by Marissa Jones
Business Development and Special Projects Manager, Change for Kids
Mental health is equally as important as physical health, and each can affect the other in myriad ways. However, there is still a stigma surrounding mental health and the open discussion and treatment thereof. If you felt sick, or you thought your ankle might be sprained, or you seemed to be having an allergic reaction, you wouldn’t hesitate to go to the doctor and treat those issues impacting your physical health – why should mental health be any different?
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, which has been observed in the U.S. since 1949. According to mentalhealth.gov, “[m]ental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”
I’m really proud that Change for Kids is a passionate advocate for social-emotional learning (SEL) and for ensuring a holistic educational experience for all children. It may be more difficult for someone with mental health concerns to actively show competency in areas such as empathy, self-regulation, emotion recognition and management, impulse control, and more. However, with a focus on SEL embedded in day-to-day interactions, the intricate link between SEL and mental health can be strengthened. Many of Change for Kids’ partner schools have implemented a PBIS (Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports) program in their school communities, having recognized the need for increased interventions in the areas of social, emotional, and behavioral support. PBIS programs can take many forms and can be used in many different settings, and the ultimate goal is to recognize and reinforce positive and pro-social behaviors.
One such program is the Psycho-Educational Model, or PEM. The hallmark of PEM is to ‘catch kids being good,’ and reinforce positive behaviors at a higher rate than negative behaviors. Codified most prominently as the treatment model of Boys Town, a nationally recognized leader in the realm of child care and positive youth development, PEM is a self-help model. Hundreds of “PEM skills” are available to choose from, and most frequently, youth and their caretakers work together to decide which PEM skills are appropriate for them to focus on.
For example, if a kid displays positive behaviors related to the skill of “self-monitoring/self-reflection”, an adult directs the youth to give themselves points. The adult does not write the points down, but instead initials next to where the child wrote their PEM skill and applicable behavior. If kids don’t write their points down, they don’t count toward their daily level. This model encourages youth to take direct action and invest in themselves through their own positive choices; by modelling appropriate pro-social behaviors and statements, adults are able to show youth, who may be struggling, a path forward to regulate their emotions and behaviors. PEM is used throughout all settings – at home, in school, and while out and about in the community. This model works because of its consistency, and can be easily modified to suit all age levels, whether at school or at home.
So how do PBIS, PEM skills, SEL, and mental health all converge? Put it this way: if a child’s mental health is suffering, they are likely to struggle with self-efficacy and self-regulation of emotions and behaviors – key indicators of high levels of competencies in SEL. Conversely, if a child is lacking in social-emotional skills, they may not have the wherewithal to gauge their own behavior patterns and emotional responses, leading to the inability to advocate for themselves to receive support for their mental health needs. That’s why providing additional SEL resources to our schools – and supporting their existing programs – is such a primary focus for CFK. You can learn more about the interconnectivity of SEL and mental health here.
During Mental Health Awareness Month, encourage your children (and other adults, too!) to be open and honest in their discussions around mental health, and to seek help if needed. The only way to eradicate the stigma around mental health is to start from the ground and work our way up, and have nonjudgmental conversations about mental health and mental illness. If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health, please seek out help using any of the following resources:
National Alliance on Mental Illness; 1-800-950-NAMI
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Mental Health America
National Institute for Mental Health
by Mesha Allen, CFK Volunteer Coordinator
This is National Volunteer Month, a time that always makes me reflect on how grateful I am for the volunteers that helped me learn, who shaped my determination to make a difference for kids into my choice as a career. I originally got involved in volunteer work because of the impact it had on me as a child. I saw that positive role models cared about my well being, my education, and my future. Volunteers can serve as a catalyst to demonstrate to children that there are multiple ways to escape the cycle of poverty, inequity, and despair. Children have the future in their hands, and being someone who can help them mold that future is what the volunteers in our schools provide.
