Our nation is facing an adolescent mental health crisis. Teens are struggling in the classroom and at home. Our guest, Instructional Support Specialist and Social Emotional Learning Lead, Leona Fowler, shares her experiences navigating these challenges and what approaches can equip our kids with the coping skills they need. She discusses how mindfulness and other social emotional learning techniques can improve student wellness at school and at home.
LaWanda Toney: Welcome to notes From the Backpack, a PTA podcast. I'm LaWanda Toney.
Helen Westmoreland: And I'm Helen Westmoreland and you're listening to our Teacher Talk Miniseries, where we hear teachers' perspectives on key issues and education.
Today, we're talking about social, emotional wellbeing and mental health. We're so glad to speak to this important issue. Many major players in the youth mental health space from the American academy of pediatrics to the US Surgeon General have sounded the alarm, highlighting the need for more action to address youth mental health. A recent survey from Educators for Excellence also found that 79% of educators say the mental health of their students is worse.
LaWanda Toney: Teachers spend so much time with our kids, and sometimes they're the first one to know if something is really wrong. How are teachers experiencing the youth mental health crisis in the classroom? And what can we do about it? I'm so glad we have veteran teacher, Leona Fowler, here today to have this conversation with us. Leona Fowler is an instructional support teacher and site coordinator for grades 6-8 in Queens District 75, a specialized school district for students with significant challenges.
She is also her school's equity liaison, trauma informed care and grief sensitive educator and social emotional learning lead. Leona is a member of Educators for Excellence Teacher Leader Council. She is also the president of Queens Community, Parent, Teacher, Student Association. Leona, welcome to the show.
Leona Fowler: Hello.
LaWanda Toney: Yes, we are very happy to have you here to talk about this topic. But before we get started, we want to know a little bit about you and what made you want to become a teacher.
Leona Fowler: Well, for me, I'm considered, according to the Department of Education for New York City, a career changer. So initially, I was in corporate America and it was good pay, salary, all that was great, but there was still a void. I was still not truly fulfilled. I knew that because of all the other work I would do behind the scenes, whether it was mentoring, it was counseling, anything with kids. I was still doing that. And then one of my very close girlfriends said, you know what? There's a program in New York City called Teaching Fellows and they take career changers and allows them an opportunity to go to school, to earn their Master's in Teaching.
I think you should just apply, go for it, and shoot for the stars. Never looked back, 12 years later, and it's the best choice that I've made. It has its challenges, going through a pandemic has been the biggest, but I mean, just being an educator alone is no easy job, but it's so fulfilling and I'm just so passionate. So the passion really is the driving force for me to really be a change agent. That was really my why, that is really my why. I'm in education to impact change, whether it is just in my school. And when given any opportunities such as this platform, any chance I can to just try to spread something about education that just makes it a little bit easier for the next person I want to do that.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's wonderful. All right. So, well, let's do just that. Obviously, we're talking today about students' mental health, wellbeing. Can you tell us a little bit about from your vantage point, Leona, how would you characterize your students' mental health and wellbeing right now? And how have you seen that change over the past few years? If at all.
Leona Fowler: So I'm currently out of the classroom, but the beauty of my role as an instructional support leader for my school, I get to see many classrooms. I get to interact with a lot of different teachers and their students. And some of them are my former students that are now moving into high school, because I was middle school level. Or they're just students that I just work with because sometime I have to do a coverage as a cluster teacher and cover in different capacities at classroom. So I do get to engage daily with our young people. And this pandemic has truly shown that students are affected, teachers are affected, everyone's affected. From the being in school, out of school, from having the offering to stay fully remote or come fully back in person. To parents not being so sure with an uptick coronavirus. One minute they're in school and one week they're not in school.
