Podcast Episode #8: Dr. Shirley Huisman & Dr. Peter Mitchell

By Patrick York

This episode of the podcast is truly a special conversation that explores both a remarkable new program and institute at Columbia College, and is also unique in its practicality. Doctors Huisman and Mitchell talk in plan language about the impacts of trauma and how we all can support those who are struggling under the weight of traumatic experiences.

To learn more about the Institute for Building Resilience Through Trauma-Informed Practices, please visit www.columbiasc.edu/ibrtip.

More About Our Guests

Dr. Shirley J. Huisman, MSW, LISW-CP/S, PhD

Associate Professor of Social Work

Facilitator of Columbia College’s Institute for Building Resilience Through Trauma Informed Practices
Owner/Therapist: Oasis Therapy Services, est. 2013

Mom to four of the most amazing children in the world.

A note from Dr. Huismann

I am a Licensed Independent Social Worker – Clinical Practice/Supervisor (LISW-CP/S) in the state of South Carolina.  I have been in clinical practice for 32 years, and in higher education teaching practice for 30 years.  Over the past 10-15 years my practice in both settings has become increasingly informed by ongoing research in the field of trauma.  The impact of this on both practice settings has been revolutionary. I also have lived experience with trauma, as well as with trauma therapy as a client, which I believe to have saved my life and the lives of my children.  As mothers gain health, their children gain health.

Dr. Peter Mitchell

Dr. Peter Mitchell became the President of Lasell College in Newton, MA in 1983 at age 38. He served as President of Columbia College in South Carolina for nine years and as President of his alma mater, Albion College in Michigan from 1997 to 2007. Columbia and Albion achieved historic high enrollments during his tenure. In 2007, Peter founded Proactive Transition Management, a consulting firm assisting colleges and universities with strategic planning, enrollment management, and fundraising. He served two Interim Presidencies at Lake Superior State University in Michigan from 2017-18 and Columbia College in 2020. Dr. Mitchell has the distinction of being awarded President Emeritus status at three institutions, Albion, Lake State and Columbia.


Patrick

Welcome, Peter. Welcome Shirley. 

Shirley

Hey, Patrick, it’s good to be with you today. 

Peter

Great to be with you, Patrick.

Patrick

You both work at Columbia College and you’ve served a lot of different roles at that institution. Can you tell me a little bit about that? Maybe starting with you, Shirley.

Shirley

Sure. So I came to Columbia College as the director of the undergraduate social work program, and I’ve been working in that capacity since 2014. And about two years ago, things started percolating on our campus around trauma and trauma-informed practices, and so I’ve been involved in helping to start up the Master’s in Trauma-Informed Education program. And in addition to that, I have been working with Peter on the institute, which I’m sure we’ll get to talk about here too, so those are my major roles on campus. 

Patrick

Great. And you, Peter?

Peter

Well, I started at Columbia College in 1988 as president, and I stayed until 1997. It was a great nine years, some exciting things occurred, I went on to be president of my alma mater and then subsequent retired, and then lo and behold, in March of 2020, I was asked by the board if I would come back as interim president. It was literally the weekend. We sent students home because of what we thought was an extra spring break week, because of this Coronavirus that ended up being in the coronavirus mode until September, and I served through the end of September while they did a search for a permanent president, and they’ve elected an excellent person. And during that time, I think the highlight of my seven months was to develop the Institute in building resilience through trauma-informed practices that we’ll talk about throughout today.

Patrick

Fantastic, and I just gotta say, I know that this might not be rare, but it certainly is special to see President Emeritus and a current faculty member who work so closely with one another, I mean to have the leadership and faculty involvement in an initiative of this kind seem special. Can you tell me a little bit about how it has been working on this initiative together as administration and faculty?

Peter

Surely, I’ll let you take the faculty part. That’s the most important part. 

Shirley

Well, it’s really exciting for me to get to work with Peter, and it happened really pretty serendipitously in the fall, from my side of things, at least we were having conversations about the TIE program and having initial conversations about the role of an institute that we hadn’t yet quite figured out, and Peter and I started talking more frequently and ideas just seemed to percolate when he and I talked, and so it’s been a really invigorating collaboration for me. There’s lots of ideas that we talk about, and that don’t always happen for me with other people, and Peter really, I see him as a mentor in my life at this point, helping me to sort of navigate some of these different roles, and I thoroughly enjoy working with him and… We’ve been able to make a lot of things happen in a short period of time. 

Peter

Well, and it’s amazing what can happen when a president listens to the faculty, and Shirley has been my guru in terms of trauma-informed practices. I’m a newcomer to the field, but a very enthusiastic disciple now, and so she was the insight that I needed, and then I would apply my experience as a college president and an administrator on how to translate that into an operational plan, a strategic plan, and that’s how it evolved. We actually formed a special task force of predominantly faculty members from different disciplines to develop the concept, and then they served as a sounding board throughout the fall, and then I asked Shirley to be the facilitator, so that we’d have boots on the ground, someone who was understanding the intricacies of trauma-informed practices. Right, and then that’s how it evolved.

Patrick

So you’ve got… I guess let’s get a little more into the details of what these different initiatives that you have going are, first you have the graduate degree program, it’s a special graduate degree program that is unique among trauma-informed programs for a specific reason, and then you have the institute so let’s start with the graduate program, what sets it apart from other similar programs?

Shirley

Sure. So, I don’t know how many graduate programs in trauma-informed practices there are, but I certainly know that there’s probably none other like ours in that it is really sponsored by two departments, one is the education department and the other social work, and so the uniqueness of our program is that half of our courses are being taught by social work faculty and the other half by education faculty, so it’s really a collaboration in providing a Master’s degree program that I think is extremely unique. I don’t know of any other social work programs around the country involved in this initiative, and I’m pretty sure in our search we haven’t found any other education Master’s programs like it as well, so that makes it very unusual. And I’m actually teaching my course in that sequence right now, and the students are just so appreciative of the different perspectives and the way that’s how they see what’s happening in their classrooms. So it’s not only unique, but it is proving to be a very powerful experience for those who are enrolled as well.

Patrick

And if I remember correctly, the response from candidates for the program was pretty remarkable among programs…

Peter

Yes, that was what attracted my attention, being somewhat of an entrepreneurial president, when you receive accreditation on June 12th from the Southern Association of College at school, and you have 50 students enrolled in August with no advertising other than social media buzz. I think we knew we tapped into something, and that’s what prompted the task force to say, How can we take this trauma-informed concept and make it institution-wide?,

Patrick

And that was the birth of your interest in launching the institute. Correct. So tell me about this institute, it’s the Institute for building resilience by trauma-informed practice, how is it informed by the Master’s Degree, how does it depart from that program? 

Peter

Well, it’s informed by the master’s degree because that became the core concept, and then we recognized that it had interest in other fields such as criminal justice, such as healthcare, even business with HR, and so as we started to develop a thought piece, Shirley and I, we discovered that there was interest across the campus, and that then precipitated, Shirley working with different faculty members, and she can tell us a little bit about that. 

Shirley

Sure. So in addition to working with the education department on the master’s program, we and social work have been working around trauma-informed principles for quite some time, so there’s lots of blending of that in our curriculum as well. Criminal justice is another area that we feel is ripe for this kind of information with everything that’s been happening in our country around criminal justice, the inequities around race and class and pointing those kinds of things, and in particular with criminal justice, I think there’s trauma at work in so many different ways. But we’ll probably get into that a little bit later. So we also have a nursing program on campus, and that’s another area where Trauma-Informed Practices would be so well-suited…there’s such a fit in healthcare with that, the arts have expressed interest in saying that everything that we do in the arts, whether it’s writing or dance, or music: it all revolves in some way around the human condition, and much of the human condition revolts around pain. And so the fit there also became apparent, and so within the undergraduate experience at Columbia College, my goal really is to have every student that comes through our campus as at the undergraduate level, have been in connection with some coursework around trauma.

The way you talk about this, the way that you talk about in both of your collaboration, the collaborative nature of your faculty across departments, to me, it sounds like the way that ideally a university college, an institution of hired learning should work. But I know that in my experience, sometimes there’s some turf battles sometimes that spring up between departments or different faculty, maybe between the faculty and the administration. People who have a different vision for a program that is incongruous with the ideas that others have, but it sounds like you’ve been able to not just put all that aside, but kind of transcend those kinds of challenges and put together something that’s really remarkable.

Shirley

Part of what I think has happened with the education program is that we’ve realized there’s enough trauma work to do for everybody, and that we don’t need to be fighting over content or perspective even. There’s much more than we as a social work program can do, and there’s much more than the education program can do alone, and when we put ourselves together, we come up with such a better product and the program… 

Peter

And the other part of it is, even from my first stint from 88 to 97, this is a special institution, the faculty and staff truly believe that our goal is student success, not just student attention, but student success, and if you set that as your focus, then you look at what you do and how you do it differently. And they see that many of our students are experiencing trauma or come from trauma-related experiences, and consequently something like that would prompt them to say, Gosh, if we work together on this, we can really have a positive impact on the success of our students.

Patrick

Got it. So it seems like trauma-informed topics are almost the great common language between these disciplines, and would you say that that has contributed to your success? 

Shirley

I think so, yes. Another thing that we did in early January is we had a professional development for our faculty, and it was around trauma-informed practices, and as soon as you start talking about trauma and talking about the impact on people’s lives, everybody’s ears perk up. Even though people may not initially see a connection to what they do professionally, many people on the faculty have their own trauma histories or they are related to people who have had trauma histories, and so it was a powerful experience just even as a professional development offering and again, transcending all the differences or what can be very siloed disciplines within higher education. Those just don’t exist when we all get together as a faculty at Columbia College, we were together as faculty.

Peter

And we did the same thing for the staff, they had their own training session, and it involved not just student life, but admissions and financial aid in the business office, so that they could understand better the kind of trauma situations that our students may have experienced

Patrick

So Peter, you had mentioned that you are… You may not have used these terms, but a recent convert to trauma-informed care and related topics. Shirley, how did you get interested in this as a topic and something you wanted to dedicate your career to?

Shirley

Well, I’ve been in social work education and social work practice for three decades, and as I would say around 2008-2009, I became more aware of just through own research and studying through the work of the ACEs research, the Adverse Childhood Events research, and the connection to what I teach on a yearly basis, is just so profound from much of the theoretical foundation of social work hinges on understanding human behavior, and so everything that I do in the back, because I have a practice of people health, I began to see that everything that everybody that walked in my office and almost all the issues they were talking about were related to trauma in some form, whether it was childhood trauma or trauma as an adult. When you use that lens, it changes everything about how the people… And at the same time, I was going into my classroom making those connections, helping students make those connections, but also seeing how my students trauma impacted their ability to be engaged in their own education, and so that changed how I practiced as a professor, that changed or enhance what I was already doing in relationships with my students in my program, and so that was just a natural progression over the last 10, 12 years for me, and so that’s really my journey with the trauma-informed practices.

Patrick

Got it. So I do wanna respond to some of the things you were saying about trauma-informed care and criminal justice, but also in education, and in other conversations we’ve had with the folks who are working in this realm, I always ask them a variant of this question, there are some who would say, the work of Trauma-Informed Care is essentially trying to tell people who are already working really hard to just work a little harder, do a little more, or be a little more patient or be a little more compassionate, and sometimes the response is, I’m already doing so much, I’m already trying to teach kids who don’t wanna learn math math, and I’m already… I’m trying to do what is an impossible task, and now I’m being asked to be more patient, more kind, when I myself might even be affected by trauma and unable to manage that feeling and do what I need to do just basically to fulfill the requirements of my job, how am I also supposed to do all of these other things. What would you say to that?

Shirley

So in family therapy, there’s a thread of theory and practice that’s called strategic family therapy, and it’s basically referring to instead of fighting against against the problem, you’re going to fight with the problem, and so you… Instead of like butting heads with something, you’re actually getting behind it and helping to move it in the direction it’s already going, and with trauma, it isn’t that we are asking trauma-informed practices, it’s not that we’re asking people to work harder or do more… It’s channeling your energy in a different way, so it actually… As people in the TIE program, students and the TIE program are finding and reflecting on, it takes actually less energy in the long run to do this work from a trauma-informed perspective because you’re recognizing what’s happening and addressing it in a whole different way, a more effective way, and a way that you actually are gonna see results in how your students interaction with their own education changes so much. So instead of fighting against this behavior problem of a student in an elementary class for an entire year, as soon as a teacher starts to ask not what’s wrong with this child, but what’s happened to this child, it changes everything about how that relationship develops. In a comparison into my practice is that oftentimes in the medical world or the healthcare world, when somebody doesn’t show up for an appointment, they get labeled as…They’re non-compliant or they don’t take their many… So they’re non-compliant, and instead of instead of looking at it that way, it shifts everything to ask, I wonder what might be happening with this person that they couldn’t be here. Right, and so you’re coming at it from a question of understanding rather than a statement of judgment, and that opens a door for so many more possibilities.

Patrick

In a previous conversation, Peter, you had mentioned that you have really focused at Columbia on the classic concept of trauma-informed practice according to SAMHSA. Can you tell me about that?

Patrick

Yes, I can… SAMHSA is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration program, and it was designed specifically to address those issues. They have six key principles that not only guide SAMHSA of in guide, I think all of us that are involved in trauma-informed practices as they begin with safety, and then they say, once you have a safe environment, it needs to be both trustworthy and transparent. The concept of peer support is so pivotal because those who are experiencing trauma can really gain a lot by learning from others in similar situations, and then the concept of collaboration mutuality, the recognition that these are people value and worth, and we need to cultivate that, and when we get to that point, now we’re starting to getting to what they call the empowerment, the voice, and the choice. And this is the way that they really are able to cope with the trauma experiences they’ve had, and it’s important to give them voice and to empower them as well, and then when it was added later on, they call it the cultural, historical, and gender issues, and this is what I think through my attention most, was that this disproportionate share of trauma experienced by BIPOC, the communities from the LGBTQIA, they are under such greater stress and in some cases, generations in the case of racism in 400 years. And I think when you bring that into play and you recognize that and call it for what it is, and then cope with it and deal with it, I think then you’re starting to make progress, and it’s almost as if in one of the phrases that surely uses is trauma-informed practices not only work for students that have had trauma, it works for everybody, and it would work better in law enforcement and it would work better in Social Work and in teaching if we applied those same kind of principles.

Patrick

Got it. Yeah. Shirley we spoke once before and you started talking about something that really a attention, which is that fundamentally, learning and education are byproducts of relationships. Do I have that right? What does that mean? 

Shirley

My daughter is a teacher middle… In the middle school system here in South Carolina, and so I hear often about the stress on standards and testing and making sure that they teach to the test, they just teach to the test, and I think we’ve got that backwards. I think that human beings are wired for a relationship, and that when the relationship is healthy and trustworthy along those principles that Peter was just talking about, people learn and isn’t that they come into the room with the intention of learning, but when they come into the room, because there’s a relationship there, they’re going to learn. And so I believe in education that if we focused more on supporting teachers and building relationships with their students, observing their students, getting to know who those students are, listening to those students, it would change so much about what a child capable of learning in that classroom.

Patrick

I had a conversation with Emily Meeks and Tanisha Thomas of focused minds education group, and they talked about how sometimes their students will call them auntie or even mama and put these really emotionally laden in important titles on their teachers, and that carries an enormous amount of… Not only emotional weight, but relational weight. Is that something that you’re… Is that kind of an emotional connection you’re seeing between the students in your program or people that you’ve worked with in education or in private practice?

Shirley

Oh, absolutely, absolutely. And along with that, it requires some vulnerability on your part as the educator or the therapist, because when I walk into my own classroom at Columbia College, and I’ve had a rough morning, the minute I walk in and I put my stuff down and face my class and I can say this has been a really rough morning, so you gotta hang with me here, everybody relaxes. And there will be… Yeah, yeah, I’ve had this kind of morning too, and so there’s this instant recognition of that we all have other lives that come with us into that room, and if we can at least speak that at the beginning, then we can get on with what we’re trying to do in that class period. But if we don’t speak that we’re dragging that stuff along with us through that whole hour, and the minute I can say that to them, everything shifts in that room because I’ve made myself vulnerable, it allows for other people to relax and say, Yes. It’s been a rough week for me, and then we can get to what we’re doing because we feel disconnection with each other.

Patrick

And we’re focused right now on clients, also students in the classroom and kind of at this very intimate relational level. Peter, you had talked about the importance of trauma-informed concepts in setting policies and practices at an institutional level, can you talk about the importance of that sort of macro level of consideration.

Peter

Absolutely, we need guiding principles, and certainly SAMHSA’s key principles, and they have some various assumptions are important, and there needs to be a common understanding and the ability to try to apply ideas from different fields as a disciple, a newcomer to the field. That feels like I’m trying to drink out of a fire hose. But one of the areas that I thought was particularly poignant in terms of habits and skills that actually comes from the indigenous people’s culture, they call it the circle of courage to build resilience, and that’s the other special part of this institute. Initially, we were calling it the institute and trauma-informed practices, but we created an advisory board of about a dozen leaders from literally all over the country, I think 10 different states for the 12 people, and one of them is an influential part of the Resilience Coalition, Mary Jane Pearson said to us, your end game is building resilience, not using trauma-informed practices, and so that’s how the institute evolved and has now come, the Institute for Building Resilience to through Trauma Informed Practices. In this circle of courage, it literally begins with belonging, promoting kind of an individual motivation and self-esteem, it goes to mastery, which means you have to develop competency and achievement and self-control, it then goes to generosity, and once you’re doing that, you see a value system of social responsibility and altruism, and then it ends, the circle completes with independence, where you foster creativity, autonomy and the resource one, and that kind of a model helps us whether we’re in education or criminal justice or the arts, or HR for that matter. And I think those kinds of habits and principles and having a common understanding and willing to apply from different fields, I think is a hallmark of the institute…

Shirley

I would just wanted to add to the… And it builds on what Peter is talking about as well, but trauma at its heart is, have come to believe this entirely is basically an injury in relationship, whether it’s the relationship we have to ourselves, but also the relationship to other, and the earlier in life that those traumas happen, the more of an impact that has on relationship going forward, and so the focus of the power of relationship and trauma-informed practices is not an accident because that trauma injury to myself, if I’ve been traumatized is first of all, I have to wall that off somewhere, because I can’t, it is too much for myself to cope with, and so it gets walled off and I’m hiding pieces of myself, and if the trauma was induced within another relationship, now I don’t trust outwardly either. Right? And so moving forward from that becomes really difficult since most of our cycle social-emotional development takes place in the context of relationship.

