When Tracy Larson was growing up, she wasn’t a star student and she struggled to fit in. Her own challenges as a student produced an interest in school psychology and a passion for filling in the gaps left by the public education system.
“During my time in school, I could feel the effects of the school system and how it overlooks kids who struggled and were left behind like me,” Larson said.
After receiving a bachelor’s degree in psychology from La Roche University, Larson got a master’s degree in school psychology in 2005 from Duquesne University. She immediately began working at the Pittsburgh-based program HealthyCHILD.
Today, Larson is the director of Early Childhood Partnerships, located in Pitt’s Office of Child Development. Early Childhood Partnerships, which is a collaboration between Pitt and the community dedicated to assisting children and their families, has recently expanded to include even more community-based partners. ECP also includes the program HealthyCHILD. The program is designed to provide mental, emotional and behavioral health care for young children.
Larson began as a mental health consultant, working directly with teachers and families, which she said was the best part.
“I was getting to spend all of my time in the best part about being a school psychologist, which is in consultation with families and teachers and in classrooms doing direct work and support for students and children,” Larson said.
With her experiences in consultation behind her, Larson is now on the leadership side — right where she wants to be. In addition to her work as the director of HealthyCHILD, Larson is a professor in Pitt’s Teaching, Learning and Leading department.
“Part of the reason I transitioned into this work was because I saw such high needs with these kids,” Larson said. “I also recognized that the majority of the people we were working with, such as teachers or other educational staff, often were overlooking the trauma and other social factors that were impacting these kids’ lives.”
The focus of HealthyCHILD, according to Larson, isn’t about diagnosing — rather, prevention and promotion. Larson works with kids who have negative social determinants of health, such as low socioeconomic status, many of which don’t qualify for a diagnosis and can’t receive assistance from other mental health services. That’s where HealthyCHILD steps in. It’s where Larson is invested and hoping to expand across the nation.
“I saw so many kids that needed services and couldn't qualify. So I became very invested in the work and wanted to figure out how we could expand the program like I said, across the region and across the country,” Larson said.
The program is currently available throughout Allegheny County and in recently established locations in Philadelphia. Larson’s leadership has not only resulted in the expansion of the program, but also helped her fulfill a lifelong dream of directly affecting the public school system. Larson said she found a lot of the issues had begun with over-diagnosing and ignoring the real reasons behind children’s behavior.
“I started to see teachers wanting to diagnose kids with ADHD,” Larson said. “Every day, someone is claiming this kid has ADHD, and I knew that that wasn't the case. So then I covered the trauma, and then even more recently, have begun looking at the systems and how they're impacting what we're seeing in the classroom.”
Larson expressed frustration with how the current educational system responds to students exhibiting challenging behaviors, such as teaching them to take deep breaths when they are angry, rather than looking for the real reasons why these children are consistently acting out.
“What are we doing to solve the real root causes of some of these problems? Not just the trauma, but the way that this education system is set up, and the way that teachers can work within that system,” Larson said.
Larson continuously emphasizes educators and parents’ important position. One of the most important suggestions Larson has for parents with children experiencing challenging behavior is emotional hygiene, or taking care of one’s emotional health. Larson said it’s difficult for adults to understand how to express and process their emotions, only furthering the emotional challenges children face. She says co-regulation, which is adjusting one’s behavior when interacting with another to create a regulated state, is crucial for emotional development.
“How do we expect young kids to be able to [express their emotions] at two or three, when we know adults who can't do this, and we live in a world where expressing your emotions is not something many people encourage?” Larson said. “We need to talk about that.”
A major component in Larson’s work is teaching children’s educators and parents about how they can help children at home and school, because this is where these kids spend the most time. The key to helping children process the complexities of their emotions, in Larson’s experience, is modeling.
“I always tell parents it’s okay to be angry, it’s okay to show frustration, but use those as learning opportunities,” Larson said. “Talk to your kids about how you're feeling. And then talk to them about what you're going to do to help yourself.”
Molly Matsik, a developmental health care consultant for HealthyCHILD, said she first met Larson when she interviewed for her current position and felt right at home.
“I immediately felt comfortable and at ease with Tracy,” Matsik said. “She was kind, asked thoughtful questions and was a great listener.”
Now in her fifth year at HealthyCHILD, Matsik has shared a close work relationship with Larson, including when Pitt’s Community Engagement Scholarship Forum awarded HealthyCHILD with a Partnership of Distinction Award in March 2020. She said Larson’s commitment to improving children’s lives in the community is apparent in everything she does.
“She’s an extremely hard worker who is devoted to the work, mission and vision of HealthyCHILD and the Office of Child Development,” Matsik said. “As a leader, she is driven, passionate, reliable and supportive. As a person, she is caring, kind and jovial. She’s just a joy to be around in any capacity.”
Larson’s strong drive and commitment to the program also means witnessing high levels of poverty, stress and trauma that children in the community experience. Larson’s work has taught her that educators, parents and even Larson herself still struggle to remember the importance of self-care.
“A good portion of my work now is with caregivers and teachers around self-care, and how they can minimize the stress in their lives so that they can be present and responsive to students instead of reacting in ways that they might regret later,” Larson said.
For Larson, this means practicing what she preaches in her own workspace, too. While encouraging and ensuring the teachers and parents she works with understand self-care, she works to make sure her own team, and even her students, aren’t feeling burned out through frequent breaks and teaching what self-care can look like.
“I practice what I preach, though, and so all the things that I'm telling schools they need to do, I do with my team,” Larson said. “We talk about self-care all the time, we have mindful moment breaks, where we practice mindfulness during our meetings, it’s all about being there for each other.”
Larson’s efforts to maintain this work environment don’t go unnoticed, according to colleague Tomasina Boyd. Boyd is also a DHC with HealthyCHILD, working with kids from birth to 3 years old. She said Larson had an “open-door” policy when the team was in the office pre-pandemic, creating an environment that fostered listening to the needs of her team.
“I would sit in Tracy’s office and I’d often ask, ‘Hey, do you have a minute?’ which would turn into a two-hour discussion.” Boyd said. “Tracy keeps an open-door policy where she has always been there to support both the team and our students, she really leads with empathy and understanding.”
As Larson considered some of her favorite parts of her role at Pitt, she reflected on how much inspiration and pride her students bring not only to her work, but to her life.
“I have amazing students every year, I am so blessed to have a very diverse group.” Larson said. “I get applied developmental psychology students, social work students, even students from other universities, and they bring so many different perspectives and I learn just as much from them as I teach them.”