Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

This is Leading Equity episode 130. I'm your host, Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins. All right, advocates, March 27th is International Social Emotional Learning Day. As a result, I've been publishing a series of episodes centered around social emotional learning. So today is the third episode and I'm speaking with Dr Soundhari Balaguru and Ms Asha Canady. They are educators with the Caliber Change Makers Academy in Vallejo, California and they're doing some amazing things at their school and they're going to answer the question, how can we connect restorative practices and social emotional learning?

Dr. Balaguru:

And so I say these different pieces to say that social emotional learning means to live in the context of a student feeling like they can be their full selves and that there's the idea that students can do both, that they can grow holistically and feel like they can bring who they are to multiple settings.

Asha:

How do you have a restorative impulse when a student makes a mistake versus thinking about looking for compliance, can we elevate student voice, and how do you do that in a way that also pushes them with high expectations?

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Dr. Soundhari Balaguru is a clinical psychologist who has worked with schools and districts to build effective student support systems, which includes addressing the social, emotional, and mental health needs of their students for 15 years. Ms. Asha Canady is a Northern California native, Asha is currently the upper school principal of CMA, whose mission is to equitably provide rigorous learning opportunities for historically underserved students. Calling all school leaders and instructional coaches. On March 30th I'll be in New Jersey with my buddy, Dr Jose Fallaz providing a training on immersing cultural responsiveness. Engage with us on strategies to assess your current cultural representation in order to create a more inclusive and welcoming environment. Seats are limited, so grab your tickets today. You can register at leadingequitycenter.com/training. That's leadingequitycenter.com/training.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Welcome advocates to another episode of the leading equity podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their school. Today I've got some special guests with me. I have Dr Soundhari Balaguru, and Ms Asha Canady. So without further ado, thank you to have both of you for coming on the show today.

Dr. Balaguru:

Thank you Sheldon.

Asha:

Thank you. Excited to be here.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

I like to jump right in, but before we jump right in, I want you to share a little bit about the school that you represent and in from there we'll go into our questions.

Dr. Balaguru:

Great. I'm the director of social emotional learning and mental health at Change Makers Academy. We're a TK through eighth grade charter school in Vallejo, California. We were founded about three and a half years ago and we were founded with the vision of academics living alongside social emotional learning and the idea that we could be rigorous in our academic instruction as well as helping students grow and develop as full people.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

All right, well thank you again for being on the show. So let's get into it because one of the things I've found really interesting when I was kind of looking at your school and really doing some investigation on it, you integrate restorative justice and social emotional learning. So help me out, help our listeners out, what is the relationship between RJ and SEL?

Dr. Balaguru:

Great question. So thinking about restorative justice more broadly as restorative practices, it's an umbrella practice that helps us proactively build relationships and community within our students and between students and adults. And so we use that as our umbrella practice within which our academics and SEL live and breathe. And in terms of our discipline model, we use restorative justice as our sole discipline model. We've had two suspensions in the past three and a half years because we are really trying to use restorative practices and restorative justice with fidelity. And so thinking about how RJ and SEL work side by side, there are different ways in which that comes to be true. For example, every morning all of our students are in community circles and so they start their day in a community circle with their peers and their teacher. And each day has a different theme.

Dr. Balaguru:

Tuesdays are toolbox Tuesdays, so we have explicit social emotional learning instruction based on Castle's model of self management, self awareness, social awareness and relationship skills. So we really want to help our students develop those skills in an explicit way and then integrate that through the school day. On Thursdays, for example, we do identity focused circles, circles that focus on validating and affirming our students' ethnic and racial identities. And that can look different at different parts of the year. Sometimes it's like star student of the week and learning about a student and their family and their culture. During heritage months we have students working on projects that highlight role models. So in the fall we celebrated Hispanic heritage month. Currently we're celebrating black history month, we'll be celebrating Asian American Pacific Islander month in a couple of months.