Patrick

Yeah, so I have two brief anecdotes that I’d like to get your take on, one is, during the pandemic, the members of my family actually contracted the virus and had a really difficult time with it, a really terrible case, and then the other members of the family who lived in the same household, we’re experiencing a deep sense of alienation and separation from others, which I think is a common experience for people around the world, back to 2020 to the present, currently, and I can imagine that sort of alienation not only leading to an increase of one, in everyone’s ACE’s score, but also some really lasting, maybe not damage, but impacts on people’s ability to make relationships in the same way that they did before or maintain those relationships. What’s your take on that? Do you think that there’s going to be a lasting impact that we’re gonna have to overcome with some difficulty…

Shirley

Sure, sure. I think it also builds on what in our culture already is a very individualistic approach to life, and the ability or lack of ability that we have culturally to really share painful experiences in a healthy way is already then embedded and it’s built upon by this last year of, well, we can’t touch, we can’t hug, we can’t… We have to stay away from each other. There’s somebody in the other room who’s hurting desperately because they’ve got COVID-19, but I can’t go in there already, I have to just stay away from all of that, and you have people who are saying goodbye to loved ones over FaceTime. And if that is even possible. And so the impact of that is going to be seen for a long time to come. One anecdote I like to share is that my grandmother was born in the early 1900s, and she would speak about the flu of 1918, 19, and her mother, who was pregnant at that point, contracted that flu and it produced like uncontrollable hemorrhaging in pregnant women as they were giving birth, and she and her newborn baby both passed away, but the flu was so contagious that my grandmother couldn’t go downstairs to even say goodbye to her mother, and she remembers in the dead of winter, in the Iowa winter, of scratching the frost off from the window of her bedroom as she watched the horse drawn, her pulling her grandmother off that for…And I know that that shaped not just her, but her marriage and her relationship to her own children, and so that Inner generational aspect of that, I feel that in my own family, that I can see that moving forward from this experience with COVID-19 for so many people that it’s going to shape generations to come, but we have a choice about how we move forward with that at this point, because we know so much, we have so much at our fingertips about trauma and the impact of trauma and the kinds of things that help heal trauma.

Patrick

Right. Have to admit that I’m a bit of an arm chair, not even expert in armchair host when it comes to all of this, because I am very fortunate in my life not to have experienced the type of trauma that I hear from students that I’ve worked with, faculty that I’ve worked with people in organizations that focus on this type of work, and so it’s sometimes hard for me to truly understand in a visceral way, the impact of trauma and how it really determines somebody’s ability to function in the way that they would like to function. I guess the question at the heart of that is Shirley, as someone who’s worked with people who have experienced the type of trauma that you’ve described with your great-grandmother and your grandmother, what is the role of those of us in communities that aren’t sort of disproportionately affected, like the communities that you mentioned earlier, Peter, in being there for communities that are affected in this way, for people who are affected in this way?

Shirley

I think at the very core of it is seeking to understand, which means that those who haven’t experienced the trauma, the very first role you have is to listen and provide that safe space for people to share and talk about what their experience is and has been… Because empathy is at the core of trauma-informed practices, and in order to have empathy, we have to have some understanding of what somebody else has gone through, and so… That’s the beginning of that process. And the fact that even though you’re an arm chair participant in this, in this process, you seek to understand, and that opens up… The alternative of that is judgment, and judgment closes doors, seeking to understand, builds pathways, and so when we intersect with communities that have a disproportionate amount of trauma historically as well as presently, it means we’ve got to lay our judgment down before we ever even enter into that relationship and simply be open enough to understand what somebody is saying to us and what they’re… They may not be saying verbally, even, it may be behaviorally that they’re saying, but understanding that trauma can produce behaviors in people that initially look like in the education system, it looks like disrespect, or it looks like someone’s trying to be offensive. And the fact is, our behavior is… We talk about acting out, right, acting out something that people do when they don’t have words to say what they are needing to say, children have no words to talk about some of the things that have happened to them, and so they acted out. And if we come into that relationship seeking to understand what’s happening, it’s such a different place then to judge that child or take a personal offense to it, because then all of a sudden you’ve got a power struggle going on and you’re gonna have that child acting out even more. People will only speak as loud as they have to in order to be heard, whether that’s verbally or behaviorally. 

Patrick

Would it be too simple to say that at the heart of this trauma-informed work is de-centering the self…

Shirley

Absolutely. And I’ve had to do this in my own personal work as well, but often times with students and clients, I’ll say, What makes you think that was about you, if somebody did something or they saw something, or somebody behaved a certain way around them, and we take it personally. Very few people are thinking about us as they behave or live their life, they’re thinking about… They’re involved in their own pain and process, they’re not thinking about How am I gonna offend Patrick York today? It is, and we have a very self-centered perspective around that, that has to be… We have to crack that somehow because we’re simply not… We’re simply not the center of anybody else’s world.

Peter

Well, and the pandemic, it really exacerbated the issue of trauma already, it’s almost like trauma on steroids, and I think an answer to the de-central, it’s also an ethic of caring, I think it’s looking at the whole, the other… And I think those qualities are at the core of trauma-informed practices, but they’re also gonna be increasingly more important as we deal with the aftermath of the pandemic, and I think one of the possible positive out-gross is that trauma was not well-understood and not widely understood, and now it becomes such much more prevalent and more obvious to people, which means that it can be dealt with and it needs to be dealt with, and like you, I’ve been fortunate and not having traumatic experiences of the magnitude that many of the students we teach, but then that forces me then to become more knowledgeable about it, and that was really part of what was the core of the institute, is for us to recognize we’ve got to do something, and we’re a relatively small undergraduate-oriented, primarily liberal arts college, but what can we do? And that’s how the institute evolved, and I hope we can make a difference in a number of different ways, not only just in our education, but we wanna do advocacy, we want to create a trauma-informed practices quarterly, so that every quarter articles about practical application that seemed to work can be published, whether it be an education or social work, or business or the arts, and I think that’s gonna be our contribution going forward.

Patrick

How has the past 32, 33 years of your career as the sort of top administrator of university informed the formation of this institute, and you must have seen a lot of change over that time.

Peter

I did, and when I arrived at Columbia in the first time in 88, we were really a fine institution, but we didn’t have a central guiding principle, and we were a women’s college, and we were the second in the country to develop a Women’s Leadership Institute. And it really brought a claim and resources and strong students to the institution, and so we do tend to learn from our successes I hope, and when I was there the second time, I thought, This is another big issue. And we as an institution can form something that creates an institute that deals with it in a diverse settings and in diverse disciplines, and again, I’m optimistic that this will probably be the defining quality of Columbia College going forward. And then others will come to us and say, How do you teach all your undergraduates about trauma, how do you develop these programs and certificates, and if we can be a guide to others, and we’re sort of Johnny Appleseed spreading our little seeds all over the place, so others can build up on their trauma and form practices, building resilience.

Patrick

So what about people who wanna get involved with the institute or maybe apply for the graduate program. Where would you send them to either learn more about what you have to offer or contribute in some way?

Peter

We have created a website, and the college website is www.ColumbiaSC.edu/ibrtip because there are seven or eight different Columbia colleges or universities across the country, so it’s Columbia SC, EDU, and then just… I tip Institute for building resilience through trauma and form practices. So it’s just a regular website with IBRTIP and that has the different programs we have, it has a background on the institute, it lists our advisory board members, it’s a pretty comprehensive visit to what we’re trying to accomplish.

Patrick

And you’re currently teaching in that program, right Shirley?

Shirley

Yes, I am. 

Patrick

Yeah, how’s it going? 

Shirley

Well, it’s incredibly intense. Students are in seven-week courses, the three credit-hour courses over seven weeks, they take two courses at a time, and that means that you’re going double speed. But they’re so enthused and so appreciative because they are already seeing changes in how their students are interacting with them and how they… Of course, they first start interacting differently themselves, that it’s initiated by the teacher, and I think what I hear is they’re feeling so empowered that there are things that they actually can do in a classroom differently that changes the outcome of every student in that classroom, because if you have one student who’s acting out in a classroom, every other student’s learning capacity in that room is altered as well, and so while it is very intense and is requiring a lot of work, and I will say as well for myself, this is… You’re creating a course, which is always much more work than any other time you’ll ever teach it, but I am learning as much from my students as they are from this class, because that’s first of all, how I teach, but it is so exciting to see something shift so soon after having it presented or processed in a course, oftentimes in undergraduate education and education of all kinds, we wanna do some outcome studies after the fact, but we’re actually getting to hear examples and anecdotes and repeated anecdotes about, this is changing how my classroom worked this week, and so I think that in that way, that makes the intensity and the hard work much more palatable because they’re actually getting to see change so quickly.

Patrick

Right. So the final question that I ask all of the guests is the same, which is we are hopefully in the waning days of the pandemic, maybe months is more accurate, but I have at least seen cases in California dropping dramatically, and I know that they are across the country too. Once we do get the all clear and we are sure that we can go back out into the world with some confidence, what’s the first thing? You both will do… 

Shirley

Peter?

Peter

I’ll start hugging people because I missed that, but I think the other pieces that we will say to ourselves, now, the reaction to trauma is gonna start to really sink in, people are gonna be reflecting on what was… And they’re gonna be trying to deal with it and cope with it. And what can we do to ameliorate that? And one of the things that early and I develop and we’re gonna team teach it, we develop just a 15-week program for higher education for faculty and for people like directors of diversity, or even admissions or student success officers, where they can learn the basic principles of trauma-informed practices in one course and all of the theory behind it, and then in the second class, learn how to apply it, and the students, every student will leave with a strategic plan on how they can apply a trauma-informed practices to build resilience on their institutional campuses, and that’s gonna start this summer.

Patrick

How about you, Shirley?

Shirley

Well, I’m right in there with the hugs, I’ve been in sheltering at home or in addition to the pandemic, I experienced some health problems the prior nine months to that, and so I have been sheltering from home, it will be two years in June, and I’m eager eager just to have physical connectedness with people and not necessarily even touch, but just to be in the presence of other people, because that is also an injury from this experience for many of us, you don’t get touched. And human touch is essential to human survival, we know that babies who don’t get touched die, they can have all their other needs basically met, but they’ll die. And I’m a grown person, so I can cope with this to some extent, but at the same time, I long to have to be in other people’s presence and continuing to work, of course, as Peter just said, where this program and this institute are going is very invigorating and inspiring to me.

Patrick

Yeah, well, I am very fortunate to be able to have these kinds of conversations with folks like you in it, the work that you’re doing at Columbia in the Institute and with your graduate program is very inspiring. And I thank you for your time today and being so generous with your conversation.

Shirley

Well, thank you for having us.  

Peter

It was our pleasure.

Podcast Episode #4: Emily Meeks and Taneesha Thomas of Focused Minds Education Group

By Patrick York

Tom and Patrick talk with Emily Meeks and Taneesha Thomas of Focused Minds Education Group about building trust and meaningful relationships with students.

About Our Guests

Emily Meeks  and Taneesha Thomas are Co-Founders of Focused Minds Education Group founded in 2018.  Collectively they have 30 years of experience in education. As retired educators and now school mental health advocates, Emily and Taneesha are committed to supporting the wellbeing of adolescents and adults.

Focused Minds Education Group facilitates meaningful and impactful professional learning workshops to organizations globally that promote growth, resiliency, and wellness for all.


Tom

Hi, I’m Tom.

 

Patrick

And I’m Patrick.

 

Tom

And we lead SHARE, which stands for stories of humanity and resourcefulness and education.

 

Patrick

On this podcast, we have practical conversations with inspiring educators. Welcome, Emily, welcome Taneesha.

 

Taneesha

Hello.

 

Emily

Hi guys.

 

Tom

Welcome.

 

Taneesha and Emily

Thank you.

 

Patrick

So let’s jump into it. What is the work of Focused Minds Education Group?

 

Emily

Well, Focused Minds Education Group is a solutions-based firm founded in 2018, and we’re headquartered here in Atlanta, Georgia. And we’ve traveled the south east region of the US providing training to educators on mental health awareness with incorporating trauma-informed practices. And we like to focus on how to use literacy as a means to build skills and heal within our communities, and our goal is to promote growth, resiliency and wellness, and adolescents and adults.

 

Patrick

And how did the two… So, that was Emily. How did you Emily and Taneesha get-together to actually found this organization.

 

Taneesha

Emily and I met here in Atlanta at a local high school. We became the content leads for American Literature, and I was returning to the classroom from a position as an instructional coach, and she and I just simply partnered and began to plan and deconstruct those standards for the students. Writing was a focus at the school at the time, and we both were lovers of writing, knew what writing did for us. So we were able to just connect instantly and began to plan and our scores to go up and we develop a system and shared it with other teachers throughout the school. So here we are with Focus Minds.

 

Patrick

So you work with folks in the Atlanta metro area, but also across a couple of different states, is that right?

 

Emily

Yes, that is correct. We started out here in Atlanta, Georgia, however, what we realized is our schools that are here are no different from any other school in the US or around the world, and that is we have kids who have experienced some type of trauma potentially, and/or have a mental health condition, and no training was being provided at the time for us to gain more knowledge about those mental health conditions and how that actually affects learning.

 

Patrick

So we had had a previous conversation and you had spoken about the role of building strong relationships with students, and that’s something you’ve started to do when you met at this high school. Can you talk about why… I mean, I don’t wanna sound cynical, but I can imagine some teachers saying, “No, I’m the teacher, and there’s a… I’m here to provide education, so… That’s it. Why do I need to build a relationship?”

 

Taneesha

So we have to simply believe it’s Maslow before Bloom, human connections matter, and it’s evident now more than ever before that we need one another, and specifically, school is a safe place. So when those students do arrive, they should feel welcome and nurtured and loved, and that was one thing that the two of us would always do, even if we would notice that we were feeling off that day, we had one another to talk to, and it was a safe space, even if it was doing lunch or after school, just to be brief with one another case, and the students saw that, the students saw that when we walked through the hall. They saw us making a connection and just filling… Just love, that’s really what it was. And thank, you…

 

Emily

Now that I think about that.

 

Taneesha

Yes, it was… Just showing them love and respect. I think that the aspect of respect has to be incorporated when you talk about building relationships, because building it and working with a population of students who may have experienced some type of adverse childhood experience. One of the things that is missing potentially is a relationship building for the relationship they have with the parent, and many of our students actually were in group homes. So building that relationship with them was essential because we became a constant figure in their lives. For me to those kids would have been moving around from home to home or location, so that’s super important just to build the trust and allow them the opportunity to know that this is a safe space where they can share and learning can occur.

 

Tom

It’s also the educational system at large. And I think that’s one way to think about the approach is that charity begins at home, as they say, but it’s really an effort that takes awareness in the larger community and an effort in the larger community. How do you… How is the community involved in what you do? How do you go about building community?

 

Emily

That’s a great question.

 

Taneesha

I’m glad that you asked that. We were able to partner with some awesome organizations that are powering this movement, and with that, we were able to meet you guys with Resilient Educator Coalition, through the Attachment and Trauma Network. We are also partnered with Kaiser Permanente. It’s just we have sought out those people, like you said, who have already built the community, and bringing that aspect of how to bring… Use literacy to build skills and healed as educators So I feel that we have a very unique perspective and somewhat of a quasi-study from our experiences in the classroom. Having this confirmation, have learned about ACEs and the impact and then applying it to our instructional design to ensure that we are being just simply respectful of their situations and making sure that they are calm when they’re learning, so.

 

Patrick

Most of the readily available literature on social-emotional learning and trauma-informed care has a kind of scientific bend to it. It’s almost like understanding physiologically what’s happening to the body and distress, or how the mind has difficulty regulating its own emotions in certain situations when the fight-or-flight-or-freeze instinct kicks in. But you’re pairing, which for me and Tom… We’re right at home there, because we’d like to think of ourselves as a literate people, but the pairing of trauma-informed care and literacy or the arts more generally. Can you describe what that looks like?

 

Emily

Okay, well, what we talk about, and we’re go in to talk with the teachers, is to bring in and think about literature that you’re actually using within the classroom. Talk about building skills and healing as educators, we are sometimes, sometimes [we] have to work from the standard-space approach. And so looking at the standards-based approach, what we do is go in and say, okay, here is an anchor text. We’re going to take and strategically find the text that may speak to some different situations or connections with those students we have in our classroom. And that could be anything from their personal interest to their own personal life stories and finding characters or literature that make confident, and what we do is I’m allowing to have the open dialogue and discussion, which essentially, once they realize or potentially see themselves within a character, then we can begin to open that door to the learning process and touch on those standards, but from a position of prior knowledge and something that they’re familiar with, I think what we’ve noticed is with the fixed curriculum that many educators have… Those texts aren’t connecting with the kids, and so what we do is we encourage teachers to get some supplemental texts, learn about those students in the classroom. It’s going to help them not only master these standards, but also to building that relationship as well.

 

Taneesha

Exactly, I agree. How can we demonstrate understanding of trauma, equity, justice, all through literacy instruction? It can be done.

 

Patrick

What’s the role of the students choice in designing that curriculum or selecting those supplemental readings?

 

Emily

I think it’s very big. Being able to give that student voice and that voice and choice comes in with simply being prepared. As an educator, what are those supplemental checks that you have selected, preparing for them perhaps, and annotated bibliography, which is a skill that they will need. And display the books to them in that fashion and have them to vote: Which of these appeals to you? And this is coming up in our curriculum next week, and I wanna know which way do I go with this? What do you guys want to do? And they would have a discussion and say why, and I would go to bed and they commit and enjoyed the time and class.

 

Taneesha

And also just to add to that, not only the reading but the writing, as we talked about earlier is a huge piece. We oftentimes gave kids the opportunity, what we like to call Freestyle Fridays. And Freestyle Friday was an opportunity for the kids to write about really whatever they were feeling in that moment. It gave him that choice, it gave them that voice to who potentially meant to share were allowed to share. But it wasn’t punitive, and one of the roles was to make sure that he’s understood the writing doesn’t always have to be a punitive process. [It can be] a release of their feelings, a release or whatever is going on, and just to have opportunities to write that down in as we call free style, then it gave an opportunity to feel heard and to feel as though what they were feeling was important.

 

Patrick

It sounds like through a lot of the things that both of you have done as educators and as founders of this organization is find a lot of success in building trust with students, which seems from an outsider’s perspective, like a very difficult thing to do. Can you talk about some of the strategies that you used to build?