It's so much unbalanced that for especially my district students with special needs, those are our students with cognitive delays, mental issues, emotional behavioral challenges. Those students that already have issues, they already have barriers. They already have things that already upset and negate a positive day. So now you roll in a pandemic that upsets routine, which is very, very instrumental in them getting through their day, especially our students with autism and other behaviors and disabilities. That routine is key. So when routine is disrupted the school day is disruptive. So you see an increase in behavior. You see an increase in absenteeism, you see an increase in stress on teachers. That's what the daily has been looking like now.
Helen Westmoreland: Thank you.
LaWanda Toney: Leona with that, with the new challenges, how are you dealing with it? What have been some of the things that you all have been able to do to help slow that down and help the students deal with their everyday problems. And then the additional things that you talked about, those challenges.
Leona Fowler: Yeah. So what we've been doing is looking into different programs. There's several companies out here that have several new curricula and programs that we can institute. So we've taken on some new programs that will help us with our students, get into a curriculum that is embedded in their day, that allows for them to have an opportunity to discuss social, emotional issues or the different tenants of SEL. Whether it be this week or this month is about social awareness. That's what we focusing on, or have lesson activities and lesson stories and videos that will accompany that to help them be able to recognize, I'm having a social awareness moment or issue. We've also implemented positive behavior implementation strategy.
In our school we're considered lions and cubs, because we go through K through 21. So we go from a cub to a lion and you want to make sure students roar and for our school ROAR has an acronym for them. So we have each student working towards responsibility, ownership, accountability, and respect, and that's helping students be aware of their different things that they're going through their day. You wanna always redirect them when you see about to derail, bring it back in. So implementing that along with mindfulness. Our superintendent for the district, sends our principal's weekly mindfulness activities to be shared with teachers to then in turn help us as educators and then to share with our students, those that we feel are appropriate.
And then another thing that we're hoping, I know you mentioned Educators for Excellence and our policy paper and our recent survey. We're really hoping the money that we have funded. President Biden's recent budget is that he requested $1 billion to help schools hire and prepare additional counselors, additional school psychologists, and other mental health professionals, because we do need it. We do need that extra support because some families have really gone through a lot. And it's shown when you're working with the student in the classroom.
Helen Westmoreland: I want to pick up on something you mentioned about the deep level of programming and support that your district has. I understand your district focuses on social, emotional learning or SEL, and it's in the news, it's become a little bit of a political term. Have you received any pushback around what you're doing in the classroom to support your students’ wellbeing or no?
Leona Fowler: It’s mixed. On a teacher level for a teacher is like another program, another thing to do. That would really be the only pushback because it does take the buy-in. Once the buy-in was there on this can not only help our students, but it is to help us as educators, too, get through our day because a lot of teachers were reaching their burnout. Like for us here in New York, June cannot come fast enough. You know, even with having a day off and having spring break, it's still not enough.
My sister was teasing saying, we're never satisfied. She's in charter and they have a whole different calendar. But that was the real pushback was another curriculum and will it be authentic? Is it going to be something that we're going to shell in September? Like, remember when we were doing and now we're no longer. So that was really the first pushback. Parents seem all in on whatever help they can get, whatever you can do, because behavior is just crazy. I'm just thinking about one student in particular, the mom really feel that she's reaching her wits end what our daughter, the disruption of school, she just can't seem to get back on track with her daughter with getting into routine that you got to go to school. You gotta go to school.
So there's behaviors there. So for parents, I think they're like, give it to us all. Give me all of it, whatever it is, parent workshops, whatever it is. For teachers, it was, if you're going to give us another program or another curriculum, and you say it’s something we need to be doing in our classrooms every day, which adds to more or lesson planning, then will we keep it, will we stick with it and will it work? That was the real, that was the only pushback there.
LaWanda Toney: To piggyback, you started talking about parents and this, helping them with some tools that they need. How can parents partner with instructors and teachers like you to make the SEL process more collaborative? It's not just happening at school. That it's also happening at home. What can parents do?
