Ride with Me: A child behavioral therapist in Monterey, CA

Exploring the city

A sea otter is the first image my mind conjures when someone mentions Monterey, California. Like for many Bay Area millennials who made trips there with their families during childhood, the town’s name for me is nearly synonymous with its famous, beloved aquarium.

Exploring Monterey again as an adult expands my mental representation of this city of 28,000, which I learn was founded in 1770 and originally the only port of entry for all taxable goods in California.

 Walking its unexpectedly artsy downtown streets in my black peacoat (buttoned all the way up—average temperatures are 54 degrees at this time of year), I pass by arrays of charming knick-knacks on display in store windows.

Inside one, rows of glass skulls the size of babies’ fists grin at passersby alongside confused crabs, frazzled-seeming frogs, and insouciant sharks.

Inside another, striking portraits of big cats catch my eye. Artist Debbie Griest, who has traveled through the Savannas of Africa and the jungles of Central America, painted them. The adjacent placard describes her work as “providing a window into the beauty of our natural environment” as well as “a glimpse into the life of wild animals who radiate power, grace, dignity, and presence.”

After strolling past O My Sole and then Comfoot Spa (which Autocorrect, unamused, attempts three times to change back to Comfort), I’m about to say that Monterey has a proclivity for foot puns, but it stops after those two.

Inside a cafe across the street from a French hotel, where I order a coffee with a name that’s super fun to say (“Organic Sprocket Rocket”), rock-patterned walls make for a castle-like interior, while slabs of wood serve as tables below purple ceilings. A lone cactus rises up from a red-orange clay saucer at the center of a communal one, its quills stabbing at the air.

Men in flannel seem to be a thing here, at least today. One of them, who looks like a younger Joey Fatone—hair buzzed at the sides, fluffy and floppy at the top— sinks back into a black leather chair before an empty fireplace, computer open on his lap and a grey sketchbook off to his side. **Autocorrect has been cranky and mean-spirited today, refusing to accept the validity of poor Joey’s name in its relentless attempts to change it to “Fat-one.”

Finally, down at the beach:

“Daniel , can I hit you with my stick?” a kid politely asks his friend.

I don’t see any otters today, but do smile when I envision them clutching seaweed and holding paws with one another while I transport passengers around their cool breezy city.


The passengers

A little girl, who has just left the Monterey Bay Aquarium with her parents, cradles her sea otter stuffed animal on the ride back to their home in Seaside. From her I learn that sting rays have no bones and that the poop of otters is weirder and grosser than the poop of other animals.

“Whenever I tell people I’m from Monterey they’re like, ‘Oh, the aquarium!’ says a teenage male passenger. “I haven’t been though. I’m like the SF locals who’ve never crossed the Golden Gate Bridge.”

This passenger says he enjoys walking on the beach when he’s stressed.

“And when I’m not. It’s never unappealing,” he elaborates. “You’ve got to pack on the layers though. It’s less of a sunny ‘swim in the water bound through the waves soak up the sun’ kind of beach and more of a ‘ bundle up and enjoy the natural beauty while trying not to freeze’ one.”

A ride that sticks out to me most is the one I share with Riley* the child behavioral therapist.


Bigger Passenger Story: Behavioral therapist on children who struggle

Clouds shift and break apart in the sky, forming different shapes. Some look like Pekingese dogs, others like DNA strands. I look up at them while pulled over in front of the elementary school waiting for Riley.

Dog breed the clouds that day reminded me of

Thirty seconds later I see an Asian woman in her late 20s walking briskly across the playground towards my car. Sleek hair tied back into a low bun, she wears a grey blazer and black work pants. When we make eye contact she waves.

 Soon after she gets in I learn that Riley works with kids who have learning disabilities, attentional difficulties, and impulse-control problems.

Today was particularly challenging, she reveals to me as she sets her hefty purple bag, which seems to be filled to the brim with books, down on the middle seat.

On our way to her house in Pacific Grove, a town next to Monterey with a population of 16,000, we get to talking about the challenges that children with divergent needs and “difficult” temperaments face within the standard education system.

Riley feels there needs to be a greater pool of behavioral therapists at her school, and at schools in general, to cover what she sees as increasing need. Many kids beyond the ones we’ve deemed hyperactive or “problem” are struggling and could use more help than they’re getting, she says.