 

Emily

Well, I was gonna say, I just think I met the one particular student, and this is true in my first year teaching. I didn’t really know what my role was. You’re coming from teachers, school, getting your certificate, you think, Okay, I’m just here to teach, and being the person who I am naturally, a nurture, I would meet my kids at the door every morning, smile at them every morning because I would let them to know this is a welcoming space. And unbeknown to me, midway through the semester, I had a student, through all the writing things we talked about at the time, she just came to me and shared with me that she had been abused and she needed help. And it was because of a conversation that we were having in class, she felt comfortable with sharing that information with me. And at that point, a first year teaching, I realized, this is a gift, everybody doesn’t… All the teachers apparently haven’t heard her story. This is the first time she had her story, and the fact that she felt comfortable and trusted me enough that information to get it to the right person and not feel ashamed, and later on, I still follow this student and later on, it just became without her really knowing it, I made her feel safe. And so, building trust is important so that kids feel safe, many of them came from environments where it may not be a safe environment, and you have to understand it. Like you said, it’s more than just teaching. We’re autnie, we are… What else Taneesha? We’ve been a couple of other things as well in the classroom. Sometimes you’re the mom. You just never know the impact that you might have them that they need… So we’re gonna allow them to voice what they need and what role they wanna supply, but at the same time, still putting learning at the forefront of it all.

 

Taneesha

And to speak to that with a whole school-wide perspective, this can be done with a very, very engaged student government. Each school has this. This is something that has been going on since school was school. So if you have people who know they want to share their voice and it’s being led by someone who wants the culture and traditions to be throughout the school, that is one way that you can do it. Everyone wants that way to be seen specifically in the cafeteria, so we would do enrichment and engaging activities and the cafeteria, but it’s hosted by students They see other students being empowered to make some badges.The idea is that you are able to leave class three minutes earlier and for some three minutes people are hearing this because I’m gonna call socializing, but if other kids want to know what are you doing, show them your badge. Show them that you are able to do something and invite them to come at the table doing lunch. And it worked. We told seniors that… So it really is the ownership of the leadership within that school to figure out where, how can I mass communicate… At lunch in the cafeteria, and SGA is an awesome place to start. So to actually normalize the stigma of mental health and trauma. They have stories.

 

Emily

Right.

 

Patrick

In a previous conversation, you had also talked about the power of using popularity among the school to drive change or to at least get other students involved. Can you tell us about how you do that?

 

Taneesha

So it’s like homecoming, just think of those moments, those milestone moments at school, who those heavy hitters or the most popular kids would be, and we would send them invitations that they would get in class and make a big deal out of… You can invite too, we would like to your voice. This is for you, type thing, and they would be involved in homecoming in. You have a art club, those artists who… Teachers may think are just sitting doodling. They can create a backdrop for your homecoming dance that would blow your socks off if get you to simply ask. If you get them involved and provide the tools and resources for them to stay after school, that became a thing for them, using those football players. Can you wear this pin on your jersey today: This is something that the SGA wants to give you, but it’s also spreading a mission or a task that we were trying to complete to invite other students. And it worked.

 

Taneesha

And I think about it almost, I mean, just with any other major sport or anything else, education is no different. You see them wearing the messages wearing these different symbols to let people know, Hey, I am a part of this movement and so on is to feel like they are leading a movement, and if that movement is, Hey, let’s in this particular stigma on mental health, or Let’s bring awareness to these particular issues, they all wear that proudly because it makes an ambassador, makes them a leader. It’s teaching kids to how to lead. We know that everyone can’t be a leader, but you have those identified leaders already. Give them that voice that they need and opportunities to say, Hey, you too can speak up because I have… So that’s important. Yeah.

 

Patrick

I’m always tempted to think of trauma-informed approaches to education or even just social-emotional ways of building community within schools as, very simply put, the leaders and the teachers in that school paying attention to what’s going on in the lives of the students. And when they design interventions or programs or reach out to the students, they do it after having paid attention… Is that too simple?

 

Emily

It’s not, it’s really not. I know that we are in an age of virtual learning, and that has somewhat been a challenge to make that identification for those students. However, as an educator, you’re always an educator, and I feel as though there are just little moments where if you’re paying attempt to that kid, and sometimes it’s a very quiet kid, and sometimes it’s a very loud kid, but when you know the student is not giving the same energy or the same attention that they may normally show or display, and that’s an opportunity to kinda check in and it’s just as simple as paying attention. And the truth of the matter is, we necessarily can’t save them all, that was something that I had to come to groups with early on, however, our mission is to get more educators to start simply paying attention so that we can save and support more… That’s really the key. And if you lead with that relationship first, if you lead with the trust building first, then they’re more actually open to share with you, you don’t even have to prod, really, because they all want to share. And providing those spaces and times listening, it’s about being intentional, intentionally planning those times where it’s okay to share. That is your moment to pay attention, so build that time in where you can age and identify and hear from your kids, you have to build that time.

 

Taneesha

And when we say to the attention, but is just simply being aware, we’re not saying teachers have to be clinicians and be able to diagnose what they see, but simply be praying. And have the awareness and the ability to say, Hey, something may be going on with Taneesha today. Make a mental note to yourself to check in with her tomorrow, and you have those go-to strategies that you can connect to because you have an officially trained and you do truly become that urgent responder for that one student.

 

Tom

You’re kind of talking about also, awareness is a good word. It’s about a sort of presence in the classroom where you are paying attention to how students are feeling, not just what they’re doing.

 

Emily

I agree Tom.

 

Patrick

So you have also mentioned that the students in the past have called you auntie or mom, which means that you’re playing a huge emotional role in their lives. So what does it look like when you have conversations with these students, parents, knowing the kind of role that you play in their lives?

 

Taneesha

I have a little trick because I’m good with names, so I would always prepare by simply memorizing students names, parent name, and just the three numbers of their phone number. So during the first week of school I would just simply say, Emily, I don’t think that it’s the idea. I do have time to contact Ms Meets if I need to at AT&T at 404, and the kids… So these are ninth graders, and they’re like, How do you know my mom’s name, how do you know where my mom works? We’re friends. You didn’t know that. That’s the secret speaker that we have. And I would just simply tell them that we were friends, and then afterwards I would then have to call mom and say, Hey, if they ask if we’re friends, we’re friends. You can call me any time. But it worked for them, and it work for me, and it created a community in my classroom where parents were texting me after hours of calling at 6 am or informing me of something to do, and on the flip side, I would create a system to communicate with parents maybe using a text messaging system and say, Hey, this is the text that we discussed in class today. If you ask a student this question and they give you an answer and show up at the door tomorrow, bonus points. I would have a line, because they’re trying to help their students become better, but we can’t do that unless we communicate that with them.

 

Emily

I love my parents. A lot of times when I reach out to them, kinda like Taneesha, but I would call parents in the new of class… Right, and the parent never heard from me before, I would call middle of class and I’m talking to the parent and I’m just kind of sharing with them and letting them also feel as though I’m not calling you with the tone of, Get your kid in order. I’m calling them with the spirit of, I’m here to support you. Here’s the behavior or Here’s what I’ve noticed, what can you share with me to help me be you and involve the parent that way. You never wanna call a parent and maybe just always giving that negative information or a negative tone, you want to call them as I am your support system. I am here to help you, but what do I need… And what I found and just calling them in those moments, I get a lot more information and I never thought I was going to get. And those parents still would call me. I had parents still that will text me now and communicate with me now about their kids and how well they’re doing, or to thank me and say thank you helping them and for being a part of their life and helping them on the right track, so those relationships are lasting, that’s why I feel like it’s so super important that to have opportunities to where you can connect with those parents. Create the chance for paying attention, and with your lessons, how can you transfer the information so the kid wants to go home and talk about it. I would create projects, and I used to have this project where I would have the kids to interview their parent or guardian and ask the particular questions, and a lot of times it would come back and tell me… I found out information about my parents that I didn’t even know, you know. And so then it becomes not just at home or at school thing is the community, we’re working together. So the parents appreciate that. And then other months to actually care about their children as a parent, I know the teachers take care about my kids. It was super important.

 

Patrick

I know that there’s a lot of educators out there who would say… Teaching is hard enough already. I go into the classroom, I try and teach kids who don’t want to learn what I have to teach them, how am I gonna reach out to their parents too, and try and engage them in the process and think about curriculum in ways that are more involved? I only really have enough time and energy to do the job that the school is asking me to do, how am I gonna go sort of above and beyond the call to do the sort of things that you’re talking about, what would you say to them?

 

Taneesha

If I can be honest, I say, I can be perfectly one say that that person is not an educator because the role of an educator that’s not… You start with the love first. You have to love what you do, and if you don’t love children, if it doesn’t excite you, to see kids get it, if it doesn’t excite you to see kids thriving, if it doesn’t excite you to see kids succeeding, then teaching is, education, it’s just not your calling or your passion. We never got into the role of being educators because we felt like it was just too much or above and beyond anything. We got in it with the intention of helping kids, and so me coming from a background, my mother taught for 30 years, and me watching her I never heard my mother come home and complain of how, Oh, I don’t wanna go to work ’cause these kids are… This is too much. It was something that I watched happen. And so I would say to an educator who’s feeling that way, to go back and reflect and figure out what their “why” is, why are you an educator? Why are you in this position? What is it that you want to support the kids and if you can’t really come up with the answers to those questions, then it may just be this particular field is not for you, it’s just not. It’s my personal belief.

 

Emily

And for me, I want to say that those feelings may be valid for some, that it is overwhelming, possibly because leadership has not approached it in a linear format that the front-end work matters if we’re going to improve all outcomes. And in our profession the front-end work would be our teachers. So they would have to consider that perspective. And how do you move them? How did you build capacity in someone who thinks this is overwhelming? How do we support them with creating processes and procedures in their classroom that they just simply… It, it’s second nature, that it is an additional additional for you to do, but it is a more systematic inferal of a strategic way of getting your job done while doing those other things.

 

Taneesha

I agree with you.

 

Patrick

So if I’m understanding what both of you are saying correctly, the idea of creating this community around the educational experience, including the teachers, including the students, including the parents, is not an add-on. It is essential.

 

Emily

Yes, it is essential, and as Taneesha was saying, you have to have someone in that leadership role that understands that and is empathetic to that, and it’s ready to be a change agent and look to support their teachers as well. You have to actually have to build that capacity with your staff, if that means that we create a Zen space or a mindful space inside of that school building where a teacher can go to have five or 10 minutes to regroup and reset themselves before or after class. That’s how you do that, have those conversations. Ask the teachers, What is it can I do for you to make your job a little bit easier so that you can focus on the actual work of building those relationships and engaging those kids? It does start at the top. I’ve worked for a few principals, and I can honestly say there’s one principals that I know for fact, it’s out in my mind who focus on really us and how we feel and allow us to voice our concerns in a way that, lokay, I understand you, I hear what you’re saying. Let me see what I can do to support. And that’s just, unfortunately, not across the board, but if we have more leaders who wanted to lead and lead that work, that will help.

 

Patrick

Yeah, I went to a multi-tiered systems of support conference in San Diego last year before covid got really bad, and I was in multiple sessions with the type of principal that you’re talking. At every point, she would just raise her hand and advocate for all of her teachers, those who were really inspired to incorporate social-emotional learning into their work, and even those who were tired, who needed some support. And I wish I had gotten her card because she was actually a principal in the Atlanta metro area was… But of course, I’m sure there are lots of really inspiring administrators across your region.

 

Emily

There are… There are… And I think that the work that we do, we’ve also put some together to have the conversations with leaders as well. And Taneesha, just to say a little bit about the work that she’s done when we taught together, she did the most amazing teacher appreciation. We had a whole week that she planned of events and to this day, people to literally post pictures from that day and from that week, and talk about how it made them feel. We had Hollywood stars on the floor as we walked into the building that she had cut out and created into names or made us really feel like we were the stars of the show, we were an essential part of making sure that that school and that community felt loved. I felt cared about. And I’ve never had an appreciation week to go even partly as great as that. So just doing things like that. Find someone in your building, everybody’s not gonna be on order, if you find somebody in your building who has a time and who has the drive to just pour a little bit into the staff and create something to it or a moment to recognize your educators as a central part of building that morale and building relationships, and a making sure people will show up to work every day because they feel valued. You can’t leave them out. So that’s something that we definitely have discussed is having just sessions for leadership principals, coaches, superintendents to understand that this is an effort that they have to leave.

 

Patrick

Right.So let’s talk a little bit about specifically what Focused Minds Education Group does, the types of services that you offer to schools and districts and other organizations.

 

Emily

So the 4E framework, The for your framework, is a framework that we design, and it’s a framework for planning for planning purposes and has incorporated… ’cause all the listen planning and everything that we’ve done over the years, you have Maslow’s and the hierarchy of needs and Marzano, but the one thing that we felt it was missing was this opportunity to bring in as we’re discussing these moments of supporting them socially and emotionally and really thinking about and being intentional about that. So our workshops, like Taneesha has mentioned, they’re customized, we customize them to talk about instructional support, we can talk about, or we train on trauma-informed practices, we talk about ACEs awareness, we just recently did a workshop with the community, I’m talking about just that alone, just bring awareness about whatever childhood experiences are. I’m having moments in those sessions for teachers and those also reflect, but on the flip side of that, we also offer workshops for students as well, and one of the workshops that we’ve offered is a writing workshop, and that writing workshop is just talking about expressive writing, writing, journaling, the different therapeutic aspects of being able to write down how you feel and what that can do for them going forward and impact their lives differently.

 

Taneesha

Another program that we offer is some people, parents. We know now that parents are faced with the challenges of covid, I never be full work, our society hasn’t seen a collective trauma like this since 9/11, so we offer dealing with anxiety and academics, how to listen to your child without judgment, how to remain calm, what rounding can you do to model for your children. Another hot topic that we don’t really like to discuss, but it is there, is suicide and suicide prevention, and letting parents know skills and what to do from using mental health first-aid training to support a student or their job that made the experiencing crisis and just how to really listen to that and take it in and what next steps they can do to support them, so not only do we focus on schools and organizations, but also community and parent…

 

Emily

That’s what I was thinking of. Mental health first-aid training is an important training that we feel all parents, all adults really should have, because while we’re not clinicians and why we do not attest to be, it allows them to see any the sign they may need to be aware of, and this as we were talking about early in the conversation about building relationships, that particular training, even if you have not built a relationship with the kid, it shows you and instructs you how to approach that conversation or a situation, if you think that something could be a little off. Rather than just going to make those assumptions, you wanna make sure your approach that kid and have the tools to speak to them about that candidly, but then also there to send that information and who to go to depending on what the child share. So that’s really, really super important to make sure that all educators have that training on mental health first-aid, so that they can have those skills. They need them.

 

Patrick

So how do people get in touch with you if they’re interested in the curriculum that you have or any of the other training that you offer?

 

Emily

We are on all social media platforms at focusedminds.edu. You can schedule a chat with us. We do free 15-minute checks, one for educators, or they can call us and just talk about instructional if they’re having some difficulties and also schedule some one-on-one time if they need to for support, and then we have what we call future-focused leaders, and that particular chair is to for leadership to call us and we just talk them through what are the next steps, going through a needs assessment to see what type of training, they do need. Currently, what noticing the trend is the writing… A lot of schools want the writing piece, and then for the educators, they’re looking for more of the awareness, because now mental health is a topic -burgeoning.

 

Taneesha

Yeah, it’s there, and we know that teachers deserve the highest quality of professional learning. They are the first responders, so with our combined 30-years of experience, we have decided to support and find a solution to say, Hey, guys… Like you say a Patrick, let’s just start paying attention to this plus this and see if we can improve learning outcomes for all.

 

Emily

So they can get in contact with us. Our website is www.focusedmindsedugroup.com. All the information is there. Currently, we are also offering some virtual learning support for parents, and they can call us to discuss that as well. To see, again, what their child needs, and there’s a form to fill out, an assessment form, if you will, to share with us, and we contact them about any support they need in math or ELA.We’re here.

 

Tom

That’s really wonderful. What a great resource.

 

Taneesha

Yeah, thank you, Tom.

 

Emily

We’re trying to trying to support… Thank you guys for a good experience.

 

Patrick

Oh yeah, I’ve got one last question for you, which is, we are hopefully in the waning days of the coronavirus outbreak. It may extend many more months still, but there’s at least some glimmer of hope, so what is the first thing you two will do when we finally get the all clear.

 

Taneesha

Vacation. Honestly, I’m really ready to get back to traveling to share and spread our mission. While we understand that virtual is essential to preventing the spread of the coronavirus, we definitely want everyone to be safe, but we want to easily gradually get back into the hands-on face-to-face approach, because human connection is essential for everybody. I think that a lot of educators are missing that human connection factor as well, and just being able to get back out there and share our mission and support them is really what I’m excited to get to get back to doing, to be honest, meaning to…

 

Emily

And if they can’t just travel right away, there is a wonderful event center that we were presenting at just this weekend as someone mentioned. I wouldn’t mind just simply having a community awareness of it, so people can come, of course, with covid restrictions in play, but something small. Just to start the conversation in the community, right.

 

Taneesha

So we’re looking at small intimate settings, small groups to continue this work, and anyone who potentially would like for us to come to their city, we are open to that as well, and be sure just to follow us to see all of the great things we’re doing different things we’re offering different courses and workshops in different partnerships that… You never know. We’ve noticed, you never know what may happen. So we’re excited and we’ll continue no matter what, ’cause this is the work that we have set out to do, and we wanna make sure that we are delivering this message for our community, the faces of our community, to let teachers know that, Hey, it’s okay. It’s okay that you’re dealing with something and it’s overwhelming, we understand, we hear you, we see you, and just how can we help you to navigate through what you’re feeling, so we’re ready.

 

Emily

We’re ready to share! Yeah, we’re ready to share.

 

Patrick

Emily, Taneeshsa, thank you so much for joining us today. I really enjoyed a conversation.

 

Tom

Me, too.

 

Patrick

And best of luck with Focused Minds Education Group and everything you’re doing in 2021.

Emily and Taneesha

Thank you so much, guys. We appreciate you guys as well. Thank you so much.

Podcast #5: Rick and Doris Bowman of Bowman Consulting

By Patrick York

Join us for a conversation with Rick and Doris about collaborative problem solving, renewing emotions, the Heart Math Institute, and their experience speaking around the world.

If you’re a fan of this episode, don’t forget to rate and review our podcast on Apple Podcasts. These ratings and reviews are the single best way for us to grow our audience and share these conversations with more people.

