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Initial Appointment

Most clients begin with an initial 50-minute intake with one of our specialists. This is your opportunity to share your concerns, ask questions, and provide any documents or other information you feel would help us get to know your situation. Parents are welcome to bring their child with them to the appointment if they wish, as appropriate, but this is not required. By the end of the session, we have made a tentative plan about next steps.

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Screenings can sometimes take the place of an initial intake appointment. Screenings are 50-minute appointments during which one of our specialists briefly screens your child
for developmental, social, emotional, or behavioral concerns. Screenings are preferable to parent-only initial appointments when you are seeking our impressions based on observations or interactions with your child. A screening does not allow sufficient opportunity for diagnostic conclusions to be made but can lead to concrete and specific recommendations. In addition, screenings can determine whether or not further evaluation or intervention is warranted. Developmental screenings are offered for infants as young as three months. Contact us today to schedule a developmental or dyslexia screening and take the first step toward understanding and supporting your child’s needs.

Highlighted Services:

Our developmental screeners assess key milestones and areas of development, including cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills.
Our dyslexia screeners evaluate reading skills, phonological processing, and other factors related to dyslexia. By pinpointing areas of difficulty, we can tailor interventions to support your child’s literacy development and academic success.
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Our formal evaluations are tailored to suit the needs of each client. No two evaluations are alike! We aim to be comprehensive while eliminating extraneous tests that would not prove helpful for diagnostic clarity. The nature and content of the assessment vary based on the question/concern and age of the client. Evaluations may include interviews, standardized tests, questionnaires,behavioral observations, feedback sessions, and written reports. All Evaluations result in an Action Plan, which is a set of specific and concrete recommendations.

Highlighted Services:

This evaluation is best fit for toddlers, children, or teens who face challenges with social and interpersonal functioning, communication skills, adaptive functioning, behavior regulation, play skills, attention/impulsivity, mood/anxiety, and trouble building/maintaining relationships. These evaluations assist in the identification of diagnoses such as developmental delay(s), autism spectrum disorder (ASD), ADHD, and/or anxiety/mood disorders.
This evaluation includes all aspects of the developmental evaluation but also includes academic testing by our Director of Educational Psychology, to rule out any learning disabilities, including difficulty with reading or writing,or mathematics, as well as examining any behaviors that are associated with academic struggles. This is our longest and most comprehensive evaluation!

Throughout this process, we are mindful of the time-sensitive nature of an assessment and understand the desire to move through each step quickly and efficiently. That’s why we have designed a tailored and targeted test battery for those wishing to ONLY rule in or out the presence of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), which allows for fewer hours and resources spent on unnecessary tests and a significantly shorter waitlist for families awaiting assessment.

We are pleased to offer this Targeted Autism Spectrum Disorder Evaluation to children and teens aged 2 to 18 who have no significant academic and/or cognitive concerns, have no concerns they would like assessed outside of ASD (such as ADHD or a learning disability/disorder), and are comfortable with results being focused exclusively on whether or not their child meets diagnostic criteria for ASD.

This screening measure is administered only once and is designed to identify students from Pre-K to College to determine whether signs and symptoms of dyslexia are present. These results allow clinicians to decide whether the risk of dyslexia or reading disability is high enough to warrant further assessment. This screener is best fit for children or teens who have a family history of dyslexia, academic concerns related to reading, writing, and spelling, and language delays or impairments.
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Consultations are 50-minute sessions with one of our specialists to address concerns. Many individuals have all their questions and concerns sufficiently addressed within a single appointment, while others may choose to have subsequent consultative visits.

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Therapy/Counseling consists of 50-minute meetings with one of our specialists. Sessions can be for individual children, teens, adults, couples, or families. Who is included in therapy sessions can change throughout the course of therapy. The frequency of therapy sessions depends on the client’s circumstances and concerns. We are results-oriented therapists and tailor our work to each individual situation to yield maximal gains in the shortest amount of time.

  • Intervention Modalities
    • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
    • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
    • Individualized Psychotherapy
    • Family Psychotherapy
    • Exposure Response Prevention
    • In-Home Behavioral Interventions
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Social Emotional Learning Curriculum

Social Emotional Learning is the process through which all young people and adults acquire and apply the knowledge, skills, and attitudes to develop healthy identities, manage emotions, feel and show empathy for others, establish, maintain supportive relationships, and achieve personal and collective goals. People with strong social-emotional skills are better able to cope with everyday challenges and benefit academically, professionally, and socially. There are 5 areas we can address in SEL; self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills, and responsible decision-making.

