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Forging resilience in Georgia’s schools

Originally Published by Kaiser Permanente

Teachers and principals across the country are increasingly aware of the importance of addressing their students’ mental health and wellness, but it’s far less common for them to focus on their own mental and emotional well-being and that of their colleagues.

John Madden Jr., principal of Ronald E. McNair Middle School in College Park, Georgia, vividly remembers the day when that changed for him.

“The RISE program was introduced in Georgia in 2017 as a pilot program, and our school was one of the original participants. Several of our teachers took to the program immediately,” Madden recalled. “But a lot of people, including me, didn’t fully appreciate the value of what was being offered.”

John Madden Jr. and Giovanna Allison of McNair Middle School smiling into the camera.
John Madden Jr. and Giovanna Allison of McNair Middle School have been a part of the RISE program in Georgia since it began in 2017.

Then he attended a principals’ retreat in 2018, when a new educational theater component was added to the program. He witnessed his colleagues actively engaging with the actor-educators during an emotional and informative 2-hour workshop. Everything suddenly clicked.

Acting out trauma

RISE, which stands for resilience in school environments, is sponsored by Kaiser Permanente’s Thriving Schools Initiative and empowers educators to create safe and supportive learning environments by implementing practices and policies that improve the social-emotional health of both students and staff. The new workshop component includes dramatic performances and interactive exercises designed by Kaiser Permanente’s Educational Theatre. It’s called RISE UP, or resilience in school environments — understanding and practice, and it helps teachers act on what they’ve learned.

“There is a key aspect of every session,” said Ruth Herndon, PhD, educational outreach lead, Kaiser Permanente Educational Theatre, “when our facilitators guide participants through a scenario of interacting with a student experiencing trauma. It’s a moment that powerfully resonates with teachers and shows them they need to know how to shift their own mind-set and put their new emotional self-regulation skills to work.”

“Thanks to the interactive workshop, I was enlightened about the purpose of the RISE program in a way I’d never been before,” Madden explained. “It became completely clear that this was something my teaching staff needed. As educators we need to take care of ourselves so we can be present every day for our students.”

Practicing self-care at school

“It began to shift everything we do at McNair,” explained Giovanna Allison, instructional support coach at McNair Middle School. “We’re taking better care of our students because we’re all taking better care of ourselves.”

Under the guidance of the RISE coach assigned to their school, teachers at McNair continue to create an atmosphere of resilience. They transformed an ordinary room in their school building into what they call the McNair Mindfulness Mansion. Equipped with a sofa, 2 relaxation chairs, a projector displaying an image of a stream on the wall, and speakers playing sounds of running water, the room is a dedicated place for teachers to unplug.

The McNair Mindfulness Mansion includes a sofa, two relaxation chairs, a projector displaying an image of a stream on the wall,
The McNair Mindfulness Mansion provides a soothing environment for teachers to retreat and re-center any time of day.

“If something happens to a faculty member at home, on the way to work, or here at the school,” said Madden, “we wanted them to have a place to go and just get away from it all until they feel grounded and present again.”

Building relationships of trust

In 2019, 31 schools in Georgia were selected to be a part of the RISE program, and 15 participated in the educational theater workshops in a 2-week period before the school year began (with more sessions to follow later this year). Under the direction of Herndon and Lila Givens, RISE program manager, Alliance for a Healthier Generation, 2 teams of actor-educators drew upon 120 hours of trauma-informed training and spent over 40 hours rehearsing for the events.

Heather Fields is the principal of Bright Star Elementary School in Douglasville, Georgia, one of the schools participating in the RISE program for the first time. “I think that the trauma piece is particularly important,” Fields emphasized. “We’re seeing a lot of students with traumatic experiences in their backgrounds. We’re looking forward to learning how we can best work with them to build relationships of trust, because we know that students who have good relationships with the adults around them usually do much better in school, and in the rest of their lives.”

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