How Can We Prioritize Wellness at School?

Notes from the Backpack

Episode 41 │ How Can We Prioritize Wellness at School?

Wednesday, May 12, 2021



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Show Notes

Episode 41 podcast banner
How can we prepare to meet every child’s needs as they return to school? We spoke with National School Psychologist of the Year, Chandrai Jackson-Saunders to learn how schools can set children up for success and how families can help by focusing on the whole child. She offers concrete strategies school communities should implement to meet the variety of needs children will have in the wake of the pandemic.


  • The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has lots of resources available about the return to school, as well as family resources designed to help families like yours!
  • Get even more back to school resources from our partners at Child Mind Institute.
  • As your children return to school, if you’re wondering whether they are just a bit behind or may be struggling with a learning difference, check out’s Take Note tools.

Keep the Conversation Going

Like this episode? Share your thoughts with us via social media @National PTA and by using #BackpackNotes. Be sure to visit for more resources from today’s episode.


Helen: Hi there, I'm Helen Westmoreland.


LaWanda: Hi, I'm LaWanda Toney and you're listening to our Healthy Minds mini series, focused entirely on our family's mental health and social, emotional wellbeing. All five of the episodes are out now.

Helen: That's right LaWanda, and I've been enjoying these conversations with parents and mental health professionals so much, because these are issues that affect us every day.

We're talking with experts not only about addressing some serious mental health challenges, but the everyday things we can do to support our kids and our families to proactively build mental wellness. So I'm really excited about today's guest.

LaWanda: Me too, Helen.

Today, we're going to discuss how we can prepare our kids for the new normal, and since my child has headed back to school for the first time in a year, this feels particularly relevant. We're excited to introduce Chandrai Jackson-Saunders to the show. Chandrai Jackson-Saunders is currently the school psychologist at Bard high school early college DC, and she has spent the last three decades serving students in DC public schools.

In 2020, the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) named her the National School Psychologist of the year. She's the first African-American woman to receive this honor in the awards 20 year history, Chandrai Jackson-Saunders is married and has one son Chandrai,   welcome to our show. We're really excited to have you here today.

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: Hello. Hello. And thank you so much, I am grateful to be here to be able to share with you today.

LaWanda: We are definitely grateful to have you here today. So, let's kick things off. Can you start by telling us a little bit about yourself? And what makes you so passionate about this work?

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: I've been a school psychologist the entirety of my professional career spanning some 34 years.

Helen: Wow.

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: So, obviously I've been in the game a long time and, I cannot tell you how energized I am, every single day to be able to connect, to engage, to involve myself in the lives of our staff, our students and our families. I look into the eyes of our constituents, primarily our students. And, I see ambition, I see hope for the future, I see drive, I see passion.

Helen: Chandrai could you tell our listeners a little bit about what a school psychologist does, does every school have one or are they some schools have one, what's your day to day look like?

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: We have a standard that there should be a school psychologist in every school. I recall that when I first came into the profession in DC public schools, and this was much like, it was pretty much nationwide. The path for the school psychologist and the expectations of the school psychologist were quite narrow.

We were in those buildings to test and place, and simply that means to take a look at students who were having struggles and challenges, barriers to learning, evaluate them, test them, to determine whether or not they were eligible for special education services. So thankfully, as research improved and quite frankly, which is why I love this forum today, as parents advocacy improved,

As parents began to utilize the voice that they already had those energies and of course learned psychologists and stakeholders and advocates for children, no matter what your title job description is, when we began to collectively get together to say, hmm, we might need to take a look at this, because everyone is going to have a struggle.

The goal is however, to see what can we do as educational professionals? What can we put in place to determine whether or not with some accommodations? And with some strategies, if we might not be able to get you over that hump and teach you in a way that is more palatable to your learning style and see if not, we can get progress that way first. As opposed to plugging you in based on that deficit learning model.

