Back to School With Heart

"Educating the mind without educating the heart is no education at all." -- Aristotle

Back to school has a different meaning for parents with children who have learning differences or behavioral challenges. For this group of parents, the usual to-do list of back-to-school shopping and signing up for soccer is often trumped by concerns about academic success, advocating for extra support or tutoring, academic probation and, in some cases, fear around detention and suspension.

For me as a mom, the beginning of each school year is fraught with anxiety and concern. My son's academic journey has been filled with challenges, starting with his most difficult year in kindergarten. As eighth grade begins, we finally have a clear picture of his educational needs, thanks to recent educational testing. With a master's degree in education, experience running a non-profit for children's neurodevelopment and a supportive school team for my son, I should be able to handle this yet I am still anxious and overwhelmed with the daunting task of advocating for him.


Because even with the tremendous progress we have made in accepting learning disorders and mental health challenges, we are still not embracing or understanding these differences well enough. For example, when my son had serious learning issues within the first weeks of kindergarten, the response of the school was that he needed an evaluation for more support, which would take six to eight weeks to schedule. We all know that if my child had shown up at the door to the school in a wheelchair, accommodations would have been made immediately.

In my work at the Flawless Foundation, I try to use our family's experiences to help others. Despite the challenges, I always look at the big picture. While we have a long way to go, a change in culture around these issues is happening. To shift the paradigm, we need to start with the youngest generation, since discrimination will end when children are educated in this aspect of health in the same way as they learn about sex education, nutrition and substance abuse. I am very encouraged by the revolutionary work listed below that has been launching in our schools. These programs are providing hope for radical change!

Shifting the paradigm from kindergarten through college

Mind UP
Goldie Hawn has founded MindUP, collaborating with neuroscientists and educators to create a program that fosters a holistic classroom-learning environment where a child's ability to succeed and thrive is directly linked to their overall state of well-being. MindUP has been proven to reduce stress, improve academic performance, strengthen abilities for concentration and help children and educators thrive in community. Students learn how to self-regulate and increase focus and attention. The lessons support academic skills as well as social and emotional development. The research from the Hawn Foundation on MindUP has been very promising, showing tremendous increase in executive functioning, social awareness and overall well being.

To learn more, watch this informative TEDMED Talk where Goldie Hawn and Dr. Dan Siegel talk about the positive effects of mindfulness for children

RULER from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence
Dr. Marc Brackett and his team at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence have created the RULER Approach which is transforming education through programs and trainings that develop the social and emotional skills of children and adults. Their tagline is "Emotions Matter," and through their research and programs, they have developed tools and curriculum for schools to focus on emotions as a central part to all aspects of learning, teaching and leading.

The five key RULER skills are :
Recognizing emotions to obtain valuable information about themselves and their environment;
Understanding the causes and consequences of emotions to predict behavior;
Labeling emotions to describe feelings precisely;
Expressing emotions to communicate effectively and in socially appropriate ways;
Regulating emotions to promote learning and personal growth, including healthy relationships.

The RULER Approach is catapulting a change in school culture and creating caring communities where children and educators are well-balanced and more successful. The quote from Aristotle at the top of this blog is the very first thing that you read when you open up their training manual and this heart centered philosophy infuses all aspects of their work.

Behind Happy Faces Mental Health Curriculum

Ross Szabo, CEO of the Human Power Project, partnered with Zeta Tau Alpha sorority to create Behind Happy Faces Mental Health Curriculum. The curriculum is rolling out this fall to over 25,000 college and high school students, including all 163 chapters of Zeta Tau Alpha.

Behind Happy Faces gives students the tools they need to address their mental health and makes this issue more approachable. The lessons in the curriculum remove the stigma surrounding brain health, provide exercises to help students develop a vocabulary to talk about their emotions, offer steps on how to change ineffective coping mechanisms and provide guidance on how to spot warning signs and approach a friend in crisis.

Not only are these programs being utilized in schools, but parts of the RULER Approach and Behind Happy Faces were taught this summer at Born This Way Foundation's Born Brave Retreat, a camp for youth activists. Mainstreaming this type of learning is crucial, and having the curriculum as part of a summer camp is another step in the right direction.

Whether a child is entering kindergarten or their first year of college, curriculum around learning and brain health is essential. In reality, social, emotional and brain health form the foundation for many other aspects of our health and success. By implementing curriculum in schools and colleges, we will be able to normalize brain health and teach students that our mental health is as important as our physical health.

It is time to be going back to school with more than brand new backpacks filled with school supplies. Here's to the 2014-15 school year kick-off with vigilant attention to EVERY aspect of our children's health and development!