Category: News

Rick Phillips On Getting Kids Back To School

June 29, 2020   KSRO Radio

KSRO morning host Pat Kerrigan talks with Rick Phillips, Founder of Community Matters, about returning to school, and the social-emotional needs of students, staff and parents.

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Why Social and Emotional Learning Begins at Home

by Jan Dennis

Whether it’s building a strong vocabulary or solving mathematical equations, a child’s life revolves around learning. However, some lessons go beyond the chalkboard — especially those that involve their social and emotional well-being.

From helping them understand their emotions to setting the right goals and showing empathy to others, as a parent, you want your child to be equipped with the necessary social and emotional skills through social-emotional learning (SEL). And to ensure that your child develops them, it’s important to remember that learning always starts at home.

Why You Need to Teach Your Child Social-Emotional Learning

Your child is in a special stage where they’re filled with genuine curiosity. And at home, they’re presented with opportunities to learn more about the world. For instance, if you catch your child watching the news, they shouldn’t only be informed about the current events, but also understand the social and emotional aspects of the issues. This, in turn, will help them gain value-adding perspectives on life that they’ll take to the classroom, playground, and into the future. In fact, researchers from the University of Washington have found that social and emotional skills are key components of a child’s educational success and future interpersonal adjustment, which is why parents need to instill these values early on.

However, while all parents want what’s best for their children, this is much easier said than done. And despite the wealth of books, research, and well-meaning relatives and friends, it’s normal to still feel a little lost as a parent — especially with regard to SEL — and that’s ok. Angie Walston, a Certified Family Life Educator and a professor of human development and family studies at Maryville University, highlights the importance of being proactive and compassionate towards children and the unique ways they are learning about the world around them. She teaches the 3-Cs: compassionate, consistent, and calibrating, and this approach also provides parents with a strong foundation in fostering their child’s SEL, as they tap into their own social and emotional skills.

How You Can Teach Social-Emotional Learning at Home

But, how exactly can you help your child cultivate their SEL? Here are some key ways to help you at home.

Create a Routine for Them
To help your child get in touch with social and emotional beings, they must be in a safe and stable environment. To this end, you should establish a routine for them. Child therapist Genevieve von Lob told the Huff Post that consistency and structure are especially calming for children. A balanced and healthy routine will make them feel safe and give them confidence as you teach them SEL.

Encourage Them to Help Out
Teaching your child about the important issues around them is crucial for their SEL. Whether it’s teaching them how to donate old toys or taking them to a soup kitchen, encouraging them to help others will not only help them strengthen their self-awareness, but also teach them to see the world from the perspective of others.

Partner with Your Child’s School

As Community Matters founder Rick Phillips previously shared here, it’s equally important that your child is in a safe environment at school to foster their SEL. That being said, you should get in touch with their teachers and ask how they’re helping your child develop their social and emotional skills. This way, you can further enhance their development, while ensuring consistency for their learning.


Jan Dennis is a social psychologist with a fascination for family and early childhood. When she’s not working, Jan enjoys urban gardening and spending time with her son.

Post COVID-19: Social Emotional Learning is Job #1 to Effectively Re-Opening Schools

by Rick Phillips, Founder of Community Matters

In this COVID-19 upside down world there is no returning to business as usual, and there is no going back to the way it was. Our communities, our country and our world have been altered like never before. So, when schools re-open job number one must be to ensure that students feel, safe, welcome and connected to caring adults.

Imagine what is must be like for the millions of young people, (K-12) cut off from their schools, their friends, teachers, coaches and all the other caring adults who support them day in and day out. Imagine what it’s like for them not knowing who among the staff and students may not be there when they return. Imagine what emotions our children are experiencing, isolated and cut off from the familiar safety nets that are no longer in place. And imagine what they are going to need from the entire school staff when they finally get to go back to school.

We understand that the anxiety, uncertainty and trauma our children and young people are experiencing is also being felt by educators and families as well. School staffs, from the principal to the bus driver will be in need of support and some coaching on how best to come back to work and address their own self-care needs, as well as being prepared to assist students in their re-entry.

We all want the best outcomes for our schools. And for schools to be successful we need to understand that there will be intense pressure to catch up and get back to learning immediately.  However, let’s be clear that the educational outcomes of

  • positive attendance
  • high achievement and
  • few discipline incidents

occur best when we adhere to the following axiom: Students don’t care what we know. . . until they know we care.

