This post is excerpted from Breaking Down Barriers, Building Relationships: Delaware’s Collaborative Approach to Inventorying Whole-Child Efforts, written by Laura Buckner, Program Associate for WestEd’s Resilient and Healthy Schools and Communities team, and is posted here with permission.

In 2019, the national Center to Improve Social and Emotional Learning and School Safety at WestEd (The Center) solicited ideas from state and local education agencies (SEAs and LEAs) regarding their most urgent and important needs to successfully support whole-person development. The concept of the “whole person” refers to a comprehensive notion of human development that includes several domains, such as physiological, cognitive, social, and emotional development. Feedback from discussion with education leaders indicated that LEAs and SEAs wanted support to improve alignment and coherence of their whole-person initiatives.

Alignment: refers to all policies, practices, processes, and roles in a system working together in similar or consistent ways

Coherence: refers to integration and interconnection between the parts of the system in a way that mutually reinforces shared understanding and overall progress toward a clear vision and set of goals

SEA leaders specifically requested resources and facilitation to:

  • Establish a statewide vision for serving the whole person
  • Inventory and map the relationships among social and emotional learning and other whole-person Initiatives
  • Create plans for aligning initiatives
  • Communicate with internal and external stakeholders about this work

In response, WestEd drafted and piloted the guide, Serving the Whole Person: An Alignment and Coherence Guide for State Education Agencies. This guide outlines an adaptable process for SEA staff to review whole-person initiatives, increase alignment and coherence among them, and monitor progress over time. It is intended to be used to promote more equitable conditions of learning and development for students, families, and educators, which are more likely to result when whole-person initiatives are implemented within aligned and coherent systems.

The guide provides guidance for five steps in a cycle of improvement:

  • Establishing a shared vision and theory of change
  • Inventorying whole-person initiatives
  • Analyzing interrelationships for alignment and coherence and creating an action plan
  • Implementing the plan and monitoring its progress
  • Refining alignment and coherence over time

It encourages SEA staff to adapt each step to their needs, contexts, and decision-making power and to engage with key leaders and other stakeholders to complete the steps of the guide. It also invites users to connect their work with the guide to other approaches and frameworks already in use, such as Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) or Positive Behavioral Intervention Systems.

To ensure the guide is useful and useable, WestEd piloted it with several SEAs as part of a cross-state collaborative. Center staff provided SEA teams with support for adapting their work with the guide, facilitating meetings, and compiling data. In Delaware, Department of Education (DOE) leaders used the guide to review initiatives that serve the whole school, whole child, and whole community (hereafter referred to as “whole child”), tailoring the inventory process to align with their collaboration goals. To create the inventory, SEA leaders relied upon a strong leader who had cultivated a foundation of trust and support with each of the contributors. The aggregated inventory data prompted discussion among Delaware leaders about how to formalize agencywide collaboration, leverage existing relationships to strengthen future work, and examine whole-child outcome data to promote more equitable outcomes for young people.

This case story describes how Delaware DOE leaders used and adapted the guide and shares key insights that may benefit other SEAs as they consider their own efforts to improve the alignment and coherence of their whole-person or whole-child initiatives.

Delaware’s Statewide Efforts to Provide Trauma-Informed Supports

In October 2018, Delaware Governor John Carney signed an executive order to make Delaware a “trauma-informed state,” instructing state agencies that serve children and families to integrate trauma-informed best practices into their services. In response, the Delaware DOE created a new position — Education Associate of Trauma-Informed Practices and Social and Emotional Learning — and hired Teri Lawler, a school psychologist and school district leader, to fill it. Lawler quickly began to expand awareness among her colleagues of the neurobiology of stress and strategies to build resilience, identify nonacademic barriers to learning, and explore every community member’s role in eradicating those barriers. Lawler then formalized this initial work by adapting the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s “Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child” framework to the state’s context.

She also identified several groups and individuals throughout the DOE who were already working on whole-child initiatives that incorporated trauma-informed practices and other related approaches, and she began building a network of colleagues with shared interest in supporting the health, safety, and well-being of students and families. These efforts helped Lawler build a strong foundation for whole-child support in Delaware as well as trust and relationships across the department and state.

When Delaware began working with The Center to pilot WestEd’s guide in 2020, the state had established a mission and vision that included mention of “safe and healthy environments,” “engaged families,” and “equitable access” to services and supports.(3) Given this context of existing statewide and SEA priorities, leaders in Delaware recognized a need to strengthen the alignment and coherence of the whole-child supports they offered. Lawler identified chapter 2 in the guide, “Inventory Whole-Person Initiatives,” as a starting point to articulate what each program or initiative offered, who it served, and how it could be accessed.

While DOE leaders wanted to get a full picture of wholechild supports statewide, they also wanted to keep the initial process manageable; as such, they opted not to include programs conducted by other state agencies, such as the Department of Services for Children, Youth and Their Families, (Selecting an appropriate scope is part of the initial process outlined in the guide; more information can be found in the guide’s “Prepare to Use the Alignment and Coherence Guide” section.)

Getting Started: Enabling Cross-Department Collaboration

Lawler began by introducing the SEA guide and the inventory process at a meeting with the DOE’s highest-ranking secretaries and directors as an opportunity to build and strengthen relationships across the department’s various “work groups,” or subdepartments, and to create a tool for examining all of the DOE’s whole-child initiatives.

Each work group was invited to document their own whole-child efforts in the inventory. Five work groups contributed to the inventory, with the highest number of initiatives housed in the School Supports work group, which includes School Climate, After School, and other key programs. Other contributing work groups included Curriculum, Instruction, and Professional Development; Exceptional Children Resources; Educator Effectiveness; Early Childhood Support; and the Office of Equity and Innovation (which houses the state’s trauma-informed practices and social-emotional learning work). In total, 64 initiatives were identified as serving Delaware’s whole-child priorities.

Because of the breadth and volume of these initiatives, Lawler modified the guide’s suggested process. Although the template offered in the guide includes over 40 response fields for each initiative, Lawler found that narrowing these fields to one or two key fields in each domain (for a total of about 12 questions per initiative) helped make the work more manageable for contributors while also enabling direct comparisons across initiatives. The guide also suggests that work be done in teams, but Delaware took a disaggregated approach in compiling the inventory data. As the leader of the inventory process, Lawler attended meetings with the contributing groups to present on the benefits of whole-child frameworks, answer questions about the purpose of the inventory, identify which initiatives should be included, and clarify what was being asked in each of the fields. These meetings served as another opportunity to build relationships across groups with related goals.

Download the full report to continue reading insights from Delaware’s work with inventorying whole-child supports. The story picks up on page 4.

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