 She laments the frequency with which children’s issues are written off as attitude and behavioral problems, with seemingly little investigation into the unmet needs those problems may be a symptom of.

“Not that behavior isn’t a piece of the puzzle, or that it’s irrelevant–but there’s a lot more to the overall picture than just that,” she expresses.

Seeking to correct negative behavior through punishment and discipline alone fails to address the unmet needs, Riley believes. Oftentimes the punitive measures on their own don’t provide the kid a compelling reason to change. At best, they temporarily modify the behavior without instilling the deeper understanding and empathy that she thinks are necessary for more enduring change.

She cites as one example an introverted boy she once worked with, whose reticent, at times dissociative behavior she thinks was attributable to unmet needs. The fact that he didn’t act out, nor was he ever disciplined or sent to the principal’s office didn’t mean that he wasn’t still struggling (albeit quietly). 

“He was an exception. Boys’ emotional issues and learning difficulties are usually more likely to manifest in their behavior, while girls tend to internalize them more. Girls are also less likely to show a ‘disagreeable’ side of themselves to their peers inside the classroom. Which means they can be dealing with the the same inner struggles and you just wouldn’t know it,” Riley says.

We talk about this as we approach her destination in Pacific Grove, flanked by New England style cottages to our left and waves crashing against jagged rocks jutting out from the coast to our right.

She rolls down her window (it’s gotten a bit stuffy) to the sounds of the ocean, seagulls cawing, and kids chanting in the distance from what I guess to be a nearby a soccer field. The breeze carries a marine smell into the car, along with the faint scent of barbecued meat.

Are there implementable solutions to the issues brought up in our conversation, I wonder, or did most of our talk amount to only futile, idealistic critique?

Here’s what Riley proposes: shift at least some of the energy from trying to fit these square peg young people into round hole expectations, onto encouraging cultivation of their strengths. 

It’s less about instilling false hopes in them, she emphasizes—“Ideally the validation would be rooted in some degree of reality of what their true limitations and assets are”—than about helping them recognize outlets for their unique abilities. There’s a place for their contributions, she wants them to know—even if it’s not in the mainstream, and even if finding it takes some time.

“Ideally we’d focus just a little less on conforming kids to the system and a little more on encouraging them to work with what they have—so that ultimately, years down the road it’s easier for them to find a profession or area of study that calls for and draws from those skills.”

Though she acknowledges the loftiness of this vision as well as the socioeconomic hurdles that stand in the way of achieving it for all kids, Riley is hopeful that one day it will become at least somewhat more of a ubiquitous reality.

We drive past a coffee shop bookstore hybrid on the main drag of downtown Pacific Grove, then past a taqueria next to banks inside Victorians, from the roofs of which seagulls caw to one another. Two streets later, I pull to the side of the residential road and Riley gets out.

I think about our conversation afterwards–particularly how Riley’s mentality, when applied not just to childhood education but to work teams, families, etcetera, could benefit both individual children and society at large.

The way I see it is that for a system to function optimally, each piece must be properly cared for.

As Dom Chatterjee wrote,“ A company is literally a group of people who collaborate to complete group tasks with a shared goal. If one person is struggling with their to-do list, the team should find a way to accommodate that. It’s better for the individual and better for the team, but because of stigma, many employees feel pressured to stay silent and do whatever it takes to get the job done.”

It’s important to honor different temperaments, abilities, and comfort levels within a group; productivity rises and individual well-being improves when we resist the impulse to homogenize a system that is inherently heterogenous. Cared-for pieces are better equipped to contribute to the greater good, conjoining as they do into a healthier collective whole.

Riley seems to recognize this, and I value the work she’s dedicated herself to.


Photo credits

Child– nesca-newton.com

Pekingese dog– https://www.pinterest.com/pin/327496204129361283/

Published by esteph42190

A 30-year-old queer bilingual writer born and raised in the Bay Area, I’ve been writing since before I knew how to spell. Balancing my generative energy with a desire to inform, as a child I printed and distributed to classmates publications that included The News Newsletter and Health Digest (ironic considering I also ran an illicit candy business that landed me in the principal’s office several times). As a student at UC Davis I wrote for The California Aggie, with pieces ranging from an exploration of gender roles in the movie Tangled to my own weekly psychology column. After graduating I kept a bilingual blog of my 14 months living in Montevideo, Uruguay, and upon returning continued to blog about social issues and human psychology.

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