An Interview with Cynthia Robinson Rivers on the Evolution and Scaling of the Whole Child Model (Part 3): Key Changes and Challenges for Expansion

The final part of this 3-part interview with Cynthia Robinson-Rivers focuses on some of the changes that have been made in the Whole Child Model over the years as well as some of challenges she faces now that she has moved from the role of founding principal to a partner responsible for helping the model to expand. 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 and Part 2 looked at community engagement and some of the challenges of implementation. 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).

TH: You’ve talked about the depth of knowledge and expertise that goes into all of the elements of the model, but what about changes? Were there particular challenges or things you had to change about the model as it developed?

CRR: Yes, lots of the practices were developed in response to some challenge we were having in the beginning. We didn’t initially have structured recess. One year I found I was spending many afternoons on the phone with parents who were mad that their child had gotten hurt during recess. As a staff, we talked about how we can’t take away recess: a) It’s illegal. B) We know that’s bad for kids. C). Often the students that need to get outside and move their bodies most are the ones who are threatened with losing their recess. So what do we do? We had a wellness team that brainstormed, and we thought of structured recess, which allows students who have been unsafe to learn missing skills without having their recess removed. We piloted it, and then, because we were working with Transcend, they helped us to codify it.

During the pandemic, we also thought a lot about the extent to which the model has the potential to be liberatory by design. We thought a lot about racial equity and whether or not the model allowed students’ to build positive identities or grapple with issues of racial conflict. We looked at Strong Start because there were a lot of opportunities for connection; a lot of opportunities for belonging; and a lot of opportunities to self-regulate. But there were not many opportunities for students to reflect on current events or things that were bothering them. And there were not that many opportunities for creative expression. That’s when we added the Reflect and Share component. Reflect and Share is a part of Strong Start that might not happen every day, but probably once a week. That came directly out of our pausing and wanting to talk about difficult issues of race, and wanting our model to include opportunities for that.

Van Ness Elementary School (Courtesy Broughton Construction)

TH: When did those conversations happen where you recognized those problems and made those adjustments?

CRR: Usually in conversations amongst my leadership team or our team that has expertise in socio-emotional learning and mental health. And then we would talk with Transcend and say, here’s what we’re seeing. Transcend functioned as R & D experts for the school. We identify a problem, and they might interview students, coordinate teachers to pilot, create a draft resource, and then get feedback from the larger school as well. The Reflect and Share is a good example of that. We spent most of one school year working on answering key questions: What are the Reflect and Share questions we should ask if we’re going to engage kids around these tough issues? What problems might come up that a teacher needs to be prepared for? What about the pitfalls that you might encounter if kids are upset, and you don’t know how to navigate the conversation? We took a couple of years looking at those kinds of issues and by this spring the Reflect and Share structure will be formally added to our model and website with refinements made based on that R & D cycle.

Scaling the Whole Child Model

TH: Let’s talk a little bit now about your transition. So now you’re working with schools in a couple of different places. How did you select the new sites?

CRR: The first five schools in D.C. that we partnered with had been led by school leaders that I knew, and they and some of their teachers had visited the school. We went to them and asked if they were interested in learning more about and potentially adopting the model. We specifically chose five schools in which one school was similar in demographics to ours, two schools that were specifically different – they had a much higher ELL population – and two schools that were in a different part of the city, with higher poverty levels. Part of that was to see how the model needs to shift, depending on the different contexts.

Our selection process includes a number of different engagements and an application process that schools will go through before they get to the early phase work. Recently, ten schools in D.C. were invited to go through the application and selection process. From there, 5 schools will then do the early stage work towards potentially deciding to adopt the model. We really want to work with schools that opt in. We have to have a school leader who is passionate and willing to lead that hard work, and then we need a critical mass of their staff members who also have the interest and the desire.

TH: That does create some challenges. One thing people say about scaling up these kinds of models is that you need central office support. But if only some of the schools opt in, then the district itself is not as invested. How do you balance that?

