Schools worldwide are working through the challenges of navigating a third COVID school year. Walking this path isn’t easy, so we wanted to do something to help. Finalsite invited two school psychologists to share their experience and guidance for building relationships and forming mindful communications in today’s ever-changing environment.
Finalsite’s Chief Marketing Officer Risa Engel and Director of Communications Morgan Delack sat down with Dr. Lesley Roberts, Ed.D. and Jennifer Peck-Nolte, ED.S., LAMFT in September, 2021. In this panel discussion, the group discussed:
- How to effectively communicate with people who have differing points of view
- Tips for building stronger relationships with parents and faculty
- Strategies for building a mental health alliance for your school community
- Self-care suggestions for school leaders
Watch the video below or keep scrolling to read the transcription.
Question 1: What Do Families Need?
Risa Engel: What are the needs of today’s families? How are they different from pre-pandemic times?
Lesley Roberts: Our families have a lot of the same needs that they had before. In addition to that, before the pandemic, parents were getting communications from the school district. And now with so much new information coming out, they’re getting multiple communications at a rapid pace. They are dealing with lots of meetings, virtual meetings. They’re getting new protocols, so they’re really being inundated with a lot of information.
Also I would say social connections are different. Families are connecting with people differently. In some cases, they are missing that social connection all together. And the way we communicate with families needs to be different.
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: Just to echo what Lesley said, we need to remember that there’s a lot of fatigue. And to just be mindful of our families. The communication we are sending out really needs to be mindful of the length and the frequency. Making things brief and concise are something that our families appreciate. As well as the tools and an easy place to find information. Because there’s so much of it, and so much is coming virtually at them, everyday. And I also think that there’s a need for assurance from school leadership of safety and there are well-defined protocols. Parents are really wanting to make sure that their children and families are safe. And that’s something that we didn’t have to be thinking about as much prior to the pandemic that we are living through.
And finally, I would say that it’s really important that schools are addressing the mental and emotional wellness of our communities. That is a need that has always been present but it has risen to the forefront because of what we’ve been living through, so it is really important to be mindful that we don’t need to avoid these issues, but rather to handle and address them in a sensitive way that communicates concern, care and empathy while not being overwhelming.
Question 2: What Situations Should School Communicators Be Mindful Of?
Morgan Delack: As communicators, it’s difficult to start a district or school communication without really understanding what people are going through. That is the reason we start with these two questions up front. Not only how are the needs different of today’s families but what subgroups or situations should communicators and school leaders be especially mindful of?
Lesley Roberts: There are the obvious subgroups, the ones you hear on the news. And then there are the subgroups that we don’t really think about. We hear that our students of color are going to be more impacted by COVID economically in those ways, our black and brown students, more than their white counterparts. But then there also are students with disabilities, our special education students, and that’s top of mind for me because of what I do.
Our students with medical disabilities come with some complex needs. Our parents of those students are approaching school with different emotions than they did before. Before they were coming and wanting to make sure their students were educated and safe, and now there’s this added layer of COVID that brings fear.
And then we've also got our students who were freshmen last year but had their freshman year remotely. But we also have to remember that our freshmen from last year are technically freshmen as well. So we’ve got two years, two classes of students who have never been in the building before, and will need a certain level of attention.
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: Just being aware that when we think about the subgroups we are looking at parents as well. Parents of students of color, parents of students who are having learning challenges. Needing to make sure we are remembering these groups of people and being mindful of their needs.
I also wanted to mention there’s this whole group of students who never had their freshman year, and then we think about the students who are younger, who are now in first or second grade who did kindergarten online. So there are key milestones that we need to be thinking of and talking about within our communities — being mindful that some of these students are really just missing so much that would have been typical in another time.
Lesley Roberts: As we’re thinking about them, we’re also thinking about the families. The parents of the kindergarteners who are starting school for the first time, those parents are starting school for the first time as well. And the freshman parents who are starting high school, that’s a huge milestone. We’re really thinking about those parents and families who are starting these new things. For us, we do this every day, we do this every year, but our families are doing this for the first time.