And so, the school psychologist role has expanded, I'm so grateful for that. We're now on the front end, which is really where I go with my prevention over trauma. Like, I want to be on the front end of this. If there's a problem, let's take a look at it, let's not automatically say, Oh, your problem, we got to test you and then you're going to be eligible for special education.

Let's see what we can do to accommodate for those learning differences, not learning disabilities, but the differences. What can we put in place to overcome those disabilities school psychologists, thankfully, are now doing that. We are influencing an educational approach to working with students who may learn differently from the average population.

We are helping to design programs to help those learners learn. Yeah, and we are also responsible for regulating what we call response to intervention or tiered levels of support to make sure we're meeting the needs of that entire child. That's our role.

LaWanda: Chandrai, I have a quick question. How does, how has your role changed during the pandemic?

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: Over the past year, we've had to step up and fill those gaps as best we could, because there was no plan for this either. So, you know how you have a crisis plan plan in your hip pocket of what to do where there's a crisis? Well, believe me, we didn't have one for this one. So we started, we started out trying to catch up, right? What is happening? Where are the kids? So, it shifted because now, I didn't have that audience right there in front of me for me to go to that classroom, pull out of that classroom, have that conversation. Let's talk about zones of regulation. Why are you upset? Let me take you through deep breathing. I didn't have that.

I first had to find you because you, the student, the child wasn't logging in. So, I didn't have that captive audience, that captive audience anymore. I had to go look for you. And, when I'm not able to find you, I can't say, Oh, well, he's absent today, because not seeing you two or three days in a row is always what we used as the red flag.

Someone had to see that student, and every day and if two or more days were missed and we had no parent contact or no reason why that student was not there, now I'm putting on the investigative hat and I'm going to look for that student.

Helen: It sounds like it was a big job before the pandemic and it's, and it's an even bigger job if that was possible now.

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: With, without a doubt. But if the level of responsibility is still at a high level, Yeah. And you know why that we are we're we're, we're framing ourselves now to get ready for safely reopening, you know, what does that mean? What does that look like? How can that happen? We used to be concerned about summer slide. Well, now we're concerned about COVID slide. Right.

We've got to look for that. We also have to look at the social, emotional effect of kids, not, having any one to engage with on a continuous system. Cause, we know that that connection is important and they have not had that either. Food insecurity was a big issue. Schools had to step in the space of providing food, but kids couldn't just walk down to the cafeteria and get their lunch, someone had to come to the school to pick up their lunch, right. And sometimes that didn't happen. So now you're dealing with basic meet needs not being met.

Helen:  Of course. Okay, so this is a great place to bring in one of of our parents I had the pleasure of chatting with Carmen, who's a mom of three in California and she was thinking about this, how do we frame this coming school year? So let's take a listen to what she had to say and hear what your response is.

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: All right. Thank you.

Carmen: I'm living in San Jose, California. We have three kids, two of whom are at our neighborhood public middle school, where I'm on the PTSA board, our older son is 16 he's a sophomore, at a local private Jesuit school. So, like a lot of families our family, everyone brings their own strengths and challenges to the table and we actually have a lot of experience within our family from prior to the pandemic, dealing with social and emotional, social communication differences. We have the spotlight on that, anyhow. So, we're in the isolation mode from a year ago, just trying to find our feet.

At first, it's a lovely little vacation, and then the reality hits. We're all in the same storm, but we're all in different boats. And I know our boat is cushy, my husband is working from home. I work part time in person, but we aren't hungry. We have resources. So many people are in

It's raining trouble, and yet I believe we have everything we need to meet this moment, and my question is, how can we frame what's needed and what we're going to do to meet the social and emotional needs, when we all come back to school, so that parents can understand. Teachers can understand? Kids are helping to write what we're doing.

Helen: So how are you thinking about framing this coming school year?

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: So let me just say that I am so I'm energized by the comment, and I absolutely want to make space for this parent who I think has painted this picture very well, for a lot of us.