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Behavior Management/Parenting Sessions

These sessions are scheduled with one of our experts to develop specific tools and strategies designed for the individual child and family. These sessions can be scheduled as needed, and often in conjunction with other types of services, such as therapy/counseling or evaluations.

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Study/Organizational Skills Training

Elementary, middle, and high school children and their families may participate in individually tailored sessions with one of our experts to improve academic and organizational skills. Areas of focus include homework/task completion, study skills and strategies, problem solving, decision making, academic planning, goal setting, improving peer relations, improving frustration tolerance, and developing healthy self-confidence and self-esteem. Appointments for these services are available in-home to maximize your child/teen’s progress.

Video Parenting Course

Video Parenting Course

We provide a one-of-a-kind parenting support and education class for parents of bright kids who are diagnosed with mild autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We are passionate that you are your child’s best teacher, advocate, and support person. Our Bright Stars video parenting course provides the education and support you need to have the information and energy to be your best self, and to bring out the strengths of your child. Your child is not merely a diagnosis!

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Educational Therapy

Although everyone learns differently, it is estimated that millions of children and adults with average to superior intelligence are experiencing academic difficulties. Educational therapy can help these individuals progress and fulfill their learning potential. Educational therapy is personalized, remedial instruction for individuals experiencing learning differences and disabilities, including but not limited to, dyslexia, ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, executive function deficit, language, auditory and visual processing deficit. The primary goal of educational therapy is to foster self-confident, independent learners who understand their learning profiles and can advocate for themselves.

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Group Therapy & Skills Groups

Based on expressed community needs, we have designed and implemented group sessions and workshops for select audiences and concerns. Please don’t hesitate to share your ideas for additional group sessions and workshops!

Highlighted Services:

Our Social Skills program supports social skill-building within distinct groups for boys and girls, preschool through teens. Social skills are essential for future success in all aspects of life. In addition to giving your children the tools they need to be prepared for a lifetime of healthy social interaction with others, our group provides children with strategies for developing self-regulation and building a solid core of self-esteem and self-confidence to navigate situations with peers in the home and in life.

Here are just some of the topics we will be covering:

Effective Communication, Empathy, Compromising, Patience, Active Listening, Body Language, Respecting Personal Space, Apologizing, Eye Contact, Taking Turns, Following Directions, Staying on Task, and Resolving Conflict

Based on our local surveying, we found a gap in services that support our little ones during their most critical developmental period. The first two years of life are a unique and important time of development for children, and we want to support you in building your baby’s social-emotional foundational skills and promoting their future well-being. This one-of-a-kind group is facilitated by our early childhood expert, Priscilla Tebelman, LMFT.

Here are some highlights from the group:

Learn tips & tools for enriching your baby’s social-emotional development through play, connect with other parents raising little ones like you (you are not alone!), come find new ways to promote overall well-being for your baby and your family during the first two years Engage in interactive social/emotional playtime activities, including sensory-based play and music, discuss practical parenting topics, including self-care, routines, and co-regulation, and receive midweek take-home tips for parents.

If your child or student is struggling with executive functioning, cooperation, engagement, organization skills, or socially appropriate responses, then this program is for you! While kids settle into the new school year and families return to their regular routines, it is common for teachers and caregivers to begin uncovering their children’s academic, emotional, and behavioral potential. Reconnecting with classmates, adjusting to new classes, and heightened academic and behavioral expectations require children to exert their mental capabilities far beyond their comfort zone.

One of the most common aspects that we see students struggling with during these times is the ability to maintain and implement their attention and self-control skills for an extended period of time. Furthermore, large classroom sizes often place a high demand on students to perform in an environment where their individual needs are not being met.

Our five-week ADHD group aims to address these concerns while providing your child with the support and skills they need to succeed at home and in school.

This program matches your child with a high school or college-aged student who has volunteered their time to invest in mentoring a child or peer! ALL mentors are supervised by a San Diego Kids First clinical staff member to ensure that your child receives optimal guidance, leadership, and overall enrichment. Furthermore, your child will be paired with a mentor based on their individualized needs, interests, and preferences!
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IEP/504 Services

We act as advocates and technical experts in supporting our clients to obtain the most effective IEP/504 plans for their children. The goal of IEP/504 plans is to provide what is best for an individual student. But what is “best” is not always obvious and not always agreed upon by all of the parties involved in crafting the plan. Of course, parents have unique windows on their own children. As far as possible, we take a collaborative approach with teachers, schools and districts, but our ultimate allegiance is to the child and to the key needs that parents may observe for their children, even when other stakeholders do not.

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Populations Served

  • We serve all children from infancy through young adulthood. Click here to learn more about the common clinical concerns we treat in children and adolescents..