Jennifer Peck Nolte: Keep in mind ,as everyone has already expressed, there are students who, no matter what grade level they are, have spent very little time in their school buildings. And for some it’s difficult for them to come back. It’s difficult for some staff to come back. It’s difficult for parents, and for students.
I saw a statistic that said 42% of teenage students never attended any virtual online class. We need to really be mindful of many different groups that in other times we wouldn’t necessarily be thinking about.
Question 3: How Can Schools Motivate Faculty and Staff?
Risa Engel: This segues from Jen, your comment, into faculty and staff. They are people too, they are parents too, they have kids. And they are going through a lot of the same things you are talking about. They might be a parent that you need to be more mindful about, but also they need to be teachers, they need to be supportive. We’ve heard the stories and read the articles about faculty burnout. So how can schools motivate faculty and staff when they are suffering from burnout?
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: I heard a nurse in my school district last year, whose daughter was a teacher, say ‘my daughter has expressed to me that teaching was like waitressing in two different restaurants.’ Having to teach on two different platforms. I’m in a building now where there’s equipment to do two different things (teaching in person and virtually) and our staff and faculty are tired. I would say that it’s really important to be mindful of not throwing new stuff at the faculty, but rather making time to make things easier. How can we lighten the load?
I think one of the benefits, silver linings, is that faculty meetings sometimes can be on Zoom. You can allow faculty to leave and communicate to them that you’re understanding and they can do their meeting at home. Or just making it available and accessible for them to be able to breathe, to take a break and pause.
I think about leveraging the community around something positive, like schools’ parent teacher organizations, finding out what they can do to motivate faculty and staff. What are the needs? Finding out what the needs are and making sure that we can really encourage and lift them up, because it’s just been so difficult and people are tired and here they are entering still a period of unknown.
Lesley Roberts: I would add that the work is still there. The work to be done doesn’t change for schools. I think being really mindful of the new initiatives. There's always a new initiative, and I think teachers get burnt out just on that. This is something else to do. Being mindful that the work we are doing and that we’re asking them to do, is truly meaningful and that it's connected.
Teachers don’t mind the work, they don’t mind working, that's why they’re here. What they don’t like is when it's work that doesn’t make sense, that isn't meaningful, that's not connected, that’s it’s just another thing to add on. But when it’s meaningful and connected and leads somewhere, I think it’s important to be mindful of that.
Another thing is there are things we can do for teachers that Jen mentioned as well as just understanding and creating a space to just listen. Sometimes they don’t want you to necessarily do something, they just want you to give a little grace.
I had one teacher who had childcare issues that she really could not get around. So what could I do to accommodate that for her? It was just one time. Those sorts of things, giving grace, goes a long way.
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: I love that, giving grace. Just as we talk about supporting the mental wellness of our students, it is really important to take time to recognize that the same needs to be true for faculty and staff. Because when we do that for faculty and staff, they’re going to be able to support the wellness of students, it's a trickle effect.
In my district last year, we used an inservice day, instead of the more traditional ways it's used, it was for a faculty wellness day. There were options for people to take part in, there were some directed initiatives in the morning but then there were opportunities for people to go for a walk, for people to engage in mindfulness, there were staff that led some of these activities. I would really encourage staff leaders who are working with leaders and those who are communicating out to the public, to know that this is something we are doing to support our faculty and staff as well. We have to walk the walk if we’re going to talk about it to the rest of our community. We have to model it ourselves. I encourage that, to take those times, to give grace and to find out how we can accommodate.
Lesley Roberts: If you say as a district that mental health is important to you, be able to show how it is important to you. Be able to point to those things that you do that show that mental health is important to you. How do we know?
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: As communicators, how do you communicate that to the outside and say we are doing this and this is important and a priority?