Dr. Balaguru:

And we're really fortunate because Vallejo, the community we're in is one of the most diverse communities in the entire country and so we have many Filipino American students, Mexican American students, African American students, white American students. So we really want to have our students bring their full selves into the school building and see themselves represented at school and be able to be who they are both at home in the community. And so last year we actually invited families to come in and speak to us as a capstone event for each of our heritage months. So we had a small panel of teachers and a family member who would speak to their own schooling experience, how they were taught or not taught about their histories in their own school settings and what it's like to think about what their students are now learning about what their children are learning about. And so I say these different pieces to say that like social emotional learning needs to live in the context of a student feeling like they can be their full selves and that there's the idea that students can do both, that they can grow holistically and feel like they can bring who they are to multiple-

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Soundhari, thank you so much for what you're saying and I think you have such a strong mission with your school with integrating RJ and social emotional learning together. So Asha, I wanted to ask you a question because especially from the discipline side of things and when we're thinking about social emotional learning and we're thinking about how we're supposed to teach our students certain skills and how to manage their emotions and those kinds of things, which sometimes impacts their behavior or often actually impacts their behavior, and so then we have to decide on discipline practices if there are alternatives or what we're going to do about it. So can you just share with us how that has really impacted the discipline side of things when we integrate restorative justice and social emotional learning?

Asha:

Mm-hmm (affirmative).I think that's an excellent question because I feel like sometimes in schools what ends up happening is that when students make a mistake, they are sent out of the classroom, they go to the principal's office or the Dean's office and they're expected to be punished and then they sit back into the learning space. I think we really tried to turn that idea on its head, we think that it is important for students to recognize that accountability is owning up and repairing the harm and in the space in which it was caused. And so a lot of our teachers are really invested in that model and so we're very fortunate to have teachers who are eager to help our students become students who are reflective and we're thoughtful and accountable for what they do in that learning space and to that learning community. And so we partner and we coach and we train our teachers to be able to facilitate the repairing of harm within the learning space.

Asha:

And so that looks a variety of different ways and so thinking about like that student who was disruptive of the learning time of their learning community. You can't make that time back, but you can have that student reinvest in their learning space and in their learning community. And so that can look a variety of different ways depending on kind of what the need is and what the situation is. And so we take a different approach to discipline, our discipline approach is also about support as much as it is about accountability. And so we know that behavior is a function of need and so while we address the behavior that caused the harm, we also want to address what's underlying. And so that's where Dr Soundhari's work comes in, our clinical staff comes in in helping 1) understand what the function of that behavior is and 2) partner with teachers in providing support and resources to address it. And so discipline can't exist in isolation without both of those two components, like support and accountability are critical if we're actually going to fully and holistically help our students make better choices in the future.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Thank you for that. Asha, I appreciate you sharing because again, like you said, support and accountability is important and with our social emotional learning, figuring out what to do in situations when students need some sort of accountability that's accompanied with it. And so I appreciate you sharing with us the model that you utilize. So I want to shift over to Soundhari again because I want to dig deeper into this. I need to know and I'm sure our audience wants to know, how have you been able to integrate these practices into your school?

Dr. Balaguru:

Yeah. Thinking about a student example might be helpful in terms of a student is having troubles with their peers, right? They're often getting into conflict with their peers and part of that is because they can't manage their frustration. So they get frustrated, they explode, they have issues with their peers. So thinking about like how do we help this student grow and learn both as an individual but also in the context of relationships? And so working one on one with that student around managing their emotions, like what are the strategies you can use? What are your tools that you're going to use from your toolbox to be able to bring yourself to the table, to the classroom every day? And then if there is harm cause with a peer in any sort of way with hurting words or hurting hands, sitting down with that peer and understanding the impact that your actions had on them.

Dr. Balaguru:

And I think that sometimes restorative justice gets a bad rap, like, "Oh, we're not holding students accountable." But what holds a student more accountable than sitting across from someone they've hurt and having to hear how did that impact them and how did they feel because of the harm that was caused? And so they do that in relationship, which allows them to really grow in their perspective taking, grow in their ability to have empathy, things that we know from the literature are very difficult for students to develop. And so the integration comes in that individual student's working on it, throughout the school day teachers are integrating that language around toolbox. I would joke that toolbox is our second language that teachers talk about tools throughout the day, they might model, "Oh, I'm getting kind of frustrated, I'm going to take a deep breath right now because people are talking when I'm trying to speak." For example. Right?

