Leveraging This Moment to Improve Schools and Systems Through the Lenses of SEL, Trauma-Informed Practices, and Anti-Racist Education
Leonard Burton: Welcome to this discussion, sponsored by the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd. We’ll be talking about improving schools and school systems through the lenses of social and emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and anti-racism. I’m Leonard Burton, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Social Policy, headquartered in Washington, D.C. We work on a range of social issues around the country and do a lot of work in child welfare and juvenile justice.
We have, today, with us a great panel of people who are going to share their thoughts and their expertise. Our first panelist that we have today is Mary Crnobori. Mary is the coordinator of Trauma-Informed Schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools. She leads a systemwide effort to implement trauma-informed practices in schools and works collaboratively across the districts, departments, and with the community.
Nate Hilliard is the training and program replication manager for the Wyman Center in St. Louis, Missouri. He provides trainings and technical assistance across the country, with a key focus on engaging young people in improvement processes.
And, last but not least, is Lisa Thurau. Lisa is the founder and executive director of Strategies for Youth, a national policy and training organization dedicated to improving police-youth interactions and reducing disproportionate minority contact with law enforcement.
So, welcome, everybody. Can you say hello?
Lisa Thurau: Hello.
Mary Crnobori: Hello, everyone.
Nate Hilliard: Thank you so much for having us. Hello.
Leonard Burton: Hey, glad to have you all. So, let’s have a conversation today. Let’s talk about these important issues. School improvement is always a hot topic for public discourse. So, when we think about the current state of affairs in this country, it’s imperative that we examine school improvement through the lenses of social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practice, and anti-racism. All too often, we see instances about stories of melanin-enriched students — sometimes we call them people of color — how they experience disproportionate and unfair discipline, which often connects them to the school-to-prison pipeline that can have other devastating and long-term effects.
What we know about systems is that systems are perfectly designed to get the results that it achieves. In other words, intended and unintended consequences are designed into systems. So, to start our discussion out, allow me to cite a few examples of disparate treatment that are too commonplace across the country.
February 27th, Florida; six-year-old girl threw a tantrum in school. Now, she’s sitting calmly in an office, having a book read to her. Someone in the school calls local law enforcement. The six-year-old is handcuffed, arrested, and begging for help from the school official and mercy from the law enforcement person. She’s then transported to detention in the back of a squad car. That’s February 27th of 2020.
August 27th, Colorado. This is just recently. School sends law enforcement to the home of a 12-year-old Black boy with ADHD because he’s playing with a neon green and black toy gun during a virtual learning class on the third day of distance learning for the school system. This is after the teacher emailed the mother and the mother attested that it was a toy gun and that she would talk to her child about it. But, yet, he was still suspended from school for five days. I’m really curious — how do you suspend a kid from school for five days in a distant learning environment?
September 11th, in Illinois. A feelings chart, designed to help children recognize various social-emotional zones, used white faces to depict ready-to-learn and sad, but Black faces to portray losing control and out-of-control. So, what I tried to do here is to give us some examples of social-emotional learning, anti-racism work that needs to occur, and trauma-informed practices. So, for all the panelists, when you see and hear stories like this, what goes through your mind and what are you thinking?
Mary Crnobori: Well, I don’t mind starting there, Leonard. I find those illustrations that you just shared to be completely egregious and extreme examples of a far more prevalent root issue in our schools today. Our schools have really become places that are fixed with this really heavy-handed control and compliance mindset. So that these control- and compliance-driven settings that really control everything that a child does, says, how they move, how they speak or don’t speak, diminishes student voice and student autonomy.
So these settings really just don’t support social-emotional health. They certainly don’t support trauma-informed or social-emotional learning approaches. And, in fact, they really don’t give kids the skills that they need to become independent, productive members of their communities, their societies, and, of course, leaders.