Morgan Delack: As a former school communicator, I often felt like I was the trusted voice for my colleagues and I wanted to be that safe person for everyone. Maybe someone on this call might find it valuable to create a form where they could get confidential feedback from the district. Or make office hours where people could come in and have a confidential conversation. Those are things that I took away from what you said that I could apply to my work as a communicator in a district or a school.
Question 4: How Can Schools Communicate with Parents who Challenge COVID Protocols?
Morgan Delack: We all have parents who are still challenging some of our COVID protocols, whether that’s at a board meeting or on social media— it could be any number of ways. What are some suggestions you have on how we can communicate with people who are still challenging COVID protocols?
Lesley Roberts: Communicate with empathy — we all have our points of view. That’s normal, that’s natural, that’s human to have your point of view, your opinion. But in the end, as professionals, we have to support the board policies. The board policies are what they are, and it’s my job and teachers’ jobs to support that.
If a parent is struggling with that, I would say to listen and hear what they’re saying, allow them to speak their truth. But then in the end, perhaps being honest about what the policy is and your job is to support that policy. How can I support you in becoming more comfortable with this policy? What can I do to help you become more comfortable with it? It could be about a mask or not a mask, it could be about anything. But how can I help you become more comfortable in this environment to which you belong, to which we all belong?
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: That’s one of our themes this year where I work is “belonging”. It’s coming from a place of positivity. One of the chats someone wrote and I agree, is that somehow we’ve forgotten how to be kind. That’s what Lesley and my work is about— making sure we remember that. Somehow again, this all loops back to mental health and wellness, from my professional opinion. People need to learn how to engage in their own self to make sure we are communicating kindness, that we are modeling that to our communities. I think really it's a piece of self-reflection, but yes, I agree with Lesley it's how we help people to understand that these are the boundaries, but how do we do it with kind, caring and empathic language?
Question 5: How Can Schools Help Bridge a Divided Community?
Risa Engel: We’re living in a time where our communities are divided. There’s a lot of polarization in our society over many issues, some of them have to do with COVID and some of them don’t. That being said, people have not really been together for the last 18 months and now they need to come together. Maybe we can do something to help heal this divide that’s in our world right now. How would you recommend on how schools help bridge a divided community?
Lesley Roberts: It's great to bring people together around a common cause. There's a lot of things that divide us, but there are also a lot of things that unite us. And a lot of those things are built into the school year. I think focusing on those things and bringing the community together around those things. We have homecoming coming up and there are lots of other things, even at the elementary and early childhood level, that happen throughout the year. Bringing people together around those things and focusing on what unites us rather than what divides us.
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: Why are we here? Just as Lelsey said, outside of my office here I’m hearing sounds of student voices. That’s why I’m here. I wanted to say that idea of belonging again as we were talking about, at the start of the school year. This year, the head of the middle school was doing a parent orientation and she said, “you belong at Princeton Day School.” I think rallying around a common cause, these are things that faculty love to see, too.
Ask for parent involvement. Parents want to help, communities want to help. Consider providing a forum for parents. Last year in my district we did parent academies, this year parents are still not allowed in the buildings yet, but what can we do for parents that can still be supportive? What are some things that can still take place with us all together? Spirit weeks, pizza Fridays, whatever it is, these are the positive things that make us rally around positivity and bring us together as a community. Attending athletic events, all of those things.
Risa Engel: And right now when the weather is nice, a lot of those things like athletic events, you can still bring people together outside pretty safely. Even to host an orchestra dinner you can do it outside and invite parents to come and bring food.
Lesley Roberts: When the weather gets cold, something that helps people feel like they are part of something is when they see themselves in something. So if there are ways to highlight people and show people’s pictures on screens and if people can point and say, “that’s me”, or “I worked on that”, where they can see themselves is where they can come together and own it.
Risa Engel: That’s definitely something for a communications office function. 100% we can help with that.
Morgan Delack: That's a great tip for anyone who’s listening in a communications or marketing role. You have the power to validate people by posting their picture or sharing their involvement and I think that’s great.
Risa Engel: Even inviting them to share their stories, so if they can’t be in the building, you can share their stories and help them feel a part of the community and have the community get to know them as well.