Leona Fowler: That's so great that you asked that, because that's conversations that are happening, in real time. What can parents do? Because what PTAs are doing is really, this pandemic everyone's pretty much Zoomed out. So a lot of parents aren't coming on those Zoom meetings. And if you do have an in person, it's so much fear sometime, is it safe? Should I come? Or you have the vaccination requirements, to get into a building. But what we want parents to do is know that when you see those flyers go home in the backpacks for parent workshops or Zoom calls or presentations, come on them, like really just come, if you could just stay for 15 minutes, just to get one resource.
Use it, because what we're trying to do, at least in my school, my district is really bridge that connection, like you said, that collaboration. That I do in the school, and I want to show you how you can do it at home and what my school has done, when the pandemic happened, we all went Google schools. Google classroom ruled the world. And so, what I did was create an additional couple of classrooms for wellness. One specifically for parents where things live there. There's videos on mindfulness there's things on breathing. There is techniques to do for behavioral challenges at home. It lives there.
So if you're getting invitations like that to visit a resource bank or a digital library from your school that has some tools and techniques, visit it, it really is that push of, you know, like we're just not sending this home, this, send it home. We really want you to try to access it because this is what we're doing at school. So if a student learns at home, to do a few breathing techniques, calm down. And when we say it at school, it's not new information. It's I do that at home with my mom or my mom and my dad or my grandma. Whoever's the care provider does this with me. I know how to do it, to make that connection, that bridge to school and home connection.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's such good advice. Yeah. I'm like, it's not all that different, like you said, from what we would normally do with our teachers, when it comes to like practicing other things that are going on inside the classroom.
Your explanation of what it looks like was so helpful. It's sometimes hard to visualize, right? Like what exactly is this whole other thing. But, at least in my mind, I think of it as like a much more just intentionality and depth to some of the things that we've always said, we all, we've always wanted our kids to be resilient, to be respectful.
Leona Fowler: You use the keyword, Helen it's the intentionality. Like, we really want to be doing it. You want to really do it with fidelity. We really want this to be a thing. And my whole thing now, my push into next year is that it becomes a natural thing again. A natural thing to make sure the whole child, whole educator is good, that these become natural techniques and conversations and talk and not a new buzz thing that's happening.
Helen Westmoreland: Yeah.
LaWanda Toney: For teachers, how do you keep it from dying out? What do you think?
Leona Fowler: I think for me, I just naturally try to be like this cheerleader for everybody, even for myself too, I think if I do it for a self-talk to myself, I can go self-talk with someone else. Being in the position that I'm in pretty much, if you just want to know how I feel about it.
So if I'm still in it and buying into it, it feeds. So it's like, all right. Okay. Leona, if you think it's still good, we'll do it, but you gotta be excited. If I didn't believe in it, I really would have to talk to administration and say like, we got to find something else, this is not going to be it. And luckily I have a principal who will say, well, why not? And she'll entertain that conversation. But I do really believe that if we really, really practice tenets of social-emotional learning and this resiliency and that self-talk and affirmations and all that. It will keep it from dying out.
Helen Westmoreland: That makes a lot, I like that.
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Helen Westmoreland: Could you talk a little bit about like, what impact you're seeing from some of these new approaches? Like, have you had any students in particular, or classrooms where, you’ve seen, with some of these more intentional practices, there've been some, some changes in our kids.
Leona Fowler: There has been. Yeah, no, and I love it. I was actually sharing with another school person. What I've noticed now is one thing, when you just hear like heightened noise in the hallway, you could just hear all the chaos kind of happening in classrooms and our students. With their disability and sometimes they're screaming and that's how they're talking to you or screaming out of reflex, whatever it is.
So sometimes it's just really noisy, that I noticed teachers are, I hear the music, the calm music, and I'll go in a hallway and I see the lights are dimming. So now teachers are naturally like, all right, guys, I think we're going to just put on some calming music and pause for a second and lights come out.