Dr. Balaguru:

So they're modeling the tools, they're naming tools for students, so it's integrated throughout the day, students are working on it one on one and then they're doing it in relationship with others in terms of conflict resolution. And so instead of the traditional model where everything is siloed, so a student's been working, working, working on trying to be their best selves, but then they make a mistake and they're kicked out of the community. So there's a mixed message being sent there, like we want to be able to make mistakes and grow from those mistakes and learn and learn through reflection, but then when a mistake is made, you're separated from the community. And so we believe that growth has to happen within school, within the context of classrooms, within the context of the playground, recess, the lunch room, and so that it's really thinking about, how was the overall school functioning for this student and their peers? And making sure that the peers also hear from the student that they're working towards change and being their best selves.

Dr. Balaguru:

For example, recently there was an altercation between students and they went in individually reflected at a harm circle with each other and then came back to their community circle and apologized to their entire classroom for the disruption that they caused. And so thinking about all the skills that they're putting to use in taking all those different steps of accountability is really important in terms of what they're going to take after they leave our setting, after school into the "real world" even though school is the real world for our children, that they know how to work through challenges in multiple ways.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Can I ask you to tell me a little more about the toolbox? You said that's kind of like the second language, so tell me more like what's the foundation behind the toolbox?

Dr. Balaguru:

Yeah. Toolbox is a social emotional learning program that's out there, it was founded in this area in California and it really focuses on some strategies that are very organic, right? We talk about it with our families a lot, they love it because it's very straightforward. Use the breathing tool to calm yourself, you use the taking time tool to take a break. And it's strategies that, as a clinician, I'm familiar with from my clinical work, but it's packaged in a way that's really child-friendly that anybody can use. One thing I really love about the social emotional learning movement becoming more normalized and typical in schools is that I think it's such a great window into de-stigmatizing clinical services or mental health services because the idea is that we all need these tools, right? The toolbox is for everyone. Parents, we talk with parents and they're like, "Yeah when someone cuts you off on the road, Oh mom's using her breathing tool right now." Right?

Dr. Balaguru:

And they're like, "Oh yeah, I'll put a copy on the fridge." And so the idea that everyone can benefit from this, and I find it very important to talk about social emotional learning without this idea of character education because I think these tools should be universal, they should cross different cultural lines. I think that the toolbox tools are ones that people can use to manage their emotions and interact with others in positive ways that supersedes specific differences within families in terms of what they want their students to come away with. So I think it's something that I've found that all are able to support because it's very organic and the tools are really for everyone.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Okay. Thank you. And Asha, I want to bring you in because, as a school principal, I would like to know how you're able to integrate these practices or at least motivate your staff to integrate these practices on that level?

Asha:

Yeah, that's a great question because we know that as good as it sounds, in theory it has to be married with practice. And so our teachers are the ones on the ground who are really making this come alive for our students. And so one of the ways that we encourage this and that we kind of help develop teachers is around that coaching and that professional learning. Before a teacher is anything, they're a learner and so making sure that we as a school have a common language and so we do explicit work around implicit bias so we can have a working framework for what we're talking about when we're talking about being an anti-racist educator. What we're talking about when we're talking about oppression and systematic racism and implicit bias itself. And so we do either a variety of different ways, we consulted with a consultant who comes in and helps lead professional development and we also do some in house with some identity groups where teachers are really able to reflect their own experiences not only as teachers but as people and how that has impacted their work in the classroom.

Asha:

We also know that this work is exhausting. Any great change is going to require a great deal of effort and work, so we also prioritize sustainability and we do that pretty explicitly as well. There are a number of kind of systems in place to prioritize that self care and that sustainability. One of the ones that we are excited about is our continued partnership with the teaching whale and the teaching whale in addition to providing some explicit professional development around trauma informed practices for teachers, but also kind of the impact of secondary trauma on teachers. They also provide onsite mentoring ongoing throughout the school year and so they come to our campus and provide an opportunity for teachers to reflect and to center mindfulness and to do some of those intentional checks that we know are important for sustained longevity.

