Thursday, May 7, 2020

Supporting the Whole Child in Afterschool

By Sam Piha

Katie Brackenridge
(Note: The COVID-19 pandemic has been very disruptive to afterschool providers and we will cover this topic ongoing. However, as afterschool leaders plan for Summer and next Fall, we will also offer posts that advances thinking for the afterschool movement.)

Katie Brackenridge is a long- time pioneer and advocate for afterschool learning opportunities which promote positive youth development. She recently joined Turnaround for Children, and we interviewed her regarding their Developing the Whole Child project. Below are some of her responses.

Q: Can you say something about Turnaround for Children. 

A: Turnaround for Children was founded immediately after the 9/11 attacks in New York City. Our founder, Dr. Pamela Cantor, was commissioned by the NYC Board of Education to assess the impact of the attacks on the city’s public school students. She found that 68% of the children observed were experiencing trauma that impaired their school functioning. But, the trauma was not related to the attacks, rather it was from their on-going experience of adversity and stress from growing up in poverty.

This realization led Dr. Cantor to initiate a set of supports in New York City that involved intensive mental health services for students in schools in high poverty communities. Turnaround for Children has since expanded beyond New York City to schools and school districts in Washington DC, Chicago, Tulsa and the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a member of the Science of Learning and Development (SoLD) Alliance, which includes the Learning Policy Institute, the Forum for Youth Investment, the American Institutes for Research, Education Counsel and Populace.

Katie Brackenridge will be joined by Dr. Deborah Moroney (AIR) to host a webinar on COVID-19 Era- Afterschool's Whole Child Approach.
Q: Regarding your work on the Developing the Whole Child project, can you cite the main takeaways of the brain science that undergirds the work?

A: I’ve been working in the youth development field for a very long time. As a young after school educator, I figured out quickly that having good relationships with students made my job easier and more enjoyable for everyone. In my thirties, I was involved in all the great San Francisco work that you, Sam, were leading with the Community Network for Youth Development where I learned the research backing for positive relationships and supportive environments.

From the science, I’ve now learned that relationships and environments are important because that’s how our brains are wired. You can find a full description in this article and in this video on the SoLD Alliance website. The key takeaways are:

  • The brain develops in response to our context - the experiences, relationships and environments that surround us.
  • This process happens over our lifetime, not just in early childhood as previously thought.
  • The fact that context matters so much is both an opportunity and a vulnerability.
  • Negative contexts - with ongoing and unbuffered adversity, trauma and stress - can be seriously damaging to children’s brains and bodies. This is the biological consequence of too much cortisol and adrenaline over extended periods of time.
  • On the upside, oxytocin (the “love” hormone) is a powerful counterbalance to cortisol and adrenaline. Oxytocin is released as a result of positive relationships and experiences. This is why you feel good when someone smiles at, compliments, or hugs you.
  • Children experiencing toxic stress are primed to respond quickly to perceived threats and danger. This instinctual response often shows up in classrooms and youth programs as misbehavior, inability to focus and difficulty learning.

This science provides the biological rationale for the positive relationships and safe, supportive environments that researchers and practitioners have found to be so important and effective.

Q: Can you cite the primary essentials for the Developing the Whole Child framework that supports all aspects of child development?

A: Youth developers will see the immediate parallels to expanded learning quality standards and the principles of Learning in Afterschool and Summer from Temescal Associates.

Turnaround’s Vision for Student Success takes the Blue Wheel into practice for schools (and possibly youth development organizations) by defining resources and tools at the educator, classroom and school level, all supported by strong leadership and shared ownership. The Turnaround wheel looks like this:

For each of the components of the Vision for Student Success (VSSS), Turnaround has professional development resources and practice toolkits. The “Whole Child Inventory” allows staff to self- assess their current strategies, structures and practices against criteria in each component of the VSSS.

Q: The concepts represented in your blue wheel are very similar to earlier research on youth development, the features of quality afterschool programs, the YPQA, etc. What do you think are the added benefits of the Whole Child wheel? 

A: What’s exciting to me is that this framework and the science of learning are a strong and concrete affirmation of the youth program quality standards, in place across the country. They provide further call to action for school systems and youth development organizations to work together to provide more consistency and coherence in young people’s experiences.

YD Guide 2.0
The frameworks and related tools provide some new and more specific approaches for some of youth development’s tried and true practices. Turnaround, for example, has taken the concept of relationships and further defined - based on research - the exact characteristics that need to be in place for a relationship to be developmental and therefore impactful. These characteristics include emotional attachment, reciprocity, joint activity and balance of power. The message is not different from youth development principles, but provides a level of detail based in science that can help practitioners be more intentional.

Turnaround also names the specific skills and mindsets (the Building Blocks for Learning) that young people need to succeed. Executive Functions, for example, are the skills that everyone needs to get things done and include remembering what you’re supposed to do, keeping yourself on task and being flexible when things change or don’t work out. These Executive Functions are particularly challenging for young people who experience adversity because they require high functioning of our pre-frontal cortex (regulation) and hippocampus (learning and memory) and not as much from the amygdala (reactions and emotion). Teachers and youth developers can help students build Executive Functions by teaching them to use tools (ie: calendars, check lists, breathing) and structures (ie: visual reminders, quiet spaces) that help them succeed academically and in all kinds of tasks. This additional information and the way it is translated into practices can help educators, including youth developers, be more intentional and individualized in their support for students.

Q: Does your organization offer any tools or resources that will help afterschool program leaders implement practices that support the development of the whole child?

A: Turnaround is primarily focused on K-12 education, but, clearly the science of learning and development is relevant to the youth development field. Many of the tools and resources could be easily adapted for youth development leaders and practitioners. The Forum for Youth Investment is a member of the SoLD Alliance and is intentionally working to ensure that the perspectives and strengths of the youth development field are understood and leveraged as the momentum around the science of learning and development builds. The science of learning and development is a significant asset to after school and summer programs, particularly those that are hoping to align more closely with the school day. The science clearly validates youth development practice and supports the building of authentic partnerships for student skills and success.

Katie Brackenridge joined Turnaround for Children in 2019 as a Partnership Director. Katie has worked in and with schools, school districts and community organizations for her entire career. Most recently, she was an independent consultant focused on improving learning conditions and social-emotional supports for young people through public school systems. Before becoming a consultant, Katie was the Vice President of Programs at the Partnership for Children & Youth (PCY), a nonprofit intermediary organization focused on improving practice and policy for after-school and summer programs in public schools and affordable housing. Katie’s work is grounded in her nine-year experience as Co-Executive Director for the Jamestown Community Center, a grassroots youth organization in the Mission District of San Francisco. 

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