More about Our Guests

  • Rick has a master’s in Clinical Psychology and Doris a master’s in Special Education
  • Both have a career of more than 20 years in education, with a focus on serving children and teens who struggle with learning, behavioral, emotional and mental health challenges
  • Both are Certified HeartMath Trainers, including “The Resilient Heart: Trauma-Sensitive Practices” and providing “The Resilience Advantage” which is used to train professionals from the medical, business, education, professional athletics, first responder, and military fields, just to name a few
  • Both are also Certified Trauma & Resilience Practitioners (CTRP) by the National Institute for Trauma and Loss in Children, and Certified Trainers in the Collaborative Problem Solving Approach, a model out of Massachusetts General Hospital at Harvard’s Department of Child Psychiatry designed to build lagging neurocognitive skills in children and youth who struggle in school and at home
  • Rick and Doris train both educational and mental health agencies and present at conferences across the country on topics such as: trauma-informed care, personal resilience for staff and parents, self-regulation for both staff and students, and neurobiologically grounded FBA’s and Behavior Support Plans
  • Rick and Doris now lead a first-of-its-kind “Connected Community” for educators and mental health professionals focused on trauma-informed practices, and creating connection, support and shared learning for the adults serving youth in a variety of capacities

Transcript

 

Patrick

Welcome Rick. Welcome Doris.

 

Tom

Welcome.

 

Doris

Good morning. Good morning, guys. Great to be here with you.

 

Rick

Yeah, it’s awesome to be here with you guys this morning.

 

Patrick

So let’s just start with what the areas of specialty are for Bowman consulting.

 

Doris

Well, I would just say that our specialty is really bringing the concepts of trauma and toxic stress as well as resilience, but trauma and toxic stress effects on the brain, nervous system and body to people in all sorts of professions in ways that make it applicable. We primarily focus a great deal on trauma-informed schools, with a particular emphasis on creating actionable systems and practices that can reduce challenging behavior and helped to heal trauma for children who’ve experienced trauma impacts. Additionally resilience and self-care training for the staff. And so really working to ensure that those who are serving youth and adults with trauma or behavioral challenges are able to sustain, generate and sustain their own wellness, and then collaborative problem solving, which is an innovative approach for serving us with chronic challenging behavior. And so those are primarily the three areas that we specialize in.

 

Patrick

How did you find one another?

 

Doris

Well, we just celebrated our 25th anniversary this year.

 

Patrick and Tom

Congratulations.

 

Doris

Thank you. Thank, thank you. And our journey together began in bodies where we first met, and so after many years at both of us working in mental health and education, we really shared a vision of working together that as a team and really wanting to bring revolutionary solutions to staff who work with youth who are suffering the most.Both of us worked with young people in our various roles that really have been through a lot of trauma and toxic stress, and so we just felt like we had a lot more to bring to the broader world of folks serving… Serving folks with trauma.

Rick

And then the more we dug into trauma-informed care from a neuroscience perspective, we recognize that many of the traditional models of approaching emotional and behavioral challenges were not resulting in desired outcomes, and often they also hold the potential to lead to re-traumatization of the child or the adult. We recognize that we could bring practical, powerful solutions to professionals that would help them to understand what the most current neuroscience and coherence research tells us about like trauma shows up the way that it does, and how to effectively and compassionately address it.

 

Patrick

So you had referred to, before Roman consulting became a thing, that you had worked with children affected by trauma.What were your professions or experiences that kind of led to your interest in this field?

 

Doris

Do you want to share here first…

 

Rick

Well, first of all, I was… As a child, I went through significant developmental trauma myself, and so I spent many years… I spent many years as a psychologist and I probably read every self-help book that you could find, and did everything that I could do to study to really understand trauma, and then I began practicing in clinical practice, and I worked with children and adults, and I was focused on two things, shame and trauma, and how they related to each other, but we didn’t have a lot of information at the time about trauma and really the physiological processes of trauma, and so basically I started working… I continue to work with children and adults, and then I shifted into becoming a professional administrator, and I always was just drawn to those kids in the school system that we’re experiencing a lot of trauma, and how could we help those kids both both emotionally and academically to do better. And then it just… Long story short is just everywhere that we travel to, I just saw trauma everywhere, because we did a lot of consulting, I did a lot of consulting and Doris some as well in other countries, and we saw a trauma through everywhere that we went. And so I continued to do a lot of counseling. I continued to work in the schools with kids and try to set up systems for kids that are suffering a lot of trauma, and then finally I ended up just… There’s so much more I could tell you, but finally ended up working as a behavior consultant and a treatment… Basically, it was a school for kids that were going to… That were a part of the school district, but they were kids that had multiple foster care placements and I was the main behavior consultant for that school, and that’s when I really said, you know what, we’ve got to really figure out how that we can use the new Neural Sciences coming out to really help and support these kids and heal trauma.

 

Doris

And my background really has been primarily all in education. I did actually own a commercial fishing business in Alaska for 10 years prior to that, but then entered what I thought was going to be an elementary education career. I was going to be a second grade teacher, and all my student teaching was in second grade, we moved to a little town in Southern Oregon, Rick took a job there, and I walked in the district office to sign up to be a substitute teacher because school started in two weeks, so surely they had no jobs. And the next thing I knew, I was interviewing in the special ed director’s office, and I was a middle school special education teacher.

 

Patrick

Wow.

 

Doris

And so, yeah, and so that really changed the trajectory of my career, and so after four years of teaching and just a typical Special Education classroom serving kids mostly with learning disabilities, we then moved. Rick took a position as an assistant principal in another city here in Oregon, and I ended up accepting a position to run a middle school program for children with emotional, behavioral or mental health disabilities, and that was a small self-contained program, and from that point on for about 20 years, that is mostly what I did. I ran programs for kids with emotional behavioral challenges at all different levels, and then became a behavior consultant across a district, so then I was much more involved in doing evaluations as well as designing programs for teams for kids that really struggle. And so out of that really began self-studying training, seeking out answers for why a lot of the conventional approaches that we were using with these kids were not working, and that’s really what has led us down this road. I think for both of us, it’s been seeing how much of the traditional methods haven’t worked, or a little part of them might work, but then it kind of falls apart for various reasons, and so it was in seeking out the answers and solutions that led us down this path. And we’ve always had a desire to really travel and speak together, and we knew that we had that ability to bring something special to people, which I think is just a lot of heart and our passion for this word.

Patrick

So I do wanna get into your travel and your international speaking, but I did wanna ask, both of you had mentioned sort of traditional approaches to trauma and the kind of neuroscience that debunked some of those traditional methods. Can you give us an example of what kind of is in that traditional bucket as opposed to something that is neuroscience-informed?

 

Doris

Well, I can share one. I think it’s interesting because when you think of traditional approach, typically it’s not a traditional approach to trauma, is a traditional approach to the behavior. And so it’s folks being really focused on the behavior as opposed to the fact that this isn’t necessarily the child making a bad choice, or it isn’t necessarily that… A lot of times our traditional methods have looked at… Well, they dug a little deeper and said, Okay, what’s the child trying to get… Or they’re trying to avoid something. And that’s often true, they may be trying to get something or avoid something, but there’s often a much, much deeper set of circumstances going on where it has to do with nervous system regulation, has to do with coherence in the brain and body, and a whole lot of things that when we start looking at, okay, what we’re addressing here is not a behavior, it’s not chair throwing, it’s not cussing, it’s not running out of the room, what we’re addressing here is a nervous system that’s out of sync and dis-regulated and the child has no other way to discharge that other than what we’re seeing in their behavior.

 

Rick

Yeah, and for me, I think it was, to add to that, as a therapist and working in therapy and using traditional approaches like cognitive behavior therapy and things like that, we were seeing people get better, but the thing about it was, is it was like, it doesn’t feel like we’re really seeing them heal from the trauma. And I think that what the neuroscience really directs is at right now is that trauma is primarily a physiological process or a problem, you could say, And secondarily a cognitive issue, and so if you don’t work on changing the physiology, if you don’t get at that physiology, that trauma that resonates in the body and the brain that you… That autonomic nervous system. If you don’t affect that and make the changes in that and are working on that, then you’re probably never going to help the child or adult heal from trauma. So this is not a negative toward cognitive behavior therapy or anything like that, is just that we really have to also address the physiology, this physiological processes that are primary in trauma.

 

Tom

I’m curious about two things. First of all, that makes me wonder, so of practical recommendations, what you found to be, let’s say, the two or three most effective things that people can do to regulate the effective stress on their bodies, and the second one, which we can answer later is when I was noticing you talk about staff that work with youth, and I would like to actually to know if that includes staff, like people who serve lunch or keep the schools clean, because is that a part of the educational world that gets tended to.

 

Doris

Well, if we get our way, it does… Yeah, when we think of staff that are serving you and even adults, because many of the things that have started out as this is an approach to help kids in schools with trauma and Avid, etcetera, have now expanded to the adult world, we’ve done pilot programs with State adult developmental disability services with their stabilization and crisis unit with adults with significant impact, so it really stretches to a broad scope of who is being served by this and how it can be really effective and…

 

Tom

That’s wonderful.

 

Doris

Yeah, it was an amazing project. I wish we had an hour just for that, but we saw amazing results. But yes, to when we go into a school, we always advocate to train everyone, and the reason for that is, and you’re saying, What are the most effective approaches… You’re pointing directly at that because really one of the most effective approaches is small doses of positive relational interaction or what we call positive relational stress, and so what it is, is that the more you can have all of the adults that are interacting with a child throughout their day, using particular approaches that involve things like empathy and neutral statements or questions and curiosity, things that are non-threatening and create a felt sense of safety, and then the child has these many, many small interactions throughout the day that is effectively re-patterning their… What we call their stress response system or… It’s their autonomic nervous system. Longer sessions in schools in the past, we tended to do a 45-minute social skills group, for example, and there’s nothing wrong with doing those, I think kids learn good vocabulary, they learn good ways to think about things, they learn ways of understanding things, but when it comes to dealing with the activation of stress or trauma in their body, it’s the small little doses of a one-minute interaction or a 15-second interaction, or an adult coming up and instead of going, What are you doing? You need to get back to class. They’re saying, Hey, it looks like there’s something that’s making it hard for you to go to class. Can you help me understand what’s going on? And so when you’ve got the custodians, the secretaries, the kitchen people, the teachers, everyone using that, then that child has a high chance of getting many doses throughout the day.

 

Tom

I imagine also that if people are practicing that really, and if the perhaps would start to do it among each other, and that that would also have a positive effect on the school as a whole.

 

Doris

Absolutely, absolutely.

 

Rick

Tom let me see if I can answer this in another way as well, I think your question was something about What can people do for themselves?

 

Tom

As I’ve written about trauma and resilience and education myself, I hear as a refrain often that teachers, trauma and secondary stress is under-appreciated.

 

Rick

Well, we just did a training yesterday on this, so basically, oftentimes what happens with teachers and what happens with anybody that’s in a helping profession is that we go into that profession with this care, we work out of an emotional, or you could say, or a sense of care and belief of care. And so what we talk about is that oftentimes what happens is that the individual slips into what we call over-care, and that’s where we’re talking about, they can experience burnout, vicarious trauma. There’s really no way that you can work, we believe with individuals that have trauma without being affected in some way by that. So what can we do for ourselves? Well, what we can do is create more renewing emotions, because we know that every emotion that we have affects our autonomic nervous system, so if most of us, many of us, maybe all of us, to some extent, experience, we oftentimes sort of set this baseline in our brain or stress, anxiety, worry and fear. And so when we can create more renewing emotions such as gratitude, care, compassion, love, then what we do is when we can create that every time that we are creating those renewing emotions, those positive emotions, what we’re really working on is our autonomic nervous system and our brain and that part of our brain, as you guys all know, called the amygdala to really re-pattern or create a new baseline for dealing for working with people with other people with trauma as well as all situations in our life. And so the more renewing emotions that we create, the more renewing emotions that we feel, and we are actually in effect now living more in the present and not living out of those past emotions of anxiety and fear. And what I’m talking to you right now is out of the Heart Math training any that we do.

 

Patrick

So we had a conversation with Jodi Johnson in a previous podcast, and we got to a point of the conversation where she was talking about the fact that there are some people… There are some children who are in a situation where they cannot escape the stretch or the trauma that they’re experiencing, and… So I’ll just put that aside for a moment, and Tom knows this about me, but every time I try and understand something, I try and put it in terms of the viticulture or how great vines grow. So it sounds like what you’re saying now is that the autonomic nervous system of a human has all sorts of things that are kind of coming after it. Some of those are bad things and some of them are good things. So when a plant like a vine, for example, the real goal and keeping it healthy is to get good bacteria and fungi around the roots that kind of choke out some of the bad things because we can’t really control 100% all of the bad things, and if we try and get rid of them. We get rid of some of the good stuff too. Is that an apt analogy? Am I understanding that correctly?

 

Rick

I believe it is, I really like it. Because life is going to… Life is going to throw everything at us, and we know we’re gonna have difficulties, but how do we respond to those? Do respond to those difficulties out of… Does our nervous system respond to those difficulties out of past patterns, like this is the way… It’s like a thermostat. This is the way that I always respond. The body is always trying to create homeostasis, the autonomic nervous system is always trying to create balance homeostasis, and so if I… Now what I do, let’s say as a child, as every time that I come to school, I feel fear and anxiety. And so I pattern that response so much that now good things could actually be happening at school, but I still have the same response because it’s a pattern in my nervous system…

 

Tom

I lived an experience like that. And that I was in the school, you might say from age 3 to 46 when I stopped being a professor. I got a long time nervous at 11 in the morning and I thought, Why is this? And then it continued after my job, and I realized it was because for 43 years, life had sort of begun in earnest at 11 o’clock, that was when I chose to have my first class, or it was the end of the morning period or that was when I started to teach. And even after the stressor was taken away, my body continued to react to that, it was like a Pavlovian experience. And diminish over time, I think, is your body realizes that the stressor is no longer there.

 

Doris

To speak to what both of you have just said, I think this is one of the reasons why we are so passionate about bringing the Heart Math trainings that we’re doing in the Heart Math approach and even definition of resilience is very proactive. So thinking about what you said about the grape vine, Patrick, and what you just described to is that the Heart Math definition of resilience is the capacity to prepare for, adapt and recover from situations of stress, challenge, trauma or adversity, and so it’s very proactive. It’s this idea that if we can begin, for instance, actively generating positive emotions at 10:45, Tom, and began actively… And there’s ways of doing this where we know that the heart is sending particular signals to the brain and the amygdala, and then it’s going to re-pattern that nervous system, and so for the kids that, yes, many of them are going to continue to be living in adverse circumstances and toxic stress, they can gradually proactively build the skills to where now they’re better able to just handle more adaptively what they’re faced with in one particular, might be, home setting and yet still come to school, and then shift and be able to be able to participate without feeling a sense of threat or a sense of feeling on edge.

 

Tom

How do you integrate that, which all makes really profound sense to me with the psycho-pharmaceudical help that students are given often nowadays, I remember when I was anxious. The first thing I heard from my psychologist was, you should take benzodiazepines, and I read about them, I was like, No, thank you. That many anti-anxiety medications and antidepressants and things like that are effective, is that something you have to take into account when you talk with people in schools. They’re both in some ways pointing in a similar problem or trying to address similar problems, but from very different and both physiologically, but one chemically and one behaviorally.

 

Rick

I think the way that we typically address it is that we don’t go against the use of medication, and that sometimes that can be very helpful, sometimes it could be helpful in terms of being able to even be able to access a certain technique or… That makes sense. Or to be able to learn a particular… Or build a particular neurocognitive skill in the brain, such as the ability to self-regulate to be able to adjust your emotional arousal, and that might take some medication, we see a lot of kids, of course, with ADHD, and oftentimes, they need that medication to be able to access, access the skill building that we’re talking about.

 

Doris

I’ve worked with a lot of families who were very resistant and had good reasons about feeling resistant about medication, but ultimately decided, Okay, we’re gonna try this for a little bit, it allowed the child to access the skill building process, and very quickly over time, we were able to then reduce that medication because now we fill the skills built, the self-regulation. It’s no longer needed.

 

Tom

That seems like a very holistic approach in a way where you try to combine tools that are available in the most effective way rather than having an ideology that prevents mixing that… That’s interesting, and it sounds like it’s working.

 

Doris

Yeah, I’ve seen it work really well.

 

Rick

So at 18 years old, I had high blood pressure, and that was because of the trauma that I had experienced as a child, and so I was put on blood pressure medication at 18, and just recently, I’ve been able to reduce my blood pressure medication, this is like 45, 50 years later. And the reason that I did that was working on my… Working on Heart Math techniques that allowed me to create more… Just it was working on my autonomic nervous system to the point where I was experiencing more positive emotions, more ease in my body, and I would do a technique, for example, go down, take my blood pressure and my blood pressure is basically returned to normal, and I’ve done everything over the years to be able to get it to return to normal, went to my doctor and said, You know, could we now take me off the medication? And he was like, Oh, and I told him the story I’m telling you guys right now. And he was like, Well, we better wait, we better wait a little bit on this and let’s take you off some of the medication, so I’m still on a little bit of medication right now, but I am basically, my blood pressure is phenomenal.

 

Doris

And this was at a time when his blood pressure was… I started having problems and spikes and the doctor actually wanted to increase the medication, so he just decided, No, we’re going a different route this time, and it worked. It was been amazing.

 

Patrick

So I wanted to go back real quick before we move on to maybe getting into Heart Math, and talk about some of the international speaking and consulting that you’ve done, I imagine speaking to different audiences in different countries, because the context is different, maybe the response has been different. So as someone has no experience in that, I’d love to hear about what it’s like to speak to audiences across the world.

 

Rick

First of all, I think the key to what has made these experiences so valuable and so well-received is that our focus has always been on meeting people where they’re at and take into account their culture, the cultural factors and beliefs that they have, as well as other factors that are relevant to them. I’m talking about Russia and Jamaica particularly, but I can tell you a little bit about my Russia experience, if you’d like.

 

Patrick

I would like that, yes.

 

Rick

While working at a community college in Alaska, I was presenting a series on shame, and I had a Russian citizen that was at the college on a Visa that was there, and she came up to me after the speaking engagement said, My people could really use this.And would you like to go to Russia? And she had connections with the Russian government in the Far East… The Russian Far East Region. And anyway, from that invitation, I eventually made three trips there, during which time I spoke on a broad range of topics related to mental health primarily, and from the Far East, I traveled to the west side of the country, near Moscow. And during that time, I was able to appear on radio television, and I presented a great deal on on mental health issues and consulting with mental health professionals, university instructors, leaders, teachers and even tribal leaders in the far east and other people as well. People were so… This was about 1992, 93, I think when I first went there. And the Russian people were so interested in what America was like, obviously. And how American psychology or American… How we did things differently in mental health in America than they did in Russia, and then of course, in terms of teaching and education, they were very, very interested in that, and I was really fortunate too to be able to work with some teachers over there. We were able to get them and some children and some Russian children to be able to come to Alaska to visit America and… If you can call Alaska America, but you know, it’s kind of a separate country by itself it… We’ve there a long time, but the thing of value is, is that we really… We really saw that we had so many similarities as a people now, and the people in Russia talked so much about how they saw us as just… You wanted what we… What we had.