I was able to fuel my own drive to serve after my acceptance into AmeriCorps in October 2018. The AmeriCorps program consists of a network of local, regional, and national organizations committed to using service to address critical community needs in education, public safety, health, and the environment. I serve in a leadership and professional skills building program called Public Allies, which places its members within nonprofit organizations. I feel very lucky that my placement is with Change For Kids as the Volunteer Coordinator.
As an Ally, I use my leadership skills to help strengthen Change For Kids in addressing the real issues facing kids in NYC’s Title 1 elementary schools, including lack of access and opportunity facing thousands of families with young children. CFK believes that the road to success is to provide public elementary school students a holistic education that addresses their whole person, not just their academic performance. Change For Kids values our volunteers so much, because they inspire our students and enrich our school communities by supporting our efforts to improve literacy, social-emotional learning, and community engagement.
As a CFK volunteer, you are working to help create positive learning environments for our students, and strengthening our capacity to meet the evolving needs of our schools and communities. Our programs include reading and literacy, music, sports, arts and crafts, STEM, career exploration, school beautification projects, fitness activities, and so much more. YOU are the link connecting CFK’s mission to lead as powerful change agents, providing direct and valuable support to underserved elementary school children within NYC public schools, and making a long-lasting impact on their young and hungry minds!
At CFK, we invest in deepening relationships with volunteers and organizations who can help us provide us with the human capital and resources necessary to continue the critical work we do in public elementary schools. That’s why we value you so much, that’s why we encourage you to be part of our community of volunteers, and that’s why we are so grateful to all of our current volunteers.
April is Autism Awareness Month (also known as Autism Acceptance Month). Change for Kids emphasizes Social-Emotional programs for our schools that are designed to help create an environment in which all children can learn at high levels. Every student in every school deserves a quality education – no matter what their learning style is – and every student can learn and achieve.
Our CFK School Managers often interact with students who have a variety of neurodiverse issues that affect the ways they learn and socialize. Here’s one story of academic triumph, as reported by CFK School Manager Charlotte Bush.
Mr. Funky Slow Jams: Dispatches from the Spectrum
It was March of his third grade year, and the little guy still wasn’t talking. He could communicate through writing and drawing just fine, but – to the dismay of both me and his parents – he was still nonverbal. His teachers from past years had told me how “stubborn” he was, and exchanged increasingly implausible theories about why he couldn’t, or wouldn’t speak. He was a sweet, gifted kid. I should know – I was his teacher that year.
I was new to teaching, still hopelessly idealistic, and stumbled onto a helpful tool for him completely by accident. I was sharpening pencils before the school day started, singing to myself. “Gotta sharpen all the pencils” I sang under my breath to an approximation of a tune, as my silent student sat at his desk, eating his cafeteria breakfast. I thought I heard something from his direction, but chalked it up to the growl of the pencil sharpener. As it continued, I stopped my chores and listened: my silent little friend was singing back to me. “Sharpen allllll the pencils” he crooned, for all the world sounding like a nine-year-old Al Green impersonator. My jaw hit the floor, and it continued to descend throughout the day, as my previously silent student sang his answers, sang that he needed to go to the bathroom, and sang goodbye to me and a few of his friends at the end of the day. It was as though we’d turned on a tap, and the words were gushing out of him, albeit always to the same generic funky slow jam. He wasn’t just verbal, he was dulcet. He was Billboard Top 40 – Mr. Funky Slow Jams. And not only that, his self-stimulation (or “stimming”) behaviors that he did when stressed or uncomfortable, like rocking, biting his clothes, and pulling his hair were nowhere to be seen. He seemed to be so much happier, as well as more expressive, because he was able to sing.
So why am I telling you about him? My tuneful buddy had been diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) as a toddler, and difficulty communicating is pretty characteristic of a wide swath of the Autism Spectrum (though of course, every individual case is different.) Mr. Funky Slow Jams is in middle school now, and is very proud of himself. Sometimes, he told me the last time I saw him, he even speaks. He still mostly sings, but his tunes are evolving as he’s exposed to different music. He sang about how much he loved doo-wop, and how his choir friends harmonized with him sometimes, and I must admit, I got a little misty.