Asha:

And so in addition to that, we also provide them resources. And so teaching is part of their job, it is a critical part of their job and so that content work is also something that we train and develop our teachers with. And so I like to give you an example, we have in our eighth grade, we're using a curriculum and part of that curriculum is actually to Kill a Mockingbird as part of the literary canon and it has been for decades. But our students are reading it with a really critical lens and with the teacher has really developed frameworks and approaches that are anti-racist and they're critical. And so as their end of the unit, they are writing well-researched letters about whether or not to Kill a Mockingbird should be part of their curriculum and their learning.

Asha:

And students are drawing on research from the disparities in the criminal justice system, which is a central tenant of the book. They're also thinking about like why people are critical of the book, considering the language, whether or not it's appropriate for students, whether or not it harms black students in particular to read the language in the book and they have to make a decision whether or not it should be part of their curriculum. And they're writing this letter and the writing of this letter to me, their principle, in which I am required to respond. And so in response, I'd go into their eighth grade class and they're able to argue with me and they're able to debate me and they're able to kind of debate each other with well-reasoned and impassioned support for whether or not this book should be part of their curriculum. And it was fascinating, it was absolutely fascinating to see where students landed after reading the book, after doing the research and just taking a side. Like do you think that this is something that future eighth graders should be reading in their classes?

Asha:

And so many of them just flourished and they thrived with an assignment like that. And so being able to take something that kids all over the country read and they read every year and it's anything from eighth grade to 11th grade, but to kind of have a really informed opinion about whether or not it has contributed to their learning was really powerful. And I can talk about that assignment for a million years because it was a really good example about kind of giving students an opportunity to grapple with something hard and then just letting them go and do it. And they did, they rose to the occasion and in a really meaningful way. And so our teacher made that happen for them, that was not without intention, that was not without planning, that was not without [inaudible 00:19:40] kids could. So that's just a small snippet.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Just a small snippet. And I appreciate you bringing in an actual example of how this looks. You got involved as an administrator and you responded to them and you allowed to student voice. And like you said earlier, to Kill a Mockingbird is considered one of those classics. However, your teacher as well was able to spin it to make it more of an anti-racist approach. So I love the example and I know there's probably more examples, so Soundhari let me bring you in because I would love to hear another example of what this could look like in your school and maybe from your level.

Dr. Balaguru:

Yeah, I mean I think about teachers and how do we support them in disrupting the school to prison pipeline, right? Like that's what we want to do as educators is provide the best education for our students in multiple ways, academic, social, emotionally, conflict resolution, all of these pieces. And so thinking about when our teachers come together to do this work, that the ultimate goal is to provide a setting where our students can flourish and not be subject to the same oppressions that occur outside of our school building. And so when thinking about like how do we disrupt racism and depression that's been going on for hundreds of years, we don't recreate that within our school building. And so how do we help our teachers feel supported in being able to be part of that disruption, right?

Dr. Balaguru:

In terms of meeting their needs in, "I don't know how to do this harm circle. How can you help me feel more comfortable in doing this?" Right? And so maybe it's pushing in and modeling it with a teacher. Maybe it's in a role play with the teacher. Maybe it's talk through a reflection sheet and like, what are the elements you think should be in there when a student is thinking about their actions? So there's multiple ways in which we coach and consult with our teachers and part of that is because there are clinicians on the team. There are leadership members and administrators who are fully comfortable in doing a harm circle, so that if we're able to model that throughout the school day, whether it be on the playground, like how do you bring two students together who are having a conflict and talk through something so that another teacher can observe that and also enact those same strategies and principles? How do you have a restorative impulse when a student makes a mistake versus thinking about looking for compliance, can we elevate student voice? And how you do that in a way that also pushes them with high expectations?

