To Top

Meet Dr. Pontillo of San Diego Kids First in Carmel Valley and Del Mar

Today we’d like to introduce you to Dr. Pontillo.

Thanks for sharing your story with us Dr. Pontillo. So, let’s start at the beginning and we can move on from there.
I grew up in Vancouver, BC, and went to college knowing I wanted to be a psychologist. Although I had no idea what that would look like – or what area I would specialize in – I always loved learning about people, connecting with others, and I especially enjoyed being with children. At the time, though, I thought professionally I would work with adults; I had this dream of moving to California and practicing there. Probably because my family would spend winters in Palm Springs with my grandparents and cousins, and I simply LOVED It. Well, it came time to apply to graduate school and I got a stiff wake up call when I got rejected from nine out of the nine schools I applied to.

I was shocked as I had worked really hard to get there. Through some calls, pleas, and some good old fashioned persistence – a kind UCLA professor who formerly attended UBC ( my alma mater) – allowed me to come down and work for her at UCLA to get some research experience and reapply. I reapplied the following year and got into UCLA which was the top school (and still is I believe ) in Clinical Psychology (per US news world and report). My career took some twists and turns – I interned at UCSD in rotations where I worked primarily with adults. For whatever reason I thought that was what I was ‘good at’, and so most of my training experiences were with adults. And yet I found myself surprisingly unfulfilled and unhappy.

In fact, one of my supervisors who is now a trusted friend gave me one of those meetings where she said ‘you’re not doing your best, Deb. This isn’t like you. What’s up”. And there came the tears. I wasn’t getting the joy from my work that I had hoped for. After some soul searching I realized – an unexpected rotation – the UCSD burn unit – was my sole rotation which gave me exposure to working with kids. Rady Children’s doesn’t have a burn unit so they send patients with burns to UCSD where there are primarily adult providers, however, burn specialists and resources. For some reason, I felt at home in working with the children and families here – and in fact, I was relied on by other more experienced adult providers at UCSD to work with the children on the unit who were admitted. It seemed I had a natural affinity for how to make kids of all ages feel comfortable and safe.

When a post-doc came up at Rady’s to work with children 0-5 I jumped at the opportunity even though I had no prior clinical experience in that young of an age. It was a bit of a career shift and I know I left some people thinking ‘what is she doing’. Such a huge departure from my previous training. Yet, thankfully this was what jump-started me into the world of developmental pediatrics. Before then I didn’t realize how few psychologists get adequate training in the realm of early childhood – how skilled professionals in early childhood were so needed and how big of a difference we could make. After my post-doc, I honed my Spanish skills (from high school and college) so that I could be hired on as a Spanish speaking psychologist (their only open position at the time!), and I performed numerous developmental evaluations of kids of all ages.

With that experience behind me, I decided to launch my own practice. I loved doing evaluations at Rady Children’s – but wanted to do more. I wanted to follow up and work with children and families and see them make gains and develop. I wanted to go to the schools, connect with teachers, go to homes, and work with families on the front lines. That’s when I opened the doors to my office in Carmel Valley, just a few hours a week seeing children and families of all ages.

I am grateful to have grown to include six amazing specialists who work alongside me and to have the trust of so many community physicians, professionals, schools, preschools, and youth groups, who refer to us for the care of their patients and loved ones.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
It has definitely not been totally smooth – is anything ever totally smooth? I’ve had a lot of challenges, bumps, and growing pains along the road, and as I write this I am still grappling with some ups and downs of the business. ( I think I mentioned I got rejected from all nine graduate schools I applied to the first year – OUCH!) Talk about a hit to my ego (and my life plan!) That definitely hurt. And of course, there is an endless battle of being a mom to two amazing kiddos and working/owning a business. The life/work balance is at tricky ones. My children are my priority – and it’s hard sometimes to make it all work. That is an ongoing challenge that I am continually tweaking.

I know when I got started, one of my greatest obstacles by far was/is that I am by training a psychologist – not a business major! When I left Rady’s I had no idea how to market, start a business, maintain a business, etc. We don’t get taught business skills in psychology graduate school. So I felt ill-equipped to begin a practice. I also had a lot of nay-sayers who told me the city was already ‘too saturated’ with therapists; that starting a practice in San Diego would be near impossible and I would be wed to low paying insurance companies and working 11 hour days to get by. I also had those days where the phone wasn’t ringing and I was left panicking thinking, omg what do I do? YIKES!

And even when I felt the need to grow the business – in 2015 – when I referrals were streaming in and I needed some associates to help. I felt I didn’t know where to start, or how to go about what I wanted to achieve.