You might be wondering as you read this, “is he bullied?” The answer is yes. It’s a cruel world. But that shouldn’t be a reason for him to stop singing. My funky little friend has more resilience on his hardest days than most adults. Instead, his creative solution can serve as a metaphor for inclusive education at its best. Letting him sing instead of speak isn’t “cheating.” It’s the goal of differentiated instruction; leveling the playing field so that all kids can participate. As a former teacher, I know that differentiated instruction is a need as basic to be able to function in school as wearing glasses is to correct vision. A kid who wears glasses isn’t getting an unfair advantage. They’re just getting what they need to see the same materials as their classmates.
As public awareness of ASDs grows, it’s sad that the understanding of ASDs hasn’t increased to meet it. The pop-cultural stereotypes of people with ASD’s – the Sheldons, the Rain Mans, the Sherlocks – none of them prepare you for working with kids like Mr. Funky Slow Jams. Many otherwise well-meaning organizations take a one-size-fits-all approach to supporting people living with ASDs, or even view ASDs as something to be “cured,” or as something that ruins lives. Due to misinformation, some parents are exposing their kids unnecessarily to measles and other diseases that were nearly eradicated through vaccines, rather than have their child risk “catching autism.” That mindset of fear shows just how little is still widely known about this complex series of conditions. I’d like sit down and compassionately tell any parent facing an ASD diagnosis that no, their child won’t become like Sheldon. No, their child isn’t “broken.” No, this isn’t because of something they, the parent did to “make them that way.” And no, it can’t be “cured,” and it doesn’t need to be. Neurodiversity is as normal as a student needing glasses, and the sooner our culture embraces this truth, the better off we’ll all be.
This April, here are some ways you can make a difference to support the autistic community:
- When someone on the spectrum talks about their experience, listen. You may want to reassure them, or try to help, but sometimes, the most helpful thing you can do is listen. Make a space for those on the spectrum to talk about what they’re dealing with.
- Advocate for inclusive education whenever possible.
- Fight stereotypes whenever you can, including those around vaccines.
- Donate to Autism advocacy groups, but please, do the research first. Make sure that the groups you support have people with autism in positions of power, on the board, or in management.
- Keep an open mind when working with kids; solutions and supports can come from anywhere.
When I last saw Mr. Funky Slow Jams, he was not only surviving, but thriving, or “kicking butt in Middle School,” as he sang it. Leveling the playing field for a kid who needs it can be as simple as letting them sing, so this April, let’s make sure all voices are heard!
This month, we’ve been honoring women leaders and educators, many of whom overcame childhood adversity. We looked within our own schools to find inspirational educators who are strong women, and found no shortage. Listen in on our conversation with four of the dedicated teachers who are changing their students’ lives: at P.S. 6x in the Bronx: Ms. Hughes and Mrs. Redzepagic, Ms. Payne at P.S. 329 in Coney Island, and Ms. George, the assistant principal at Grant Avenue. They admit to struggling when they were in school themselves, how their students inspire them, and what they need more of in their classrooms.
CFK: Did someone inspire you to become a teacher? Who, and how?
Ms. George: My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. Alexis, inspired me to become a teacher. She was the first and only African American teacher I had until I reached my sophomore year in high school. She was SUPER STRICT, but BRILLIANT!!
Ms. Hughes: I thought I chose teaching as a profession by myself, but as I learned about my family history in Jamaica, I realized my ancestors were teachers and nurses on both sides of my family. It was already in the blood; I was chosen.
Mrs. Redzepagic: Initially, I thought I’d be an advertising executive in a marketing firm. Along the way I was an assistant manager at a bank, where my manager always complimented me on how well I trained and taught new staff. One day she told me I would make an amazing teacher, and asked me to visit her daughter’s classroom. I did…and instantly fell in love with the profession. I signed up for graduate school the next day. My bank manager told me that was her plan all along. I credit her with inspiring me. We’re still good friends.
