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Regulation and Relationships: Advocacy in Action
To say this year has been anything but easy would be a huge understatement. I began working in the mental health and educational realm in 2003, and this year feels like one of the hardest years professionally I have ever experienced. I am seeing teachers experience more burnout and vicarious trauma in our first 2 months compared to an entire school year. I am seeing seasoned mental health providers feeling an overwhelming sense of powerlessness and guilt for not being able to find solutions.
This year is the perfect storm for creating a dysregulated system if schools and districts are not careful. Most of us work within educational systems that are obsessed with the “learning loss” our students experienced last year. That fixation is overpowering the subtle messages we are receiving that social–emotional learning must come first. We are reaping the consequences from years of siloing academics and social–emotional learning, as if they don’t exist together and are interconnected.
Watching our systems, teachers, and students struggle has been challenging. While I was acutely aware that my words might not create a huge echo, I needed to share my thoughts. I needed our leaders to hear that the solution is staring us in the face and yet we continue to ignore the fact that we have neuroscience on our side and we should lean into what we know about how the brain works.
I wrote this letter as an attempt to impact systems change and to shed light on the reality that if we don’t pivot soon, our inaction will cause pervasive and long lasting damage to the future of education.
September 24, 2021
Dear District and Community Leaders,
My name is Jessica Pfeiffer and I am Team Lead of the district’s Neurosequential Model Team. In November 2017, the district began embarking on a journey to become a trauma-informed school district. We understand that by maintaining a developmentally relevant and biologically sensitive lens, we are, in turn, emphasizing the importance of regulation and relationships across our district. First and foremost, all adults who serve our students need to be regulated in order to be attentive to the needs of their students and respond accordingly, both behaviorally and academically. Secondly, a dysregulated student cannot learn. By focusing on regulation and relationships, we are focusing on fostering a rigorous academic setting for all students, one that is equitable and obtainable.
We are currently in the midst of witnessing what happens when we don’t prioritize regulation for staff and students who are living through an adverse experience. The irony in all of this is that by pushing forward with our attempt to accelerate learning, we will in turn see a larger learning loss than we thought possible at the end of this year and into next year. There is no shortcut to regulation, and there is no shortcut to establishing a strong relational foundation with students and staff. These two are beyond essential for any student to engage in the cycle of learning and get to a place where curiosity is safe again.
As a district cohort, we represent a multidisciplinary team with over 120 staff certified in the Neurosequential Model. In our last meeting dated September 13, 2021, the district cohort discussed the concerns that staff are expressing in their buildings as a result of mixed messages from the administration. The message from the district to building staff has been around the importance of supporting student and staff social–emotional learning, yet the district is not supporting the space, time, and opportunity to engage in mental health practices as a result of the academic prioritization of the district’s goal of “5 years’ growth in 3 years’ time.”
We are requesting that our district begin leaning heavily into neuroscience and what we know to be true about the nature of learning and what is required. We want nothing more than to see our students and staff succeed and to be able to attune and attend to their needs in a holistic manner. This district has the privilege of serving a diverse group of students and families who bring so many wonderful stories and experiences, and we want to strive to be one of those wonderful experiences for them during this time.
We are asking the leadership of our district to prioritize the following in order to best support the academic, social, and emotional needs of our students and staff—it is the only way to achieve the district’s goal of “5 in 3.”
- Time given for staff to truly connect with students in a meaningful way and build the relationships necessary for learning to take place. This entails having a district-wide cohesive message that provides clear space for teachers to prioritize this without worry of academic pressures. This also includes the expectation that district leaders (community and building) are displaying an ability to attune to our teachers and use the time allotted for professional development in an effective and appropriate manner to address the social and emotional data that directly affects the academic functioning of our students. Time also needs to be given for students to connect with one another in a meaningful way to create a positive learning environment.
- Realistic academic expectations and structure. This entails examining time expected for students to engage in academic content and the amount of time allotted to provide short doses of developmentally appropriate instruction. This also involves time and prioritization for teachers to create instructional supports for students that doesn’t add more to their plate, but supports their own regulation and retains our teachers.
- Time and resources to support the regulation of students and staff. This entails examining the time we provide students to be at recess and engage in other regulatory opportunities. This also includes acknowledging students’ developmental functioning and what they actually need to be successful. For example, while a student may be in second grade, they may not be functioning at a second grade level in all areas. A large majority of our students are in no way showing age-typical social, emotional, behavioral, or academic skills. It’s imperative that we meet them where they are functioning, not where we expect them to be in a typical school year.
Please understand that this is not an exhaustive list, and overall it is recommended that district leaders lean into the expertise of district providers and resources. The reality is, if we do not pivot our priorities now, we will continue to lose highly qualified staff and have a significant impact on student academic outcomes. We appreciate your time and know, along with all of us, that you strive to keep student’s interests at the forefront of your decision making. Do not hesitate to reach out with any questions.
Jessica Pfeiffer, LCSW, SSW, PsyD Candidate
ChildTrauma Academy Neurosequential Model in Education Fellow
I do not want to minimize that advocacy has an innate level of vulnerability that exists because of the power differential between us and the system we work in. That being said, it’s times like these that our voice matters. Our ability to speak up for our students, teachers, and community matters. We all have specific areas of expertise and training that can truly make a difference if we share our voice and advocate for change.
Here are a few resources I have found helpful:
NASP also has resources on a variety of subjects to suport your expertise and aid in your advocacy. You can find NASP's research center here, their COVID-19 resources here, and their communications strategies and resources here.