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: Put it out there on Twitter on Instagram, and make sure that when parents and faculty see themselves, it brings people together and makes people feel excited and vested when it’s happening. Pictures say a lot, and make sure it’s trying to make a community that shows, “you belong here, this is important and we want you here. And we miss you!”
That’s another thing, in my communications last year in counseling, I used to say, “we miss you! We can’t wait to hear you, we can’t wait to have you back, we can't wait to see your faces and to do things with you and have you as part of our community in terms of a live face-to-face. We can't wait until we can see your smile without a mask, but for now, this is the way it is”, so how can we make it so they can see themselves in our places?
Question 6: How Frequently Should Schools Send Communications to Families?
Morgan Delack: We’re sending a lot of communications from all over, from the top level all the way down to the classroom level. From your vantage point, what is the recommended frequency of communications when there’s burnout? How often should we be sharing information and what should that look like?
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: I’ll be quick on this and say, concise, brief. Short emails get read, and should be communicated from whoever is superintendent or head of school. Short, affirming, encouraging and positive emails. I also think it’s important that when it’s something that needs to be longer, that we pick up the phone and we have a live conversation.
Finally, too, do you have an area on your website that is a hub where parents and students and anyone can find information easily? That is so important. No one has time to go through a maze to figure out where my child’s homeroom is or when the homecoming event is. Make it easy, accessible and pronounced so people feel like the school understands their needs.
Risa Engel: I think that last year, most districts and schools had a COVID hub, that’s where you found all of the information about health and safety, but they didn’t necessarily have a communications hub. So the communications hub is not just your safety hub, it’s all the information that parents have been looking for. Do you have quick links to all of the emails that your superintendent has put out? Do you have a quick link to your COVID page? Really all the information that parents are going to be looking for or that you’ve sent out already in some other way. You should have some links back to that in a central location where parents can go to find something. Make it easy for them. People shouldn’t need to hunt and peck.
Lesley Roberts: You can also find different ways to communicate. I love the hub. But also doing video presentations or video live streams and doing a few more of those. Maybe once a month the superintendent or assistant superintendent will communicate with the community to give them an overview into what’s happening instead of so many emails.
Risa Engel: We also last year pulled together a hub of our own, so we pulled together a lot of school examples if you’d like to take a look at www.finalsite.com/covid-19.
Question 7: How Can School Communicators and Leaders Partner with School Mental Health Teams?
Risa Engel: We’ve talked about this and Jen, you’ve referenced some of the programs you’ve put together in your district. How do you recommend that school leaders and communicators partner with school mental health teams?
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: Communicators, spend time with us and reach out, and I think this is not too often done. We’re talking about our areas of work, let’s talk to the mental health professionals and what is happening and how we can partner together. One of the silver linings of the pandemic is that mental health and wellness has risen to the forefront of conversations in schools. Schools that didn’t have programs before are creating programs now.
If I was a communicator in a school I would use that knowledge to seek out information from these departments in your school and communicate that information out, because it’s on the minds of the parents, the students and the community. Make that discourse, and use that information to convey what the school or district is doing around mental health. It could be an article, speaker, or parent academies.
Lesley Roberts: I would only add for school districts to connect with mental health providers and establish relationships with them, ongoing relationships, so in times of a crisis, if there ever is a crisis, there’s already a relationship there.
Morgan Delack: We have a question in the chat about frequency or cadence of communications. How frequently should schools and districts be pushing out information?
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: If you are talking about superintendents or heads of school, it varies. In a public school district where I was working, a superintendent put something out at least monthly. In indy schools, I see something happen more on a weekly basis.