So that, that route of like work, work, work, work, work, and this pandemic teachers are realizing get through the day safely, get through the day calmly. It's changing a little bit. And that I think is a great impact that we're not so hung up on. I got to get through social studies by any means necessary, whether you're a screaming and the room is chaotic. Now it's let me calm my classroom down, calm myself down, calm my students down, transition the atmosphere and then teach and teachers are feeling they're getting more done that way. Takes a few minutes. It takes those that are very rigid and getting through a lesson or a little like, oh, I wanted to finish this unit today. It's like, maybe tomorrow we got to finish it tomorrow.
Helen Westmoreland: I feel like I could use that at home.
Leona Fowler: Now it's a shift right now. It's a shift for those of us that really want to get through what we planned. You planned out to, , if you're learning about oceans to teach five oceans and that's what you were going to learn today. But sometime it says I got the one ocean, because I needed to put on some ocean waves because the class was crazy after lunch. And that's becoming more acceptable practice, I'm noticing for administration.
Helen Westmoreland: It's gotta be less frustrating for teachers too. I've got a little one. She's almost four, so she's not in a traditional classroom yet, but I feel like that those would be helpful techniques even for parents, because there are some mornings where I'm just like, Girl, why. How do we take it all down? It's like, shoes on, gotta eat your breakfast. Gotta do this. Gotta do this. Gotta do this. Gotta do this. Cause the pressure of that can feel overwhelming, especially if you're already kind of on edge from the additive, stress of everything going on.
Leona Fowler: And so mindfulness for parents and mindful thinking and SEL for adults. It needs to be intentional for us too. Same thing.
Helen Westmoreland: What are you wondering LaWanda?
LaWanda Toney: So much. I mean, I've learned so much already. Just about the intentionality, I really feel like that's the theme of what we've been talking about. If everyone is trying to be intentional to help our students and our families, then I think that, that's heading in the right direction.
I am curious what about schools who haven't started SEL and as a parent, how do you approach the topic and who do you talk to? Do you have any advice for parents?
Leona Fowler: I definitely think for schools that have not tapped into it yet, definitely start with PTA President, who can then talk to school leadership team, to say how should our school move forward and addressing this mental health crisis that's happening in schools? Just put the question out there, then that parent that is curious about it, come with their own research, maybe talking to the other parents or looking online. There's so much online about the benefits of. And what schools that have put their selves out there publicly are doing and use that as examples for then the administration to come back as a cabinet and discuss and talk. And then if the school seems really slow in getting going, as a parent, look up those parent techniques and tips that are online and you start doing it, as a parent at home yourself. At least you know you've gotten your child accustomed to some different attributes of SEL, that they're learning in the home so that when the school does catch up to what's needed, it's not brand new. You as a family and in your child knows exactly what this says and could be models, model leaders to demonstrate this for others.
Helen Westmoreland: Awesome. I want to go back, you mentioned at the top of the episode, Leona a little bit about the current federal funding around this. So again, sort of wearing that advocacy hat, LaWanda asked about folks who haven't yet gotten started, but for folks who really are like, we need this in our school community, what are some of the policy changes, either like locally or otherwise. What are some of the things that you think we really need to do differently or do more of, to be better as a society supporting our kids’ mental health?
Leona Fowler: Use our voice. Our voice truly does matter. If you have a circle of influence where someone circles on a community board or a school board. That's opportunity if you're not on that board or don't serve in executive role where you get the microphone or the opportunity to speak to anyone to say like, hey, can someone speak up about federal funding that's out there? Cause it's not a secret it's there. If you were to Google, it you'll find out about it.
But when you're in those settings and they're say, wait, somebody knows about that. Like, yeah, we know about it. And we know it should be in our schools. It's using the voice, the advocacy begins with the voice and then from the voice then comes to work, because from there you're putting the fire under those that have that ability to go to legislators, to go to Albany, to go to our local offices and say, we know there's funding out there. Why doesn't our school have a curriculum yet? What's the district's budget? On a school level, you can bring those concerns right to the school leadership team. And you can say, isn't it our budget and our budget for our school. Do we have social emotional funding in there?
