By Angela Cruz with Kate Kovalenko
Kate Kovalenko and her husband first came to Shanghai in 2004. They both majored in Chinese language and literature in Ukraine, then chose to further their education at Shanghai International Studies University. After obtaining her master’s degree in Mandarin, she worked as an interpreter and then as a purchasing manager in an international trade company. However, she was unhappy and unfulfilled. She had her daughter, Zoya, who is now 6 years old, and decided to get a certificate in psychology at Derby University in the UK. Through parenting, she became more and more interested in developmental psychology.
“As a mom, I faced many challenges,” she says. “Our daughter was not an easy child: she didn’t sleep well, she was a picky eater, often threw tantrums, had separation anxiety, and so on. I was hoping my study would help me to find answers on how to tackle all these problems and raise a happy child.”
After completing her degree, the family of three moved back to Shanghai and Kate began to look for part-time work. She had previously been a tutor and enjoyed studying pedagogy in school, so she explored options related to education.
A friend whose son attended ELG’s full-time special education program recommended that Kate apply for an internship. Still part-time at home with Zoya, Kate volunteered several hours a week to support the program staff. “I felt it was the job I wanted from the very first week,” Kate gushes, “I admired the work that the therapists and program team were doing, and I was all eyes and ears absorbing any information about treatments and interventions I could get.”
She was hired by ELG the following year to provide 1:1 support for a 3-year-old boy, who she adored. “I will never forget how my non-vocal student said his first word, “cookie”. I cried tears of happiness!”
Through his therapy sessions, Kate learned about Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA). She was hooked. “I immediately knew that was going to be my next goal in continuing education.” She saw the impact that it could have and was encouraged by a colleague, a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst (BCBA), to get a Registered Behavior Technician (RBT) certification. And the rest is history!
Now Kate works as an RBT for ELG, helping children age 2-7 and training parents on behavior management techniques.
We’ve asked Kate, inspired to become a therapist due to her own motherhood journey, some questions about parenting and supporting families in honor of Mother’s Day.
How does Zoya fit in with your therapy practice?
Zoya has visited ELG a few times.
I remember Zoya spending the whole day helping in me with an early intervention group of children in the full-time program. She was very serious and behaved like an older sister, cheering happily when she saw even a tiny positive reaction from ELG students. I used my daughter as a peer model, and she was so proud to be a mom’s assistant.
I hope this experience helped my daughter to be understanding of other people’s needs around her. I also think Zoya could be a good teacher or therapist herself! Currently her dream is to become a veterinarian or an artist, so who knows?
How does motherhood affect how you work with children?
I work only with very young children, aged 2-7, and I think my motherhood gives me more confidence when I interact with them. I am not afraid of children’s tantrums; I’ve been there many times. Perhaps personal motherhood experience empowers you to be more caring and immersed in child’s progress, because you treat your clients the way you would want other teachers/therapists treat your own child.
How does motherhood affect how you communicate with parents of your clients?
I try to be very delicate with parents. I know how easy it is to fall into trap of feeling guilty and blaming yourself on everything happened to your child; it is a very destructive feeling. I am constantly reminding myself not to be judgmental towards parents. At the end of the day, we all want to be less stressed and live happier lives.
As a therapist, what do you think moms need to hear more?
To moms of the children with special needs, I would tell them that it is not their fault if a child develops differently and there is always a chance to make things better.
To moms with “typically developing” children who have problem behaviors, I would tell that setting the boundaries and letting your child experience the consequences of their poor decisions doesn’t mean you don’t love you child. On the contrary, it means that you have enough love to be consistent and follow it through, and it means you care about raising a responsible, reasonable, and independent person.
As a mother, what do you think therapists, especially those without children, need to keep in mind?
I would encourage therapists to remember to praise mothers of their clients when the opportunity comes. Show them your empathy and your appreciation of the work they are doing at home, focusing on the positive.