Setting: Office, Telehealth, In-home, School-Based

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Clinical Concerns

We specialize in addressing a diverse array of concerns in children and adolescents. From behavioral and developmental challenges to academic struggles and social-emotional issues, our team is equipped to provide comprehensive support. We work closely with caregivers through personalized, collaborative approaches to establish goals that benefit the entire family. Click here for an overview of the common concerns frequently voiced by parents.

  • Link this to the “teen and child clinical concerns tab.”
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Common Diagnoses

Our dedicated team of professionals is experienced in identifying and treating a wide range of common diagnoses, including attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorder, anxiety and mood disorders, behavioral challenges, and learning disabilities/differences. With compassionate care and evidence-based interventions, we strive to support children and families on their journey to better mental health and overall well-being.

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Exposure Response Prevention

Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy is a psychological treatment commonly used to help individuals, including children, overcome anxiety disorders, particularly those related to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). In ERP therapy, individuals are gradually exposed to situations, objects, or thoughts that trigger their anxiety or obsessions. These exposures are done in a controlled and systematic way, starting with less distressing triggers and gradually progressing to more anxiety-inducing ones. The exposure aspect of ERP therapy allows individuals to confront their fears in a safe environment, helping them learn that they can tolerate and manage their anxiety without resorting to compulsive behaviors.

Response Prevention refers to the second component of ERP therapy, which involves refraining from engaging in compulsive behaviors or rituals that typically alleviate anxiety. By preventing the individual from engaging in these behaviors, ERP therapy aims to disrupt the cycle of anxiety and compulsions, ultimately reducing the individual’s overall anxiety levels over time.

When used with children, ERP therapy is tailored to their developmental level and specific needs. Therapists may employ various techniques, such as play therapy, storytelling, or creative activities, to engage children in the treatment process. The therapist collaborates closely with the child and their caregivers to identify triggers, develop exposure hierarchies, and implement strategies for managing anxiety. By empowering children to confront their fears and resist compulsive behaviors, ERP therapy can lead to significant improvements in their overall well-being and functioning.

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Educational Psychology Services

Educational psychology encompasses a wide range of academic and developmental areas. We are dedicated to empowering children and families by addressing academic and developmental needs through personalized interventions and collaborative partnerships. Contact us today to learn more about how we can support your child’s educational journey.

Highlighted Services:

  • Social-emotional learning (SEL) curriculum (will link to SEL page)
  • AcademicRemediation/Educational Therapy
  • Orton-Gillingham methodology
  • Handwriting without Tears methodology
  • Primary Phonics methodology
  • Push-in / Shadow aide support in schools
  • School observations
  • IEP/504 Consultation and Planning
  • Participation/ Attendance at IEP Meetings
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Our Specialized Individual Interventions

At San Diego Kids First, we pride ourselves on offering a range of specialized interventions that set us apart. Our practice is dedicated to incorporating evidence-based interventions to provide tailored treatments to address the unique needs of children and families. Contact us today to learn more about how our specialized interventions can make a difference for your family.

Highlighted Services:

  • Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT)
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
  • In-Home Individualized Behavior Interventions
  • Developmental Screener
  • Dyslexia Screener
  • Individualized Parenting Sessions
  • Postpartum Mental Health Programs
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In-Home Services

We offer in-home behavioral services to address common issues such as difficulty regulating emotions, frequent tantrums, and trouble with authority. If your child is experiencing challenges at school, at home, or with siblings, we’re here to help. Our experts provide in-home tailored functional behavioral assessments to develop specific tools and strategies designed for your child and family’s unique needs. Our techniques aim to reduce or eliminate symptoms and improve the overall quality of life for your family and child. We focus on identifying each individual’s natural strengths and gifts, not just challenges or labels, to maximize progress and help you achieve your goals. In addition to one-on-one interventions with the client, sessions can be modified to include siblings and parents or through separate parent coaching sessions.

Highlighted Services:

This service involves delivering treatment for obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) directly within the child’s home environment. In-home therapy allows therapists to observe and address OCD symptoms within the context of the child’s daily life. Therapists can gain insight into specific triggers, rituals, and avoidance behaviors that may be present in the child’s home environment, enabling them to tailor treatment strategies accordingly. This facilitates the generalization of skills learned in therapy to real-life situations, increasing the likelihood of sustained improvement beyond the therapy sessions.
In ERP therapy, individuals are gradually exposed to situations, objects, or thoughts that trigger their anxiety or obsessions. These exposures are done in a controlled and systematic way, starting with less distressing triggers and gradually progressing to more anxiety-inducing ones. The exposure aspect of ERP therapy allows individuals to confront their fears in a safe environment, helping them learn that they can tolerate and manage their anxiety without resorting to compulsive behaviors.
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Individualized Psychotherapy

This specialized therapeutic approach is tailored to meet each individual’s unique needs, developmental stage, and emotional experiences. Unlike a one-size-fits-all approach, individualized psychotherapy recognizes that children and teens may present with diverse backgrounds, personalities, and challenges, requiring personalized interventions for effective treatment.