What's our staffing like? I think we don't question enough. And even as much as an advocate, I am there's still more questioning I can do for people and start lighting fires I'm under people is to question a lot of things that are happening when we're silent. It just goes like as normal. We didn't upset anyone, you know, but we're missing out on a lot, because those districts and those schools are the speaking up, are getting what they need.
So we need to do that and for those communities that sometime feel overlooked, especially on marginalized, urban school districts, need to have advocates, so to speaking for them. So I would say, just do research on what's out there and pay attention to what's being said, and then ask questions about it.
Helen Westmoreland: Oh, that's great advice. I love even like some of the questions were like, what does it look like? Like if you feel nervous ask, because you'll find out some of these things. Yeah, absolutely.
Leona Fowler: And if you don't feel like the one to speak, cause not everybody wants to speak publicly. And so when I'm in those open forums, when there is opportunity like town halls, there might be someone next to you who was thinking the same thing and they don't care speaking and it'd be like, well, Hey, when you go up, can you just find out like, are we going to get an SEL program? And maybe they'll throw that in when they get the microphone for five seconds or whatever it is. So someone's always wondering possibly the same thing you are.
LaWanda Toney: It's so true. Yeah. Thank you so much Leona for joining us today, we're very fortunate to have you here to hear all your insights and kind of share the stories of the things that you've been through during the pandemic and overall. And I hope that our listeners can be inspired to also learn more about SEL and mental health. Are there any resources available that you might want to suggest to our listeners?
Leona Fowler: I do. There are several applications and no one's paying me to pump their app, but I have them on my phone and free is great. Doing anything that's free but I'm not seeing mentioned any particular name, but just go and search those mindful apps. So it's different motivational apps, that's just for your own self-care right there. They'll speak affirmations that you can say, or you can listen to soothing calming music.
I became intentional about breathing, just being in the pandemic and being outside the classroom and having like a semi administrative leadership role in my different capacities. I needed to calm down sometime and like breathe or I would have lost it. It was just too much going on. So look for those free applications that are out there for your own self-care. That'll help. It's whatever you like. If you're very spiritual, they have the spiritual ones. If you're a Yogi style, they have the Yogi ones. If you just want motivation and affirmations to push you through, they have that.
And then on for the educator to bring into the classroom, there are also several platforms online that gives us different writing prompts and guidance suggestions that we could use to get students to start opening up about what they're feeling. Feelings, feelings. YouTube, you can search songs for students about feelings and emotions, even for the four-year-olds. There's emotions and feelings songs.
And then lastly, as a district, there are several companies that have curriculums. My school has picked up a really good one, Rethink. I will say their name Rethink. And they can look into that and see if that's a program that would fit their school. And then like we did with positive behavior intervention, get creative in your schools, think of things that kids like and have them work for it and say, you gotta be feeling good about it, and you want to be responsible about it. And you'll get that reward and kids will get motivated.
LaWanda Toney: Awesome. Thank you so much. And if people want to learn more about you Leona and your work, are there places for them to go?
Leona Fowler: Yes, you can find me on Twitter. I am on Twitter @mizbosslady, M I Z B O S S L A D Y. I'm on there. And. And I'm on Facebook as Leona Fowler, L E O N A F as in Frank, O W L E R. And you can definitely follow me there and see all things that are happening .
Leona Fowler: One more resource. I forgot. I am a member of a national armed, professional organization. The national sorority of Phi Delta Kappa Incorporated, which we are a professional organization for professional women and education. And we have created an entire website called our e-learning academy, and that came out of the pandemic, a need for teachers to have virtual resources. And we are constantly updating that website. So please visit the www.nspdkacademy.org/.
Helen Westmoreland: This was amazing. We're so grateful for you coming and chatting with us.
Leona Fowler: Thank you for having me really, truly.
Helen Westmoreland: Thank you and to our listeners, thank you for joining us as well. For more resources related to today's episode, check out notesfromthebackpack.com and please also don't forget to leave a rating and review, which helps others find this and other episodes. Thank you.