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“You can do it solo, but it's so much better to do it together”

Meet Brenda Grady and Ashly Osbourne-Perez – feelings champions extraordinaires! Brenda and Ashly both work at PS 94, a vibrant elementary school in the diverse community of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. At PS 94, they both work as Social Emotional Learning coaches.

What, you might ask, is a Social Emotional Learning (SEL) Coach? Basically, Brenda and Ashly (and the rest of the team at PS 94) spend their time supporting children, families and teachers as they build capacity to communicate their thoughts and feelings, develop positive senses of self, and build strong relationships.

Ashly and Brenda greet kids as they enter the building and are available both for the teachers and students when there’s conflict. If students are having issues sharing, they might bring them to the SEL Room to play a game where they can practice taking turns. When students feel big feelings – maybe they’re having a hard time going back to class after recess – Ashly and Brenda are there to help them work through what comes next.

They also engage with parents. Ashly and Brenda help organize ParentCorps programming for kindergarten families at PS 94, while also seeing ParentCorps as one piece of the broader puzzle to support families. In addition, they’ve hosted feelings workshops (e.g. introducing families to tools they can use to support kids experiencing anxiety) and taught card games to make conversations about feelings fun and approachable for children. They also support families as they navigate structural issues, like housing insecurity. Ashly, for example, makes care packages for families in temporary housing and works with parents on identifying barriers in getting their kids to school on time or all five days a week.

It’s a unique job. From my experience as a ParentCorps Educator, PS 94 is something special. After working with Brenda and Ashly for a couple of years now, I’m still continuously impressed by the innovative ways they do this work with students, families, and school staff.

I sat down with Brenda and Ashly to find out more about their roles and how they approach making an impact on the social-emotional health of their school community.

Tell me about your jobs. Where did they come from and did they evolve over time?

Brenda Grady (BG): The position was created because there was a need for it. There needed to be someone who knew the school, knew the students, and who knew instruction, who could really make that social-emotional learning curriculum responsive to the specific and unique needs of our school. It was definitely an effort from our district - [NYC Department of Education] District 15. But the reason why we began to develop our own curriculum, that was a grassroots effort. That was from the teachers sharing with our administrators that [the current social emotional learning curricula are] not suitable for our needs, and there needs to be something better.

What wasn't working?

Ashly Osbourne-Perez (AOP): We had a high number of incident reports. [The students needed more] social skills. [The program] that we were using wasn't relatable to the kids.

BG: Culturally, it wasn't relatable to our students. It didn't address the issues that they faced. Linguistically, it wasn't appropriate for our students either. A lot of our students are English Language Learners. It didn't engage them.

You were looking for something you knew would fit your students and their emotional needs.

BG: We're not talking about, say, the death of a pet. We're talking about deaths in your family. Or you have family members that are incarcerated. You have family members that have been deported. We needed something that really addressed those issues.

What do you think parents get out of ParentCorps’ Parenting Program that helps make the home-school connection better?

AOP: I think it helps establish a foundation [for our connection]. Some parents just don't know how to establish routines. Or they need help in creating a schedule for bedtime, making sure that the child gets the appropriate amount of sleep. It gives them a friend to say “We're here to help. We're here together to do it. Try this out. It didn't work? Well try something else out.”

I also love how ParentCorps’ Parenting Program offers an array of supports and resources for families. Sessions introduce parents to preventive strategies. They give parents tools to manage tantrums and to foster independence. One of the most impactful ways ParentCorps has helped our families and staff over the years is teaching them about the power of play. Families are sometimes shocked to learn just how much play helps develop the social, emotional and academic skills that are essential for their children’s development. Maybe most important of all, Parenting Program helps parents feel comfortable, like there's no shame in coming to ask for help. And it makes parents feel welcome. We’re all in community together.

BG: I think that the beauty of ParentCorps and the beauty of a socially-emotionally responsive school is that we are trying to help parents understand that you have feelings, and so does your child. And sometimes your feelings and your child's feelings might be in conflict. Look at all of these strategies that you can use to help find resolution and look at all of these other parents who are having the same issues. It's such a safe space for them.

“I think that the beauty of ParentCorps and the beauty of a socially-emotionally responsive school is that we are trying to help parents understand that you have feelings, and so does your child. And sometimes your feelings and your child's feelings might be in conflict. Look at all of these strategies that you can use to help find resolution and look at all of these other parents who are having the same issues.”

What are some of the things that you do that aren't typically what we might think of as family engagement but really works in your community?

AOP: Last year we had a knitting club for social anxiety – one of the parents was leading it. This year we have an embroidery club. We have fairs and beginning-of-the-year block parties. And we just started the clothing boutique, where families can meet each other and swap clothes that they need.

And we have a laundry room so the families who need their laundry done, they come in, and laundry is done for them. A lot of times, adults don't think that kids think about [basic needs], but they do. And then when kids are thinking about that, that's also adding to their stress and their fears. We as a school and a community are supporting each other, and it's alleviating [stress]. I don't have to think about being hungry because I know the food pantry is helping and there’s breakfast at school.

BG: We have a dental clinic in the school now, as well as our health clinics. So when students need a teeth cleaning, [families] don't have to leave work and take them to the dentist. That helps lessen the parents anxiety and stress, and it means that parents can now spend more time with their children.

Our partnership with Parentcorps has helped us to see that the homeschool connection can begin before a child even enters our doors. This year we will welcome parents from nearby Pre-K’s into the Parenting Program held at our school, and we will act like a kind of “hub” for parents in the community whose children may attend 94 in the future. The transition from Pre-K to elementary school is a big deal, and we’d like to play a part in lessening both parent and child anxiety about that big step.

What's the best part of your job?

AOP: The most rewarding thing is getting to know all the kids. In my classroom I just knew my kids. Now as a Social Emotional Learning Instructional Coach, I’m in other classrooms so I get to know more of the kids. Also, working with teachers and helping them find ways to get to know their students.

Having those moments with the kids, that they know they’re safe with us, and when the kids ask or call for us, they know that we’re there for them.

BG: Last year, we walked in the cafeteria and a group of girls was having “friend drama”. They made a beeline for us! That's great when kids know you are the one to go to and they feel comfortable going to you. Parents are the same way. We might bump into them on the street or during an event and they will also ask us for advice or support with their child. It’s very rewarding to have that relationship with both the children and their families.

Tell me what your work partner’s superpower is. Brenda, what’s Ashly’s superpower?

BG: Ashly’s superpower is synthesizing creativity and technology. She can make anything happen. We want to do a survey of the teachers in the middle of the meeting and then have the results at the end of the meeting that they can reflect on in real time? She can make it happen.

Ashly, what's Brenda's superpower?

AOP: Brenda’s superpower is fearlessness. She can bring a crowd together with her voice along with her smile.

BG: We love each other. I think that's one of the reasons why our positions work. You can do it solo, but it's so much better to do it together.

This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Lisa Ellrodt is a ParentCorps Educator.

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