Julius Mullen, chief clinical officer of Alliance for Strong Families and Communities member Children & Families First in Wilmington, Delaware, believes that brain science holds the key to addressing the chronic challenges of today’s education system including high dropout and suspension rates, gaps in achievement for children of color and children in poverty, and unsupportive school culture and climate. As a member of the Educational Success Alliance Peer Exchange Core Team, he shared his organization’s strategy for addressing these issues at the local and state level.

What role does Children & Families First play in community schools?

We’re in eight schools including seven elementary schools and one middle school. While community schools across the country may have different contexts, we focus on social emotional learning, family engagement, and community partnerships, which we believe are instrumental factors in academic achievement.   For each school we provide a site coordinator and a parent partner, who predominantly have three focus areas:  

  • Provide enrichment activities and school supports from a social and emotional learning perspective
  • Address parent, family and two- and three-generational needs
  • Build community partnerships by connecting existing providers to the needs identified by the students, families, and schools we work with  

This can include parent education, vocational support, mentoring, counseling, trauma groups, staff development, career services, meditation, cultural activities, physical fitness, and coding just to name a few.  

We work hard to strategically recruit coordinators and parent partners from the community—people who have the needed skillset along with passion, loyalty, and commitment to the community. For instance, our program manager was born and raised in the city. He brings a unique set of talents, but his most prized attribute is his deep compassion for Wilmington. Many of our staff hold this same type of commitment. In each school, we have a relationship with the assistant principal or other administrator responsible for the community school initiative, which is critical for student/family success. Working in collaboration with school leadership, we align our initiative’s goals and outcomes to the school’s strategic plan so that we are in direct alignment with the school’s overall mission.  

How did Children & Families First get involved in schools?  

Being a former educator, community schools was birthed at Children & Families First from the educational passion, leadership expertise, and community concern exemplified from our CEO. Through comprehensive strategic networking and professional collaboration efforts, she was able secure funding partnerships with key stakeholders in Wilmington. Starting with one dynamic CEO (former Reading Specialist), one school, and one staff person, community schools at Children & Families First has grown tremendously over last decade.  

As a member of the Change in Mind cohort, you've been deeply engaged in applying the lessons of brain science to your work. How do you approach this in your education strategy?  

The Change in Mind initiative has opened my eyes to a completely different philosophical space. Being exposed to global scholars and change agents over several years has enhanced our work across disciplines in ways I had never seen. Early childhood adversity is a public health issue just as critical as any other confronting our society. Brain science has given our field a breath of fresh air and hope; awareness and recognition of the impact of early adversity and toxic stress on brain development and functioning in children, parents, and families.  

Children & Families First is proud to be part of the leadership community that is infusing brain science principles and practices across varying Delaware communities. We have integrated brain science in our fundamental mission, which is: “Children & Families First helps children facing adversity on their journey to Adulthood.”  

We strongly believe that the Harvard Center on the Developing Child’s framework of building relationships, strengthening life skills, and reducing external sources of stress is the ultimate path toward resiliency. In collecting and analyzing adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), we understand our families better through a trauma-informed lens. Understanding their experiences with toxic stress has helped us to be in a much better position to convey hope, optimism, and resilience. Being well positioned in the community has placed Children & Families First in a perfect space to making a real impact toward macro policy and micro policy change in Delaware. Training several thousand professionals and community members in the last two years has increased the awareness of the prevalence and impact of ACEs. Educational communities have included early learning, K-12, and higher learning colleges and universities. In fact, a local university launched a trauma-informed certificate program and we are having ongoing collaborative conversations with them about the development of a comprehensive brain science/trauma-informed care training curriculum. Our compassionate schools work with K-12 professionals continues to guide schools in changing their district-wide policies, classroom practices and self-care support for educators. We are hopeful and optimistic that integration of brain science application will ultimately help to impact student achievement, parental engagement and school climate.  

What's possible when we apply brain science to education in schools and districts across the country?

Just imagine if each school was mandated to have a measurable self-care plan for each of its staff. I purposely prioritize self-care because it’s one of the most important areas of our work. Kids will have challenges and families will be pressed with the trials of life. Educators are taxed and incredibly stressed, which makes it difficult to create that warm, predictable, and safe space for students every day. What they need is to be in schools where educators are taking care of themselves, understanding the complexities of students and responding with nurturance, predictability and accountability. In many of my presentations with educators, I often encourage administrative teams to operate under the belief that their staff is the most important resource they have. When we prioritize and take care of educators, they will prioritize and take care of students.  

Ultimately, we must help society embrace a new lens for understanding what drives underachievement in students. People typically operate from their own belief systems. When we believe in something, we often change our intrinsic thinking, which can modify our decisions and behavior. Just think of the metaphor of wearing seat belts. Today we believe they are a practical and effective life preservation method, and it’s automatic to put on your seat belt. For me, this was not always the case, but now I really believe that seat belts save lives. Now, I do not move my car until everyone has their seat belt on because my belief system changed. There was a period of learning and understanding that led to behavior change, and it was driven by meaningful and ongoing messaging. Integration of brain science is the same way—it requires constant, intentional, diversified, relevant and measurable messaging to get the point across so that everyone believes it and changes behavior.  

What role do you think the Alliance network can play in advancing trauma-informed approaches in schools?

If we’re serious that education is one of the core elements that lead to success in life, then we should continue to learn, assess, react, and assess again to ensure that educators are responding to the best available science in teaching the most precious assets to humankind—our children.  

The Alliance continues to do an amazing job with aligning human capital resources across sectors to achieve a common vision. I think the collaborative priorities designed by the Alliance and the membership network direct us all to be more resilient as we embrace some the most challenging problems we have ever faced in our society. I cannot think of a better reason to accelerate change than creating a comprehensive policy-driven and equitable structure for the educational promise for all children and all their families. To infuse real change, I believe that policy equips the bus, funding starts the engine, and people drive. I think the Alliance can be instrumental in exposing the network to the best available science, evidenced-based practices, and other shared learning opportunities across educational systems, primarily in policy, funding models, data analytics, outcome structures.

Gain access to a community of peers working to advance educational success in their own communities by joining the Alliance Peer Exchange group. Members of the group can ask questions, share ideas, and get feedback from others in the Alliance network.