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Whole child health and summer learning: Tips from a school psychologist

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Whole child health and summer learning: Tips from a school psychologist

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash.

By Daniel W. Hatcher, director of Community Partnerships at Alliance for a Healthier Generation, and Michelle Owens, national advisor at Alliance for a Healthier Generation.

As out-of-school time (OST) and summer-learning programs adjust to operating guidelines due to COVID-19, a Whole Child Health approach is essential to support children who have experienced grief and loss. We’ve heard from afterschool leaders over the past year with a resounding need for simple strategies to support emotional well-being while encouraging learning.

We’re excited to share practical advice from an interview with Healthier Generation’s senior director for Social-Emotional Health, Elizabeth Cook.

Elizabeth guides Healthier Generation’s Resilience in School Environments (RISE) Initiative which helps schools create safe and supportive learning environments by developing policies and practices that improve the social-emotional health of all students and staff.

Use the advice from Eizabeth as talking points to build support for holistic health in your school community this summer. Share your ideas with us on Twitter using @healthiergen.

Healthier Generation (HG): Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Elizabeth: I’m a school psychologist by training and was in the field for 10 years or so. I started working for the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction and then served as the school psychology consultant where I promoted trauma-informed care, trauma-sensitive schools and trauma informed environments. Now, I’m at Healthier Generation! I’m also a school board member, and a mother with a five-year-old kindergarten student and a three-year old.

HG: What advice would you give afterschool leaders who want to partner with school districts to create strong community learning ecosystems that support children’s mental health?

Elizabeth: The advice that I would give is two-part: One is reach out, “open the door” and really hear what is happening in the school community. Second, ask yourself, “What elements are happening in schools that you can support as you work in the OST environment?”

HG: How can educators create a caring supportive environment while encouraging summer learning?

Elizabeth: We know that learning is emotional and that we cannot learn if we’re not in a good, calm, and positive state. Learning happens everywhere, doing everything - through play, trial and error, experimentation, digging in the dirt, and classic curriculum and instruction. In order for kids to grow, they need to be in environments that are safe, supported, and welcoming. What that really means is they have a group of folks around them that are engaging with them, that are honoring their curiosity, that are taking their lead. It’s about asking questions like, “Hey isn’t this interesting? and “What if you tried this?”

Second, consider your own integrity. A challenge when it comes to partnerships between OST and schools is that there is this idea that schools bestow upon you this idea or this thing. As school leaders, what we want to be able to say is “Here is what we offer. Here is what we provide. Here is what our mission is. Let’s work together so we can integrate the work.” That enables our language to be consistent and enables us to work towards making our practices consistent.

Finally, focus on collaborative partnerships, but use your voice and use your voice strongly to say what your summer program is and what it isn’t.

HG: What are your recommendations for trauma-informed approaches that can be used this summer?

Elizabeth: The pandemic has amplified the adversity that adults and children alike have experienced. I talk about trauma-informed care not necessarily being like a set of strategies or curriculum, but a lens by which you think about everything you do. One of the major tenets is around safety. Obviously, physical safety is going to be a huge priority this summer, so that means we need to make sure that we can really explain to kids, “this is what it means to keep each other physically safe and physically healthy.”

Then there is the emotional and psychological safety that comes along with that knowing that adults are there for you and that you can rely on them this summer. Another part of this is that adults in the environment can rely on and trust each other - there is space to talk about challenges we’re all facing.

Front line school staff can share this Wellness Wheel for Self-Care with one another.  

Finally, we want to make sure voice and choice is amplified. Especially coming out of the pandemic world, when our choices were so limited and our ability to express our needs and wants was limited.

Elizabeth and Healthier Generation recommend these Nine Simple Trauma Informed Gestures for Educators

Elizabeth and Healthier Generation recommend Nine Simple Trauma Informed Gestures for Educators 

HG: Do you have a favorite staff wellness tip or resource?

Elizabeth: I’m a very strong believer that when you’re in the service of kids, whether a parent, educator or an adult ally, having a wellness practice is essential. Good strong healthy adults make for good strong healthy kids.

Another tip and maybe because spring is on its way – here in the Midwest, the snow is melting, and the birds are coming back – is the idea of cultivating a sense of awe. There is a lot of great research that says that when you have a sense of awe or a sense of wonder it can boost your mood and generally makes you more optimistic about the world. So, my piece of advice, particularly for folks that are going to be working with kids throughout the summer is to find experiences that promote a sense of awe.

Greater Good Magazine offers a definition for “awe”.

When you’re out in nature and you’re doing those things. Take a minute to notice something wonderful and take pause to say, “Wow that is really cool… I’ve never looked at a worm that way.” This is a real experience! My kids were digging for worms yesterday and they were like, “Look at all these worms and dirt.” The mom part of me is like, “Yeah, that’s great kids, I need to go do this other thing.” But then I stop and go, “Yeah, that is really interesting. Wow, it’s so cool you found this.” That pause can be super impactful.

When you’re outside with kids this summer, use Nature-Based BINGO to keep track of your awesome discoveries. 

Elizabeth’s sound advice doesn’t stop with OST and summer learning. You can support the emotional well-being of children wherever they are. Try out these Feeling Healthy at Home resources.

Share your ideas for building whole-child health in your school community with us on Twitter: @healthierge

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