 

Patrick

And were you being translated across these different channels?

 

Rick

I was being translated, and then I learned to speak some elementary, basic rush in myself. I could even get around a little bit and talk to people back or… But I almost always had an interpreter with me.

 

Patrick

Got it. And I can imagine early 90s in Russia, there is a lot of stress and some lingering trauma among the portion across the country. Did you notice… And you said that they kinda wanted to know what life was like in America, what American psychology looked like. Did you notice any differences in the their culture versus American culture had in how people responded to trauma, is this a case of people being people everywhere, or was it truly kind of a different experience.

 

Rick

I think it was more of a case, so people being people everywhere. The same types of things that… There was one woman that I was talking to and she said, I’ve never been able to really express my feelings, and she was an older woman, probably about the inner 70s, late 70s, and she said, You know, thank you for coming to this nursing home or where a mere came to, she says, I’ve never been able to have somebody that I could ask, I’ve always been interested in America, and she had been through tremendous amounts of trauma, and I’ve never been able to really talk to anybody about this, and so it was really heart-warming. And I just found that the people were, they were just so interested in our country and that we had so many commonalities, just as people… The same sort of problems many Russian children have been through child abuse, we know in our country, child abuse is a problem. The same sorts of issues that they had were very, very similar to what we had as Americans as well, except they had many, many more. The poverty was unbelievable everywhere that I went.

 

Doris

In Jamaica, we both did a lot of work in the area of counseling, did a lot of couples counseling and speaking on things like shame, and again, it was the same, it was the same that people are kind of dealing with the same struggles with fear, with shame, with the anxiety or those sorts of things, and again, lots of lots and lots of trauma there as well, and I think that regardless where we went, we just found that people are dealing with similar issues and problems in a variety of different forms, and… So for example, many of the challenges we see in today’s classroom or the same educators experience, no matter where they’re at.

 

Patrick

Right. You’ve mentioned a couple of times, the Heart Math Institute, and I just kind of wanted to get into what that is, what the organization is, and how Bowman Consulting relates with that institution.

 

Doris

Yeah, absolutely. So Heart Math is an approach to resilience wellness and performance, and it’s a heart Math Institute, and it’s been around for more than 30 years. They have a very substantial research arm, a non-profit arm of Heart Math, and both Rick and I have been certified trainers for a while now in being able to train their approach and what we do as opposed to… They have a structured training that we’re certified to train, but then we can also use the materials to integrate into any trainings that we do, and so what we have really chosen to do is to custom tailor trainings with Heart Math content and material and concepts to whatever group that we’re training to as opposed to using the kind of standard training, and so it applies to a broad variety of personal and professional applications, everyone and from professional athletes to hospitals are using it, to Special Forces in all branches of our military are using it, it’s being used to train first responders, one of our instructors when we became trainers, was one of the leads on a project for the entire country of Colombia, the police force for the entire country of Colombia was being trained in Heart Math practices and had had tremendous outcomes with their use of that. And so for educators right now, one of the most valuable aspects of Heart Math that we’re bringing through training and through our membership community that I’m sure we’ll talk about later, is just for staff to be able to manage the unbelievable amount of unpredictability and change and new demands and higher demands that they’ve been experiencing that result in anxiety, depression, blood pressure issues, other physical stress-related issues, and so the Heart Math practices are really… Have tons of research, more than 400 peer-reviewed research studies, supporting their effectiveness with these types of things.

 

Patrick

Got it. So talk to me about what it means to be truly trauma-informed, because I sometimes find myself mincing words when I talk about trauma, there’s like trauma sensitivity, there’s trauma-informed, there’s all sorts of variations of this, and I sometimes feel like I’m tripping over myself when I’m describing some of the conversations we’re having with our guests or the materials that Tom is developing with our subject matter experts, what does it mean to be truly trauma-informed?

 

Doris

Yeah, absolutely. That training really evolved out of an awareness that many schools and agencies want to be able to refer to themselves as trauma-informed, but sometimes that looks like… Well, we had a one-hour training, right in our staff meeting after school and day, and so they’re uncertain about how do they make this determination and what does that really mean? And so, in our truly trauma-informed training, a school, our agency is guided through a process that’s built around a rubric that we developed of the core principles of being trauma-informed and then using each one of those principles, using them to assess and then design really actionable systems and practices for the specific core principles. And so when we think of what does it look like to be truly trauma-informed, it’s like, How well are you aligned in each of these areas, these core principles, if you look at your system, if you look at your discipline system, if you look at how you do your behavior assessments and behavior plans, how do those align to each of these areas, where are you at on the spectrum because everyone… Somewhere right from like a one to a four rubric, and then the whole idea is, most schools right now, for example, I have a lot of ones and twos, and that’s good to know, it’s good to know where you’re at.Then the second part of that, of course, is developing this plan to where we can focus in and target, it’s much too large elephant to eat all in one bite, and so it helps it break it down and make it feel more manageable. Once a school go through this process or an agency, then typically they have a solid sense for where they’re out on the spectrum of being trauma-informed, and then they can determine where are we gonna focus our energy, where are we gonna focus our resources for growth.

 

Patrick

The way I asked that question might have obscured the fact that Truly Trauma-informed is a particular training offered by your consulting group that’s available to any of your clients?

 

Doris

Yes, yeah, exactly.

 

Patrick

Got it. Another topic that we talked about, and is all the more compelling to me now that you’ve talked about in Heart Math and Columbia at work with their law enforcement agencies, is this idea of collaborative problem-solving. There’s obviously a place for that in the home, in civic society, in the classroom. What does that look like practically? To collaborate with someone to solve a problem, particularly when the participants in the problem-solving might be distracted, affected by trauma, stress out, maybe not wanting to be a part of a solution.

 

Rick

Well, I think that practically, it looks like this, and we call this a plan B conversation or Plan B intervention, that is, is that we start out with a very neutral statement followed by the expectation that we want the child to meet. So for example, it might be, I noticed that when I ask you to clean your room, that’s really hard for you, and you help me understand. And then we wanna try to understand why the child can’t meet the expectation. Notice I didn’t say the behavior, because I want to say this in a way that is non-accusatory, very neutral, very regulating. We want this all lines up with the way the brain processes information, so this is a very regulating statement. Then I use clarifying questions may be educated guess is to try to drill down and find out why the child can’t meet that particular expectation. And then the next part of it is that when I find out they’re concerned, then I let them know what my concern is, for example, in this case as a parent, and that concern is gonna be around either safety, health impact or the impact on others, or learning. In this case, my concern might be that when you don’t clean your room, that there might get germs in there, it gets dirty… There’s a lot of good reasons. And I want you to be able to develop this habit because… So as you become an adult, you can also, you know it’s gonna help you, it’s gonna serve you. And then what we do, then the third part of it is basically, so let’s figure out a way where we can meet your concern, whatever that is, whatever they talk about, not why they are not able to meet the expectation and my concern. And so do you have any ideas about how we can do that? So you solve the problem collaboratively with the child.

 

Doris

And it has to be mutually satisfactory, so again, it isn’t… You’re not negotiating and giving in. A lot of adults kind of are a little apprehensive when they first hear is they’re like, Well, there’s that mean, I have to just go with whatever the kids say, and that’s not the case. That’s not the case, but you’re really bringing both, and sometimes it’s a concern, sometimes it’s a perspective, but you’re bringing both together and saying, Okay, let’s figure out a way where we can mutually… This can be a mutually satisfactory solution that we can give it a try.

 

Patrick

It is interesting, when I think about some parents or teachers apprehension to kind of put themselves on equal footing with a student or a kid, it can sometimes feel like seeding some authority that’s necessary to keep in order to let your yes be yes and your no be no. But it sounds like that might be an apprehension that parents and teachers shouldn’t be worried about, or should be worried about that there are things that they can do to maintain that authority, or maybe the authority is not that important.

 

Rick

Collaborative problem solving has three different plants, and what we just talked a little bit about was planned be the collaboration, but there’s what we call plan I. Plan A is where we still, as the adult, can impose our adult will and use rewards and consequences, in other words, there are certain things that we can’t talk about like if you’re lighting a fire in your room, this may be… This be a plan where if you do that, then this consequence is going to happen. Then we have plan C. Plan C is where we can drop certain expectations for now. For example, I could tell my son, for right now, we’re gonna drop… You know, we have this expectation that we would like for you to clean a room, and I know that’s been really difficult for you, but we also know that there’s some other expectations that we’re working on right now, so for what we’d like for you to clean your room, but for right now, we’re gonna just drop it, we’re not gonna ignore, we’re gonna come back to it at some point in time.

So you do have choices here, so you as the child still understands that you as the adult have the ultimate control, but when you use collaborative problem-solving and you use this plan B, you give them partial control but not complete control, because if your solution doesn’t meet the adult concern as well, let’s say they have a solution that doesn’t meet your concern, you’re adult concerned, then you can say, You know, that doesn’t really meet my adult concern. It’s not a bad idea, it just doesn’t meet my concern, my concern, so we can… We look at some other ideas.

 

Patrick

Got it, okay.

 

Doris

And I think renown important point to Patrick in that when there is this sense of control that we’re giving to the child at a certain level, and when you think about kids… So if you think about this in a school setting, or if you even think about it, I know you mentioned even in a work setting and among adults… Right, if you have individuals who have experienced trauma, having some sense of control can actually bring the situation into a much better equilibrium, and so by them having some sense of control, some sense of choice about how the situation may be solved, that can actually bring a level of regulation, that’s much more likely to lead to things being solved, and we really promote in organizations where we train this. Say, we train a group of adults who are doing in a school with kids or in mental health setting with kids, we really emphasize that this really needs to become your adult culture as well. When you have a staff member who says, Well, I really think that’s bunch of whoee… Instead of saying, Well, no, you really need to see it my way. We’re gonna respond with, Wow, I hear your concern. Help me understand more about that. And then you work toward mutual mutual solution.

 

Rick

And one more thing, Patrick, is that is the reason why we really like collaborative problem-solving is it because we know that we have to regulate the lower parts of the brain, the brain stem and the limbic system area the mid-brain area to get to the cortex, and so we really emphasize, we really take collaborate problem-solving and then put it against what the neuroscience would show. When we are asking the child why they can’t meet the expectation, notice, we’re not saying the behavior, which could be very dysregulation. We’re just saying, This is why we’re asking you to do… And we’re also building our relationship with a child, we’re strengthening that relationship with a child, what we’re actually doing is we’re mirroring the way that the brain processes information from the bottom up or regulating and relating to the child, and only in those situations, if you really think about it, can we ever get to the cortex where we build the neuro-cognitive skills that the child needs to be able to meet our expectations.

 

Doris

Well, and what we haven’t even mentioned is those skills that Rick referred to, this whole process. If you’re working with kids in a school or mental health, starts with doing an assessment of a whole set of neuro-cognitive skills Five categories of skills, broken down into 32 individual neuro-cognitive skills, assessing where is the child currently at with relation to eat, because generally children of chronic challenging behavior show up as having a lot of lagging skills in those areas, and so that’s part of the process that we didn’t even touch on. So.

 

Patrick

Yeah, I feel like we could talk about this for the rest of the day. But I do wanna switch gears a little bit and turn the spotlight on to Bowman Consulting, and some of the things that you offer to people, and one of them is the membership community. Can you tell us about that?

 

Doris

Yeah, absolutely. So our membership community is transforming trauma raising resilience, connected community, and essentially it’s a really dynamic group of professionals from around the country and across the globe that meets together to share ideas, learn the latest in advances in neuroscience and resilience and coherence research for both personal and professional growth and benefits. So it was really born out of an expressed desire by people who attended our trainings to remain connected, continue with higher level learning, be able to build the kinds of connections to other professionals that they began experiencing in our trainings, and so what we offer in the community then is this connection to these other professionals who are quite a passionate and engaged group and share and common purpose and common interest around some topics like self-care and wellness for themselves and their staff, and effective techniques for serving kids, students, clients with trauma and so forth. And so if you wanna add anything on here?

 

Rick

Well, one other thing I would just say is that we try to really provide an ongoing deeper trainings on micro-topics related to trauma-informed care and resilient practices, and we also give them this opportunity to receive the Heart Math, stress and well-being assessment, which is a normed and validated assessment tool designed to help them identify areas for decreasing their stress as well as areas to increase well-being and resilience.

 

Patrick

Got it. So with the membership community, with your consulting and individuals as well as organizations, access your trainings or get in touch with you to conduct a training?

 

Doris

Yes. Absolutely. The membership community, it actually opens for registration or enrolment four times a year, and the reason that we do that, and that can be individuals that sign up, or we also had administrators who signed their entire school up, so that every staff member in their staff has access and opportunity to participate in the community as a school membership, and the reason we open it quarterly is because the recommendation is for this Heart Math or sub-being assessment to be administered every 90 days, and so we run on that cycle, and so in between that time period of folks go to our website and they go to the Connected Community tab, if it isn’t during one of the periods of open registration or enrolment, they can get their name on a wait list there, and then they will be the first to be notified before it’s opened broadly. They’ll receive notification and be able to register at the next… Which actually, we have one coming up mid-February. It’ll be open again, I think around the third week of February, and then with our trainings, schools can just… They can go to our website, which is Bowmanconsultgroup.com, and they can see we have an events page there that shows events that are open, people can register for trainings as individuals through some of the trainings we have posted there. We also have a lot of schools and agencies that contact us and contract us to come do training for them with their staff and sometimes follow-up coaching and consultation and so forth.

 

Patrick

Yeah, like I said, I feel like we could go on all day talking about these trainings and the Heart Math Institute and the work that you guys have done, so maybe we can have you on again in the future to get into some of the things. So we didn’t get a chance to talk about… But for this conversation, I have one more question for you that’s maybe a little more light-hearted. We are hopefully in the waning months of the… We’re hopefully in the waning months of the coronavirus pandemic, and we’re all looking out for vaccines, we’re all looking out for the… All clear, what’s the first thing that the two of you are going to do when you’re sure it’s safe to go back out into the world.

Rick

Wow, that’s a great question.

 

Doris

Yeah, what a great question. I think we don’t know. One of my first thoughts is that we… So when I do my Heart Math, practice it, and you generate a positive renewing emotion, and a lot of times you anchor that to an experience… One of the experiences that I often anchor to generate this renewing emotion is when we were snorkeling in Maui, and I think that when you asked that question, I can tell you there is one place we went where I just floated on the water and watched the turtles, and to me, that was the first image that came to my mind and when you asked that. So I’ll say that’s my answer. I think that’s where I would want to be headed.

 

Rick

That could be my answer too, but this might sound a little weird, but anyway, I think for me, it’s just being able to get out in front of the people. Again, that was a main yeast, we love to try and we love to… Part of it is that just being with the people and really getting some of my best moments in training or those times after the training or during your break, a person will come up to me and just tell me, this is what’s going on in my life, what I owe through severe trauma or what do you think might help in this situation, but it’s the personal connections that are the most important for me.

 

Doris

And people that share the same heart, it’s really… You can feel this connection…

 

Rick

Absolutely.

 

Patrick

You’re both are obviously extremely passionate about the work you do, incredibly knowledgeable about it, and I can’t thank you enough for agreeing to join us on this program.

Rick and Doris

Absolutely. Thank you guys so much, it’s been a pleasure.

Podcast Episode #6: Jody Johnson

By Patrick York

Tom and Patrick talk with our old friend Jody Johnson, Associate Professor at Santiago Canyon College in Orange California, about her years providing childcare and educating with the mind of an engineer.

More About Our Guest

With over 25 years of experience as an early childhood educator, Jody supports the academic and professional development of early childhood educators and promotes the health, education, and welfare of children and families.


Patrick

Our special guest today is Jodi Johnson, an old friend. She’s an associate professor of child development and early childhood education in Santiago Canyon College. In addition to being a specialist in trauma and resilience and education, she’s also an advisory board member of the California Essentials for Childhood Initiative.

Patrick

Welcome, Jody.

Tom

Welcome, Judy.

Jody

Hi Tom. Hi Patrick. It’s great to talk to you again.

Patrick

Hey, so let’s start with your educational background…

Jody

Well I think I would have to go back to my interest in caring about and four children started very young in life with my dolls and I worked up from there, and when my youngest sister was born, there was a seven-year gap between us and my mother often tell stories about having to fight me to take care of her own child. I think I was a natural born nurturer, very young in life, and then I got into engineering of all things and decided I needed to buck the system, and I did wanna be a nurse or a teacher, which pretty much seemed like the options to me at the time when I was in high school. And so I decide what, I’m gonna go join that women to live movement and I’m gonna be an engineer. They’re probably the most diametrically opposite that you can get from being a teacher and a nurse…

Patrick

What kind of engineer?

Jody

I wanted to be a mechanical engineer. I’ve always been the kid who was hanging over the fender of the car with my dad asking questions, wanting to know how things worked. Liked to turn around, still do. But I just thought, Okay, that makes sense. And so I started off in engineering classes, and then I got to calculus and I went, What the heck am I gonna do with them? And that was also at the same time I had our first child and kinda got in touch, I think that really spurred back to… Took me back to my roots of wanting to care for children. So I started taking classes, early childhood education classes at the community college. I took every single class known, and I believe I’m still on record at that college, ’cause they talk about me still as doing that. I had no clear direction of what I was doing. I just knew that I wanted to raise my children and be an informed parent. At the same time, I started a family child care program in my home, took off from… I didn’t wanna work full-time when my children were young. I felt like, as a parent, it’s a parental prerogative, if you make a mistake with your own kids, that’s part of being parent… When you start taking care of other people’s children, you need to know what you’re doing, and I think that theme has kind of been in the back of my mind, I… Or how I think about education and early childhood education, you need to know what you’re doing. This isn’t just some haphazard adventure or like a bailout because, Oh the… I don’t know what else to do, I’m not good in math. I just don’t want to do. Anybody can take care of children, and that is certainly not… Certainly not the case.

Patrick

So early childhood education is not a backup plan.

Jody

It is not a back-up plan and it needs to be very… You need to be intentional about that because it requires that type of mindset to do it well, to really understand children. So then I have my children and I kinda put off my education, and my oldest son was, of all things, graduating with the degree of Mechanical Engineering, My husband and I are sitting in the auditorium and I’m like, Shoot, I was the one who was supposed to go to college. I was the one who was supposed to do this and hear my children are doing this.

Patrick

Sounds like your interest sort of rubbed off.