CRR: It’s a great question. I think D.C. is a good example of how you can work with individual schools with the support of central office leaders.  It’s also an example of how schools become interested in the model after hearing positive stories about it from their peers. We had those five early adopting schools, and they were super passionate, super interested. Then the next set of schools were chosen from a cluster of 10 schools from which 5 became model adopters.  One of those principals presented her experience at a professional development session for school leaders, and this resulted in interest from additional schools. Building excitement about something through the enthusiasm of the early adopters is one way to spread without forcing. By next fall we’ll be working directly with 20 elementary schools, which is 25% of the elementary schools in D.C. We then plan to pause expanding direct partnerships with schools to also focus on supporting central office staff members who work on aligned practices with schools that are not direct partners.

“Building excitement about something through the enthusiasm of the early adopters is one way to spread without forcing.”

TH: What’s one of your biggest challenges right now, in terms of adapting or scaling the model? 

CRR: We are wrestling with the coaching model. It’s hard because we started this in the 2018-2019 school year. In that spring we started our training with our first group in D.C., and then the next school year, the pandemic happened. So we changed the model to make it applicable virtually. Practices had to really change so we could do them virtually over Zoom or Teams. Schools were faced with such unique challenges. Because of the context changing so much in the past four years, we’ve had to try different coaching approaches. During the pandemic we had virtual coaches, who were only in-person a few times that year at schools. We have had coaches on-the-ground working at schools with intensive needs, such as lots of behavior issues or tons of new staff. We are still refining our approach to figure out what coaching model will be most useful at which type of school. One key learning has been the importance of the school staff leading the work with our support, owning their own vision, and championing the model rather than relying on us as outside consultants to do so.  

We are also trying to make sure that this is not just about rolling out different practices. When we facilitate a session, it may be interpreted as “we’re doing Strong Start now,” or “We’re doing Structured Recess now.” Instead I would want people to say, “Student having the skills to self-regulate is important; Here’s why that’s important, based on what’s happening in their brains and their bodies.” We want to be principle and research forward and help schools understand the practices are just the things that get at these underlying much more important ideas. I think that can easily get lost as we’re sharing with schools that get excited about implementing model components versus slowing down to understand the rationale first.

We want to be principle- and research-forward and help schools understand the practices are just the things that get at these underlying much more important ideas.”

TH: As you’ve shifted from being a founding principal and now to trying to expand the model, what are some things you learned about the model that you didn’t know before or perhaps about being a principal?

CRR: I’ve noticed that it’s much more straightforward to implement the model when baseline conditions are not as challenging, for example if the school has fewer difficult behaviors at school because of students who have been impacted by trauma. I’ve also expanded my understanding of topics like extrinsic vs. intrinsic motivation to support schools that want to move away from using systems that emphasize points or ‘school bucks.’ If a school is invested in that kind of extrinsic rewards system, you have to be able to both explain in a compelling way why strategies that take more time and effort are better for students’ long term development and offer alternative ways to foster intrinsic motivation.

I have also realized that how we staff schools can make it inherently difficult for the people that choose to work within schools. The teaching and school principal positions are both so challenging and stressful in the current environment, so as I work with school teams, I try to constantly stay aware of their competing priorities, brainstorm strategies to alleviate stress, and encourage partners to find ways to prioritize their own health and wellbeing. Being able to finally be on the outside of schools also encourages me to talk with policymakers and others with decision making power to let them know the changes that are needed to make these roles sustainable for those already in the profession and appealing to those considering entering it.

TH: That connects to your earlier point about how hard it is to do this work in schools that don’t have the resources or capacity as other schools, and that’s a reality we can’t accept. So the question is, how do we work against these conditions and create conditions that actually will enable these models to take off where they need to, in ways that people can do it within their normal lives. Do you have any specific advice for folks who are interested in creating new school models and new school designs? 

CRR: Yes. If you are working within a system, which is what this model does, then everyone implementing needs to understand the “why,” and being willing to go slow versus really fast with rolling it out is critical. Separate from that, though, if you’re thinking about designing a model, I would encourage super unorthodox thinking because that’s what’s necessary right now. 

“If you’re thinking about designing a model, I would encourage super unorthodox thinking because that’s what’s necessary right now.

Really be daring. Don’t pretend that school as it exists is something that we should refine; it’s something we should completely redesign.

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