The second part of this 3-part interview with Cynthia Robinson-Rivers about the Whole Child Model addresses some key questions about the engagement of parents and community members and some of the key challenges for implementing the model. Cynthia Robinson-Rivers is the founding principal of the Whole Child Model at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington D.C. Robinson Rivers recently joined Transcend, where she works with schools in Texas, Tennessee and Washington D.C. who are adopting the Whole Child Model. This interview was conducted by Thomas Hatch and students from his School Change class at Teachers College, Columbia University in the fall of 2023. Part 1 focused on the initial development of the Whole Child Model and some of the supports for teachers. These posts build on an interview last year with Transcend’s Keptah St. Julien who talked about the key elements of the Whole Child Model (See part 1; part 2).
Community engagement in the evolution of the Whole Child Model
Thomas Hatch: Understanding how to work with communities so that school models are not imposed on people is a crucial part of the development process. This model is striking because it’s clear and well-informed theoretically and developmentally, but at the same time it’s a community driven model. Can you talk to us a little bit about the community process that went into developing the model and how it has enabled you to build some common understanding of the model?
Cynthia Robinson Rivers: At Van Ness, we engaged in early conversations just to get input from families and that informed what we put into the model and the components of the model. We then continued engaging families in a variety of ways, including through listening sessions with families and through sharing the information that we were learning as a school staff so that families were just as familiar as our teacher with the research that was guiding our decisions.
To be honest, I feel I could have done a much better job with family and community engagement. One place that we were inspired by and that does this really well is The Primary School in East Palo Alto California. Parent coordinators are leveraged there to get family input and feedback through monthly family meetings with a consistently high rate of attendance, which means families appreciate and enjoy them. Our team learned about this during a 2019 visit to the school when our first cohort of principals were able to visit with us. Before I left Van Ness, we were looking to figure out ways to implement practices like the ones we learned about while there.
During the initial phase of our direct partnership with schools, when schools learn about our model, examine their own conditions, and determine if they will partner with us, the school’s design teams interview students; shadow a student, and engage with their current families. One school in Texas had a virtual visit to Van Ness, where they learned about the model and saw it in action. Teachers and school leaders [from Van NESS] did a panel and a Q&A that was attended by about 100 families who got really excited about their school adopting the model. That can then help to sustain the model because you have buy-in and investment, not just from the staff, but from the community as well.
TH: Those are great examples. What about resistance from parents or teachers or any other challenges you faced in developing the model?
CRR: I made the mistake in my communication early on as a school leader by sharing more of the compassionate side of our approach and less of the structure. I was very clear about the notion that we need to disrupt the traditional ways that we’ve treated kids, and we need to allow them to have more agency and teach appropriate behaviors instead of trying to punish behaviors. I think early on that left parents with the misunderstanding that it was about being too nice with kids. On the one hand, we needed work with our families to make sure we were not misaligned. For example, if, at home, families are punishing children harshly or using corporal punishment, then that’s a misalignment that we don’t want to be present. We knew that engaging families and also sharing knowledge with them about best practices for a child’s behavior is an important next step. But I also needed to share more about assertiveness, structure, consistency of the model and that we are not just being all nice with kids. There is actually a good amount of structure and consequences for inappropriate behavior, and I missed sharing that with the families early on. I’ve encouraged our school partners to talk about compassion and talk about what kids deserve, but also talk about the consistency and structure of this model, so that parents know we’re not just letting children run wild and do whatever they want at school.
TH: What about home visits? How do you feel home visits impact the effectiveness of the model? Do you feel like parents have pushed back with the home visits or do you think that they’re accepting of them?
CRR: Home visits have been so helpful in enabling families to understand and value the model. There’s a little bit of pushback that quickly goes away after a few parents have a home visit and then share how wonderful it is getting to know the teachers in that way. That usually gets other families excited about it. One thing that we do is get the class rosters finished by June so that teachers can complete the home visits over the summer with a goal of having 50% of them done by the first day of school. With that prioritizing, if we know about them, kids who might have a harder time have a home visit and at least one or 2 other touch points. So on the first day of school they really feel connected.
During the home visit, we will also bring a social story, which is a book that helps a child know what to expect with words and pictures. You can do a social story about how to line up, how to go to recess, or what do we do in music? We do a social story over the summer for the summer home visit specific to what to expect at school. This alleviates a ton of anxiety. It also is a time when, with the family and the child, we’re able to share a lot about what we do and what the model looks like in a totally low stakes, relationship-building context. In those ways it’s a very helpful structure.
“We’re able to share a lot about what we do and what the model looks like in a totally low stakes, relationship-building context.”
For families that really feel uncomfortable even after they hear about how great home visits are, we offer to meet them in the community, anywhere that is not school, for example at the cafe or at the park, or at the library, at a neutral location. In that location, we do all the things that we would do during the home visit. The same conversations about “what are your hopes and your dreams for your child?” Nothing academic. It is purely to build a positive relationship with the families. We’ve incorporated home visits as one of our practices in the family circle component of the model, but initially learned about how to conduct them from one of our partner organizations, Flamboyan Foundation, which specializes in family engagement strategies for educators.