And, in fact, this is really fairly damaging for all students because it can undermine healthy social-emotional development. But especially when we’re dealing with kids, which is very, very prevalent — kids with more than their fair share of toxic stress or trauma — it is not addressing the root of the issues, why behaviors may present themselves. Which is not because there’s something wrong with our kids; in fact, our kids are not broken at all. It’s our structures, our systems, or perhaps the settings adults are providing that are broken.
Leonard Burton: Thank you so much, Mary, that is very helpful. Nate, I want to toss this to you because there were several things that Mary said that, as I think about some of the work that you’re involved in, Mary talked about diminishing student voice, she talked about this notion of social control, and oftentimes in schools — and not just schools, but where adults interact with young people, it is to make adults comfortable in what their world is, as opposed to supporting the healthy development of young people. So, can you talk about, from the work that you do and the vantage point that you sit on, how you empower and help with youth voice, and also addressing those three examples that we tossed out?
Nate Hilliard: When I think about how we support our young people in that realm of control that Mary described, if I’m only attempting to get a young person to stop a behavior or to end a practice, I’m not doing anything to support that young person’s long-term development, long-term wellness, and their ability to manage their emotions, to be self-aware, to recognize how they engage with other individuals.
So, while certainly, there may be times where we need to stop a specific behavior because a young person is at risk or is putting others at risk, most of the time we should be spending our time in that proactive and preventative practice to support those social-emotional development skills that our young people will need not just to succeed in the classroom, but to succeed in everything that they’re going to do in life. Whether that is healthy relationship development, whether that is finding a career and life path that they are engaged with in their own well-being, and whether that is making their own decisions for themselves and for their communities in the future.
It’s not enough for me just to tell a young person to calm down or to sit still. If I don’t have, as a young person, the coping skills and the strategies as well as the belief that I can regulate my emotions and I can ask for support, all that’s going to do is further frustrate me because you’re demanding that I do something that I don’t know how to do. So we need to be proactive in supporting young people’s social-emotional awareness as well as their skill development so that they can self-regulate, so as the adults, we can meet them where they are.
Leonard Burton: Thank you so much, Nate. That’s very helpful. And as you talk about this self-regulation, you talked about self-regulation of young people, and there’s also the self-regulation that adults need. Lisa, I want to toss that over to you. Two of these examples, there was a direct interaction with law enforcement with these young people, with children. And I know that’s your area of expertise, working with school-based law enforcement officers. Talk about your experiences here and your reaction to those examples that we shared.
Lisa Thurau: Well, my reaction to those kinds of examples, which I see at least weekly and sometimes daily, is great shame. My first question is: Where is the humanity and what is the purpose of this? Nothing has changed for me in the last 20 years about asking that question. I think what I have noticed is that schools have become “gated” communities and we have a very narrow bandwidth for some members of our community about what is tolerable behavior. And we have a really long-term addiction to punishment and exclusion, which is completely antithetical to youth development.
It also fosters, and I think this is something Mary was getting at, too, this notion that compliance and being orderly is more important than justice. And when you deal with junior high and high school students, that gets harder and harder for them to stomach and provokes more and more resistance from them. Especially in a culture where we really push freedom, where we push the belief that we have rights, and where we push through vast array of rhetoric the notion that everyone is entitled to respect and has the right to ask why, when in fact, many of the adults in these systems just want compliance and won’t tolerate anything else.
And in a country where, increasingly, children are not all right — let’s remember, the poorest paid people in America are women and they’re raising the majority of children in America at levels that are slightly above poverty in contexts of great toxic insecurity and anxiety — and we’re saying, “Too bad. We don’t care what your problem is, you have to behave.” This leads to marginalizations of large segments of our most vulnerable populations, and no one should be surprised. I think that was the intent. And now, instead of saying public education exists to serve everyone, we’ve really insidiously flipped that and said, “You have to deserve it to be here because you can’t disturb anyone else if you want this.”