Dr. Balaguru:

And so the different ways in which we support teachers in being able to do their best works in these multiple areas does take that same integration that we expect in terms of our students, right? That you're using your tools, you're approaching colleagues when there is conflict and talking through it in a restorative way, that you're integrating the academic content and teaching it in a way that is engaging and understandable. And so it's really a parallel process where the leadership team wants to dynamically live out the vision and mission and model and support and the teachers do the same for their students, so that at each level we're consistent in a messaging in the way in which we live out restoration and social emotional competencies.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Okay. Okay. Okay. I like that and thank you for explaining it on your level and also enforcing that our teachers are modeling what we're teaching our students and you're helping them use their toolbox as well. I think sometimes I've seen social emotional learning that puts all the emphasis on the students, it doesn't put any emphasis on the teachers themselves and I mean we get stressed out, like you mentioned earlier, we have our emotions that we're trying to manage and we deal with things just like our students do and if we're not utilizing those practices ourselves, then how beneficial is the school's climate going to be if we're not utilizing it ourselves as well. That you Asha, that includes Soundhari as well, I mean I know that you're using those as well.

Dr. Balaguru:

I'll say, "Dr Soundhari needs to use her breathing tool right now."

Asha:

Yeah.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Okay. So Asha, let me ask you this question because I mean we've heard a lot of highlights how we're integrating social emotional learning and restorative justice together and the model of the school and how things are operating and we talked about some examples, I want to know, what are some of the challenges that you have experienced in this area?

Asha:

I love that question. And we think about a lot of them are challenges as lessons learned. And so we were founded with this mindset and this model and I think that as we've grown as a school, in our student body, in our staff, we realize that we really need assistance to make this work actually sustainable and worthwhile. And so I think when we started, we didn't have the systems in place to really make this kind of thoughtful, enriched learning experience for students and a really thoughtful, enriched learning experience for staff. And so we've gotten big, we've been able to find the middle ground of what systems allow us the flexibility to.. because we don't want it black and white. We don't want to say, "If this happens, then that happens." We want to be able to say, "Hey, when this happens, these are the steps that we need to be able to take to refine it."

Asha:

And so clarifying that for our new staff, clarify like who owns that and who supports has been I think really instrumental. I also think sometimes when schools are like, "Hey, we want to do social emotional learning." Or, "Hey, we wanted to do RJ." It can be really easy to pit all of the focus and the energy into doing social emotional learning and to doing restorative justice and restorative practices. And I wouldn't say that we did so at the expense of academics, but we wanted to make sure that those things were integrating. And at different parts of our journey, they didn't feel integrated, they felt potentially like siloed. Like we're doing RJ right now, when really best practice tells us that we need to be doing RJ and SEL and academics and that there's a relationship between all three of those that has to happen simultaneously.

Asha:

And so I think with some reflection and some feedback from our teachers and kind of just like looking at our own data, we've come to a place where I think we have a really good balance of having those really kind of rich instructional practices alongside those really rich restorative practices and social emotional learning development for our students. And we can bill it as palpable on our campus, we're in a really sweet spot and it feels like we're all kind of rowing in the same direction as an integrated unit. And so I hope that answered your question, it was a mouthful, but we also know that, consistently, we're finding our model as well. And so if you ask me this question next year, I might have an additional answer because this is a learning journey.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

No, no, no. You answered my question because you took us through the process because you said, basically, you had this idea as far as, "Okay, we knew that we needed to integrate RJ, SEL and academics." But you put a lot of focus early on the RJ or the SEL and then you were able to kind of intertwine it all with the academics. But it was important to be able to lay a foundation and so yeah, you answered the question perfectly and I appreciate you taking us through the process and I would agree. Next year we asked the same question, you may have another set of things that you've realized over the last 365 days. Right? So I'm with you. Let me ask Soundhari a question because my show is leading equity and social emotional learning, restorative justice I think are definitely underneath the umbrella of equity, but I want to know from your opinion Soundhari, what does equity look like in the context of SEL and RJ?

Dr. Balaguru:

Great question. I've worked in a lot of different schools and I think one theme that I've often seen is this idea of students not being able to express their feelings and emotions in authentic ways without being punished or disciplined for it. So thinking about that all students should have this opportunity to express themselves, express their feelings, and learn how to manage those feelings. And I think sometimes, especially for people of color, that that can be very fraught, the idea of expressing your feelings is not seen equally when people of different groups express those feelings. And that needs to be addressed and unpacked and dismantled because all of us have feelings, of course, and some of us are also facing additional barriers, being an Indian American woman, myself, and an immigrant myself, there are things on my plate that are not on other people's plate and that's true for many people, whether as individuals or as members of a particular group in society.