Individualized psychotherapy utilizes a range of evidence-based therapeutic techniques and modalities to address the child or teen’s emotional, cognitive, and behavioral challenges. These may include cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), play therapy, expressive arts therapy, mindfulness-based interventions, family therapy, and psychodynamic approaches. The therapist selects techniques that align with the individual’s developmental stage, personality, and treatment goals.

Individualized psychotherapy for children and teens aims to promote emotional well-being, resilience, and adaptive coping skills. Specific goals may include enhancing emotional regulation and coping strategies, addressing symptoms of anxiety, depression, trauma, or behavioral difficulties, improving interpersonal skills and relationships with peers and family members, promoting self-awareness, self-esteem, and identity development, and building resilience and adaptive functioning in various life domains.

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CBT is an evidence-based therapeutic approach that identifies and changes negative thought patterns and behaviors to promote positive outcomes. For children, CBT is adapted to be engaging and developmentally appropriate, often incorporating play therapy techniques to help them understand and manage their emotions. For teens, CBT is tailored to address their unique challenges during this transitional period. Therapists work collaboratively with teens to explore their thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, helping them develop coping skills and strategies to navigate difficult emotions and situations.

Parents can expect to be actively involved in the therapeutic process and learn strategies to support their child’s progress outside of sessions. CBT sessions may also involve homework assignments and skill-building exercises to enhance the effectiveness of therapy. CBT is highly adaptable and can be tailored to address a variety of mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, ADHD, trauma, and behavioral challenges. Our skilled therapists work collaboratively with children, teens, and their families to develop personalized treatment plans that target specific goals and promote long-lasting change.

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Parent-Child Interaction Therapy (PCIT) is an evidence-based treatment for children with behavioral and emotional difficulties. PCIT is a structured and effective intervention that focuses on enhancing the parent-child relationship while teaching parents positive behavior management techniques. PCIT is suitable for children aged 2 to 7 years old.

During PCIT sessions, parents learn specific skills to strengthen their bond with their children and effectively manage challenging behaviors. The therapy is typically conducted in two stages: Child-Directed Interaction (CDI) and Parent-Directed Interaction (PDI). In the CDI phase, parents learn to use praise and positive reinforcement to increase positive behaviors in their children. In the PDI phase, parents are taught effective discipline techniques to address problem behaviors.

Sessions are typically conducted weekly and last about 60 minutes. A trained therapist coaches parents in real-time, observing interactions between the parent and child through a one-way mirror or live video feed. Homework assignments are given between sessions so that parents can practice newly learned skills at home.

Through PCIT, parents can expect to see improvements in their child’s behavior, communication, and overall family functioning. The number of sessions needed varies depending on the child’s specific needs and progress, but PCIT is typically completed within 12 to 20 sessions.

What Others Say About Us

I am a general pediatrician with a special interest in ADHD, spending about 20% of my clinical time caring for ADHD patients. I have known Dr Pontillo since 2005 and have an enormous respect for her clinical skills and insights. She is my “go to” psychologist for more complicated developmental issues and for diagnosis of subtle high functioning disabilities. Dr. Pontillo’s interest in her patients and her ability to clearly delineate developmental problems allows parents to move forward with establishing a treatment plan. She is an invaluable resource to the San Diego Pediatric community.

Nicholas Levy, MD, Medical Director, El Camino Pediatrics, V. Asst Clinical Professor, School of Medicine, UCSD

Dr. Pontillo is an exceptional, and one-of-a-kind child psychologist. I have referred many children of my patients to Dr. Pontillo and she has always given them the best care and attention. Referring a patient to another professional is a big responsibility. I always look for a colleague who is efficient, professional, experienced and one who is able to come up with a clear diagnosis. I keep referring to Dr. Pontillo because of her expertise, efficiency and especially her warm and caring personality that is extremely necessary when dealing with children. I very highly recommend Deborah Pontillo, Ph.D as a child diagnostician, developmental and behavioral specialist, and therapist.

David Kravetz, M.D., Professor of Clinical Medicine, School of Medicine, UCSD

I’ve been referring my patients to Dr. Pontillo for the past several years with the utmost confidence that she will care and understand their developmental needs. Dr. Pontillo always provided them with a balanced and age appropriate intervention to help not only the child but the family as a whole.

Chrystal de Freitas M.D., Pediatrician Carmel Valley Pediatrics