Academic advancement can’t be achieved without prioritizing and teaching the importance of mental health.
That’s the lesson Trumbull Superintendent Dr. Gary Cialfi and crisis intervention specialist Bill Mecca have learned throughout their careers as educators — one that was reinforced to them in August, when keynote speaker Dr. Marc Brackett delivered a convocation address to Trumbull faculty and administrators before kicking off the 2015-16 school year.
Brackett, the director of the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence, left such a strong impression that morning that the schools knew they had to have him return to speak with students and parents about social-emotional learning.
“I’ve never had a keynote speaker resonate like him,” Cialfi recalled. “The convocation usually ends with teachers jumping out of their seats to get into their classrooms, but they stayed and talked with Dr. Bracket.
“The consensus among the staff and faculty was ‘We need our students and parents to hear this,’ and that’s when I knew right away we had to bring him back.”
Fortunately, that moment has arrived for Trumbull learners and their parents. Brackett is scheduled to make his presentation at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 20, in the Trumbull High School auditorium.
The key components of the presentation will be the role of emotions in learning, decision making, relationships, mental health, and academic performance; means to measure emotional intelligence; and the development of emotional intelligence among adolescents and teens.
Mecca, a Trumbull parent and a social worker at the high school, said it’s an event that residents who care about the future of education shouldn’t miss.
“Social-emotional learning looks very different from district to district and even state to state — it has been fragmented, and episodic, until now,” he said. “It’s not standardized like math or English or science, and that’s what we have to overcome; we have to be able to measure it and prepare our students with it, because there are currently no benchmarks and standards for emotional and social learning skills. …
“We assume everyone has what they need to graduate from high school — all the measures show that THS does well, all the proficiency and performance assessments and the final exams, but when you review students’ attitudes about themselves and their opinions of academics, it shows that they’re stressed and feeling pressured,” he said. “We want them feeling satisfied and empowered.”
Building a framework
Mecca, who has more than 20 years of clinical experience helping individuals, families, employees, and communities and is certified by the International Critical Stress Foundation to deliver crisis intervention services, said Brackett’s speech will be the first brick in what will soon become Trumbull’s foundation for social-emotional learning.
He said some concepts of the modern school day might be need to be challenged or re-examined to fully ingrain the philosophy into Trumbull schools.
“Maybe we want to make the high school experience look different,” Mecca said. “That can be anywhere from the overall feel of the building to the structure of classes or the structure of the day.”
Looking at the education budget, both at a local and state level, the Trumbull father sees inadequacies.
“We do great with academics, but it can’t just be that — we need more than just honors and AP classes to be a great school system. We have significant mental health needs that need to be addressed and measured,” he said.
“UConn’s mental health counseling center has issued several reports that they couldn’t keep up with the counseling demands of their student population, and Yale undergraduates have also caused that school to make similar complaints — that needs aren’t being met — and that’s because at the middle and high school levels we aren’t doing enough to help our kids,” he said. “We need to give them more instruction in how to manage increased stress, how to talk to themselves about their emotions, and how to set healthy limits.”
Merging academics and emotions
For Mecca, establishing healthy habits and recognizing emotions in a given situation are the tactics that can defeat bad behaviors, like alcohol and drug consumption, or standard teenage angst like withdrawing emotionally from a situation.
Cialfi believes that Trumbull students can learn these tools and others by merging academics with social-emotional learning.
That’s why in his budget this year he’s put more of an emphasis on increasing health resources — not only in the school but also in the classroom.
“Teaching health, nutrition and fitness at the grade nine level is not enough — it’s not a matter of going to a health class,” he said. “Our upperclassmen — our juniors and seniors — need to address health issues, and that’s why we want to focus on decision making and relationships in all our classrooms.
“It’s systemic,” he added. “This is not something that will be here today and gone tomorrow — this will continue to be part of our schools.”
Taking over as lead commander of Trumbull schools three years ago, Cialfi said mental health was a top priority.
That’s why he installed mental health professionals at both of the middle schools in town and added another full-time social worker at the high school to address what he calls a “two-prong priority.”
The merge has to be done carefully, he insists, and it can’t done as it has been in the past.
“We can’t just throw social-emotional learning and development onto someone else and make it their responsibility,” he said, talking about the transition from high school to college.
“We have to take care of our students while they’re here,” he said. “It’s not just about the schools, it’s about the community — we have to be cognizant of emotional intelligence at all times.”
Not an extracurricular
Just as Cialfi believes that emotional intelligence needs to go beyond just a requirement for high school freshmen, Mecca is confident that Trumbull schools can teach students to become less dependent on bad habits and make them overcome challenging situations before they make the transition from high school to college.
“This is the moment where we move toward educating the whole child,” he said. “We’re at a point where we have to say, ‘Let’s not make this an extracurricular anymore.’
“It can’t be an either/or anymore,” he said. “We have to build a culture here in Trumbull that beyond elementary school it’s very important to develop emotional skills with academics — we need to revamp the traditional academic structure.”
According to Mecca, once the hyper focus is removed from math or English instruction, then real progress can be made.
“People are persuaded and influenced by surveys and stories on the Internet that don’t comprehend everything,” he said. “These surveys don’t see the whole picture because they’re designed to measure only a few things, and that takes readers — people who live in our community — down a very narrow path and makes them see it in a very limited framework.”
After hearing Brackett speak in August, Mecca and dozens of his colleagues at the high school walked away feeling their assumptions and observations over the few years had been validated.
“We’ve been interested in this for quite some time, and that’s why we’ve been developing professional groups at the high school that focus on empowerment and inspiration,” he said. “We’ve been giving demonstration lessons and seeing how we each respond to them and then we made modifications. …
“The real goal is to create a bank of lessons and have the student become fluent in this emotional language,” he said. “That’s why this summer we’re going to pick one building in the district and integrate the Yale center’s standards and lessons and have that school adopt that as their focus for the year and be the model school in our district.”
A lot more to come
The next step — besides getting people to listen and buy into Brackett’s presentation on why emotions matter significantly in school and everyday life — is for Trumbull to partner with other districts to create benchmarks.
“We have to be able to articulate that to the state and make decisions based on that tangible information,” Mecca said.
Perhaps most important is a partnership between Trumbull teachers and parents in town.
“We’ve got to partner with parents in this initiative,” he said. “We really have to make it a collaborative process and we need them to realize that the expectations have changed and that we need to evolve. …
“There’s a lot more to come,” he added. “This will require a long-term investment and commitment.”