Ms. Payne: My mother inspired me; she worked for the Department of Education for 35 years – first as a Reading Specialist and eventually as a Dean. I saw her love for other people’s children as well as her own, and her willingness to do whatever it takes to educate them. I grew up seeing that one teacher can really make a difference in a student’s life, and that shaped me as a person.
CFK: How are your students inspiring you?
Ms. Payne: They inspire me to be my best self for them as an educator and as a role model. They also inspire me as on a deeper level, because I’ve seen such young children go through things many people cannot imagine and still show up for school each and every day with a hopeful attitude, eager to learn.
Ms. Hughes: My students force their teachers to understand them as people and learners before they will respect us enough to allow them to be taught. They are strong, determined, and they are themselves.
Ms. George: Students I’ve taught in the past inspired me by overcoming some really tough odds. They grew up in Crown Heights during the 90’s – when drugs, crime, and police misconduct were the norm. My students had a seriousness of purpose and a desire to better themselves, which they understood began with showing up every day – so they did. Some came from horrific backgrounds and living conditions, but they committed to showing up. My students at Grant Avenue now amaze and inspire me. They manage to hold on to their innocence in spite of all the unfortunate circumstances that surround them. They come here to learn, grow, and be kind friends to one another.
Mrs. Redzepagic: Yes! They inspire all the time. Some of them have such difficult home lives, but still come to school every day with smiles on their faces. They persist through challenges and never give up. They keep me going even when I feel I can’t anymore. I work harder to make sure that they continue to achieve.
CFK: Did you ever struggle as a student? If you did, how did you overcome it?
Mrs. Redzepagic: I didn’t struggle academically, however, I was one of those very quiet students who never raised their hand, and didn’t make friends easily. I was often overlooked in the classroom because I was so quiet. My fifth grade teacher pulled me aside one day to work with me on my writing. She told me I had so much to say, and should shout it whenever I could. She would call on me and give me opportunities to speak even when I didn’t raise my hand. I changed a lot that year. I grew as a student and as a person.
Ms. George: I was THE WORST MATH STUDENT ON THE PLANET!!! My high school Math Teacher, Mrs. Karteginer, helped me make sense of math in ways that no teacher had previously been able to; she took time to really break down mathematical concepts. She built my confidence as a learner, and as a result, I vowed to never shy away from math again because I knew that there was a way for me to make sense of it even if it took me more time than others.
Ms. Payne: I struggled with Social Studies; it just seemed like a bunch of timelines and people that I didn’t know, that didn’t look like me, a little black girl from Coney Island. Later, by making up songs and raps with my older brother who had an aptitude for relating information to dates, it became fun. I became more interested in history in college. I took an African History course that changed my perspective of the black experience in America.
Ms. Hughes: I was great at reading and writing as a student but I struggled quite a bit in math. My father was great in math, and had strong ideas about how a mathematician should be. He taught me to ask for support, and to practice. I learned to tell my teachers that math is hard for me, and it’s their responsibility to support me to help me learn.
CFK: What do you need more of in the classroom?
Ms. Hughes: As a special education teacher with students that usually struggle with reaching grade level standards, focus, and engagement, I need more games. My students are more inclined to attempt a new task or practice old ones through games. Sight words, math, and vocabulary games are welcome.
Mrs. Redzepagic: My students love to read a variety of books, magazines, articles; anything they can get their hands on. In our classroom we could use a lot more books and other reading materials to inspire the students to keep reading.
Ms. Payne: I need more books with children of color. I need easier access to resources that portray examples of people of color. I would like to see our young girls learn to code or get access to materials that would inspire them to do things in any of the STEAM fields.
Ms. George: Teachers need more time. Time to get to the core of what students know, so they are able to capitalize on students’ strengths to make them feel confident about their ability to learn.
Thank you to our teachers, principals, staff members who are making a memorable difference in the lives of the students in our CFK schools.
