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Family Friendly Schools
Schools seeking assessment for the purpose of evaluating and improving family and community connection can earn a family friendly school designation by the Department of Education. The recognition is the result of an assessment process centered around surveys of school staff, parents, and students. The Family Friendly School program addresses not only academic, but physical, emotional and social needs of students. Schools earn distinction by providing evidentiary documentation addressing the components of the program.
Components of the Family Friendly School program include: 1) welcoming all families, 2) communicating effectively, 3) supporting student success, 4) speaking up for every child, 5) sharing power, and 6) collaborating with the community (Georgia Department of Education, 2016). Welcoming all families includes items such as friendly staff ready to assist with questions, easily available information, available administration, use of home visits, and acknowledgement of visitors.
Effective communication includes the use of a variety of methods to inform families in their native language about school activities, maintaining up to date websites, regular teacher communication with parents, and ways for parents to voice potential concerns. Supporting student success heavily relies on parent involvement both as volunteers and through ensuring teachers work with parents to support learning at home. Speaking up for every child includes parent empowerment to advocate for their child to ensure support for success. Sharing power acknowledges the equal partnership in decision making about policies and practices within the school. Lastly, collaborating with the community provides a connection to resources that benefit the school, families, and the organizations connected with them.
Characteristics of family-friendly schools can serve as a first step guide for creating partnerships and engagement in support of emotional wellness in the community, school, and family during this time of uncertainty and stress. How would your school rank as family friendly?
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) (2019) describes trauma as “an event, series of events, or set of circumstances that is experienced by an individual as physically or emotionally harmful or life threatening and that has lasting adverse effects on the individual’s functioning and mental, physical, social, or spiritual well-being” (par. 1).Children and teens may be experiencing increased stress responses as a result of the current crises (National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, 2020). Adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) are traumatic experiences that erode a child’s sense of safety and are considered risk factors for poor future physical and mental health outcomes (Heramis, 2020; Jennings, 2018).
Often school personnel are the first to notice warning signs of crisis in children; school closures have hampered the school’s ability to support or intervene (Masonbrink & Hurley, 2020). Schools have opened, then closed, and attempted to teach virtually. Families have suffered the burden of schools closing down leaving them with no option for childcare. Families had to make the decision of whether or not to send children back to school when they reopened, and many struggled with attempting to engage their children in on-line learning while at home.
People are experiencing increased anxiety about physical health, mental health, job security, and economic collapse resulting in stressful environments (Brown et al., 2020). Additionally, social distancing measures have impacted the social life of families and typical daily patterns reducing community connections commonly utilized to cope with crises (Polizzi et al., 2020). Increased parental stress has shown to subsequently increase the presence of childhood maltreatment (Brown et al., 2020). Adequate support can temper the impact of traumatic experiences on children. Schools need to recognize student vulnerability and the possibility of lasting impact if left untreated.
On the contrary, emotional support within compassionate relationships may help offset the impact of stress (Heramis, 2020). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2020) provides guidelines for helping children to cope after emergencies. The CDC (2020) guidelines include: 1) providing children with a sense of control, 2) allowance for conversation about feelings, 3) and communication between adults involved in the child’s life. School personnel are essential in the provision of emotional support to assist children with coping during this time. Heramis (2020) noted positive relationships within a school’s culture are necessary when increasing emotional support.
Schools that forge ahead and ensure actions to cultivate emotional wellness can do so through “Compassionate Schools.” The “Compassionate Schools” approach was developed to assist schools supporting children and families dealing specifically with trauma (Wolpow et al., 2016). Within compassionate school’s emotional wellness is cultivated through unconditional empathy and respect for students and families.
As children and families navigate educational systems during uncertain times, it is critical for schools to operate with compassion as a protective factor to decrease lasting impacts of toxic stress and increase chances students are in a prepared state to learn (Heramis, 2020). Consequently, our school systems are only as empathetic and strong as the people in them. Therefore, it is important schools take the time to realize, those that survive traumatic experiences depend upon the social capital of created relationships (Payne, 2020). Is your school prepared to offer support and compassion to decrease future risk factors?
Many families lacked the support from external sources previously provided by schools during the COVID-19 pandemic. Brown et al., (2020) states we can learn much from the experiences of COVID-19 stressors on parents. The authors note measures should be taken by providers and educators to mitigate beyond the emotional and social support received in the past by connecting families with other community resources to develop a broader network of support.
The authors highlight supports that should include: 1) providing culturally responsive whole-family programs and services to extended family and, 2) increasing perceived control over life events by promoting acceptance and mindfulness. The authors note parents with higher perceived control over life events are more likely to be able to use available resources to manage stressors (Brown et al., 2020). What broadened network opportunities does your school offer as a result of the pandemic?
Our schools are not equal; the achievement gap is a product of our unequal society; even an equal education will not produce equal outcomes (Strauss, 2020). It brings to question: Will bridging the gap and creating schools focused on emotional wellness including cultural awareness and family connectivity automatically make all students successful? No, however if schools make a fraction of a difference for more students each year they will have progressed considerably from where they are now.
Reflect on your own school experiences. It is the emotional triggers; those relationships and connections you remember and took with you. Fred Rogers, the star of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” once said, “If you could only sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet; how important you can be to the people you may never even dream of. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person” (F. Rogers, 2003).Creating compassionate, friendly, emotionally healthy, and family supported schools can make all the difference in creating a culture of connection and wellness. A culture of connection and wellness with long-term outcomes that meet the needs of students, parents, and community members regardless of a pandemic. Consequently, it will be how we work together as a community to survive that will determine outcomes and long-term effects (Payne, 2020).
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