Distinguished Neag professor aims to help school efforts to integrate health and learning

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As a part of the Provost’s Distinguished Speaker Series, Professor Sandra M. Chafouleas gave a talk titled “Well-Being in School, Child and Community: Advancing the Whole, Not the Sum of Its Parts” on Thursday afternoon. 

The Provost’s Distinguished Speaker Series is an annual series where distinguished professors are invited to discuss their research and scholarship with the greater community. 

Portrait of Professor Sandra M. Chafouleas. (Photo courtesy via UConn Neag School of Education)

Chafouleas is a Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology in the UConn Neag School of Education. She is also the founder and co-director of the UConn Collaboratory on School and Child Health. Her research is focused on school-base mental health reform and how to integrate health and learning together. 

Chafouleas stated that she is a school psychologist by training, which means that she works to support kids from birth to age 21 in all kinds of areas. She and other school psychologists do this by problem-solving with primary caregivers, or in this case, the setting of school. 

She began her presentation with the definition of well-being, which she said Google defines as “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy” but acknowledged the definition may carry different meanings for everyone. Chafouleas said the World Health Organization’s definition of well-being spans across physical, mental and social well-being. 

“The question really is how do we get there?” Chafouleas said. “Or more importantly … How do we help kids get there? Because their well-being is heavily dependent on the systems of care that are around them, including their schools.” 

Chafouleas introduced a project known as WSCC: Think About the Link. The project focuses on helping schools augment their support systems by using the Whole School, Whole Community, Whole Child model, or WSCC. The WSCC model was created by the CDC alongside the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.  

“So the question that we’re working toward in the Collaboratory and the work that I’m centering my work on is how do we connect all of the parts that are related in helping students be successful?” Chafouleas said. 

The WSCC model is a visual used to help schools organize their approach and figure out what is needed to help ensure the success of the whole student. The mode shows that when we work upon and improve everything from nutrition to physical education to family and teachers, children can be healthy, safe, engaged, supported and challenged. Chafouleas is working on using the model as a catalyst for how she and the Collaboratory do the integrated work they are attempting. 

In her own work, Chafouleas recognizes her perspective has changed over time through challenges to her thinking. She brought up many examples of her published studies and how through decades of work, conducting research through the lens of behavioral support. 

“The question really is how do we get there?” – Professor ChafouleaS

Chafouleas realized that besides behavioral support, there were alternatives to reinforcement strategies that could be included in her intervention plans. 

“The question really is why?” Chafouleas said. “It’s partly historical, the primary responsibility or core mission of schools has been upon academics. Certainly in the past six months, we have seen the critical need for that shift.” 

Because of the pandemic, Chafouleas recognized that there is now a bigger shift in thinking on the roles of schools. They’re no longer bound as a place for academic success, but rather schools have “roles and responsibilities in other places.” 

Circling back to the Think About the Link project, it provides three different toolkits to help guide schools and evaluate their work across their policies, practices and processes. These toolkits, developed through a collaboration of researchers such as Chafouleas, help schools address specific strengths and weaknesses in their policies and processes and how to rectify any issues. 

Chafouleas brought up the example of a study she recently conducted by interviewing Connecticut school administrators on their worries before and during the pandemic. She pointed out one quote from the interviews that “keeps me up at night.” 

“I have a picture in my head, it’s like, we had an earthquake,” An unnamed Connecticut school administrator said. “And now we’re trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B. But in the middle of it is all of these fissures that we have to jump over.” 

This quote helps rationalize why we should continue to build tools to facilitate the integration of work, according to Chafouleas. Thus, it is imperative to continue “advancing the whole, not the sum of its parts, if we really want to have whole school, child health, community health and success.” 

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