Jody

Yes, yeah. We have a very strong history of engineering on my husband’s side of the family, and I guess my father as well as the tactical field, so you could say that it was an electrical type, but not… Ever went to college. And so I felt like, Okay, this is a good place in my life to go back to school, and I’ve been tinkering around at the junior college long enough, it was time to get my act together, so to speak, so that’s what I did. So I went back to school, finished my associates in early childhood education in 2008. Got my bankers in 2010, got my master’s in 2012, so I was pretty much on the fast track, as you could say, and there were… Or degrees were early childhood education, and then during that time, especially in my undergrad program, I became very, very interested in the work of Bobby and aims were on attachment, and I just thought that was such… I knew my heart that that was so important, it just… That was the grounding piece, I felt like for children, the need to have…

That somebody who cared for them unconditionally, and at the same time, I learned about the work of Bruce Perry, and that also, just his idea of being… That one person can make a difference. I make a difference in the life of children. Really, really resonated with me and I began to follow him. So as I got into the… Got into to work, I decided that I really wanted to do something with trauma, and because I saw what happened, because I’d read so much about attachment issues and trauma and abuse with children, and I have a personal history of abuse growing up and so I thought, I found this program, I’ve been looking for about a year and a half, two years on and off, and found a program at Concordia that offered the Master’s in Education in Curriculum and Instruction within specialization and trauma and resilience, and it was about the closest thing at the time I could find that would match up to what I wanted to do, and so I came late to the education party, but I’m making up for lost time.

Patrick

It sounds like it. So you are an engineer in your heart, who is a nurturing person, you’re on the fast track through education associates than bachelors, then masters, then this new program and specialization. You’ve got a lot of educational background, and you also do a lot of things with your education. Can you talk to us about some of the roles that you play?

Jody

Well, I feel like I have… It must have be an octopus and have at least eight arms because they’re all in different pots… Things and always have been a part of as I’m grown in the education, I am involved in essentials for childhood, which is a Federal program, but I work with it through the States, and I’m under California Advisory Board for Essentials for Childhood, which is part of the Health and Human Services and the violence and prevention arm of that, and then it’s the Department of Social Services and the Department of Health and Human Services, and they are the leads on this, but they also… It’s a very much a collaborative effort that brings in people from all sorts of backgrounds within the government and within local agencies, and so we have representation, I would say that from housing, from health, from Social Services, mental health, nutrition. So we have residents, we have people representing that. The one thing we don’t have is anybody really from education in there, and I am the only person who on this committee who comes directly from the field of education, and that is not just early childhood education, but it’s the entire K through higher ed I’m the only person on the committee and they sought me out for some reason, and I’m not sure why, and I keep banging the drum going, Why aren’t more people from education on this committee?

Patrick

Sure, so what is the daily activities of the committee, you had mentioned that they are involved in outreach and education and research, what are some of the programs that they’re invested in?

Jody

Well, the core goal is to ensure the child… The mission statement is to ensure that children grow up in safe, secure, nurturing relationships, and that they have that, so you can see that touch of Bruce Perry and all of that, and how we can go promote that, whether that’s helping families with making sure that they have housing, food, eliminating food insecurity, doing what we can with that, so it’s… On a daily basis, I don’t do much. I have meetings that… Of course, everything is online. Meetings where as the advisory committee, we’re actually providing direction to these agencies and saying, This is what we wanna see, there are three sub-committees within the Essentials for Childhood Organization, there’s the data sub-committee, there’s the Trauma-Informed Practices Committee, and then there’s the Data and Trauma practices and Policy Committee that’s the other, I forget. So I am on the policy and the Trauma-Informed Practices Committee. Data is interesting, but it’s not where my passion lies, but of course we all need that data to direct us.

Patrick

So you’re in a unique position because you’re sort of zooming in and out quite a bit, you day-to-day spend time at policy level, advising from these committees, different organizations that are investing programs, but you’re also both a parent and a grandparent, what’s the effect of, you know, being exposed to the policies that guide the activities of these organizations in the State of California, and then kind of unplugging from the computer and going and spending time with your grandchildren or your children, does it impact the way that you interact at all?

Jody

Absolutely, and just to kind of touch on that, moving in and out, I think that’s where my engineering and my interest in Aptitude and Engineering is very helpful because I’m able to see systems and logic very, very well, and I’m able to see how they integrate. And I can see that I can go big picture/small picture, so I’m constantly, as you say, moving in and out of these different lenses, and then kind of moving from different positions as well…

Patrick

So you are also on faculty at Santiago Canyon College, right?

Jody

Yes.

Patrick

What role do you play there and a similar question to the last one, How does your involvement on this committee impact the curriculum you’re developing for students at that college.

Jody

At the college, they called the adjunct associate professors, which I still giggle at, but when somebody can be a professor because it just seems… I just treat myself as a person who puts their pants on everybody like else, and I just think that’s… You know, I just prefer to be called Jody, but the students call you professor. Right. And I’m like, okay, the…

Tom

Although, you know, Jody, if you think about where the word professor means, it means you have something to profess, and you definitely do.

Jody

That is a great way of helping me make sense of all that, because I am very much an advocate. I think that is a huge role that I play at the college. I am advocating not just for the curriculum for the students, but also making sure that trauma is… I started out by making sure that I want trauma embedded in all of our early childhood classes. I just came in and said, This is what has to happen. We have to look at it. I have an incredibly supportive department chair who… And who is just like, Yeah, let’s go, let’s do this. And she’s very much supportive of whatever I bring to the table, so when I’m in that big picture mode and looking logistically at things, even though I’m technically I’m an adjunct professor or associate professor, I probably… Most of associate professors, they have outside interests and they teach their classes, but I’m actually in and in there talking about, Okay, what classes are we gonna offer, how are we gonna offer that and really shaping some of the courses to just bring the level of education and the student experience to, I think… Take it up to the next notch.

Patrick

Sure, one thing Tom and I have learned in these conversations is that a lot of people who are involved in trauma-informed work or social-emotional learning, oftentimes are more motivated by personal experience than they are by their education, and we hear all the time… Well, I’m not a clinician, but this is the work that I’m doing. This is the contribution I can make, or I’m not a doctor, but this is the contribution I’m making. And it sounds like you have a lot of drivers for being involved in this work, creating the curriculum you do, being involved at a policy level, being involved in the planning of the courses that are offered by your department. Can you talk a little bit about where you get your energy and enthusiasm for this work? It sounds like it’s coming from a lot of different places.

Jody

I think it comes from… When it comes to trauma, it comes from my heart of saying, I don’t want children to experience what I experienced growing up, and I think part of that is that I have to accept that we were Dr. Spock babies growing up, that influenced my parents, and I don’t… I don’t be rude. My parents, necessarily, to the point that I understand that there are social norms at the time, that was all acceptable, but it wasn’t right, and it left last marks, and I think that a lot of teachers who I talk to her educators that I talked to you pick… A green level or a division of education, whether it’s pre-school teachers, whether it’s cold, they’re in there because they wanna make a difference because it wasn’t a default choice for them to go do what they’re doing. And so I think that’s where a lot of us get that, and especially when it comes to early childhood, we care about children very much, and we want to see them have a better experience than maybe what we had… We led them to be prepared for the future.

Patrick

Right, so you mentioned Dr. Spock as a sort of mid-centric influence on American parenting, and the fact that there were social norms back then, but as you say, some of those things weren’t right. What do you think, maybe this is a tough question, but what do you think are the social norms of today that we’ll look back on in the future and say, you know, that really wasn’t… Right. As parenting advice…

Jody

Gosh, that’s a deep question. It is a great question. And I think you have to look at that. Do I look at that pre-COVID post?

Patrick

That’s a great question.

Jody

I think there are a lot of distractions to parenting right now, and I think technology is one of them. When I would go to… And I think so that’s one thing I think is we’ve gotten away from the essentials of parenting, what it means to be totally in love with that child, and that sends up wonder and awe that we have for just the littlest things that they do and see that from a developmental milestone that they’ve made or that… Oh wow, that… Now it’s… Oh, oh yeah. Okay. They can walk now. Okay. Back, back to my phone. Were you distracted.

Patrick

Sure. Yeah. That makes a lot of sense.

Jody

One of the things that really got me started on that is I would be at the park with… I had a Family childcare for 17 years on my own because I couldn’t find a pre-school that that can do it right. I knew that it involved treating the children in my care is like… They’re part of my family. I told the parents in the interview, if you don’t expect me to dance at your child’s wedding, this isn’t the place for you, and the idea behind that was really that we are in a relationship. I expect it to be a long-term relationship. I’m not gonna be like a preschool classroom where the child is here for nine months and then they move on to the next grade, and you just bring in the next group of children The children in my care here for on average, five years. I never had to advertise. In fact, I had parents who would say, Can I have a baby? Will you have room if I get pregnant and… Yeah, it was pretty crazy. The youngest of the last group of children is the high school senior. That’s my last one. All of these kids went to college. All of these kids have a tremendous sense of social responsibility and the accountability. The character values and traits that they have are something they would not have gotten by going to preschool.

Patrick

And what do you attribute the difference to?

Jody

I believe it’s my passion for children, for not losing the ability to see the little things as big things, and the continuity of care, and that was really my mantra, I really believed in continuity of care. I thought That is a key.

Patrick

In other words, because they were with you for five straight years and they weren’t kind of bouncing from one place to the next today, got comfortable with the same caretaker?

Jody

Right, is that predictability that children need at this time, we talk about this a lot within our field, is that when you roam emotionally safe environment for children, what do we teach them? We have schedules in our classroom that are predictable, so the children know what to expect. But they only know what to expect for nine months, and then it all changes again.

Patrick

Interesting.

Jody

But if you have a predictable environment with a very close parent-caregiver relationship, then you’ve got it, and as much as you can give me the wildest child in the world, but if I didn’t have a parent who was going in the same direction, and we weren’t… In a partnership then, it wasn’t gonna work. So while the children were important and most of them came to me somewhere between six weeks, and I’d say the oldest one came to me at age 2, but most of them came to me in infancy, and so I had that perfect stage for really being that bonding. We go back to attachment to body, and all that resonated, and it just shows through, comes up and was in my life now as we’re talking about this and now what I thought about that, about the importance of bonding, about being that predictable environment, about being the caregiver being that one person that cares, and I was so touched and, I’m in contact with a lot of these kids still and they’re in 20s. They’re in college. I see them, I see their parents still.

Patrick

What would you say to… ’cause I’ve heard people say things like this, but what would you say to those who say, all of that attention, all of that doting on these kids, that just is contributing to the next generation’s sense of entitlement and laziness, and that they have to receive award for everything that they do.

Jody

I would say no. I would say you could think that because they received a lot of attention but they didn’t get rewards, that what they got was… You were really hard on that. Look what you created, it was the… You sense, because when you say… Because I felt strongly… And the research shows that when you use, I like the way you’re doing something, I like this. What you end up creating is people pleasers, people who I have to do this because somebody else… This will make somebody else happy, whether it’s what I wanna do or not. Children want to please. And so what I feel like is it was just the opposite, these children had so much freedom to be… We had school insight, we had school outside read, we do things, we did, we had educational experiences that they didn’t even know that it was intentional or educational. It just happened. Based on what I saw the children’s interests were done have a curriculum per se. Other than it was that emergent curriculum, I suppose if we had to pick a curriculum. It evolved around what the childrens’ interests were… I’m sorry, go ahead.

Patrick

So to go back a little bit, I thought something you said was significant, which is the language that you use in drawing attention to somebody and something they’ve done is really important.

Jody

Incredible.

Patrick

Saying that you like something they’ve done a finger panning, they’ve done it. Saying I really like that creates a people pleaser. I did have a question about that. If you used that term, people pleaser in a positive sense? Is that something that we’re after as caregivers or not?

Jody

We shouldn’t be.

Patrick

We shouldn’t be. Okay, Okay, I asked because I kind of see myself in that way. I think I’m from a long line of people pleasers and sometimes to my own detriment. So I’m always sensitive to the use of that, that term, but it sounds like your recommendation, both from your experience and the literature is not, I like what you do, but a recognition of the effort that went into creating what they’ve accomplished?

Jody

Absolutely, and even if they feel, Look, you try, you tried this and next time… Here’s a classic example, and I had three girls within this last group. One of them was a year younger than the other two, three is… First of all, three is not a great number interactions because somebody’s always left out, and in this case, it probably was… It was a lot of times the younger child of the three. She wanted to draw, like the older girls could draw, and this was… They were about five and she was five and a half issues about four and half, she did not… She could not reconcile that she could not draw as well as the other, and she actually refused to even draw anything for six months, and these are things that I document, not just mentally, but I still have pictures of the kids that they do for me, and I can go back and look at things… And we’ve since weeded it out quite a bit, but… Because you never know when you’re gonna use me that in teaching. I guess that’s a teacher pack rat mentality, but one of the things is that she just would not draw. She would not do anything because she felt like she couldn’t do it as well as another child could do it. Even though I did my best to say, Look what you’re doing, it just wasn’t enough for her, you were making this… But I took a lot of that, a lot of that to build her self-confidence to the point where she was like, Okay, you know, Okay, I’m ready to do this on my terms and at my ability. Yes, people can get caught in that people pleasing or that… Wanting to be like somebody else. Yes, it’s a huge trap.

Patrick

I’m also hearing that from your experience, honesty plays a big role to recognizing when someone has succeeded and also when they failed at something, is that accurate?

Jody

Oh, children are… Yes, children are very astute to being patronized. They’re very aware. They know when they deserve praise and when they don’t, they know when hey did a good job and when they didn’t.

Patrick.

We in a previous conversation and also talked about creating an environment of safety, and safety could be defined in many ways, How would you define safety in that context?

Jody

In the context of…

Patrick

Of creating an environment for safety.

Jody

I think it has that sense of predictability, because that really, I think, helps a lot, especially as we’re dealing with covid where there’s so much out of our control right now. We really have that sense of unease because we don’t know what’s coming next. We don’t know, just look at in California, three days ago, we were locked down and with literally the flip of a light switch, all of a sudden everything opens back up again with limitations. Well, what heck, I’m still trying to wrap my head around the fact that I couldn’t go get a haircut four days ago, and now it’s okay? Wait a minute. I am struggling with the sense of like, I don’t feel safe right now, I don’t feel that…

Tom

We’re not exactly safe right now, but what we have to do is figure out how to accept and go on in the spite of that, in spite of that.

Jody

Absolutely. But there are those people who are gonna say, Whoopee! I can go do what I want. When’s Disney Land gonna open? That’s the mentality. I feel like there’s an extreme, but they’re still in between, there is a sense of, Wait a minute, we’ve been… I just don’t see that in my heart that I’m not feeling safe right now. Just like what has happened in California. I’m not feeling sick, and I just continue to do. And I think people who have a sense of understanding that this is just a temporary thing, okay, now everything’s gonna go back to normal, or it will never be normal again.

Patrick

This is an interesting topic because there are a lot of people for whom that’s a reality, like they’re never really safe or they feel that they’re never really safe.

Jody

Especially those people who are affected by trauma…

Patrick

That’s right. And people who are still in the environment in which they were traumatized, so what… There’s obviously no easy answers, and trauma and worker generally, especially in early childhood education. So what’s the answer? Is there an answer for people whose environment is not safe when they come into the classroom? How do you create a sense of safety even though the rest of their life may feel like chaos?

Jody

That’s… That’s… I think that’s an answer… That a question I’ve been asking myself for a long, long time. I started coaching for the Orange in Department of Education under the Race To The Top Early Learning Challenge. So I was an instructional coach, I’d be in the preschool classrooms, and I see these children. And it was in San Ana where most of my schools were, which is a low-income, high-minority city. A lot of families do not have residency. They’re not recognized as legal residents in the United States, so there’s a lot of uncertainty in their lives already, and there’s that sense I’m always… I think maybe looking… Not the kids, but the parents, they have looking over their shoulder a little bit. And so they have that sense at home, and then they come to school. And they just wanna be kids. And that part wins, if you have a teacher who can just be that one person. Bruce Perry something that really struck me, he said, even met your parenting is good enough. I was shocked actually, when he said that. It’s like if you don’t have to be the very, very, very best parent, you don’t have to be that person, but just being okay, is better.

Patrick

Sometimes you’re good. Sometimes you’re bad.

Jody

Well, yeah, we all have moments. I called a time out one day and shocked the heck out of my kids like… I have three children, they’re all like three years apart-ish kind of… It was one of those days, they’re like two, five and eight or something like that. And I can tell you, it was during baseball season where you’re going to three baseball games times two a week. And husband was working a lot of hours at the time, and I just kinda was like, I’m done. I just was stressed out to the max, and the only thing I could do is I just sat in the time out chair, which I now, do I would… Don’t necessarily advocate for… And my kids looked at me were like, What are you doing? I said, I’m putting myself on time out. And they said, Well, why? Because I’m just not feeling good. I don’t feel like I can… Yeah, I just need to take a break. And they went, how long you’re gonna stay there? I don’t know, you know. And just their look of like, Wow, this is a real table turning event. They didn’t know how to handle that. And it was kinda… It was like you’re trying not to kind of giggle out of one side of your hand go, Wow, this worked well, I got what I wanted, but it wasn’t, you know, I got them to stop doing what they were doing, but… That wasn’t necessarily my intent. My intent was to… Now I would be taking some breaths and just kinda been doing the same thing, I guess, taking that time out, but it was just kind of funny and I like… So it’s like you have to check in and check out, check in with yourself. Know where you’re out of what you’re feeling and when you need to check out, check out for a few minutes and get that perspective back so that you can go and be the best for your children. Whether it’s your own children, or whether it’s… Whether it’s the children in your classroom. As the family childcare provider is me with six or eight kids, I’m out-numbered in the preschool classrooms, a lot of times, especially in the state funding classrooms, they have one, sometimes two aides. I didn’t have any things, I was doing this by myself. So I didn’t have a choice, I had to do some checking out.

Patrick

So we sometimes talk about the sort of tool box that people can reach into when they’re trying to figure out what to do in a stressful situation, or how to respond to kids who are affected by trauma or just kids having a tough time. And it sounds like your tool box is very broad. You have your experience providing care for very young children, you’ve got this education, you’ve got your policy perspective, you’ve got your own children and grandchildren to pull from, so I suppose my penultimate question for you is… I’m trying to figure out how to articulate it. How do you know which voice to listen to? Is there ever any contradiction between what the literature says and what you know to be true from your experience?