Leonard Burton: Wow, thank you. Thank you for sharing those stories. That leads me to this next series of questions here. I have a statement and then a couple of questions. Students and adults, teachers, administrators, support staff, and security, they all bring to school with them biases and learnings about themselves and each other, and stressors from their own environments. So, how do you best engage adults and youth about bias and equity and justice in order to make a healthy environment for learning for students? Mary, you look like you want to jump at that.
Mary Crnobori: Sure, I’d love to jump in. I think that mindset, of course, is critically important when it comes to adults. How do they view the students who are coming into their classrooms? What do they expect of our youth? Do they expect that they’re going to excel, that they’re going to behave well and have hopes and dreams and goals that are aligned with what educators are trying to teach? Or is bias or racism and classism really coming into play? I think that’s really important.
But for kids, they really learn very, very early whether school is a place where they belong. And I’m talking school entry — kindergarten, first grade — I think that really gets established. Is a love for learning instilled? Is school a place where they feel included, wanted, loved, appreciated, valued?
Leonard Burton: Lisa, Nate, you guys want to take a crack at this?
Nate Hilliard: I think that what Mary is saying is very much correct. We know that we all have some of those implicit biases within us. And being aware of those and being able to work through and process through those which are a negative towards ourselves and towards others as people is really essential to creating an educational environment, as well as a community where people really do belong and where people really may be accepted for who they are and as they are. From our perspective, that always starts with the training and the professional development that we support adults with, whether those are teachers and administrators, whether those are law enforcement officers, whether those are public health associates, everybody who engages with young people. It’s not just in a classroom that this happens.
But how do we train folks to understand what biases they may be carrying, how to check those biases so that they can see young people for the strengths and the assets that those youth have to bring to our shared experiences, to our communities, to our schools? Rather than relying back on “I need to be in control, I need to be the authority,” how do I diminish the humanness of this young person to assert my own position, my own safety, security, and comfort, for that matter?
Leonard Burton: Thank you, Nate, that’s very powerful. I saw you lean in, Lisa.
Lisa Thurau: I have just come to the point where if people do not have a developmentally appropriate trauma-informed understanding of kids, I don’t want them really working with kids. Because if they do, their expectations would be aligned to understanding the kid’s stage of development and how the context in which that child has grown affected their development.
The dirty secret is, we talk a good game in America — kids are our future, but it’s only certain kids and it’s only when they behave a certain way. And we don’t view this for everybody; in fact, we have a very narrow bandwidth of acceptance for non-conforming behaviors. It’s greater than it ever was, the bandwidth, but it’s still pretty narrow when you look at the scheme of outcomes.
Leonard Burton: Nate and Mary, I know that both of you work with multiple public agencies and community-based organizations. When we talk about engaging in a cross-sector collaborative approach, including with community members, what does that look like and how can a shift in power approach be applied?
Mary Crnobori: You know, I think that shared participation and power is absolutely critical. In fact, if you’re not asking the community what they need and engaging them and sharing power, then it’s simply not collective impact. We also must then act accordingly. I think resource allocation also plays a role in this. We all probably, in our systems, we certainly have a long history of doing a lot of high-level dialogue and reimagining, but we don’t necessarily allocate the priorities that we reimagine with shifts in policy and certainly not dollars. So, I think that budget is policy. And even if we have high-level conversations and shifts in policies, if we don’t have budget that supports that, we’re not going to get too far.
Nate Hilliard: Also, the importance of bringing in young people as stakeholders. So, I love the phrase, “No decision about me, without me.” Making sure that we are engaging our young people in their own educational development, in their own personal growth. That we are communicating with them and with their families to ensure that we are meeting their wants and their needs. That part of taking down these systems or dismantling systems or rebuilding systems is also engaging those young people in that process, to have them part of this. So, how do we bring them into all of these conversations? How do we make sure that we’re following their lead or that we are standing beside them, not the ones who are saying, “This is what is good for you. This is what you need”? We need to do a lot more listening before we do a lot of that engagement and a lot of that attempted rebuilding.
