Van Ness Elementary

November 25, 2019 | A student plays outside at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, D.C. | Photo courtesy of Van Ness Elementary.
November 25, 2019 | A student plays outside at Van Ness Elementary School in Washington, D.C. | Photo courtesy of Van Ness Elementary.

Student well-being comes first

When Cynthia Robinson-Rivers was developing her plan for Van Ness Elementary, a new pre-k through 5th-grade school near the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., she had a long list of initiatives she wanted to implement based on her career as a teacher and administrator. Then she got some advice from a mentor: focus on the most important thing first. 

She realized that supporting student well-being had to come before everything else. “If kids don’t feel physically safe and emotionally safe if they don’t have a sense of belonging, if they don’t feel cared for and loved they are not able to access the parts of their brains that are needed for critical thinking and academic learning,” said Robinson-Rivers.

So Robinson-Rivers and her staff worked to ensure that each student at Van Ness formed strong attachments with teachers and classmates and was explicitly taught stress management, social awareness, and self-awareness skills. Classrooms included tools and spaces to promote emotional self-regulation. Teachers modeled compassionate language and used misbehavior as an opportunity to learn, rather than to punish. The entire school developed routines that provided safety and connection including Strong Start, a series of activities that help children begin the day ready to learn. Every morning, each Van Ness student is greeted at the front door by a staff member, invited to set a goal for the day, given a nutritious breakfast in the classroom, engaged in community-building exercises with peers, and taught a technique for self-regulation.

Van Ness brought together research-based practices in social-emotional learning and professional development into a coherent whole-child model that schools in Washington, D.C., and beyond are eager to adopt. With support from CZI, and in partnership with Transcend, Van Ness facilitates the Whole Child Collaborative, composed of five D.C. elementary schools. Now in its second year, the collaborative helps Van Ness educators codify the school’s model and provide coaching and mentoring to share it with educators across the district. Beginning this fall, the five schools are implementing the well-being component school wide, including Strong Start. 

When D.C. schools closed in March, Van Ness worked to transition its whole-child model to a virtual environment. Some practices translated relatively easily. “We still ask our students to do goal-setting in the morning and come back to them at the end of the day to see if they have met their goals,” said Robinson-Rivers. Others, like the morning hug or high five, are harder to replicate online or in a socially distanced environment. But even if the activities changed, the goal remained the same: to acknowledge students individually and help them feel that they belong. 

Psychologists and experts in human development recognize that children especially those who have experienced trauma benefit from a school environment that prioritizes social-emotional learning and mental health. Indeed, this model is common to private schools that serve wealthy families. For Robinson-Rivers, there’s no reason why children in Washington, D.C. and across the country can’t have the same experience. “I emphatically believe our students deserve the opportunity to learn the skills they need, rather than to be punished.”

Oct 14, 2020

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