Jody

That’s a great question. Yes, it is tough. And I think at the heart of it is you’re gonna make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect, you’re never gonna be the perfect parent. I kept saying to my kids like, somebody’s gonna write a book that says, My life is deprived, ’cause I didn’t get Captain Crunch. My mom wouldn’t do this or something. I’m gonna have… And I think I kept that in the back of my mind is kind of a joke to just set me… Get me facing back to reality, but I think of what I hold in most dear is that you’re gonna make mistakes, it’s having a sense of self-compassion and being able to say, That’s okay. Okay, to Make Mistakes. And it’s even… And when you do make mistakes, reconcile those with your child. It’s okay to say your child I wasn’t the best I could have been. Today, I could have made different choices. And it wasn’t about you, because children are very quick to assume that it was their fault. If I had only been a better child, my parents wouldn’t have divorced. Going into the literature on that, but there’s a lot about that, children and divorce. And some of that I carried with me for a long time because my parents did divorce, and I thought about that, I thought, Oh, I had only done this, if I’d only done that. That’s a child’s mind thinking like a child. There’s nothing inappropriate about that, but what is needed is an adult to say many times over, not just one, it wasn’t your fault. That grown-ups. We make mistakes. It’s okay to make mistakes. And when we make a mistake with another adult, I would say that healthy people go rectify and they fix that. They apologize. How many times I wonder, do parents apologize to their children and say, I made a mistake. I could have done that a different way, and you know what it humanized is as a parent, and if I had a parent who had said that to me, I would have trusted them. I would have created that secure environment because I would have known it wasn’t me, it was okay to make mistakes, which our children… We put a lot of pressure on our kids these days to be the soccer star, to be the whatever, to be the perfect that because it’s… I think an embodiment of something parents may have lacked in their life or wanted in their life. So I think it’s really important. My kid said something to me, they said, you know, we never saw you and and dad fight, which we don’t… But we never learned how to make up… Wow, that’s… That’s really interesting. If we had a disagreement, two engineer brains talk about it. We kind of found some logical solution. It went into logic, it didn’t always go and do emotions, but if we could logic way out of it. But they said We never learned how to make up how to do that, and I thought, Wow, that was really profound. And I still wonder about that a lot, and I think… I think if kids know that it’s okay for grown-ups to make mistakes, they get that, but they don’t understand that other piece that has to go with it or have self-compassion to say It’s okay to make a mistake and it’s okay to… It’s okay to be wrong. Because we learn from that. That’s how we learn.

Patrick

I think that’s a really great place to leave it. I only have one more question for you, and I’ve asked it to you before in another interview, but I wonder if your answer has changed. What is the first thing that you’re going to do when we get the for real all call? That everything’s okay and covid is over?

Jody

That’s… Gosh, that’s a tough question. Covid is over, what am I going to do? I’m gonna get on an airplane and go see my daughter and my granddaughter in Minnesota, and my granddaughter and soon to be another grandchild in San Francisco.

Patrick

Sounds like a great day.

Jody

I haven’t seen my granddaughter in San Francisco in over a year, and we FaceTime frequently, and for children to think, these kids that are growing up now to think that’s the normal way to have a relationship with adults and grandparents breaks my heart. Because the physical piece of that is so important, that physical contact is so important that I wanna wrap… We have a motor home, so I’m able to… We’re able to get in the motor home drive to Minnesota, and we did that twice this summer and spent probably 10 weeks back there in between the two trips. You can’t take a motor home to San Francisco. It’s just a city not meant for a big motor.

Patrick

That’s right.

Jody

And I can’t fly up there, and so consequently, we haven’t really been able to go up there and see them.

Patrick

Yeah, well, I can see it now, and you’re taking your motor home up there parking out at Ocean Beach and just take the Judah line in town.

Jody

Yeah, we did that one time and we got covered with a spray and… The motor home was parked. You kinda walk between the motor homes in San Francisco, it was just like parked on a concrete parking lot, and we said never again, but you have to get desperate to…

Patrick

Well, Jody, thanks so much for…

Jody

Always great to talk to you. And you make me think with hard sometimes, and I enjoy that.

Tom

Thanks very much for speaking with us.

Podcast Episode #7: Mariah Lafleur

By Patrick York

Tom and Patrick talk with Mariah Lafleur, the National Program Lead with Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools Initiative. In addition to talking about the support and resources that Thriving Schools is providing to schools and organizations across the country, Mariah walks through the qualities of a perfect day in an ideal school. Make sure to check out some of the materials that Thriving Schools has developed with Discovery Education and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation at readysetrisemodules.com.


 

Patrick

Welcome Mariah. Thanks for joining us. 

Tom

Yeah, welcome.

Mariah

Hi, thanks for having me. Been looking forward to this.

Patrick

Let’s talk first a little bit about the work that you do for Thriving Schools.

Mariah

I am the National Program Lead with Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools Initiative, and Kaiser Permanente is the nation’s largest integrated healthcare system. Our mission at Kaiser is specifically to provide high quality, affordable health care services to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve, and my work at Thriving Schools sits solidly in that the community’s we serve phrase of our mission. Our mission has actually been the same since we started in 1945, and it was amazingly well written and it still is incredibly relevant to day. So Thriving Schools is Kaiser effort and a recognition that schools are a major anchor in hub in the community, and many things revolve around schools and education system, which is similar as healthcare is they have been… Many things revolve around healthcare, we realized that we needed to concentrate and coordinate all of our large organizational efforts in the education space to make sure we were making schools as healthy as they can be, want to lift them up as a beacon of health in our communities alongside the healthcare that we provide as an institution. So thriving schools is very upstream in the health work we do, of course, we fully recognize the importance of clinical health and medical providers and Kaiser Permanent as thousands of physicians and nurses, and medical providers. But our Thriving Schools work is about the environments and looking at the whole school environment and all of the people that spend their days in and around those environments in person, virtual or some of both right now, and is it supporting everyone’s physical health? Is it supporting their mental health? Is it supporting your spiritual health? Is everyone able to be there and make the best possible choices for their day in and around the school, and so Thrive school is looking at the comprehensive piece of things…

Patrick

That’s very cool. My sister is in recovery room nurse, and she always talks about… There’s so many things that could be helped if there was a little more focus on more holistic health, like you’re talking about the environments, the mental and physical health in public spaces, in education, so that not quite so many people have to end up in the recovery room with her.

Mariah

Yeah, that’s exactly why Kaiser has a very strong public and community health focus. We provide both care and coverage, which means we wanna make sure our members and the communities they’re in are as healthy as possible because we don’t want to see them unless we absolutely have to. We wanna see them only for routine things, so just check-ups and vaccines, so we know that… Well, the medical office is incredibly important, and we provide the best medical coverage out there, whether our members are healthy or your… Majority of that happens outside of our wall.

Tom

Have you noticed any trends in the health of people either before COVID or during?

Mariah

Well, if you’re a person in the world and you’ve clicked around on the internet, you’ve probably seen a variety of projections and whatnot. In general… Yes, we’re very concerned. Of course, there is the health of everything related to the virus, which we are at the forefront of addressing, but all of that aside, I have gotten to a big crux of my work, and I think why we’re speaking with you is the mental health of people is very concerning and of young people and of the people that support young people and the mental health of families and parents. I think everybody in this has their own challenges. I heard the analogy that I really like that everyone is in the same storm, but we all have different boats, and everyone’s boat has its own issues and strengths. You could be in a boat all by yourself and you are just feeling really lonely because you’ve not had good human contact. You may be a teacher teaching class from zoom from your apartment and you haven’t seen any of the students you support in a year in person. Or you could be a working parent like myself that is working full-time, my husband works outside of the home, full time, and I have children here, so I am both doing a full-time job and making sure that virtual schooling is happening and everyone is getting supported all the ways they need to, which is a very different challenge than someone who may be feeling more lonely. So all of these things are compounding to a major mental health crisis that I think is very concerning, but in a way, it’s having a moment and it’s bringing a importance of mental well-being to the forefront of everybody’s minds where I don’t think it was before.

Tom 

That was another question I had. Do you think awareness has increased and people are more willing to talk about the challenges they’re having.

Mariah

Yes. Short answer? Yes, definitely. I would say in a good way, even folks that I think viewed mental health and mental health appointments and support is something for people who are sick or an a diagnosed condition. I think over this past year and everything everyone is going through has made everyone a bit introspective as to how am I doing… Where is my stress or is my anxiety, where is my feeling low… Maybe people don’t wanna put a name on it, but the lows and the highs that we’re going through, a lot of people are becoming more aware of it, and the education system is bearing the brunt of a lot of it, which is… I know a lot of what we wanna get into today.

Patrick

And like you said, any person clicking around the internet these days, we’ll see myriad articles that describe what you’re probably feeling right now. I think this is kind of a unique time because, like you say, everyone’s in the same storm, and it seems like The Atlantic and The New York Times and the Washington Post are all publishing these stories that say, We know exactly what you’re going through. And here’s a diagnosis of your experience. I imagine to a degree, people look at those and go, That’s exactly what’s going on with me. And some other people might be like, it kinda misses the mark. What do you think, and this is kind of a big question, but what do you think the value of that kind of reporting is relative to the work that you do in an organization that’s more rigorous and focused?

Mariah

Well, interesting, because the publications you mentioned, I personally read and respect them in general, I would say the New York Times, The Atlantic post, they are known for doing good research in facing their articles, in fact, which is greatly valued by myself and Kaiser Permanente. Science in fact has always very much been in fashion for us, so I think that’s great. I do see a fair amount of, I would say, less rigorous information being put out there, so I appreciate the scientific information that that helps people see themselves in it. There is also thing to be said for these personal stories, that when people are vulnerable, it can really be nice to see yourself in somebody else when you see a blogpost or… Some of the stories I’ve liked the most are the combination of, there’s been a scientific sample study done a survey, spoken with a variety of, for example, educators getting a pulse on where they are and their mental health, and then of course, they’ll fill that in with a couple of personal stories of educators and maybe one that’s in the classroom and really having a lot of stress because of that, and then one that’s fully teaching virtual and having a lot of stress because of that, so that combination is really validating.

That said, I do think that people need to know that it’s okay to be okay sometimes too, and if people are feeling like they’re doing okay for a while or there are definitely a lot of really warm, happy, bright spots that happen right now, and it’s good to feel those, and it’s okay to celebrate, and it’s okay to feel like you’re managing alright. Everyone does not have to be doing terribly all the time right now.

Patrick

That’s really helpful. I definitely do wanna… I imagine we’ll spend the majority of our time in this conversation talking about both ramming schools, the affects the pandemic education and public health and education, but let’s take a step back and talk about how you personally got involved in the work that you do now, what brought you to it.

Mariah

Yeah, it was a circuitous path is probably most people that have an interesting job, they love would say, and also the job that I have, it’s really the intersection of the education system in the health care system, which are two giant systems that are really valued, and so I think when you come together across large institutions like that, sometimes it takes a circuitous path to get there. Young me was pre-med and very interested in becoming a physician, perhaps I’ve always really valued health and just seeing it as first and foremost, if you don’t have health… If you aren’t healthy, what else is there? With my limited knowledge of health, medical school was of interest, I studied nutrition and Biology and undergrad, but I wanted to get out and see a little bit more before I committed to medical school, so I was actually in the Peace Corps for four years and that open eyes in a lot of obvious ways, but it pushed me into the field of public health and thinking about the environments people are in the communities, in the systems institutions that we interact with that make us healthy or unhealthy.

I was in Haiti first and would have finished out my term there, but there was a pretty dramatic exit. We were evacuated to a political coup, and so left very… Suddenly the community that I had had really settled into and spent a lot of time investing in, and then I didn’t feel like I was done, I wanted more… I want us to take what I was learning, and so I transferred and then I spent another couple of years in the Dominican Republic on the other side of the island. So in both of those countries, I was a health volunteer, and again, when you’re working in a developing low resourced community, health means everything. Things such as digging, latrines, teaching about where your protein can come from, washing your hands, some of the basic things that we’ve gone back to in this country, to keep… To keep healthy is a lot of it I was focusing on, but it was really a wide range of help, and then I also just saw a lack of access to quality health care in all the places that I was and how important that is. And oftentimes, that goes hand-in-hand with lack of quality, to lack of access to quality education, and how those two things together can be incredibly damaging to someone’s opportunities and to where they can get or not get in life.

So that put me in the Public Health path and came back to the US and decided to explore a Public Health degree, got my Master’s in Public Health, and then I did about a decade of working on evaluating in research in the public health space. And that really got me into this school and education system, a lot of what I did was see how interventions and programs and schools were working and weren’t working, and it was around a variety of health… Definitely did a lot around physical health, nutrition, what are students eating, how are they being active, what are the opportunities to take care their physical health during the day, and I really enjoyed that, learned a lot was in hundreds and hundreds of schools across the nation collecting data, seeing what worked, but I really wanted to be more at the forefront, I realized, of the doing and not just coming behind and seeing how I was working, but thinking about what do we bring into schools, what do they need, how are we bringing it to them and my strong focus on physical health was important, but I really saw that that’s only a one piece of the pie in the mental health of the students, and teachers and educators.

I don’t think there was enough out there for them, so that shifted me over and I got this amazing opportunity with thriving schools at Kaiser Permanente, and that’s been a great fit because I can work for a large respect institution, and that really focuses on community well-being and recognizes that schools are a big piece of that. When I came over to Kaiser Permanente, driving schools have been going for a few years, and it was really respected, but it was really small, and it had focused thus far in physical health, on healthy eating active living and we really wanted to branch out more into the mental health, and now we are moving into the integrated health or Whole Child Whole School Health that I’ll discuss. So my first couple of years in this role, I built out what our mental health work could and should look like, and then have executed that and have been growing and morphing and changing and tweaking it, and it’s now more important than ever, given this past year that we’ve had… So that was kind of… Kind of what brought me here.

Patrick

Yeah. So there’s a lot to kinda unpack there, that’s an enormous amount of experience culminating in your work at Kasper Permanente. One question that stuck out to me is I was having a conversation with Dr. Mary Jane person, who is a colleague of both of ours, and she’s done decades of research in education, and in one of our conversations, she said when she was doing some work in Texas, she discovered that there is a very clear connection between literacy and potential incarceration that a lot of prison systems used to determine their future prison populations, which was this insane statistic or this insane reality to me that I’ve never let go of, and it’s always in my head. Are there some revelations over your decade of research in public health leading up to your work at Kaiser Permanente, they just kind of stick in your mind as these big indicators or these epiphanies.

Mariah

Yeah, there’s a couple… One, I guess a little more mundane and obvious, but it’s what I really got after my being in hundreds of school, seeing interventions and programs happen, and that is you can plan and fund and have the best of intentions, but implementation is what matters. And again, that may not be a revelation, but I just really saw it over and over, you can do so much on the front end, but if you don’t follow through and actually make sure that the quality resources, information changes in someone’s environment actually happens, it really is all for not… In my year’s evaluation really, really taught me that and that it’s very hard to do and do well, but it can be done well. That was one. And then the other revelation is one that I think probably others on this show or people that you have spoken with have talked about, and that’s the Adverse Childhood Experiences study that actually Kaiser Permanente did in conjunction with the CDC, and that’s also a big reason why we’ve moved into this space, and why I do the work I do, because Kaiser Permanente understands that we were a big part of identifying this problem through our study, and we need to be in are a big part of addressing solutions, and that is the study. It was done by a Kaser Permanente physician, Vince Felitti in Southern California, and it found that again, maybe not surprisingly, but when you lay it all out in a large, really well run scientific study, it is rather shocking that experiencing trauma as a child has a direct dose response to how healthy you are later in life. And there’s obvious ties, such as you have higher rates of depression, suicide, behavioral issues, substance abuse, if you experienced trauma early on. But there’s also a shocking link between early childhood trauma, trauma in childhood and things such as Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease, these are chronic conditions that we used to think of as only being linked to physical things, and the rates of those increase even if you control for other behavioral factors such as how active you are. So this study really, really opened a lot of people’s eyes because it showed how important the mental health and mitigating and addressing and unearthing and figuring out what’s happening when we’re young and keep us healthy later in life. The other major finding of that study is how common trauma, it is not something for a few or for others or for those people out there, it is all of us, 60% of people experience an adverse childhood experience and…So that means if you have a classroom, over half of the students in your classroom likely are going through something such as separation of parents, divorce, abuse and neglect, a whole variety of things, and these are very common and they have very serious consequences, so that study opened my eyes and many others and that why the field is where it is today.

Tom

I had a question about that study, which I believe originally involved women who were obese and that led to discovered that something that they had in common was abused as children, how did… I was sort of shocked in a way when I found that out because it was a sort of strange cohort to attach that to, how did it move from beyond women who were having mental health issues and also body weight issues to become more generalized and also then… Something that, how do we move from a select group to realizing that 60% of children in the class who may have experienced an adverse childhood experience… 

Mariah

That’s a great question. I don’t know the exact path, but I think it was one of the right person, right place, right time epiphanies. Because in interacting and speaking with a lot of other physicians, mental health providers that might be an ear, nose and throat doctor, a pediatrician, they saw some of these issues or maybe saw some connections, but given that this was a Kaiser physician, he had this giant wealth of data available to him.

He saw that these things were happening and then realized and was able to go in and do a research study with thousands and thousands of Kaiser members because he had all of this information available to them. So it wasn’t quick, it wasn’t… And he just looked at that cohort of older women and then flipped right to children, but it was a whole process, and I realized that given the health system I’m part of, I could take a deeper look. And it was ground breaking, and I know many people, very influential high positions, I think, find out about ACES in this study and it really changes their path. Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, who’s the currently the Surgeon General of California. I had a similar epiphany when she found out about the adverse childhood experience, this study… She was a clinician in a very under-resourced area of San Francisco and she was seeing these same things in her patients, and then she found out about the study and it all just clicked and fell into place, it made sense. So a lot of people realize that I’m looking at obesity, but when I get underneath it, what’s actually causing it, it may not just be that someone is eating too much, and I think we know very much that that’s true now.

Patrick

The Thriving Schools Initiative provides resources to a lot of nationally recognized organizations to do the work that they do, and we recently discovered Tom and I, by accident, that one of her future guests… Actually, our next guest, Elizabeth Cook works for the Alliance for a Healthier Generation. Can you tell us about some of the work you’re doing with them?

Mariah

Oh, I’m so glad you have Elizabeth Cook already ready. She’s amazing. Yeah, so the Alliance for a Healthier Generation is one of our biggest external partners, I would say, because they’re national and have an amazing region system that it allows us to bring our work to and to a lot of schools and districts. So we fund them in a variety of topics, actually are working on together with them right now, which is very exciting, is moving a lot of these things together into an integrated approach into school health. And so we started off with the Alliance for Healthy Generation, working on more of the physical health, healthy eating, active living. They have an amazing assessment called the Healthy Schools Program Assessment, where school goes in and figure out what they could be doing better, and then they kinda get your resources, and we realize we moved into this space of wanting to do more with mental health, that they had a great platform, and if we could partner with them to bring a similar type of assessment and set of resources available at no cost to every school in the nation, that may be really valuable, so we partnered with them for the RISE initiative, and RISE stands for resilience in school environments.