Dr. Balaguru:

And I think that those views and feelings need to be able to be expressed and there has to be a space for that and there has to be a space to validate those feelings and also help people manage those feelings without discrediting the challenges that people are going through on a day to day basis. Whether that again, be an individual challenge or one that's broader than just them as one person. And I think that we also know that the discipline practices have disproportionally impacted students of color, black and brown students and that we need to disrupt this system that continues to reenact inequity. So restorative justice alongside social emotional learning can really be a journey towards a more equitable discipline system, a discipline system that allows students to grow and learn through mistakes. Often when... there's a great quote, "When students don't know how to read, we teach them to read. When they don't know how to do a math problem, we teach them how to do math. When a student doesn't know how to behave, we punish them." And so thinking about making sure that we're building a system where adults are empowering students to get better every day, both as individuals and in relationship with others.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Yeah. And it goes back to one of your earlier points about the real world, our kids are in school, this is the real world for them. And, like you said, inside and outside we have to be able to help our students be able to survive and thrive outside and inside of school. I definitely consider the two of you as providing a voice in leading equity, I want to start with Asha, what is one final word of advice that you could provide to our listeners?

Asha:

I think that is so critical to be fearless. I think there are so many different pressures, especially as a school leader to try to make sure that there are teachers and that we're following this curriculum and that we're kind of checking this box. And I think the work of equity doesn't fit neatly into that and sometimes it does require us to kind of sit back and to draw the line in the sand and say, "Hey, this is actually what we're committed to and we're not going to compromise on it." And I think being confident that the teachers will come, the test scores will come, your community will thrive and it will be beautiful, even if you don't end up suspending a student and you have employed a different type of discipline approach, a restorative one, I hope. The world will be [inaudible 00:31:37] because of your fearlessness, students will thrive and they'll have a model for what the world can be and not just what it is and so that's my piece of advice.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Okay. And Soundhari, what about you?

Dr. Balaguru:

I would say break down the silos, right? Integrate all of these pieces, that it's possible. Like there's so many acronyms out there, MTSS, SCL, PBIS, but really at the end of the day, the through line is relationships, right? Connecting, having clinicians who can do a harm circle as well as the individual development skills for students. It's having a principal who can sit in a community circle and both do a fun activity around names, but also be a listening ear to a student who's apologizing to the classroom for a mistake they made. So it's about inviting families in, we've had families come in and support our students in their restorative projects and in their restorative practices. We need to break down the silos and the artificial walls that are put up in between these different practices because when they live together, they're just so much more powerful because there's a system that's supporting student growth in such a much more holistic way.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Hm. All right, well if we have some folks that want to reach out to the two of you, Asha, let's start with you, what is the best way to connect with you online?

Asha:

I think email would probably be the best and my email address is [email protected] and I would love to hear from other educators.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Okay. And Soundhari, what about you?

Dr. Balaguru:

Same for me. Email, which is S, my last name. So it's [email protected] Or you can look for me on LinkedIn as well. And you know we're also expanding and hiring, we're adding two more classes to different grade levels. So definitely check out our [email protected] and we would love to hear from other educators doing this work around the country.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

All right, well once again, I am speaking with Dr Soundhari Belaguru, and Ms Asha Canady. Thank you so much for the time, I appreciate speaking with you and thank you so much for joining me on the show.

Asha:

Thank you so much for having us.

Dr. Balaguru:

Thank you so much.

Dr. Sheldon L. Eakins:

Thank you so much for listening to another episode of the Leading Equity podcast. If you haven't already, please hit that subscribe button. Also, it is so helpful if you could share this podcast with others. One way to share and to help others discover this podcast is to provide a rating on iTunes, it definitely helps support the podcast and also provides a little bit more social proof to the content that's available here. And finally, remember the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, jr, "If you can't fly, then run. If you can't run, then walk. If you can't walk, then crawl. But by all means, keep moving." Let's continue to be a voice in leading equity.

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