What I hung on to this thought about our different boats, and I suggest that, that is absolutely the beginning of the framework of our reopening. Right now we have to be in a position to prepare, let's not wait until the first day of school or the two weeks before school to start talking about professional development to prepare for the many different boats that are going to be coming into that building and those boats, some of them are tug boats, they're weighted down with freight trains and barges. We've got every kind of boat coming in and to that, and listen, that's not just the boat of that family, that's the different boats of the staff, that have gone through a difficult time as well. All of those conversations must be had. It's always been my belief that staff must be managed on the front end.

Because, then you have more boots on the ground to help manage the masses of those little tug boats that are going to be coming in August or September, whatever. Right. And it just makes sense. One person cannot meet the needs of, let's say 300 elementary school children. But, if we have at least our staff of 30 ready, trained, you know, built up, tool belt on, antennas high and eyes wide open. To help manage those 300 little boats coming in the door, much more if ever an efficient process.

So we start now by saying, let's take a look from a social, emotional perspective of how we re-engage reconnect our children with our school and community, that's the first thing we have to do. So we're doing things now, like getting that class roster ready,

That teacher is creating videos, small vignettes of herself to introduce herself to her incoming class, to pan a little about what the space looks like in their school. For the most part, they haven't seen it for a year, and then of course they're going to another grade, so they really don't know what it's like. So, making it comfortable and making it visible and attainable for that student while they're still at home, that some of the pre-work that we can do with our students and with our families, having those conversations with parents right now, about what reopening looks like.

Yes, when we're worried about that slide, whether it's summer slide COVID slide. The first thing that is on the mind of an academician is how am I going to close that gap? That's the, what am I going to do to get them back up? Yeah, we're going to take a different approach. We're going to talk about, not first about the academic buildup, but the social emotional buildup, and really spend that time reconnecting, re-engaging our students, back into the routine of connecting with their school community, finding that trusted adult. We have a mentor program that we've developed, which allows each student to be paired with a, with a trusted adult.

[00:20:54] So I say to parents, that I also want them to take that same voice that they use to advance my field of school psychology and what I am responsible for as it relates to their family and their children, and make sure they're hearing these same conversations in their own school community. How are we going to reconnect our students with the school community? How are we going to re-engage parents, back into the routine of connecting with that school community? [RB1]  All of that must be done, before we talk about lesson plan one.

LaWanda: Yeah. That is so important. Because a lot of times the, like you said, the primary focus is on the learning loss. Should the conversation with our children be about what they gained during this time, so that they are able to kind of transition in a more positive way?

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: This is really about what happens at home and how we try to instruct our parents about the importance of the homeschool connection. So, if you're happy having these kinds of connections and conversations at home, it is absolutely helpful.

And so, this is what we say that you ought to be able to address this now as a new normal,. So let's talk about this year. Let's talk about what we've gone through. Let's talk about what was great, what proved to be difficult for you? because that also allows a child to make sure that they know, that we believe that their voice and their thoughts are important and that it matters. I find that the biggest gap we have is they're not believing that what they think and what they feel are valued.

So, they spent this whole year for the most part at home, and for the most part they've been safe. Now we need to transition them back into a place that they haven't been in a very long time, and let's not forget that we're not only dealing with COVID related issues. We're also dealing with the stress and anxiety of the world around us. And, if there hasn't been regulation at home regarding these conversations, you know, about racism, about violence, about policing, especially at the high school level, what do you do? How do you feel what's happening? What's going on? Those things are going to be weighing heavily.

So absolutely these conversations that we tell parents at a developmentally appropriate level, find out how they're feeling, that temperature check about certain topics. And then, let's relate that to how we transition them back into school.

Helen: I'd love to hear from you coming into this next year, what you think parents should be looking for and asking about when it comes to, I love that frame of like being able to meet all the boats.

