As homeschooling becomes the norm in U.S. households, parents are finding themselves juggling the roles of guardian, educator and overall arbiter of behavior. Not only must they manage their work life, but they are expected to set the climate for learning, behavior and motivation for their child, who is now also their student.
The situation is stressful, even for those most prepared. But what about the less privileged environments and at-risk youth? A child in a less advantageous home situation faces an overall lack of resources, including the proper technology for remote learning. Adding to the problem is the fact that there are parents whose work must take place outside the home, making them unavailable to aid in the learning process during school hours.
The overall social-emotional impact on children is unclear, but it seems districts and schools need to prepare for the impact of increased trauma once at-school learning reopens in some capacity this fall. Implementing programs in place that allow for the integration of social-emotional learning (SEL) and trauma-informed practices could help in mitigating behavioral issues. The extended summer slide that is occurring during Covid-19 is not only affecting learning development but exacerbating already present emotional challenges.
Organizations such as CASEL are recognizing the importance of addressing SEL during the Covid-19 crisis by establishing initiatives like CASEL Cares to connect the global community with specialists in the field. The experts are emerging from a variety of areas, including newly established companies concentrating on the SEL elements and trauma-based issues facing students, including at-risk youth.
To shed more light on this crucial issue, I sat down with Nathan Maynard, CEO of BehaviorFlip, to discuss being an entrepreneur pre-Covid-19 and the subsequent impact of the pandemic on his efforts moving forward. He and his colleagues at BehaviorFlip are helping schools develop and infuse SEL, restorative practices and trauma-informed strategies through the creation of sustainable and effective behavior monitoring solutions.
Rod Berger: You have a lot of experience working with youth. How did that lead you to concentrate on social-emotional learning, restorative practices and trauma-informed practices in education?
Nathan Maynard: I was blessed to have eight years working in the juvenile justice field that gave me a strengths-based perspective to support all kids. In the field, I focused heavily on building and facilitating relationships using proactive approaches. You get excited when you witness firsthand how impactful restorative practices are with creating empathy and intrinsically charged behavioral change. Considering that every behavior is a form of communication, we must have strategies in place to seek-to-understand what is driving the action. Have you ever had a kid act out and take it personally? Restorative practices give us the strategies to dive into what is driving the behavior and a perspective that makes you say, "This child isn't giving me a hard time; they are having a hard time."
As a school administrator, I saw a lot of children struggling with substance abuse. I can think of one particular student that I would often meet up with to support and establish a strong rapport. I recall him coming to my office with his probation officer and discussing how he violated his terms of probation. He tested positive on a drug screen and needed a letter from me at the school reporting on his progress before his court date.
After the meeting, I called the student back down to the office to talk. I remember immediately letting him know how disappointed I was and began to lecture before giving him even a chance to get a word in edgewise. I finally just said, “Why? After all this, why?” and I vividly remember him slowly looking up with tears in his eyes and saying, “What would you do if your mom did heroin?” My heart dropped. I met with this kid almost every day for months, knew him, and knew his mom, but I had no clue what was driving his substance abuse. I discovered he was using substances to self-medicate his depression and repetitive trauma from his mother’s struggles.
We have to find tools and strategies to be a detective when we see behaviors and create structures around relationships to develop a trusting dynamic. Research shows that even one supportive adult can offset some of the negative effects of trauma. Social-emotional learning allows us to build up the emotional intelligence as educators and the students we serve. If you don't integrate all three, though, you miss the mark in supporting kids.
Berger: What led to your decision to leave the school setting and build your own business?
Maynard: I tend to focus on my "why" to act as the driver of my decisions. My "why" is to support kids that need it the most, because I was one of those kids. Some kids are overlooked or quickly pushed aside through punitive practices, and that shouldn't happen. The practices and research have heavily focused on systemic ways to support all kids and give educators strategies. Identifying that a change is needed and pursuing actionable steps to fruition around systemic change is what my last school position was all about.
It led me to work with Purdue University to be part of the founding administration team to help open their first high school in inner-city Indianapolis. This role also allowed me to be part of a startup. So later on, when the software BehaviorFlip started to gain traction around area schools, I understood what it would be like to pursue starting the company and taking the leap as an entrepreneur.
I also give credit to my upbringing and my grandfather, who helped raise me. As an immigrant with little connections, moving out of public housing was a challenge, but our family managed to do it. He believed in always being the hardest working person in the room, and I’ve always kept that motto. My hard work is always geared toward supporting kids and continually learning. Entrepreneurship became a natural fit, with both of my companies focusing on supporting kids and educators.