This is corroborated by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), who in the largest longitudinal study of young people and schools found that “the best predictor for student success is connectivity”.

Focusing on school climate and social-emotional learning (SEL) has been the heart of our mission at Community Matters for more than 20 years. We have partnered with thousands of schools in more than 40 states providing strategies, programs and services that strengthen school climate, reduce bullying, cyber-bullying and harassment, and equip staff with the tools and skills needed to connect and build strong relationships with their students.

Our team of dedicated staff and trainers are working diligently (remotely) to address the needs of schools by designing online services for distance learning while schools are operating remotely. And when schools do open, we will be there, ready to provide effective and proven resources, trainings and programs designed to address the social and emotional needs of all members of school communities.

When we lead with our courage, when we plan from the “heart” and when we put people and relationships first, especially in these turbulent times we are being our better angels, better citizens, better educators, and better people.

Please contact us at Community Matters to learn more about how we can support you and your entire school community as you welcome students back to school. Visit our website at www.community-matters.org or call us at 707.823.6159.

An Intrapersonal Narrative of LGBTQ+

by Javier Cabrera-Rosales, Board Member, Positive Images
(Originally published in March 2017)

The mission of Community Matters is to; “wake up the courage” of young people to speak up when they know of and/or witness any acts of intolerance and injustice in their schools and communities. We are grateful to collaborate with many mission-driven organizations like Positive Images, who are on the forefront of addressing the needs of LGBTQ+ young people in the Santa Rosa, California community. Our guest blogger this week is Javier Cabrera-Rosales, former Director of Programs and current Board Memeber at Positive Images.

Many times in the common narrative we hear the terms “high risk population”, “mental health challenges”, suicide, depression, anxiety, and many more descriptions commonly associated with LGBTQ+ youth and young adults. The truth is that LGBTQ+ folks still suffer a myriad of struggles on a daily basis; yet for this blog I want to address the intrapersonal connection that is so vital for the resilience and survival of many LGBTQ+ adolescents and adults.

I have been working with young LGBTQ+ people for over five years, and I have noticed the power that is harnessed when each one discovers the internal tools they can access to use in the outside world. Many of us growing up saw very little of the successful, thriving, strong, and respected LGBTQ+ characters in our media, society, and in our own cultures. Certainly, the historical image of what it means to be LGBTQ+ has just recently become a positive one, and that negative stigma still haunts us today. When we do not have healthy role models and have no concept of what it may mean to grow up in a society as a queer person, certain patterns are created: isolation, alienation/lack of belonging, social anxiety and a plethora of other symptoms of not feeling connected.

This now brings us to the question, if we cannot change the world around us to be more accepting overnight, then how do we cope and/or strengthen our internal-selves to take on the day-to-day struggles?

Support is a key, crucial ingredient.

Positive Images is a non-profit organization in Santa Rosa, offering support to young LGBTQ+ folks throughout Sonoma County for over 26 years. Through a balance of therapeutic models, life coaching techniques, and a deep understanding of constant change and fluidity in our world, we are able to help our members find their own voices and build the tools they need to protect themselves. Self-reflection, accountability, practicing feedback, group facilitation dynamics, and engaging in difficult dialogue are just a few of the skills that youth gain through our programs.

In our current, diagnosis-and-therapy-happy world, at times it is easy to forget that people truly are the experts of their own experience, and simply offering them the space to explore those experiences can be life changing. Out of the desire for emotional safety and erasing the fear of ridicule, LGBTQ+ folks are relieved to disclose some of the profound thoughts and experiences they have in social (school, household, medical offices, et cetera.) settings. In this way, Positive Images provides the oldest remedy possible: unconditional love and attention.

Sexual Misconduct In Our Schools And How Students Hold The Key

by Rick Phillips, Founder, Community Matters

Sexual abuse and molestation present a significant and growing concern in our schools and communities. Unfortunately, inappropriate touching, sexting, porn, grooming, date rape, and other forms of sexual abuse are becoming more incessant. Educators, law enforcement and legislators are struggling to find solutions to this disturbing trend.

While some instances of sexual assault clearly go unreported, the AP found 17,000 official reports of sexual assaults at schools between 2011-15. Some of the assaults that happen at schools are caused by teachers or staff, while roughly 20% of educators also suffer sexual harassment or assaults.

Often, the reaction to these troubling issues has led to harsher laws and policies, along with increased consequences, all of which have not proven entirely effective in solving the problem. What has proven to be successful is a multi-tiered approach that includes engaging all school stakeholders – staff, families and students – and implementing prevention-based education initiatives with clear policies and practices that are restorative.