Leonard Burton: Nate, it reminds me, I witnessed you do a training with St. Louis City Police Department a couple years ago on the Youth Thrive training curriculum. And you brought in…tell the audience about how and why you brought young people in as a part of that training.
Nate Hilliard: So in a three-day training, our young people were there as that culmination experience for our officers, to be able to participate and specifically to lead officers through a structured analysis and workshop time of developing how do we revisit and how do we rebuild relationships between young people and law enforcement. So, not for our officers to say, “This is what you young people need to do when you see us coming, or this is how you need to treat us,” but for our young people to be able to say, “We’re citizens, too. We matter. And if you care about what you’re saying in building these relationships and engaging with us, here’s how we need to do it so that we can see each other as people, so that we have the ability to listen and respond to what one another are saying, and so we can build this model of community policing. So we can build this model of engagement where we feel that you are an ally and an asset, and we feel that you are part of our community.”
Leonard Burton: Go ahead, Lisa.
Lisa Thurau: We’ve done a similar thing in our Policing the Teen Brain trainings, which was originally created for patrol officers and then we revised it and made another version for school resource officers. Before we do a training, we typically conduct an assessment where we interview young people and other juvenile justice system stakeholders and law enforcement about how they see each other and what they want from each other and where the conflict tends to happen. We use those assessments to start the training and reflect what we’re hearing. And I remember in one city a kid said, “I always feel like I’ve got a target on my back,” and when you looked at the language the officers used and you put them side-by-side, you were saying, “Well, you can see why this young 15-year-old boy might have said that, right?”
But at the end of the training, we also bring it in and what we do is we ask two officers who have attended the training to act like they have their Strategies for Youth on, and two to act like they never took the training. And we have a group of young people, who we pay to participate in the training, act improvisationally in skits. And it’s always the same kind of neutral, ambiguous situation. There’s a call for service; there’s a group of kids in front of a CVS. And they go, step-by-step, explaining how they feel, and this is when law enforcement routinely tells us, “This is when the light bulb went off for me because I started to see it from their perspective.”
Leonard Burton: Yeah. Thank you, Lisa. That’s why it’s so important to have an understanding of the knowledge of adolescent development. Adolescence is from 9 to 26 — I mean, that’s a long period. And then when you think about the people in the schools and on patrol, how young are your teachers? You have some teachers and some officers who are still in that brain development window, where self-regulation, they haven’t mastered it themselves. So, it’s incumbent upon school systems and law enforcement agencies to help particularly those people who are in that…their prefrontal cortex is finally being developed. It’s important for them to understand where they are and how to have self-regulation. So, when we talk about social-emotional learning, where is the emotional intelligence that we help support professionals with who have to engage with young people themselves because they are actually young themselves?
Nate Hilliard: That’s why the importance of really understanding that brain development, social-emotional learning as part of our training for whether you are a police officer, a school admin, a teacher, a mental health practitioner, or a young person. But being able to understand when you are moving out of regulation into dysregulation, when you need to be able to say, “Okay, I need to use some of my coping skills and strategies, or when I need to be able to practice my ability to articulate my need to step away from the situation before things escalate.”
Mary Crnobori: And essentially, anytime we’re in a power struggle, if we’re trying to de-escalate, this actually goes against our own natural fight-flight-freeze reflexes. It’s our own natural reflex to be drawn into the storm. I mean, if somebody is coming at me, upset, my first instinct is to be drawn into it and get into this power struggle. So, that’s where your role plays are just so important because de-escalation or remaining calm and professionally detached is not natural for any of us. The adults, too, whether it’s an SRO, or a teacher, or a parent, we, too, are humans and can flip our lids. So, it really requires practice to be able to remain calm and be that regulated adult. Because the ability to stay regulated is important in pretty much every arena that we’re talking about here.