By Kevin Ervin, Executive Director
Over the past few years, social media has shed light on discrepancies in the proverbial American Dream: young people of color being gunned down, inequities in treatment of flight passengers and most recently, the ability to pay one’s way into their college of choice. Cuffs are being slapped on the wealthy this past week after “discovering” the use of an intermediary to bribe, cheat, and steal for their children to enter America’s top universities. However, similar to people of color being gunned down, and poor treatment and service for people of color, this behavior is NOT new.
I wish I could unveil myself as the anomaly from all of these disparities, but I can’t. I spent four years at the Hotchkiss School, an elite boarding school that is within the top 25 schools sending students to Harvard, Princeton or Yale, and heralded as one of the top boarding schools in America. During my time there, I maintained a high B/low A average, but didn’t immediately matriculate to college because no one told me that a young, less-than-affluent student from Red Hook, Brooklyn had to actually pay for college. My classmates were entering elite schools of their choice and not worrying about the price tag. I watched many classmates receive acceptance letters with joy after I had written, proofread or given a once over to their application essays; with their merit never in question. Little did I know that an endowment gift, a high-priced intermediary, or even a legacy afforded them entrance to wherever they desired. Ultimately, I did matriculate at Northeastern and finished my graduate studies at NYU with a lifetime GPA of 3.89. I worked for it.
It may be appalling that there are people who would pay to increase the odds of their children’s acceptance to a top university, but money has been widening the odds since its inception. We could all attempt to stop the world and overthrow the system, or, like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (thank you Fliakos, Frankenbach and Burchfield for this), we could defeat it from the inside out.
Black and brown children who’ll attend a local high school, or an elite city high school, or the most elite boarding schools they can find, I encourage you: don’t stop!
Someday, fairness will be the clarion call of the systems by which we live. Someday, equity will supersede equality, and those in positions of power will realize that solely throwing funding at a problem doesn’t create equal opportunity. Someday, the education you receive within your neighborhood of varying languages, colors, and creeds will reflect the history that you have lost because the matriarchs of our families have long since passed on. And someday, what they say you can’t do, you can; what they say you won’t do, you will; and what they say you shouldn’t do, you’ll do, unapologetically tearing down the barriers and rising in a blaze of glory from within their constraints – being you. Beautiful you.
I know, I know… you may be asking yourself: how does he know? I remember when older black and brown women who locked arms with the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. laughed at a younger me, saying I couldn’t be the President because that just wouldn’t happen in their lifetime. Then, Barack Hussein Obama brought tears to the eyes of those mothers and their daughters as America welcomed change. I remember when the names floating around Silicon Valley belonged solely to white men and couldn’t compare to Gates or Jobs, but a young black friend of mine, Tristan Walker – who wore Jordans just like us and who came from the city just as us – crushed the stereotypes, blazing his way through the Valley all the way to Procter & Gamble. Finally, I readily recall asking Alan van Capelle, a trailblazer in the LGBTQ community, who currently leads a traditionally Jewish nonprofit in NYC that once would have not welcomed him, if there was room for a kinky-curly haired (with a part in the side), flashy dressing black male in the NYC nonprofit leadership space. His reply: “You’re damn right there is. You’re a unicorn and the world needs you!”
Then Change for Kids took a chance on me as their leader to help change the education space for us all.
So don’t you stop working hard. It’ll pay off – I promise! I know this because I’ve lived it. And, don’t worry about paying for college: because you deserve it, because you’re majestic, because you’re magical, it’ll happen. You’re a unicorn and the world needs you!
Today being International Women’s Day, I wanted to take a moment to honor the contributions of the women in the CFK community. I reflect on the strength that’s held in our sector and our organization through powerful women.
The cornerstone of the youth development and education sector has traditionally been supported by women, and that continues to be true today. We can see it reflected in the gender makeup of our staff, and across the schools in which we work. 85% of the principals in CFK schools are women, and many of their assistant principals are as well. For many of our students, having strong women like each of you in their lives as teachers and role models is inspirational, revolutionary – and necessary. I honor you all as I honor a world of women today: for the strength to birth the world, the tenacity to raise it, and the perseverance to juggle the multitude of responsibilities associated with changing the world as we see it into one re-imagined for all.