Lesley Roberts: I think it varies. I would say that I like the once a month because it’s a nice touch point and it’s not overkill. I would also say that be sure you’ve brought the admin team together to vett the information you are putting out, instead of maybe sending this communication and then having to send another because you didn’t cover everything you needed to cover. Also, that what goes out is everything people need to know.\
Risa Engel: In the time with COVID outbreaks and everything else, there was so much over communication when schools came back in session last year. And there will be more communication that goes out this year that was not typically a pre-pandemic sort of communication. I think if you can come up with a regular cadence for those, maybe it’s once a week, where there’s an update. Again you have a dashboard on your communication hub or your health hub that is updated regularly if that information needs to be updated every day. If you have a push of that information out to remind parents less often that might be helpful. That way you aren’t sending out daily email reminders and the people that want to go get it daily can.
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: I agree completely. People need accessibility to it, and daily will be too much. But make it easy for people. Decide on the cadence. For me I know every week I can expect to see something from my son’s school. I know the timing of it and if I want to find it, there it is.
Risa Engel: I think there is a whole new level of information that we’re sending out now that was not present before. You have to remember that the normal things still need to go out. Because life goes on, we need to make it as normal as possible for the kids, and for the parents. Managing to be transparent, to share information but not overload, it’s a dance.
Q9: What suggestions do you have for self care?
Morgan Delack: We talked about helping others, but we haven’t talked about helping ourselves yet. Often we are the ones feeling the burnout as school leaders and communicators. How is it that you recommend people in these positions take care of themselves when it’s unlikely that they are going to be able to take a pause and take a day off because there is just so much going on. What are some easy ways that people on this call can take care of themselves?
Lesley Roberts: People just don’t want to take a day off because coming back is just so much harder. My supervisor told me that she really encouraged me to block off time on my calendar, and I think to get that from my supervisor was big;for her to give me the okay. Of course it was something that I would want to do, but to get the okay to do that was big. To block off time in my calendar, I only do that once a week because that’s really all I can afford, where I don’t schedule anything and I can't be scheduled. It doesn’t mean that I’m not working, but I know I'm doing things that I need to do for me.
I think in addition to that you’ve got to do something everyday. But personally, whatever it is that you do for you, for some people it’s prayer, once a day. For some people it’s meditation once a day. Maybe it’s a time of reflection, whatever that is for you, I say carve out some time in the morning, in the evening, in the middle of the day, whenever it is that works for you, and do that thing. The people who do that tend to be more centered. And on the days if you find you make it a habit, you have more of a repertoire of ways to handle stress. The days you don’t do it, things may not go as well, you may not be as centered. Your decision making is different.
Jennifer Peck-Nolte: I concur with you, Lesley.t I think that we should make sure we walk the walk to those in our community. Certainly in our field we have to try to walk that walk. I’ve always heard, make sure that you’re stopping, to halt. Don’t get too hungry, angry, lonely or tired. And don’t make decisions when you’re in that place.
I’m a big fan of being outside in nature as much as possible, and if it’s possible to walk outside during the day, depending upon where you are. Or just make sure that you are saying, “I'm not going to check email during this time.” I did post an article from our wellness educator that was sent out this week, where she’s not taking any electronic communication. That’s not possible for some people here, but just making sure you’re devoting some time every day to self care.
Lesley Roberts: I love that, halt. Say that again?
Jen Peck-Nolte: When we look at psychology and neuroscience and the brain, when we are more in fight-, our amygdala is acting in that manner when we are hungry, angry, lonely or tired, and we’re going to react instead of act. And so as you said, our decision-making is not going to be in the same place as if we take that time to make sure we are nourishing ourselves, our spirit and our body.
The ongoing stress of communicating and leading your school or district through this pandemic can take its toll both personally and professionally. Dr. Lesley Roberts, Ed.D. and Jennifer Peck-Nolte, LAMFT share tips for mindfully communicating in order to unite communities, prevent burnout and create a school culture of caring and inclusion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Morgan Delack is Finalsite's Director of Communications, leading the marketing team's public school content, branding initiatives and professional development events. Morgan's background is a mixture of public school communications and television journalism, having worked in both industries for several years. She was named among NSPRA's 35 under 35 and has earned two Emmy Awards for her work in broadcasting. Morgan lives in the Chicago area with her husband and two kids.