didn’t care. "Why don’t you come to meetings and participate? Why aren’t you helping your child with his reading homework?" They don't consider that the boy's dad might be illiterate, and might be working 2 jobs.

It helps to build a connection to families, between school and home, and let the parents feel understood. I know to listen to them, and I share stories of my own family, my own grandparents who were illiterate. I explain that I know it’s hard in rural areas to get your kids to school, that it’s important to work on the land . . . that I understand their culture, because it’s my culture, too. And that really helps the parents.

I work with so many families from different circumstances. One family was from northern Mexico, and the mom had initial concerns about language. By speaking to them in Spanish, they really opened up to me, and there was so much more to their story. Her husband had been deported, and then was abducted by a drug cartel. They were calling her and asking for money, threatening to kill her husband. Eventually, he got back to the U.S. and was granted asylum for personal safety, so the husband was now back in the home but suffering from post-traumatic stress. The mom came in to see me, concerned about language delay in her child, but it was obvious the family was struggling with so much more.  Understanding the culture and the politics, and that these things happen in Mexico, I work to connect families with community resources. I’m able to provide resources not just for education but for the family as a whole.

I really do connect a lot with the parents. It helps that they see someone who kind of looks like them, and who speaks the same language. That makes it easier for them to open up, for us to connect, and that’s important in working with families to get them the help they need.


Disabilities explained

Since I do mostly assessments, I’m the one who explains to parents what disabilities are. As the first person to explain to them that their child has a disability, I need to focus on telling them in a culturally appropriate way.

In certain rural areas, some families might believe that a spirit is somehow inhabiting a child’s body. I remember that one Oaxacan family thought there was a spiritual reason why their child had autism. So not everyone understands what a disability really is. I deal with all kinds of disabilities: kids who have speech and language impairments or delays, kids with autism, intellectual disability, children who are deaf, blind, have health issues such as cancer or leukemia, and are maybe undergoing treatment. And these are all preschoolers, aged 3 to 5. They don’t show depression or anxiety, but I'm always aware that the parents may really be suffering for their child.

 

Huge sigh of relief

The grant is great if you want to learn more about yourself and other cultures and become truly a bilingual and also bicultural school psychologist. I apply these skills not just to Mexican or Latino students and families. If I have a parent from Vietnam or Africa, I can apply the same principles. I ask them about their language, about what school was like in their home country.

Now that I work with bilingual families on a daily basis, I truly feel competent and confident in my area of expertise. There are several of us bilingual school psychologists from SDSU who work in the Oceanside district. We get together once a month, and we all work to make a difference in the district for the families and all of the children.

It really feels good. I always thank my education at SDSU and the grant. Everyone there has really impacted my life significantly. I do genuinely feel that the program and the grant have really inspired me, my life, my career. I was one of those kids in school who struggled. Not academically, but I didn’t see another person in my school — other than maybe the lady in the cafeteria — who was Latina. And now, when the families come and they see there’s someone who speaks Spanish there . . . I see a huge sigh of relief. There’s someone here who I can talk to, someone who understands.

The whole child

"The grant really helped me to understand that being a bilingual school psychologist means knowing how to use the right tools, and how to look at the child’s different ecosystems: what’s going on at home, what’s happening in the child’s community, at school . . . all the different environments in their life.

The program is really big on a systemic approach, looking at all the different components in a child’s life."