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: Great question. the key to educating the whole child is looking at that social, emotional lens, so that means having those conversations. But, that also means a lot of observations, if you see things that just don't look right. For instance, they have trouble sleeping, they're struggling with regulating their mood or their responses. Difficult to get them back into a routine that they struggle with how to express themselves, trouble eating, trouble sleeping. And quite frankly, even things like bedwetting. Those are the telltale signs at home that parents can help us with at school, because when we are able to look at those two settings, right, we're able to determine where that level of stress is, and how we need to respond to it.

[I need parents to be present, and, and talk to their kids. I need them to make sure that their student, that their child is engaged in activity because as we kind of open back up, there's a safe way to reconnect and re-engage in activity and exercise and healthy eating. Those are the things that are important and always, always to be able to check in with your child, when they return back to you, like don't just let them come back home and get away with how was your day? Good. Fine. Okay. I'm asking parents to do more because again, the earlier we can catch the signs of a disconnect or level of anxieties are, are still high that whole separation anxiety that we know we're going to see again and not just at the pre-K three, pre-K four level. This is going to be a whole new thing for us.[RB2] 

As much as a parent can be involved in that process and, and speak up, let us know what's going on at home. And, and, and come to that school as, you know, as the routines will allow for safely, so that we can continue to communicate. Based on the developmental level of that child, they're not going to be able to communicate those feelings, and those thoughts.

You know what we're going to see, we're going to see tantrums, we're going to see leaving out of class. We're going to see throwing things. You're going to see all of the behavior And. not what's happening at the root of all of this, the anxiety, the stress. So that's, that's our high alert.

And so that's what we're going to be looking for, but I tell you from a school's perspective, the plan has to be to re-engage, intentionally. That means, every school curriculum ought to be starting out with that block of time that they're spending with social, emotional learning, social skills. I don't care what you call it, but it needs to be a part of every single schedule every single day. So, that student knows they have that space to have these courageous conversations.

LaWanda: Wow, so much to unpack. Chandrai, one thing that resonated with me was about having those conversations with your child letting them know that they have a voice. My son just returned back to school twice a week, and it was a choice you could decide if you want your child to go there, or not. And we talked to him he's eight and asked him what he wanted to do. And he was very excited about going and I can now see the difference, what those two days meant to him and that we allowed him to do it. Part of that, we were looking for a place to do aftercare and they have a van that picks them up.

So I asked Caleb, did he want to go on the van? And he was like, no. And so we're like, well, why you get to go? You get to do karate, blah, blah, blah. So, we're just thinking like more activities. Right. And so he was like, I want to go, but I need you guys to pick me up. And so then I said, why? He was like, because then I get a mask break. He was like, I've been in the mask all day, I need to be able to come home. And I haven't seen you guys in eight hours, I'm not used to that.

And we were both like mind blown, just like we didn't think about that at all and say no more. That's done. No one's picking you up we'll be there and yes, you can have that mask break before that activity starts.

But I had no clue. I was just like, why, why does you want to go?, he's a social kid, blah, blah, blah. But it wasn't even about that. And I wouldn't have known if I just didn't ask the question.

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: It's so key. Yeah. Kids know what they need. They may not know how to communicate it to you. So that you understand and value it, but they know what works for them. And so it's making that space available that that conversation can even happen. And quite honestly, what worries the mental health professional more is the fact that those conversations aren't happening often enough. And in enough, varying populations. Generally, even in my own city, we find that these conversations and even these opportunities happen in pockets of our city. Not across the board, in our cities.

Your kid could say that to you, I need a mask break. Yet, he had options, right? Some kids have no option. They either have to walk or get picked up.

Those are the kids that we must be there for just as well, and it becomes more difficult. But, that's the job, and, and I'd like for it to be the job of every caring adult, whether you birth them or not. Right. So, that's where that community, that school community comes in so that you recognize, your child can express, but his classmate may not be able to, what can I do to make sure his classmate has that same opportunity to experience that my son does. 