Berger: There are numerous challenges with the launch of a new company. What barriers have you encountered in your first year as a startup? What are the unique challenges you’re facing as a result of the pandemic?
Maynard: The pandemic has shifted the need for educators, but I feel that our software is tailored toward developing intrinsic motivation in the right direction. We know now, more than ever, that we need to continue to focus on seeking to understand negative behavior and affirming positive responses.
Restorative practices take behavior and work at reading it while focusing on relationships and building empathy. This pandemic has shown us that empathy comes with grace. We have to continue to understand that remote learning isn't equitable and students need support more than ever. We should not only reward the students that turned in their assignment and showed up to the remote lesson but understand what is happening to the students that did not. BehaviorFlip offers the tools for educators to communicate with students and parents and seek to understand what the behavior is revealing. We also appreciate that as a first-year startup, our mission has concentrated on advocating for students.
Berger: What do you think is the "secret sauce" to creating an environment of success for an edtech startup? How do you think it has shifted since Covid-19?
Maynard: You have to be able to meet an unmet need and have a team with the same beliefs as you. I firmly believe it starts with creating advantageous dynamic partnerships. It quickly becomes apparent to anyone who talks to a member of our team exactly why we do what we do. We are continually building partnerships with organizations that reflect our mission. We help fulfill a huge need for educators by providing a system to support students, even under the most challenging of circumstances. We created the first restorative practices software, and we know that restorative practices are a sustainable structure for educators. We have focused our ethos around giving kids a chance, as we all sometimes need, especially during Covid-19.
We also decided to mention BehaviorFlip in the book Hacking School Discipline to help brand our awareness around the sustainable way the software supports the practices. It allowed potential partners and clients to get to know us through the book and painted our beliefs for anyone to read. Our social media presence has been strong, and we interact with educators in any way we can. We don't just talk about advocating for educators and students; we show how it's done. Iron sharpens iron.
Last year, we increased our awareness by speaking with educators in 22 states and eight countries around restorative, trauma-informed, and SEL practices and found there is a great need for this type of work. Covid-19 continues to demonstrate that educators aren't just looking for a new program; they need systemic changes and support around the needs of their students. Educators need assistance, because like everyone, we are all going through these challenges. I think the "secret sauce" during this time is giving back and always being open to feedback. We have done both and will continue to do both during and after this pandemic.
I was recently speaking to the assistant superintendent to the Lauderdale County School District, an amazing woman, Sherrie Sweat, who was one of our first clients. During the first year, we started with restorative implementation with training and software supports at one of their high schools, middle schools and alternative schools. We had plans to scale in additional schools in the district, starting with one of their elementary schools, but so much has changed.
We know how hard the educators have been working and how much change has already taken place. With budgets being unknown for next year and so many variables, we offered some free virtual support and a free year subscription to their elementary school. As a company founded by educators, we know how tough it is to balance everything. We have to focus on what matters the most while supporting each other, especially during these times.
Berger: Looking at the future of SEL, restorative practices, and trauma-informed practices, what is on the horizon for BehaviorFlip and Nathan Maynard? Do you see additional SEL practices being necessary during this pandemic and after?
Maynard: These practices aren't the newest fad in education or just additional supportive efforts for kids-they are genuinely equitable practices that meet needs. It's evident that there is an abundance of stressors everywhere, but they are heightened during this current state of Covid-19. This event may be causing direct and indirect trauma to us, our students and the families we serve. Focusing on SEL and meeting the emotional needs of students, as practices are at an all-time high.
In the future, we will find that the more we meet our students' needs, the fewer outbursts of behavior will occur. As Maslow demonstrated, kids need to feel a sense of belonging and safety. Let's not let these hard lessons learned from Covid-19 go away. Hacking School Discipline is a starting practical blueprint for educators, and BehaviorFlip is a sustainable tool for social-emotional needs and restorative practices. I want to support as many educators as possible and amplify ideas and the work of educators that might not be heard.
I was given a chance to have my voice heard, and I want to continue sharing other views. I want kids to feel a sense of belonging and the ability to make and learn from mistakes. The data shows us that suspending a kid and expecting a behavior to change doesn't typically work.
I never thought I'd have a platform to speak to so many and I embrace every day as a blessing. I realize the more educators I can support, the greater number of students are positively affected. Equity issues in schools need more than just someone speaking about them. I want to be another catalyst to end the school-to-prison pipeline, by any means necessary. Every kid matters every time, not just when they are well behaved.
The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.