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Association of California School Administrators
Association of California School Administrators
Creating the conditions for mental wellness
Leveraging the ‘Whole-Child Design’ approach to support students
By Kate Hazarian | November | December 2022
California educators, this is our moment to reinvent our schools as centers of wellness for students, staff and families. The world changed forever when our schools physically closed in spring 2020. Two and a half years later, we are working to repair the harm the COVID pandemic had on our students’ mental wellness and academic readiness, while also healing ourselves. We can do this.
We have decades of research showing that a Whole-Child Design, Community Schools approach removes many of the barriers to on-time attendance and increases the opportunity to intentionally build the Social Emotional Learning competencies and academic confidence students need to access a basic civil right in our country — an excellent education. We will never adequately support our students with Tier 3 mental health needs if we don’t have a schoolwide approach to mental health that infuses Transformative Social Emotional Learning into daily academic instruction and into all students’ interactions across the school day. A focus on mental wellness and teaching students emotional regulation strategies allows students to learn, retain and apply knowledge. A focus on TSEL is not “fluff” or something extra. It’s brain science.
I’m a school social worker and administrator who in 2020 was serving as a vice principal at an amazing Title 1 school in Sacramento. Our staff partnered with families to embrace a Community Schools and Restorative Practices approach to creating the conditions for mental wellness and learning. We didn’t have the language of “Whole-Child Design” at that time, but that’s exactly what we were doing. We supported Tier 1 mental wellness by building community in our classrooms and actively welcoming families and community partners onto our campus. As a staff, we were having tough conversations about race, class and bias and how our privilege impacted the largely Black, Brown and immigrant student body we served.
Our primary goal was to have our students in class daily, receiving grade-level or above instruction, from a fantastic team of teachers and classified staff who genuinely embraced a trauma-informed and Warm Demander mindset. In our first year, we reduced the use of suspensions by 80 percent, improved attendance by two full percentage points, and increased our English Language Arts scores by more than 10 percent by implementing a whole-child mindset. We sought to know each of our students “by need and by name,” as Dr. Jessica Djabrayan Hannigan and Dr. John Hannigan coined in their book, “Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit,” and created engaging instruction to support our diverse student body. Our school truly became a safety net for our 550 students and their families. In March 2020, we were exhausted and counting the days until spring break, but we were also energized by the progress we were seeing. Then COVID took over the world.
Let’s be honest. Even before the pandemic, there was a lot out of our control as educators. Stress in homes and in the community, ever-changing state and federal mandates, inconsistent school budgets and a shrinking middle class, to name a few. The mental health needs of our students were on the rise pre-COVID and are now at a crisis point. We knew the return to school would be challenging for students and for adults. That turned out to be an understatement.
As educators, we are faced with the historic barriers that a 180-day school year and a master-schedule, credential-driven school system present. We have more than 150 years of predictable opportunity gaps for our low income and BIPOC students who disproportionately feel the impact of an economy where inflation is on the rise and the pathway to the middle class is largely disappearing. We cannot waste the painful lessons of the COVID pandemic and return to “business as usual” in our schools. It’s time for adults to shift our mindset and structure our schools with mental wellness as our foundation. Here are evidence-based and low-cost strategies that we can start implementing today.
‘Whole-Child Design’ approach
Turnaround for Children, founded by Dr. Pamela Cantor, has compiled a toolbox with easy-to-implement resources for educators in reimagining our system of care for children and youth. Whole-Child Design includes:
  • Positive developmental relationships.
  • Environments filled with safety and belonging.
  • Rich learning experiences and knowledge development.
  • Development of skills, habits and mindsets.
  • Integrated support systems.
Intentional TSEL skill-building
Transformative Social Emotional Learning strategies from CASEL are equity-focused and have clear intersectionality with the Whole-Child Design science. TSEL is not a curriculum, nor can it be optional. There is not a challenge that we face in schools today that can’t be improved by building students' self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, problem-solving and responsible decision-making skills. School can be a stressful place for students and staff. We must teach and reinforce the skills students need to be successful in the school setting. Let’s infuse the TSEL competencies into all PD that we offer staff and reframe our student behavior systems to focus on skill-building instead of punishment.
Focus on PACES — Positive and Adverse Childhood Experiences
We only see the tip of the iceberg when we are supporting students in emotional or behavioral distress. We must all be trauma-aware. We may never know the “why” behind a student who is harming themselves or others. We can intentionally build resiliency activities into our classrooms and common areas. Research tells us that a focus on the protective factors below combats the impact of trauma and creates the emotional safety that allows students to learn. PACES Connection has a wealth of resources for educators, families and nonprofits to build student resilience. The Seven Positive Childhood Experiences that have a demonstrated buffering effect over traumatic stress are:
1. The ability to talk with family about feelings. 2. The sense that family is supportive during difficult times. 3. The enjoyment of participation in community traditions. 4. Feeling a sense of belonging in high school. 5. Feeling supported by friends. 6. Having at least two non-parent adults who genuinely cared. 7. Feeling safe and protected by an adult in the home.
Our primary goal was to have our students in class daily, receiving grade-level or above instruction, from a fantastic team of teachers and classified staff who genuinely embraced a trauma-informed and Warm Demander mindset.
Become a Community School
Our state is investing more than $4 billion dollars in the most ambitious whole-child, Community Schools implementation effort our nation has ever seen. A grant is not required to embrace the four pillars of a Community School, though the funding certainly helps get an initiative off the ground, with:
  • Integrated support services.
  • Family and community engagement.
  • Collaborative leadership and practices for educators and administrators.
  • Expanded learning time.
Here’s the bottom line: We are in charge of creating school climates that foster mental wellness. Creating schools that are centers of wellness in their communities is a choice. It’s a mindset that a staff embraces and then does the hard work of finding a new way to address the needs that our students have. There is a clear intersectionality in the strategies listed above. They won’t be effective if done in silos and they don’t cost much money, but they do require focus and a shared commitment by staff to shift our mindset to recognizing and removing barriers to student wellness and learning.
As leaders, we facilitate conversations with adults and youth about where they will devote their limited time and energy. Let’s not waste the disruption this horrible pandemic has caused by returning to an education structure that consistently didn’t work for so many young people. We can create schools as the centers of emotional and mental wellness in our communities. We can do this.
  • California Community Schools Partnership Program:
  • CASEL:
  • Don’t Suspend Me! An Alternative Discipline Toolkit:
  • National Child Traumatic Stress Network:
  • PACES Connection:
  • Turnaround for Children:
Kate Hazarian is the Director of Strategic Initiatives and Support Services for the Folsom Cordova Unified School District.