In the end, I think it came down to acknowledging what I didn’t know – and a determination and a will to find the answers one way or another. It’s not that obstacles don’t rattle me – they rattle us all – it’s simply that I have no problem whatsoever with the realization that I don’t know everything! How could I? I don’t know what I don’t know – and so this is an opportunity to learn and to grow. As a result – I would look for and find mentors, coaches, seasoned psychologists, anyone else who had taken this path and would be kind enough to impart their knowledge and expertise. I have also invested in business coaches (even when I thought I couldn’t afford to) as a necessary and crucial step to overcome some hurdles. We can’t know it all. It’s good to know our own limitations – and take them as part of the process, rather than a roadblock.

We’d love to hear more about your practice.
San Diego Kids First is a clinic that specializes in child and adolescent development, learning, and behavior. We now have seven specialists and have expanded to allow us to provide a full menu of services to infants/toddlers, children, teens, and families who have a variety of needs – from Autism, ADHD, anxiety, and Learning Disabilities, to school, social, family, and emotional issues. We perform highly customized individualized assessments and provide therapy, consultation and interventions in the office, at home or schools.

What makes us unique and what are we proud of? We are known by professionals, pediatricians, and schools for the following:

 1. We focus on the child’s/teen’s STRENGTHS – to help them grow and develop and maximize progress. Each child and teen is unique. Although a diagnosis is important it is just a label and we move beyond that! We design tools and strategies that work because we learn what each individual naturally excels at, and use those skills to help build areas of weakness.

2. We CUSTOMIZE our evaluations and therapies. We don’t see it is a one size fits all approach. We don’t have a ‘standard’ or ‘templated’ evaluation for all children. We have abbreviated and comprehensive batteries and focus on what specific questions need to be answered – and how we can obtain those answers while eliminating unnecessary tests or assessments. This allows us to be CONCISE, SOLUTION focused, and EFFECTIVE.

3. We don’t ‘do it all’. A lot of therapists out there see everyone (e.g. children, teens, adults, geriatric populations, etc. ). That is impossible -no one person can do everything WELL. So we are by definition a COLLABORATIVE TEAM OF EXPERTS. Each one of us is top in our field in our cluster of specialties. We have refined our skill set and training in our area of specialty and know the limitations of our own expertise. If one of us can’t provide the highest quality of service to our clients, we make sure we refer them to the right person who can.

4. We are the only comprehensive 0-5 yrs clinic in San Diego – providing infant/toddler/preschool developmental assessment, therapy, and preschool/K support.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
There are so many people – I feel like one of those actors accepting an Emmy and giving a speech at the awards ceremony- you may give me the hook and the orchestra is going to cut me off! But oh well, here goes.

I could not have gotten to where I am now without the love and support of my Mom and Dad- who helped me get to UCLA (before I got into UCLA ) and supported me throughout my graduate school and training. I really am very fortunate and grateful to have such amazing parents. Thank you Dr. Michelle Craske at UCLA for giving me the opportunity to work for you as a rejected applicant from the UCLA grad school program – to allow me to work for you and prove myself and reapply the following year to be your student. I am indebted to you.

Thank you, Dr. Ariel Lang for telling me “you don’t look happy and aren’t doing your best” at the end of my VA rotation. This was the wake-up call that I needed to look deep and find my passion – which was to work with children instead! Thank you, Dr. Arpi Minassian – supervisor at UCSD Burn Unit for telling me I was a natural working with children and deferring to me on those kiddo cases. Thank you, Dr. Carie Rodgers, a supervisor at the VA for bringing me the post-doc opportunity at Rady’s Developmental Evaluation Clinic which set my career onto a completely different course.

Thank you to my Rady’s supervisors Dr. Kim Wilkes and the late Dr. Elaine Ito (I miss you Elaine) who shaped the clinician and person I am today. Thank you to the numerous seasoned private practitioner psychologists who sat with me and answered my questions or texts or calls with the ‘what do I do/how do I handle….’ type questions! (Dr. Sage Breslin, you know who you are!). Thank you also to Michelle Rose Gilman, founder of Fusion Academy and the Well-Heeled Warrior for bringing me and my group into this next chapter – and helping us to serve more children, teens, families, and adult clients, than ever.

Contact Info:

  • Address: 12625 High Bluff Drive, Suite 111 and Suite 104
    San Diego CA 92130
  • Website:
  • Phone: 8586924187
  • Email:

Suggest a story: SDVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you or someone you know deserves recognition please let us know here.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

More in