Leonard Burton: So, that leads us to this final question I want to raise. What opportunities are there to leverage the current moment to improve schools and school systems through the lens of social-emotional learning, trauma-informed practices, and anti-racism?
Mary Crnobori: I think, or I know, that human beings have a tremendous capacity for self-healing. Human beings have a tremendous capacity to use the most challenging or adverse circumstances to make greater, more richer ways of life, and make meaning. And, I think, really what I’m trying to get at is that the worst of times can bring out the best in us. And these times are actually a potent impetus for change. We must…I’m imploring all the listeners on this webinar to not waste this opportunity.
I personally am tremendously encouraged. We’ve been doing this Trauma-Informed Schools work for some years. Never before today have we had the buy-in embracing the folks that we’re aiming to reach chomp at the bit for this work.
The last thing I’ll say is that, absolutely, yes, it is a non-negotiable need that we need leadership buy-in. We do need buy-in at the top, but please, please, please, listeners to this, regardless of the role in which you work, the power of grassroots to grasstops. We all have such capacity to make a difference and really change the world in one generation.
Lisa Thurau: I’ve been thinking that this is a time when everything is disrupted, especially in schools, but also in law enforcement, for sure. I think, for the first time, everyone in the United States has been touched by some level of trauma that has been something everyone has been aware of. So maybe you didn’t catch COVID, but maybe someone you know did. Maybe you did not watch something horrifying in the way of brutality towards an unarmed person, but you saw it on television, so you had vicarious trauma.
With that in mind, I think it behooves every school leader and every school superintendent to say, “We have to acknowledge that the circumstances in which children live affect how they’re able to behave and learn.” And if we continue to reject that reality, we’re going to see the crappy outcome some schools see.
To the extent that we can understand that without getting the social-emotional comfort straight first, you can’t have learning, the better off we are. If we understand that that has to come first and that it’s worth spending one month getting that right so minds can be open and comfortable to hearing what the learning is, then we’re all doing better for kids because schools should be havens. Schools should be where you get to grow, not where you’re stomped down or excluded.
Leonard Burton: Beautiful. Thank you, Lisa.
Nate Hilliard: Do you want to just end it right there, Leonard?
Leonard Burton: She could drop the mic on that one, right?
Nate Hilliard: I think there are some real opportunities here, despite many of the issues that we are currently facing. And that disruption really can provide us some great alternatives. So that idea of returning schools to these havens where young people are included is absolutely important, but we also need to think about, what does it look like if it’s not that physical structure?
There are so many of our young people who are remote learning right now, who are asynchronously learning right now. How do we still make sure that they feel engaged? How do we make sure that they feel recognized and heard and understood? I think that is going to be layered into all that work that Lisa just mentioned of making sure that that is first and foremost, that we are supporting young people’s social-emotional learning development, but we’re doing it in their current circumstances and that we are supporting that back towards what the future might be.
In the first few months of what I call “lockdown land,” as we went into confinement and that social physical distancing, there was also a lot of talk about this idea of, “Don’t worry, we’re going to return to normal. We’re going to return to normal.” And I think that can be really dangerous language. We don’t necessarily want to return to normal. We want to go better. We want to make sure that we’re not just going back to a status quo. So as we make these changes in the current year and future, how do we ensure that we’re not just going back to where we were, but that we are forward-looking and that we are progressing in the supports and the developments that we provide to young people, to our teachers and administrators, to our law enforcement officers, and to our communities?
And I think the disruption to the calendar, to the days that our young people have, is that great opportunity to think about what here has been working, who has it been working for, and how do we make sure that whatever we’re doing now and whatever we’re doing next works for everyone?
Leonard Burton: Thank you, all. This was great. On behalf of the Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd, I want to thank each of you for your time and your expertise and shedding some light on what the challenges are, but also what the future can hold, which is so important. Thank you so much and you all have a great day.
Lisa Thurau: Thank you.
Nate Hilliard: Thank you, all.
Mary Crnobori: Thank you so much.