California educators: Beacons of hope

Never has social and emotional wellbeing been more central to the national conversation

By Jamie Millan | September | October 2020
Flip Flippen, founder of Flippen Group and creator of Capturing Kids’ Hearts®, said everyone carries an invisible backpack that holds our traumas. Some may be the pebbles of everyday school life, while others may be the boulders of Adverse Childhood Experiences. This year, we’ve all had cinder blocks of different shapes and sizes added to our invisible backpacks. Many students have experienced loss in various forms: the loss or illness of a loved one, loss of family income and subsequent housing or food insecurity, and emotional pain based on social injustices across the country. Certainly, all have been touched by a disruption of routine and familiarity, an abrupt stop to socializing with loved ones and the cancellations of important cultural and social events. Imagine the lasting social-emotional impact these events will have on people for years to come. As we begin the new school year, Flip cautions us, “If we aren’t tending to students’ social-emotional needs, then we will not see the learning results we are striving to achieve.” Luckily, lessons we have learned from other major disruptions in education, like those caused by natural disasters, give us some foresight into preparing support for students as they return to school. Mental health experts warn that schools will see an increase of “post-traumatic stress disorder, separation anxiety, social anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, and oppositional defiance.” Other responses may include fight, flight or freeze behaviors (Downs and Manning).  Thankfully, over the past decade, California has been at the forefront of addressing student social-emotional well-being and behavioral needs to combat the steady rise of depression, suicide ideation and other extreme behaviors. By understanding the importance of building relationships with students, implementing trauma-informed practices (like those taught in Capturing Kids’ Hearts®) and social-emotional curriculum, along with the development of California Social and Emotional Learning Guiding Principles, we have made headway in developing Multi-Tiered Systems of Support to address these growing needs. In some ways, we are better positioned than many states to address the increased social-emotional needs of our students.

