Local students and teachers alike are learning new skills to help them thrive in the school environment, thanks to a wellness initiative supported by the Ottauquechee Health Foundation.
The Windsor Central Wellness Initiative began in 2019 with grant funding from OHF, which created the program and hired consultants in partnership with Windsor Central Modified Unified Union School District (WCUUSD) and OHF’s mindfulness committee.
The initiative brings trauma-informed, social-emotional centered wellness programming to the school district. In fact, efforts are underway to expand this program within the school district, according to Superintendent Sherry Sousa. It’s been especially meaningful to the staff during the past 18 months.
“It’s really changed the dialogue as far as how we talk about our experiences and the experiences of our students,” Sousa said. “We would not be able to offer this level of programming without the Ottauquechee Health Foundation’s financial support.”
A focus on reducing stress and improving communication
The consultants in the initiative have worked with students and teachers on practices geared to reduce stress, improve student-teacher communication, and provide teachers with a range of new strategies to help struggling students.
Though in-person work with students in this initiative has been limited during the pandemic, the program has indeed made an impact, and mindfulness is a key part of that. Mindfulness educator Susan Mordecai is part of the initiative and said focusing attention is an important skill she teaches to students.
“Kids are always being called to pay attention, but they’re never taught how to,” she said.
Making choices is also a crucial part of this education piece for students, including how to respond to a situation versus react. For example, if something is missing from your desk, one could react and assume it was stolen, or choose to respond by simply asking, “Where is it?”
“In making a choice, we have to understand there are outcomes,” Mordecai said.
Helping teachers and staff help students
For staff, the program offers helpful resources with the help of Dave Melnick, co-director of outpatient services for NFI Vermont. For instance, if a teacher has a student in crisis, the initiative allows Melnick and his team to come in and do a free assessment of the situation.
“That’s powerful stuff, when you have a student in crisis,” Sousa said. Furthermore, a principal or teacher can call Melnick for a free consultation at any time.
In the wellness initiative, Melnick offers classes that help teachers learn “trauma-informed practices”. Those include, in part, addressing problematic levels of stress, reflective self-inquiry, and reframing. In a “reflective practice” group, Melnick meets with groups of 6 or 7 adults, and, he said, they “try to understand and reveal our own blind spots, how our experience with kids impacts how we interact with them,” among other points.
Reframing teaches new ways to look at classroom situations, what causes them, and how to resolve them.
“Big part of my work is helping teachers and educational leaders understand that for every problematic behavior, there are multiple explanations for it,” Melnick said.
Melnick also focuses on the importance of community care, meaning an organization taking care of its workforce. He said the Windsor Central school district has a great foundation to build on there.
“They promote and encourage self-care, but they also provide access in their organizational practice to care for their workforce,” he said.
Melnick noted that has a direct impact for the students as well.
“If the workforce is doing well, it cannot help but trickle down to kids and improve their social-emotional well-being,” he said.