So we created the rise index with them. It’s really the backbone of the work. The RISE index is based on the Healthy School index, actually from the CDC, and it is an assessment. There is one for districts and one for schools because they’re equally important, but control different levers and are able to change different things to support health. So the district level assessment talks about a variety of things that they can be doing to support the schools, and then the school level assessment are things that schools specifically have control over in their own staff and students in their own school buildings or environments, they’re in whatever that looks like right now. The RISE index has a variety of sections, but it really starts with staff well-being in staff health, and by staff, we need everybody that supports a school district in a school system. It’s not just teachers, it is of course, teachers and they’re incredibly valuable and they’ve been at the forefront of our minds and work for a long time, but it’s also the school resource officers, the bus drivers, Nutrition Services staff, front desk, the assistant principal, the classroom aids, the school psychologist or school counselor, everybody at the school environment needs to understand how important health is and then make sure their own well-being is taken care of. So a lot of what we do at driving school is focused on that whole group of people, so they can show up, be their best selves, and then of course, support students.

Patrick

What does it look like when everyone does get the proper training, the proper support, the proper resources. What is that like, Utopian school look like?

Mariah

Yeah, you know, while I created a little bit of a imagine… What’s the perfect day? And so I’ll harken to that for a minute, and this was when school was fully in person where we will be again soon at some point, but it looks like the bus driver greets everybody in happy way when he or she picks up the students… He or she may recognize that some of a certain set of siblings look a little low, check in with them, that is the first person that sees many children at the end in the morning and the last person at the end of the day, so maybe they do a quick check and see how they’re doing when they get to the school, the school leadership, the principal, assistant principal, etcetera. They’re out front, greeting everybody, they come in… Know, most of or all of the students names in the old world, they would have be giving high fives, maybe not elbow bumps or just happy waves, students are coming in, settling in, maybe there’s a locker, depending on the age to go into their classrooms before all that happened, the teachers had a staff lounge that they were able to be in that was a supportive, calm, positive environment before they started their day, they were able to maybe get a good cup of coffee, how a quiet want me to collect themselves before all of…all of the business of the day started.

When classes are going on, when students have a hard time, they will have a hard time on a small level or a large level, if it’s a small level challenge, it means that they can go to the common or quiet corner in the classroom and self-regulate. There may be things that can look at to calm down manipulatives that have evidence behind them that really help them collect themselves, so when there’s a situation they might be having a hard time, they can choose remove themselves from the moment and go calm down, or the teacher may say, Why don’t you go sit in the Common Corner and join us when you’re feeling more ready to focus. If it’s a larger issue, there’s someone that can come down and support the teacher, either to cover the class while the teacher is able to pull the student out and ask… Not, Why did you do that? What’s wrong with you? But what’s going on? You seem less focused today… Have you had breakfast… Anything happening at home, if something bigger needs to be discussed, there is a school counselor, therapist connection on site that can come in and support that student. That happens as needed on a regular basis for everybody that we know that’s having a challenge in this perfect day in this ideal school. 

Again, staff maybe get to a point where they’re reaching reaching their breaking point and maybe they didn’t sleep well last night and students just aren’t focusing on the lesson that they planned, and they’re about to lose it. They recognize that and they’re able to call someone and tap out for a brief moment in their class, there’s someone who either another teacher, another staff member, and there’s a system, it’s kind of a free pass, it’s a 10-minute break free pass and they can say, Listen, can you come and cover my class and they go to that calm staff room, I mentioned, they’re able to do whatever they need to do, they have the skills and the plan…They know what comes themselves down, they do that, they take a breath and they can return to class and maybe things look better, or maybe they just get through until the end of the period.

At lunch, everybody… first off, is able to access healthy appealing food. Teachers ideally have a place to have a pause in their day. I think a lot of us who don’t work in schools forget the teacher’s desk is not the quiet, calm haven that some of us who have desk jobs elsewhere, is. Desk means you’re on display, you’re on a stage, and so lunch or whatever, their prep breaks are can sometimes be the only time for them to have a calm, quiet, collect themselves, and that at the end of the day, again, leadership or somebody is there with students are leaving, transitioning to wherever they’re going next. Everybody closes out in a positive way, there may be a system, and that’s been really found to be valuable, where students have regular check-ins with specific staff, so each staff may be matched with four to five students, those check-ins could happen it once or twice a week, and it’s just a 10-15 minute sit down. How are you… What’s going on? It really fosters that positive, respective connection, and so that could happen maybe at the end of the day for students, maybe at the beginning. 

So these whole systems all work together, and I just mentioned a portion of what it is, but there’s a lot of things in the back-end that needs to be in place for the school or district for all those things to be working in harmony, but that’s really what it could look like and it does in some places.

Patrick

Yeah, I just wanna draw a connection between what you’re saying and some of the things that some of our previous guests have said too, ’cause they really stood out to me. For example, when we spoke with Julie Beem of the Attachment and Trauma Network, she told us this kind of anecdote about her daughter having an experience at school where she was unable to participate in reading time because there was an emotional trigger for her every time she walked in a certain door at a certain time of day that totally threw her off and rendered her unable to participate, and she worked at discovering the source of that trigger, and she and the staff work together to figure out an alternative, and she kind of painted this picture of the parent and the staff and faculty of the school as being sort of detectives, which was a nice twist on the “additional responsibilities” that some people see educators needing to take on in a trauma-informed approach to education, but seeing them as detectives who are solving a puzzle together sounded both human and exciting. And then Emily Meeks and Taneesha Thomas of Focused Minds Education Group, mentioned to us a few times that they had students in their classes where they were really paying attention in a very human way who would call them aunty or mama, and put this very emotionally-laden title on their teachers, who clearly meant more to them than just someone who taught them content, they are someone who really cared for them and filled a very important role in their lives.

And then finally, Beverly Doyle said—she’s at Creighton University, she’s on faculty there for over 40 years—and she said, it’d be really great if we can provide this kind of sabbatical for our teachers, that faculty members get a universities where they get time to step back and really look at the work that they’re doing, maybe do a bit of research, kind of switch some of their practice, take a closer to look at some of the successes and maybe failures that they’ve had in the past and re-evaluate where they wanna go in the future. And it sounds like these even 10-minute breaks from class can be like this micro-sabbatical where they can just take a moment to figure out what’s going on. I know there was a lot of connections all at once, but just… It seems like there’s a lot of common observations and common recommendations among the people that we’ve been speaking to, and we’re very fortunate to be able to have wide-ranging conversations like that…

Mariah

I love those examples. The sabbatical for teachers. Right, and as you ticked them off, my mind immediately went to, Well, we need… All of these educators and parents who know where there are now proxy educators, we need them to be well… Or those things won’t happen. They can’t be detectives and figure out what exactly this student is having a challenge, needs, unless they themselves are coming from a place of inquiry and they themselves feel like they’re heard. There’s a lot of some brain science behind can we be present and listen and how were we responding to things and adverse child experiences change how our brains operate, and one of the reasons we really focus on staff is also understanding that many of them… Most of them, knowing the percentages, have had their own adverse childhood experiences and bring a lot themselves with them, and we know educators are carrying people… It’s a caring profession. And so, empathy usually run strong in the people that are in the school building day-to-day, and we need to foster that and encourage that without the burnout, because they can be re-triggered. There can be vicarious trauma that they experience when they’re dealing with whatever is coming into the school building every day, so they need to be well, and that’s really what a lot of the resources we put out there is…It’s a bit cliche, but put your oxygen mask on first. 

I don’t love that analogy actually, when people say it, I kind of have a smile ’cause I appreciate that it’s an attempt, but I I like to say, What is the airplane you’re in, does that airplane that you’re in allow you to put your oxygen mask on first? Because it’s not something that you just need to do. Did someone give the instructions ahead of time at the beginning of the flight, is the oxygen mask come down, does it fit? Does oxygen actually come out of it, we need to take that back level, it is not your job. Take care ourselves, the systems were in need to allow us the space and give us the resources to take care of ourselves.

Patrick

This is very interesting, and Tom and I’ve had this conversation quite a bit. Which is resilience almost seems in some contexts, like it’s asking people who are already overwhelmed to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and solve problems that are not individual, but are systematic and need policy solutions rather than individual solutions. Am I looking to… Am I taking two large of a leap there?

Mariah

No, that is the leap we need to take. Especially now, in this really stressful time for educators, they’re being villainized in some situations, and it just breaks my heart to see that they are all trying their very best and they are being asked to do the impossible, and they’re trying and achieving a lot, and yet still everyone is always asking for more, so what is the system that they are in? And let’s go up a few levels and figure out what policies we can put into place, and we’ve seen big ones, small ones… One I hadn’t even thought of, that is a small example, but just… I think of often is when there is a tragedy at school, a student passes away for any reason, or now that we know, COVID cases are very high and many school communities have been hit where there are… The school or my seven-year-old daughter goes, multiple parents have passed away from COVID. When those things happen, do educators have the opportunity to do have some bereavement to themselves and take a day, oftentimes, these are their own students or the families they were close to, is anyone letting them grieve? And there are actually districts that have put some sort of staff of bereavement or brief policy in place that allows in that space because they’re going to have to go back to the classroom and look at the empty seat or address the fact that multiple parents may have passed away of their students, and they are doing their best and they need to address that, but is anyone allowing them to grieve before they go, and it may be a model for everybody else? That’s a small thing that could have a big impact if that system is in place is a policy that encourages that process that we we all need to go through. 

Tom

You’re really pointing out something that people often forget that teachers have emotions, essentially, that teaching is a profession that takes a tremendous amount of emotion, and that often it can be very negative from secondary stress or just because it can be a very thankless job, so it’s nice to hear that recognition.

Mariah

Yeah, and one of the reasons that Thriving Schools exist is because we at Kaiser, we have over 12 million members, and we realized some time ago that 20% or one in five our members is in a school environment all day… Many of those are educators, some of those, of course, are young members that are elementary age all the way through high school, etcetera. When we realize there’s no other place where 20% of our members are all day long, and a lot of these are teachers… We need to make sure that environment that is so critical is as healthy as it can be for everybody.

Patrick

Yeah, I don’t know if you’re familiar with the anonymous message board called an anonymous teacher speaks. Is this familiar to you? 

Mariah

No. 

Patrick

It’s remarkable. I got started early on in the pandemic, but it is a Padlet board where anyone who is an educator is invited to anonymously submit a little card with what they’re going through right now. I’m looking at it right now, and I just wanna read you some of the things that they say, I’m just the titles on it says, it’s just too much, another says Empty empathy. Another one says, The teachers aren’t all right. In-person learning since October, one person says, I lost my boyfriend to COVID. district lies, not prepared, I’m not a hero. And it goes on and on and on for an endless scroll of people crying out anonymously for help, and some are sad, some are angry, some are resigned, some are hopeful. I don’t wanna discount the optimism on the board either, but it is… I spend maybe two or three hours one day just reading all of these things, and you really get a sense of just what people are going through, and there’s blame, there’s a lot of people take responsibility, there’s a lot of guilt, but it really does give you a sense of the struggle that this pandemic has brought on, and not just the pandemic, but also a lot of the civil unrest that we saw this year as a result of police killings, a lot of that shows up on the board as well.

Mariah

Yeah, that’s interesting. And also just to acknowledge things were not all right necessarily before the pandemic with all educators, and this is just exacerbated now what is already out there, and I think given what you just mentioned, this pandemic has only revealed all of the cracks in the systems and we thought was a foundation, both the racism that is built into the school system, it is laid bare, the way that it’s laid bare, the racism in the communities we live in. So a lot of the work we were doing started before they actually pretty much all of it started before the pandemic, and we were very concerned about educator Mental Health in 2015, and we’ve created a lot of things for them, and I know, fortunately, they’re incredibly relevant, but sadly, they’re even more relevant because we’ve only seen mental health concerns increase for everybody, as you’re saying at the top of our time together. It’s very concerning, and actually the statistics that we use, some of them are pre-pandemic and they’re still shocking, and they’re probably going to worsen or at least stay the same. One of the numbers that go into this focus on educators and teachers, but all educators, as I mentioned, it isn’t just people that are teaching in the classroom is that 45% of teachers left the profession within their first five years, like think about that. Those are people that have the passion and got the degree and went through the training and made it to the classroom and something about that classroom or what they were faced with made them change professions. It’s a tragedy. 

Tom

We often hear that figure about people who leave in the first 5 years but I think that actually veteran teachers are sort of forgotten. There’s a lot of burn out towards the end of the career, and even if it doesn’t be leaving the career, it can mean disengaging from the classroom, that’s something that I hope burnout is something that affects teachers at all stages of their career. 

Patrick

I’m wondering too, before the pandemic, we have the opportunity to go to a lot of conferences where both administrators and teachers were in attendance, and some of these were conferences that dealt with multi-tiered systems of support or cognitive behavioral techniques or similar topics. And it was kind of remarkable to see the amount of people who were administrators who say, This is all great, this information is fantastic, but there’s no way that I’m gonna be able to close the gap between the theory and the enthusiasm that I see here, and some of the teachers in my district who are beyond… I don’t wanna say beyond saving, but sort of beyond being enthusiastic or giving it another shot, they’re just… They’re at the end of their ropes, so I know that’s a struggle that many, many districts deal with, at many, many schools deal with… What does the research or your experience say about how we close that gap between these great resources and like you said, the most important part, which is the execution of these ideas in practice.

Mariah

One of the things that we’ve really seen be valuable is going back to basics and 101, which of course educators can respect and showing the science behind what students go through, what maybe you went through or are going through, and how that affects your brain and how you’re responding, because when you see that, your rational brain turns off under stress, that it helps understand that sometimes my rational brain is turning off when I’m stressed, and this is probably often times happening with children whose brains are still under development, and they go into the fight-flight-freeze mode. When there is what might be viewed isn’t an older system in place, and people want more traditional forms of punishment when you actually show the science and the facts behind why that isn’t what’s actually happening, what you see in the face of things is not what’s happening underneath, what’s happening in your students bodies and in your own body. It’s really hard to go back to the system you use before when you understand the science behind it, so we’ve seen that be pretty powerful.

Patrick

So we talked already about the resilience and school environments RISE resources that you make available. You also do a lot of work with Discovery Education. Can you tell us about that?

Mariah

Yeah, we’re really excited to have created some modules with Discovery Education, that’s the education arm of the Discovery Channel, and they already have relationships with, I think about 60% districts in the country, so they have a wonderful wide reach and they’re well-respected. And we have launched two of four modules, we have two more coming in the next month or so, and these are again, free, available to all, you do not need to have a Discovery Education partnership in your district. Anyone can create an account and go in and access… These are e-learning modules, they’re aimed at the adults that support kids, so of course teachers, but as I mentioned, school leadership, nutrition services staff, aides, everybody can go in and access these and learn about this work we’re doing, and what they cover is the basics of trauma-informed responses and trauma-informed care, which I know you in this podcast are well well aware of, and really that’s understanding the science of ACEs and adverse childhood experiences, how to respond in a way that benefits everybody. So the first module is specifically trauma-informed care, and immediately includes a lot of educator well-being content, and the first one that’s available and for free to everybody. The second one, we immediately moved over to cultural humility and equity because these are inextricably linked. Sometimes racist systems that we live in affect how students are treated, how responses happen, we all bring our own implicit bias to things, so the second module immediately goes to working towards equity as you do trauma-informed work, those two are available now to everybody, and we have two more coming that get fairly science-y into the practice of actually executing this in your school, in your day-to-day classroom, Zoom room, school building. Those two are on trauma-informed care and the educational environment, and then transforming into a resilient school. They’ll be available by March. So those are all available. The first two are now, it’s at readysetrisemodules.com that you could either just Google Discovery Education and Kaiser Permanente day. I’m sure you can link to those in the show notes, but they’re very excited, they’re interactive, their stored videos, and we are seeing some schools and districts use them and encourage their staff to do them as part of their professional learning opportunities and professional development, because they’re doing at their own pace.

Patrick

Yeah, we’ll definitely link to those in the show notes that people can get access to them easily. We end our program each time with the same question, which is a bit more light-hearted, I hope, but we are hopefully in the planing days of the coronavirus pandemic, maybe waning months. Fingers crossed. The case rates in California are looking really good. It doesn’t mean, stop being vigilant, but if there’s at least a liter of hope on the horizon, so what’s the first thing that you’re going to do when we get this sort of all clear? For sure?

Mariah

Oh man. Well, two things jumped right to mind, the first immediate thing is just have friends over for a big, wonderful dinner. I love to cook for people. I have been cooking for my family every day, but it’s not quite the same as planning a wonderful meal, appetizers and a wonderful dessert and just have friends over and linger and enjoy that, so I look forward to doing that again ’cause I really get joy from that. And secondly, book travel to go see… To go see family. I married someone when I was saying the Peace Corps from the Caribbean, and we’ve not been able to go back. It’s the longest stretch we’ve been without seeing family there, so… Yeah, pretty cliche, but a lot of people are looking forward to seeing friends and traveling. Myself included.

Tom

That’s been the most common answer, I think.

Patrick

Yeah, absolutely, yeah. And that’s all… We’re all hungry for it. Seeing loved-ones. Well, Maria, thank you so much for joining us, this has really been insightful conversation, and thanks for your time and maybe we can do it again.

Mariah

Great, well, thank you for having me, it’s been a pleasure.

Tom

Yes, thanks very much.

Name Your Price

By Patrick York

Much has changed at SHARE over the past year.

We’re under new ownership (Patrick and Tom now own the platform), we’ve started a podcast with some wonderful guests, we’ve changed the meaning of our acronym (which now stands for Stories of Humanity and Resourcefulness in Education) and we have continued to add courses to the platform (admittedly at a slower rate than we would like to). But the biggest change just happened this week:

As of now, all courses on SHARE allow you to name your own price, even if that price is $0.

Tom and I decided to do this because we wanted as many educators as possible to have access.

Nothing about the content has changed, and there are no tricks, “in-app” purchases, or gates. If you feel like you want to contribute to our operations by paying more than $0, that’s up to you, but you’re under no obligation.

We’re hoping to continue improving the platform, adding courses, and working with new subject matter experts as often as possible, so each dollar paid toward a course helps us continue to make SHARE a place where educators can get inspiration and ideas that help them maintain safe, productive classrooms.

Thanks for coming, and we hope you find something of value.

-Patrick + Tom