If the adults supporting social-emotional wellness are not well themselves, our system is rendered unsustainable.
Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, California’s Surgeon General, stated that our educational institutions need “to know how to recognize that when a child is demonstrating, for example, poor impulse control or angry outbursts, that those may actually be symptoms of a child who has an overactive stress response because of the adversity that they’ve experienced.” This is not to say that educators should be doing the work of mental health professionals. Still, they have an “important role to play in recognizing [trauma] and then connecting that child with family services” or other trained professionals rather than punishing or ostracizing students for disruptive behaviors (Wolf 2020). As an example, when tragedy struck his community, Mark Hatchell, former Colorado superintendent and current strategist for Capturing Kids’ Hearts®, challenged teachers and staff to prioritize making personal connections with every student on campus. Dr. Adela Cruz, a social work expert, emphasized that “trauma-informed, or trauma-sensitive, is not the same as trauma-responsive.” Effectively responding to trauma requires knowledge as well as a cohesive approach to identifying student needs and providing necessary resources. In addition to growing relational capacity with students, developing clear referral systems and protocols will help to target specific needs. Examples of resources include small group counseling and empowering students with skills for coping, self-management and conflict management. Dr. Burke Harris declared that one of the most important ways to support kids is through providing “stable and nurturing relationships and environments.” And isn’t that what we strive for every day in every classroom? Ginger Prewitt, principal of Prado View Elementary School in Corona Norco Unified School District, said: “Building relationships is the foundation of it all. We all know Maslow before Bloom. You can’t even get to the academic piece unless [students] feel safe.” Ginger attributes the smooth transition to distance learning to the fact that teachers intentionally built relationships and developed a strong culture with their students from day one, using processes taught in Capturing Kids’ Hearts®. The connections made through months of greeting kids as they arrived on campus, getting to know their stories, building a collective social contract and growing an affirming and empowering community helped keep the strong relational connections as students made the transition to distance learning in March. Knowing that relationships are the first step to meeting students’ needs, Ginger’s focus for the new school year is to challenge her staff to “really get to know kids”by asking, “How are we going to build rapport? How are we going to check in with students?”
Likewise, Kelly Anderson, principal at Leona Jackson Middle School in Paramount Unified, believes the strong support she and her staff provided students through this difficult year “comes down to the relationships that we have built not only with one another but also with our students and families. At Jackson, we have created a community of trust, in which our students [and] staff feel supported and know they have someone they can turn to who believes in them and truly has their best interest at heart.” Kelly’s staff continued established practices of support through their advisory program, starting each day in small group meetings with students. They “focused on building stronger relationships, strengthening school connectedness during the closure and working with every student to ensure that both their academic and social-emotional needs were being met.” Similarly, Cindy Peterson, superintendent and CEO of Gateway Charter Schools, said that because of the intentional implementation of Capturing Kids’ Hearts® processes across the district, the shift to distance learning was “incredibly powerful because the structure was already there. We used the constructs but in different ways to help us stay connected in that meaningful way. For students, it allowed a sense of continuity.” These established practices of building relational capacity through listening, and emphasizing relationships and teamwork helped maintain closeness between students and teachers and among the adults, despite the physical distance. All these examples point to an idea Flip discussed at length. “The key is to think of school communities as ecosystems.” In its simplest form, the relationship between the members of an ecosystem function to sustain life. Members of the education ecosystem include students, families, teachers, coaches, classified staff, administrators, district leaders, policymakers and educational partners, all coming together to create a synergy of wellness and support for the success of our future generations. These leaders are clear that, for students to learn, they must feel safe; and for students to feel safe, they need to be linked into a relationship-driven, trauma-responsive ecosystem of care.  Addressing adult needs Through these conversations, a second theme emerged: “You cannot transfer that which you do not possess.” In other words, if the adults supporting social-emotional wellness are not well themselves, our system is rendered unsustainable. As educational leaders, an added focus is to promote adult wellness so that they serve as caregivers to students.  Adela Cruz is the coordinator for School Mental Health, Foster Youth and McKinney-Vento in the Anaheim Union High School District, which serves over 33,000 secondary students and employs over 1,300 teachers. She oversees 15 district social workers who serve students dealing with trauma and coordinates social-emotional training. As caregiver fatigue becomes a more widely recognized side effect of serving others, Adela explained how in this busy season, she regularly uses her team meeting time as “sanctuary, not to talk about the work that needs to be done, but how it is impacting them. I really want to know ‘How are you doing?’” She said the support of our teachers and staff, education’s frontline workers, is ongoing work that “needs to happen through self-care” so they can continue to take care of others.  Adela said that strong educational leaders understand that we must “look at our schools as human service organizations,” adding that empowering the ecosystem with mental health literacy is a win for everybody. She also encourages leaders to shift the question from, “‘What more can I do?’ to ‘Who do I need to bring to the table?’” This health crisis prompted her to reach out to the district’s health insurance to engage that system to proactively support mental wellness, rather than address mental health issues after the fact. Through these efforts, district staff has been connected to resources offered through the company, which is often overlooked. Like flight attendants reminding us to put on our own oxygen mask first, leaders must tend to their own social, emotional and mental health. Adela suggested the best way to do this is to be “very aware of your own well-being. Allow yourself downtime. A lot of us are workaholics. We have to allow ‘me time’ and be OK with it and not feel guilty.” Ultimately, if we are to foster social-emotional wellness in our students, we must model what it looks like. Addressing systemic changes The education system, especially in a state the size of California, is a behemoth. Moving a system of this size is a herculean task, but it is required if we are to maximize its potential as “The Great Equalizer.” A positive outcome of this year’s adversities is the collaboration between our various public agencies to streamline resources, efforts and communication to meet the common goal of student well-being. In other words, ecosystems are being strengthened. In reflecting on the lessons of this year, Dr. Art Cunha, chief academic administration officer at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, discussed how the public health crisis has created opportunities for systemic improvements. The heavy-lift of adjusting from in-seat learning to distance learning almost overnight necessitated that agencies move quickly and adeptly. The result? The establishment of regular and meaningful dialogue has created cohesion across a county that represents 80 different local school districts and serves 1.5 million K-12 students. During a time when swift communication is critical, this has allowed for the effective sharing of information, best practices, and policies across a huge geographic and densely populated area. To this end, LACOE has served as the nexus between the local educational agencies and the state so that responses to the crisis are more informed and more effectively meet the needs of those providing direct services to students, teachers and families. When asked how educational leaders can be more involved in shaping policies, Art said county education offices function as the ears and voice of the local districts they serve. Involvement at the county level ensures that local leaders have a seat at the table with policymakers to advocate and shape policies that are reflective of, and responsive to, the specific needs of a wide variety of educational stakeholders. In many ways, this has forced the system to better serve its established purpose of fighting for equal opportunities for all students. Other voices emerging from this crisis include the families of students facing trauma. When asked how schools and districts can support families, Adela emphasizes that schools need to “engage, not just involve parents.” Parents must be allies in the work to understand the difference between trauma and normal child developmental issues. Simultaneously, allying with parents presents both the challenge and benefit of uncovering instances of generational trauma, which then allows adults to access resources for their own healing — thus breaking the cycle. When families are treated as a unit, it brings them closer together and empowers them with the social-emotional tools they need to navigate future challenges without the need for outside intervention, which further strengthens the ecosystem. Final thoughts Despite the added trauma brought on by the unprecedented events of 2020, despite the ever-present uncertainties that linger over us and despite all the setbacks, we now have, more than ever, the opportunity to reframe, rebuild and refocus. Booker T. Washington once said: “Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” When you find yourself questioning, “How do I meet the needs of all those who are counting on me?” Remember: We must first capture hearts before we teach minds; a healthy you is an effective you; and lasting impact is sustained through ecosystems of care built with intention. We stand by Maya Angelou’s words when she says: “You have sacrificed a lot to be here. I’m here to tell you how grateful I am and remind you that you are rainbows in the clouds” — our very own beacons of hope. Resources Anderson, Kelly. “RE: Intro and interview questions for ACSA article.” Received by Jordan Smallwood. 17 June 2020. Email Interview. 
Cruz, Adela. Interview. By Jamie Millan. 16 June 2020.
Cunha, Art. Interview. By Jamie Millan. 15 June 2020. Downs, Bobbie and Manning, JoAnn. “Understanding How Trauma Affects Students.” Scholastic. Flippen, Flip. Interview. By Jamie Millan. 17 June 2020.
Peterson, Cindy. Interview. By Jordan Smallwood. 16 June 2020. Prewitt, Ginger. Interview. By Jamie Millan. 16 June 2020. Wolf, Zachary. “For some kids, the effects of the pandemic will last forever.” 18 May 2020.
Jamie Millan is currently a Leadership Development Strategist with the Capturing Kids’ Hearts® team at Flippen Group

© 2020 Association of California School Administrators