The bouncy kindergartner with blond ringlets framing her smiling, pixie face wants to talk about the "SpongeBob" episode she's watching, and sings while she skips around the room.
She's the same little girl who threw a fit and screamed the F-word 40 times in after-school daycare earlier this school year.
A few weeks ago, she was kicked out of the after-school program run by the YMCA at her elementary school in the Fort Zumwalt school district in suburban St. Louis. The giggly 5-year-old who ran out of her room to show me her blue Furby doll already has a thick file outlining her problems at school.
"You could not tell that she has anything going on inside. You could not tell all the havoc going on inside by looking at her," her mother, Liza Pequeno, said.
Pequeno, a single mother who works as a nurse and nursing home administrator, panicked when the Y Club expelled her daughter with little notice. They decided they could no longer handle her behavior. Pequeno had already used all her personal time at work in meeting with school officials trying to get a plan and services for her girl, who was falling apart and out of control so often at school.
Her daughter has been on medication for hyperactivity since she was 4 years old. She has been evaluated by a psychiatrist to see if she falls on the autism spectrum, perhaps with Asperger's syndrome, and is waiting for a diagnosis. A diagnosis could help her mother advocate for a more specialized treatment plan.
But at that moment, Pequeno was in crisis mode. Who would take care of her child when she had to work?
"I get no child support. It's all me. I can't lose my job," she said. "I felt lost."
Already, the emails from her kindergarten teacher describing all the troubles of each day left her in tears every night: Her daughter cursed at the teachers, threw toys, hit another child or had another screaming fit.
She wasn't so chaotic at home. Her mother knew how to calm her down. The other children and the frequent transitions at school overwhelmed her. She had previously been expelled from a private preschool, but her mother managed to find a preschool for special needs children.
With no other options, Pequeno asked her 70-year-old stepmother to pick up her daughter after school and watch her until she got home.
She could tell when her girl had a bad day in kindergarten. Her eyes would be red from crying all day. She would run and hide in her bedroom when she got home.
"Am I bad, Mommy?" her daughter asked her.
Pequeno knows her daughter's behaviors are difficult to manage, but she refuses to believe she's just "a bad kid."
"I think she's in there. She's deep in there. We just haven't gotten to her yet."
A 2005 nationwide study by Yale researchers found that preschools expel youngsters at three times the rate of public schools. Where do the parents of these youngest children, written off at such an early age, turn?
This little girl has the advantage of an educated mother, a strong advocate willing and able to navigate various agencies. Ideally, this child should have gotten more help in learning critical skills to regulate her emotions and read social cues from as young an age as possible. It makes economic sense to invest early in children rather than try to correct problems later.
If an after-school program expels a troubled 5-year-old, where do we expect her to go?
Pequeno has given up on the school district, where she says teachers and administrators never tried to understand her daughter.
"I feel like I lost all faith, hope, trust in the school system," she said. And she knows it's difficult for a teacher who has more than 20 children in a class to try to carve out the time and energy to figure out what's really going on with her daughter when she loses control. It's easier to send her away, so the other students can learn.
She decided to put up their house for sale and rent an apartment in the Parkway School District, which is served by the Special School District in St. Louis County -- a group specifically trained to work with special needs children. Pequeno hopes the teachers will be better equipped to help her daughter.
When I visited, Pequeno showed me a stunning, colorful portrait of a girl's divided face that her daughter drew in school.
"That's beautiful," I said to the bubbly child, who just wanted to play with me. "Who is it?"
"I don't know," she said at first, then paused for a second.
CAPTION 01: Photo by Aisha Sultan.)