By Ingrid Padgett, Communications and Program Strategist, New England Mental Health Technology Transfer Center
Tanya Bulls, LCSW, is a resourceful educator who brings over 20 years of experience in social work to her role as Dean of Students at South Side School and Stafford Elementary School in Bristol Public Schools (Bristol, CT). Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Tanya found herself in a new district supporting two schools. She knew her work would require patience, diligence, and intentional efforts to develop relationships with students, families, and staff at each school.
Bridging the gap would require a policy review, enhanced engagement activities, and consideration of how best to position herself to empower the school communities she supports through trauma-informed practices.
Building Up-and-Out Requires A Strong Foundation
The National Education Association recently reported, unions and districts across the country are working together to address the epidemic of trauma in schools with students’ and educators’ needs in mind. They are collaborating to transform schools into trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive environments, taking deliberate steps to become safe havens for every student and safe working environments for every educator (NEA, 2022 ). With this awareness and applying the learnings she gained as a member of the Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC), Tanya’s first step was to review the foundational principles and values of the learning communities she joined to ensure each school offered a climate where students and educators have a sense of safety and are confident in their ability to learn, grow, and connect with others in a positive manner. The C-TLC’s efforts focus on cultivating compassionate school communities that buffer against the negative effects of trauma, build resilience for all students, and provide stress-relief and enhanced well-being for teachers and other school personnel, as well as students.
Using a trauma-sensitive focused lens, Tanya began with a review of the policies, processes, and procedures of the two schools in her portfolio. In her words, "values form the foundation for your expectations, actions, and performance." Armed with this tenet, she began to review districtwide policies, analyze the student handbook at each of the schools she supports to offer recommendations on ways to infuse restorative practices, and plan for ways to utilize staff and school resources to better support students and connect needed resources to each community. These foundational efforts would prove to be instrumental in Tanya’s efforts to bridge the gap with programming focused on interventions that enhance school culture and prepare educators to extend trauma-skilled practices.
With a policy review under her belt, Tanya turned her attention to ways to engage with staff, students, families, and stakeholders at all levels. She quickly realized that while her job functions were integral to daily school activities, like her role as attendance chair and her leadership as a district-level Parent Management Trainer (PMT), it would take time to build authentic, trusting relationships with students and families, staff, and other stakeholders. Her relationship building efforts would be more difficult, too, given the COVID-19 pandemic and the need to conduct school activities across varying learning environments, e.g., virtual, in-person, or hybrid.
Leading with positivity, Tanya began considering some of the interesting technology trends that emerged during the pandemic and ways to offer online strategies to engage and connect with parents. She began to pivot toward the use of technology to bring classroom activities, and the related connections to the larger school community, into homes using resources like, Parent Square—a communication platform that unifies all parent and guardian communication from the district, schools, classrooms and school activity groups under one umbrella. Using this tool, she began to post pictures of what was going on in classrooms and provided parents with opportunities to get into classrooms, virtually, to see the learning and get to know students and teachers. Tanya also developed a series of parent surveys to garner feedback on family needs, expectations, and to learn what kinds of updates would help to ease the concerns, and in some cases, the anxiety of students and parents around the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the academic progress and social emotional growth and development of students. Through these outreach and engagement efforts, she confirmed what she expected; in short, what families and students wanted the most were ways to connect and engage with the extended school community.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, many children and students struggle with mental health challenges that impact their full access to and participation in learning, and these challenges are often misunderstood and can lead to behaviors that are inconsistent with school or program expectations. The COVID-19 global pandemic intensified these challenges, accelerating the need to provide school-based mental health support and leverage our accumulated knowledge about how to provide nurturing educational environments to meet the needs of our nation’s youth (March 2022).
In a recent parent survey highlighted in the Journal of Family Issues (March 2022), more than half of survey respondents reported,
difficulty and stress over maintaining or creating structure and routines (70.1%),
planning educational activities (61.9%), and
planning physical activities (60.3%) for their children at home.
These were all areas that Tanya considered in creating safe spaces, places, and activities—in-person and/or virtually for school staff, students, and families. Using the concepts of mindfulness and self-care as entry points, she began to offer, “Wellness Wednesday” activities, i.e., opportunities for aerial yoga, painting, and outdoor games. She also used connectors like food and music to introduce school-sponsored dinner and/or snack activities, hosted outdoors to minimize COVID-19 transmission concerns, but designed to offer spaces for safe connections between students, families, and staff. Ass a value-added option, Tanya “stepped up to the mic,” literally, and asked principals at her schools to allow her to offer words of encouragement as a part of morning announcements. Tanya used these opportunities to hone-in on the power of positivity and the importance of changing one’s mindset as a way of driving the attainment of academic and personal goals. She took that concept one step further by opening her doors to anyone who wanted to review their academic or personal goals with her, talk about their progress, and work on focusing less on mistakes and more on approaching all activities with a positive mindset and a commitment to bringing one’s best self to all endeavors. These community-building efforts also helped Tanya in becoming a vibrant and vital member of the team as a new member of two learning communities.
Tanya envisions a compassionate school/district where staff resources are used wisely, and collaborative partners and stakeholders are seen as essential to an early intervention to prevention continuum that connects students, families, and staff to wraparound mental health supports and community resources.
Her community-building engagement strategies across the schools in her portfolio offer practical ways to engage everyone in the school building through trauma-informed practices.
As she works to ensure program fidelity across the schools she supports, she is leaning into ways to bring more services to those learning communities. Right now, she is developing partnerships that will offer an array of wraparound services through collaborations with healthcare centers, community-based organizations, and mental and behavioral health agencies. During the 2022-2023 school year, she is prioritizing emergency support for families in urgent need, case management service coordination, counseling (individual, family, group, youth, and vocational), and crisis care and outreach.
The New England MHTTC’s School Mental Health Initiative works with clinicians, educators, administrators, advocates, youth, families, and others to promote resilience and support the mental health of youth across a variety of settings. Our Healthcare workers and Educators Addressing and Reducing Trauma (HEART) Collective was specifically convened to enhance collaborations between community health centers, mental and behavioral health agencies, or community-based organizations and schools to support positive mental health and well-being for youth in a school-based setting. If you are looking for ways to develop collaborations around comprehensive school mental health supports, visit our HEART Collective website for resources on the impact of childhood-trauma and ways to build the critical collaborations needed to create compassionate school communities. Access tip sheets, toolkits, and a wealth of resources around trauma-skilled, recovery-oriented school mental health practices, including:
Comprehensive school mental health
Mental Health Supports
Voice and Engagement
References National Education Association. (2022). Trauma-Informed Schools.
Parent Management Training Institute Treating Children with ADHD, Anxiety, and Behavioral Challenges. (2022). Parent Management Training (PMT).
Parent Square. (2022) Unify All School-Home Communications.
Chen CY-C, Byrne E, Vélez T. (2022). Impact of the 2020 pandemic of COVID-19 on families with school-aged children in the United States: Roles of income level and race. Journal of Family Issues, 43(3), 719-740. DOI:10.1177/0192513X21994153