I first became familiar with the work of licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Michelle Nitka when I was researching preschools for my daughter, and a friend loaned me her copy of Coping with Preschool Panic, the must-have tome devoted to demystifying the process of applying to private Los Angeles preschools. Although the book is aimed at Los Angeles parents, it’s a useful resource for any parents beginning the process of choosing a preschool for their child.
In addition to being awed by the sheer amount of research she had done for the book, I was struck by the fact that Dr. Nitka was addressing a broader range of families than just parents of “typical” kids. I also deeply appreciated the fact that she encouraged parents to consider their own needs, in addition to those of their child, with regard to commute, cost, and scheduling-related issues.
Shortly thereafter, I had an opportunity to collaborate with Dr. Nitka, and I have continued to refer to her often when I am working with families that are applying to preschool, Kindergarten, or are interested in transferring elementary schools. She is unique in her individualized, intuitive and data-driven approach to helping parents identify the right school for their child. She takes the time to understand each child and his or her broader family culture, recognizing that when it comes to school selection, one size does not fit all.
Dr. Nitka maintains a private practice in Hancock Park in which she offers a range of services for parents who are seeking assistance with regard to preschool and elementary school placement. Her warm and calming manner counterbalances the often-stressful process of applying to private L.A. schools.
Here, she offers tips on navigating the private school application process when you have a not-so-typical child.
A Q&A with Dr. Michelle Nitka
What in your own history, training, and professional experience has contributed to your ability to understand the social-emotional and educational needs of children who do not necessarily fit “inside the box”?
I have a general belief that all kids will face challenges at some point in their lives, and so, if you have a young child who you know is having an issue, you can start to address it early, and part of addressing it is by being in the right school.
What are some important factors to consider when selecting a school for a child who is highly sensitive to the emotional and sensory aspects of his/her surroundings?
When it comes to selecting a school for your child, you really have to be looking at your own child, and your own child’s needs. It doesn’t matter what all your friends are saying, or what’s the most popular school, you really have to look at your own child. One of the most important factors to consider when you are talking about children who are sometimes overwhelmed or distractible, is how many children there are in a classroom. The range is pretty dramatic. You have some schools that have 12 to 14 children in a class for Kindergarten, and some that will have up to 30 children in the class for Kindergarten. For children who are getting overwhelmed by stimuli, or who do have challenges with focus and attention, or may be are slow to warm, the number of children in the class, the size of the school, and the overall level of stimulation can be huge factors in how well they’re able to transition and feel comfortable in that environment.
Are there steps that parents can take to help prepare their child for Kindergarten interviews? For example, if their child tends to be slow to warm or has difficulty following directions?
It’s very dependent on each individual child. One of the most important things is really looking at who your child is, and knowing that every child will have strengths and challenges. As part of the Kindergarten application process, your child will be exposed to several different types of environment, and you can prepare by looking at their strengths and challenges at home, and check with their preschool teachers and director to get their input, as well. Once you have an understanding of your child's strengths and challenges, you will be in a position to be able to help support any areas of challenge. For example, most Kindergarten interviews involve an assessment of executive functioning skills, including being able to follow directions, being able to start a task and complete a task, and being able to organize, and so if you know that your child is having trouble in one of these areas, such as following multistep directions, you can begin practicing this skill at home, and really give them as much practice as possible. If you know that your child has difficulty separating from you, then you can set up play dates and give him/her opportunities to practice separating in new situations, so that he or she doesn’t get hit hard, and it’s not a crunch right before the assessment.
You recently went through the process of assisting your own daughter in applying to college. Are there lessons from that experience that have informed your approach to supporting families through the preschool and elementary school application process?
Going through the college search and application process with my daughter really reinforced the importance of going to see each school for yourself. It doesn’t matter what anyone says about it, it doesn’t matter what the website looks like. What’s most important is your gut feeling when you’re actually on the campus, seeing if the students and teachers seem happy, and whether the overall experience resonates for you, and if you could see your child being happy in that environment. This is true starting in preschool all the way through college. It’s only when you place yourself in the environment that you can really ask, “Is this a fit?”