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My Name Is Deena Smitherman: Thoughts On Improving The Early Care And Education System From A Parent’s Point Of View

July 26, 2019

This blog presents a parent's point-of-view on improving early care and education.

My name is Deena Smitherman. I am a Parent Leader at the Boston Family Engagement Network where I advocate on behalf of families with small children. I was introduced to the early care and education system through my experience with my own child. That experience was scary and it taught me a lot.

My second-born son didn’t speak until he was four years old. My only other experience had been with my first-born son who started speaking at 9 or 10 months old. My concerns about my second child being nonverbal (he had no language and made no sound at all) consumed my thoughts. As a parent, I needed to figure out how to get the resources I needed.

My first thought was my pediatrician. I had known him since I was 16 years old so I figured he would have the answers. But all he said was that he wasn’t going to worry about it until my son turned four. Anytime I brought it up him, he would repeat the same thing, encouraging me not to worry. Needless to say, all I did was worry. I was even encouraged by my family members to listen to the doctor because “he knows best.”

I’m the type of person who takes matters into her own hands. I went to the manager at my health clinic and expressed my concerns about not being heard by my pediatrician. I thought for a moment about my relationship with him and whether I might get him in trouble. I didn’t want to make waves, but my motherly instincts took over. Of course, after being referred to Early Intervention, my son was diagnosed with a speech delay and sensory integration issues.

It was my own gut, not any established protocol or system of care, that got my son the services he needed when he needed them. The services he received prepared him for the Head Start at which he spoke his first words – and where I still volunteer.

I encourage parents to stand behind what they believe is best for their children. But I also see instances in which the opportunities don’t exist for parents to act on those beliefs, leaving families without the care and services they need. Some of the problems with getting families what they know their children need include:

  • Program spaces fill up fast and families are turned away.
  • Screening processes aren’t sufficiently thorough and do not inform families about the services they may need before applying to Head Start.
  • Many programs aren’t affordable.
  • Many communities do not have early care and education facilities.
  • Undocumented families are afraid to leave their houses to enroll their children.
  • The quality of many programs is poor.
  • Teachers and caregivers are not equipped to/trained in how to handle some children’s mental health issues and behaviors.
  • There is no exchange of information between, for example, pediatricians and schools.

I have gone from being a parent with my own disability (I suffer from severe anxiety, have debilitating panic attacks, and have not been outside a certain square radius of my home in over 21 years) and in search of answers for my son, to being a parent leader who now provides other parents with many of the answers I sought. I know I have defied the odds. But, for various reasons, not all parents can access what their children need. This needs to change. All children deserve excellent care and services.


Deena Smitherman is a Parent Leader at Boston’s Mattapan Family and Community Engagement and is also part of the Collaborative Parent Leadership Action Network (CPLAN). Deena is the co-creator of Mattapan’s Young Men’s Leadership Program and participates in the Edgewater Drive Neighborhood Association, which is committed to empowering teenagers to make better life better choices. She also sits on the Center for the Study of Social Policy’s Parent Leader Network Steering Committee, where she helps to raise awareness on race equity, parent leadership, and the importance of community engagement.

Deena is the mother of three sons, one of whom works for the US Department of Justice as an FBI field agent. She seeks to share the message that a single mother can raise productive, successful young men, no matter where they come from.

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