LaWanda: That's super important. Thank you for saying that. That means a lot. Yeah.

Helen: Yeah. Like at, LaWanda, I could probably talk to you all day long,

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders:  As you can see, I could talk all day long, so glad there's an editing tape.

Helen: Before we do close out, I want to give you an opportunity to give any sort of parting advice to parents who might be listening. If you want to clarify anything you hear frequently, that's a misunderstanding. If you want to encourage them, it's sort of your space to just share your parting words. What do you most want our listeners to take away from today's conversation?

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders:  So, I think my key takeaway, is that a parent, a significant community person, a guardian is the most important person in the life of that child. Take that level of responsibility and the role that power all around the school, throw it around the school. It makes us better professionals. It makes us more responsive and it really does help us do our job.

So I want parents to see that as them being helpful to this education process, right? And not that it is being an impediment or a barrier or they're making trouble, you are helping create a better environment. And guess what? Not just for your child, but for every child that's sitting in that space. That's my, my main takeaway. And then I think finally, to make sure that parents understand that their power match with their responsibility to their young person is incredibly, incredibly powerful, in this collective effort of educating children.

[00:38:45] So use that power, not like a mighty sword, but with the finesse and with the delicacy as if you were holding a tender flower, because that power can crush a child, it can. You can crush their wishes, their spirit, that, and that's not what we need to be focused on, right. Our goal is to lift them up, that that's really what it is that we're supposed to be doing. Everything else is gravy

LaWanda: So great, thank you. When I see you, I'm going to hug you. It's important and I want it. So, when it's safe to do so,

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: Absolutely, I appreciate that. I tell you that's my greatest fear about returning, especially at the elementary level. Oh my God. Every teacher can do, you know, that's our water cooler conversation on zoom. It's like, Oh my God, how am I going to tell these kids stay three feet.

LaWanda: No, that's the first thing. I was like, you going back to school, but things are going to be different. He's in second grade, that's all they do was hug and love. And I was

Helen:  I didn't even think of it that that's going to be really hard for to the grownups too.

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: Absolutel,y believe me. You don't understand. We literally have people, professional development around this, their anxiety level is up to here, because that is the way they communicate with kids. That's the way they communicate, you know, it's all it's, so the sensories that, the tactile, the it's, all of those things that are comforting. And that's why this whole disconnect that we've been experiencing is so tragic, because that's how kids develop. That's how they grow. That's how they know you connect. Absolutely, and so we are looking at it. Let me check, wait, I have to tell you about one thing we've come up with. I'm so excited about this.

So, I've written to the Washington football team because they need to do something for the community. I couch all my conversations like that. So, I've asked them for those sponge fingers, that they sell at the souvenir stand. So, I want to make sure that, especially at the elementary school level, every class has the least two.

And so, our kids are gonna have gloves and things like that on. And so we go, we want to make these fingers available for them, for the high fives, you know, the air things work, but I want them to see the connection, right. See the connection being made because they've seen a lot of this, right. I want them to actually see those fingers pointing at each other and of course, in a safe manner. So those are the small things, right.





Helen: This has been such a wonderful conversation before we go, any social media handles, resources, web pages that you would recommend if folks want to learn more about you Chandrai or, or find some tips or strategies related to today's conversation?

Chandrai Jackson-Saunders: I would be delighted to connect with anyone who wants to have a conversation or a discussion about how to make sure our children are able to reconnect and reengage safely. And so, my website is, CJ And it's CJ, just the initials. Saunders is S A U N D E R, and I'm always reachable by phone +1 800-515-8550.

LaWanda: To our audience listening, thanks for joining us for more resources related to today's episode check out If you liked the episode, please take a moment to leave us a rating and review on Apple podcasts, ratings and reviews help more listeners find our show, and we love to hear your feedback. Thanks for tuning in and see you next time.


Notes from the Backpack: A PTA Podcast is made possible by funding from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.