TH: you talked a little bit about the need for alignment particularly related to discipline. But I can imagine there are other issues where alignment is important. How do you work on it if there is misalignment with parents and the school?
CRR: We try to do that without judgment and in as asset-based a way as possible. We know parents are the child’s first teacher, and they’re doing the best with the knowledge that they have. If they are engaging in a practice that we would disagree with, like spanking for example, we would try to come to that with understanding and not judgment. What I’ve found over the years, and this is part of why I like the Primary School’s example, is that it’s very hard to influence behavior using a top-down lecture style information-sharing such as at a back to school night or a parent meeting. It can come across paternalistic and condescending. But a different approach is to have discussion circles of parents, led by a parent leader who’s been trained and then empowered to establish this group that shares information both ways, not hierarchically. The example I would give on this is when we had a parent meeting with the topic “We are a healthy school and we want our students to have healthy meals and snacks.” I tried to talk about this in an intellectual way about the impact of nutritious food vs. junk food in a child’s body. I’m sure no one changed their habits in any way after that talk. As an alternative, if you had a parent-led circle, offered a healthy snack as part of that meeting, and a conversation starter like “Oh, how do you plan lunch for the week while buying not too expensive items that are also good for kids?” That’s a session topic where parents are sharing information. They feel valued, they feel heard, and then people are packing better lunches. When there is misalignment, getting lectured and getting told your way is wrong, or “here’s a better way” doesn’t work. We need to create opportunities to slowly and in a trusting environment learn about alternatives.
“It’s very hard to influence behavior using a top-down lecture style information- sharing such as at a back to school night or a parent meeting… But a different approach is to have discussion circles of parents, led by a parent leader who’s been trained and then empowered to establish this group that shares information both ways, not hierarchically.”
TH: What about shifting a little bit to talk about teachers. Are there particular aspects of the model that the teachers found especially challenging?
CRR: I think all parts of BOOST are hard because it addresses the kids that have some of the most challenging behaviors. So if you’re at the point where you’re meeting to figure out what CARE PLUS strategies will be helpful for a child, that might be a child who has eloped from the classroom multiple times. You don’t know where they are. You can’t leave the class. It’s not safe to leave them alone in the hallway. Or a child who has consistently, physically harmed others. And you have to talk to parents after school whose child was hurt. And you have to assure them that you’re going to keep them safe.
It’s really tough stuff that always, but especially in the past 2 years, is even harder if the teachers are already overwhelmed. There’s a pandemic, the teacher just came back from quarantine, half the class is at home on the computer. Teachers are already stressed, and it’s really really hard especially in those moments when you need to be composed to have that empathy for the child in order to follow through on an intervention that requires you to be fully present and using your reasoning brain. That’s why the model provides structures and language that teachers can practice, and when you understand “the why,” that can make it possible to leverage what you know even when you’re upset, because you have so much practice with it. You’re concerned about and empathizing with the child, instead of being annoyed with them, because you understand what happened to them, and why they’re behaving that way.
I would also say LANGUAGE AND TONE, in general, is one of the hardest parts of the model. The STRONG START set of practices in the morning feel so good. Who wouldn’t want to do that? Greeting kids and classroom design. If you go into one of the model classrooms, you can look and see, this is gorgeous. Of course I would want my room to look like this. But for language, in terms of safety, when you’re doing a transition or routine, like when you need kids to safely get somewhere or safely do something, it is sometimes different from how we actually talk. In the language of safety, it’s important to speak assertively, to be specific, and use concise, not verbose language. The example that has resonated with teachers in clarifying this is if you were in an accident and had to evacuate a plane. You would not want a captain that says something like “Okay, passengers, it seems like it’s an emergency. Maybe you guys should stand up.” No, you’d want the clarity and strength of the captain saying, “Stand up. Walk to the nearest exit door.” In the language of safety, that assertive tone and concision is not a voice that feels natural to lots of people and remembering to say things in that way is hard.
“The example that has resonated with teachers in clarifying this is if you were in an accident and had to evacuate a plane. You would not want a captain that says something like “Okay, passengers, it seems like it’s an emergency. Maybe you guys should stand up.” No, you’d want the clarity and strength of the captain saying, “Stand up. Walk to the nearest exit door.””
Highlighting appropriate behaviors is another thing that can be challenging. For example, when kids are lining up, and they’re mostly in line, but some are not, you would acknowledge a student who is lined up in a way that keeps the hallway safe. It’s hard to remember not to call out the negative, and thereby accidentally reinforce that negative behavior. If a child is hitting the person beside them, we instinctively want to say “no hitting” or “stop hitting” instead of “keep your hands in your lap like this to be safe.” In many schools you’ll hear negative behaviors highlighted “Stop running in the hallway” or “Don’t call out during the story.” We’re often noticing all the behaviors that we don’t want to reinforce, and we have to remember to notice the behaviors we want to see more of, which is a hard language shift to make.