To support youth development and well-being, the Rochester-based Children’s Institute works with regional health, human service, and education providers. In light of the coronavirus pandemic, the organization has found new ways to support those who are still supporting young people during this uncertain time.
People needed a way to process, and the most useful thing we could offer is to support their own well-being,”
says Elizabeth Devaney, director of the Whole Child Connection at Children’s Institute.
Initially offered three times a week over Zoom, the Connection’s free Community Check-in Conversation Series features small-group conversations focused on the impact of the pandemic and the toll it has taken on those who work with children.
“I took a lot out of all the gatherings,” one participant said. “Mainly, I found that they helped me to support myself. Everyone is so welcoming and sympathetic to what each other are feeling, and that is amazing all in itself.” Adds another, “that was amazing. I needed that, and didn’t even know it.”
Deliberately limited to between five and seven people per conversation, the free meetings are open to anyone in the community, though many of the early participants have been from the early childhood sector, which in Rochester has been hit particularly hard by layoffs, funding challenges, and ongoing uncertainty.
“None of us know what’s going to come next, so it’s a resource and support to our community and our partners,” says Sierra Fisher, project coordinator. “But I’d argue it’s also a resource to us.”
The conversations represent a rapidly evolving model of support for providers during the pandemic. Among their key components:
- Balancing flexibility and structure. Facilitators must be “willing to really let what the community is dealing with in the moment lead the conversations,” says Andrea Bertucci, training manager. “Sometimes it’s a quiet group, and I share more of myself personally as an example so people feel a bit more comfortable… Or if they start talking back and forth with each other, we take a step back.”
While the conversations are deliberately open-ended, Connection facilitators do follow a consistent format, including opening and closing activities such as videos or guided questions that reinforce social and emotional supports. “We’ve been intentional in keeping it open for discussion and allowing participants to lead, [while] making sure we’re modeling SEL through everything we’re doing,” Bertucci says.
Participants credit the approach to facilitation as a key to making the check-ins work. “I was so impressed with the moderators’ ability to quickly set the stage and provide comfort and confidentiality to all participants,” one said. “I was also sincerely grateful to the other participants [for being] so honest and heartfelt in their participation. There was a concrete opportunity [for] self-reflection which I did not expect to be so easy and comfortable in an online opportunity.”
- Modeling. To support SEL, activities are intentionally designed in ways that the Connection’s partners could potentially use them in their own settings. For example, one closing reflection asked participants to reflect on the last physical object they touched which gave them joy, an activity which could be modified for both adult and youth activities. “The activities and self-expression offerings are applicable to the classroom or staff meetings,” Fisher says.
- Emphasis on adults. Participants have said they appreciate the ability to check in with one another to see how the pandemic is impacting others who serve young people. They’ve also appreciated the ability to focus on themselves. One participant, says Fisher, said that before the conversation she felt as though she “needed permission to self-reflect.”
“When you put educators in one room—even a virtual room—we’re going to talk about our kids,” Fisher says. “But they’re talking about themselves in ways they haven’t before. While students are still in the forefront, I don’t think educators do that enough.”
- Specialized support. The Connection was clear in its messaging to partners that the check-ins were not meant to focus on individual mental health issues, but the team took steps to ensure that staff members with backgrounds in counseling and social work were available if needed.
- Differentiation. While the current check-ins are open to all, the Connection is exploring with partners the possibility of creating focused check-ins for specific groups, including schools or districts, parents, and youth, says Devaney.
- Support beyond the immediate crisis. The Connection plans to continue offering the series even once plans begin to resume school, childcare, and other in-person activities. People working in these fields will need support as they return to something resembling normalcy, and already participants have voiced concerns about repairing relationships with their students, re-establishing norms, and supporting students in new settings, says Fisher. The Connection also is looking at building out virtual trainings to support staff during the reentry process.
“It’s going to be a transition going back almost in a similar way as it was going in,” says Bertucci.
- Recognition of the demands on partners. The world “overwhelmed” comes up frequently in conversations with partners, and the Connection’s staff is seeking to strike the right balance of support without activities becoming an imposition. Check-ins recently shifted to a weekly schedule and staff is continuing to make adjustments.
“We’re still trying to tease out how to make this a ritual or routine without tying people to another commitment,” says Fisher. “It’s still a work in progress.”