Change for Kids will continue to celebrate #WomensHistoryMonth by honoring women leaders and educators, many of whom overcame childhood adversity. Women like LaDonna Harris, Shirley Ann Jackson, Ella Baker, and so many more. Join us by nominating an educator who changed your life.
-Kevin Ervin, Executive Director
By Amanda Downy, Nealy Hale, Suraj Jain, and Cassie Rolnick
February’s a short month, but it’s also really significant in our world. Every February, the Change for Kids Junior Board hosts our annual fundraising gala – The Penguin Party – and we collectively get an opportunity to throw one of New York City’s most celebrated parties while doing a great service – helping change the lives of children in underserved public elementary schools in New York City.
The Junior Board membership consists of many different people, yet we’re all committed to community service and philanthropy. For many of us, the impact of our own education experience made working with an education-focused not-for-profit a perfect fit. During our childhoods, there were many teachers, principals, coaches, counselors, and librarians who made sure we were learning not just academic skills, but also interpersonal skills that would make a difference in our futures, along with making us better members of our communities.
Collaborating with CFK’s staff to present The Penguin Party is A LOT of work. It’s not just getting all the details right to make sure the attendees have an unforgettable party experience. It’s telling the Change for Kids story in a personal, emotional, impactful way to a wide variety of potential sponsors and donors. It’s thanking everyone for their support and commitment, and thanking them over and over. It’s asking our friends and families to donate or volunteer. It’s making sure that the work we do reflects well on us and the Change for Kids organization.
By the time the party starts – Friday, February 22nd, at 8:30pm, we are tired, but we’re happy, ready to get out on the dance floor and celebrate with everyone! When we eventually go home on Saturday morning, we know we’ve accomplished a mission that creates real change for kids who can most benefit from our continued support. And after a short recovery period, we’re back at the CFK office, asking, “What else can we do?” Because doing good feels great.
(The authors are the CFK Junior Board co-chairs and the Penguin Party event co-chairs.)
Sitting down in my third week as Executive Director of Change for Kids, I reflect. This period of time has been a whirlwind of handshakes, agreements, decision watching and decision making, consultations, smiles, questions and answers, head nods and a whole heap of listening. I have, in this time, relearned the cliche alliteration that Learning Leaders Listen. I would even dare to take it one step deeper: servant leaders listen.
My career has spanned work with tens of thousands of children and hundreds of staff, and I have never been a better leader than when I was genuinely listening – not listening to answer, nor to respond. Just listening. Coming into a meeting, a coffee break, an annual appeal prep, or even the myriad of interactions before your annual gala all look the same: enter with a heart of service and an ear for listening. Amazingly still, these principles transcend position or age!
The young elementary school junior mediator is taught to listen first to both parties and then respond. The high school athletics star is encouraged to listen to his teammates and learn the pulse of the team. The school teacher is never greater than when she gets down to the level of her students and listens with interest. Deeper still, in the oldest of ages, the grandparent who spent years as the CEO of a mega corporation, spends her time listening to her grandchildren and learning from their inquisitive minds. Each of these people is a leader. Listening to change the world. Regardless of age or position, serving others through listening is leadership. Full stop.
The amazing thing about the world in which we currently live is that there are so many opportunities to listen, to serve, to be great. At Change for Kids, we’ve found the secret sauce to school improvement, literacy efficacy, education reform, and even mundane things like wearing white after Labor Day, or how to not miss your stop on any NYC subway train when the line decides to go express – listen. To improve schools, we listen to the principals, teachers, parents and pupils. To help fill in word gaps in elementary school learners’ vocabularies, students listen to volunteers from the corporate world and the community reading books aloud to them. To reform education, districts will listen to those pounding the pavement of equity and those on the front line of education. To decide whether to wear white after Labor Day, we listen to our heart (though I would advise against it); and to not miss your stop, listen to the conductor.
But, don’t just take my word for it, listen to Martin:
“Everybody can be great … because anybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A sou.l generated by love.”
– Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.