All school staff can benefit from further education about sexual harassment so they are better prepared to identify and address it. Clear understanding of the difference between bullying and sexual harassment and assault can better equip educators to deal appropriately with the issue, explain the difference to students, and support students in coming forward with their experiences.

Additionally, families need to be educated and supported in understanding the issues more clearly, to learn the most effective ways to communicate with their children and the steps to take when their children tell them about any concerns they have.

A third and critical stakeholder that is often overlooked are the students. Engaging and empowering students is very effective because they are often in the best position to prevent, stop and report incidents of sexual inappropriateness. Students see, hear and know things adults don’t and they can intervene in ways that adults can’t. They are generally aware of any incidents before adults are informed. These factors put students on the “front lines”, where they have tremendous power in setting social norms of kindness, connectivity, and the courage to speak up, all of which contribute greatly to having a safer school with a positive climate.

Here are some specific actions students can take to prevent and address sexual misconduct:

1. Notice and identify what is happening and think about the harmful effects it may cause. When students have increased awareness of the covert and overt ways sexual misconduct occurs, they are more able to identify it and willing to take action.

2. Recognize and determine the type of misconduct, the severity, who is involved, and the environment in which the incident is happening. Assessing and discerning the situation helps to determine the appropriate action to take and whether it should be reported.

3. Reach out and befriend a fellow student who may be targeted. These students are most vulnerable and likely to be subjected to manipulation and mistreatment. By creating connections, students show their support and model positive behavior to their peers that demonstrates a culture of looking out for one another.

4. Be an upstander, not a bystander. By speaking up and acting, students model positive peer pressure and their actions indicate that sexual misconduct is not acceptable on campus.

5. Reach out to a trusted adult and report potentially dangerous situations. Helping a student who is at risk and might otherwise not seek help can help ensure that the student gets the support they need before the situation worsens.

Young people are in a unique and vital position to make a positive impact in preventing and stopping sexual misconduct. We believe that students at all levels hold the key! They are ready to serve as change agents and upstanders in their schools and communities. When they become concerned, they want to do the right thing. What the evidence tells us, is when we engage, equip and empower young people, they can and will play a critical role in looking out for each other, resulting in safer schools and communities.

When we utilize a multi-tiered systemic approach, one that engages and empowers the whole school community, we significantly increase the likelihood of reducing and stopping incidents of sexual misconduct in schools and we keep our children and young people safe.

The Power of Youth to Reduce Alcohol and Drug Abuse in Schools

by Sami Ryan

“We all act like it’s just fun, that everyone’s having a good time. But being here today and hearing everyone’s story, you realize that everyone is also struggling with it, either with family and addiction, or friends going too far. There’s more to it, for all of us.”

High school student, Northern California

I overheard this comment from a student at one of our Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drugs (ATOD) Prevention Trainings, and it stuck with me. When ATODs are such a pervasive and prevalent issue facing teens, especially vaping, how do we help them connect with one another and provide space for them to share their stories in a safe, meaningful way? When given permission to be vulnerable, to open up to one another, we see time and again that students are desperate for connection, beyond their Snaps or Instagram posts. They want validation that the problems they are struggling with aren’t unique to them.

The big question, the one we are constantly working on here at Community Matters, is how can we connect young people to one another, deeply and meaningfully, so that they can answer their own questions and enlist support from each other? The answer, we have found, lies in our peer-to-peer framework which postulates the following: engage, empower, and equip young people to be contributors, not just consumers, at their school. When young people feel valued, seen, and heard, they will begin working towards creating a better school.

With this fundamental principle as our foundation, the ATOD Prevention Training addresses the perpetual problem of teen alcohol and drug use, abuse, and misuse. While other alcohol and drug prevention trainings might suggest a “just say no” approach or rely on fear-based teaching, Community Matters focuses on empowering youth. The question we ask is: can we encourage young people to become upstanders, increasing their likelihood of standing up and speaking up when they witness dangerous or unhealthy choices being made by their friends?

The ATOD training design provides a safe, structured, deep dive into the unique experiences, beliefs, values, and assumptions youth have around ATODs.  Once they realize how complex their own feelings are towards ATODs, and recognize that other students are grappling with this ambivalence, the conversations deepen, the connections grow, and they begin to realize how important it is to learn what to do or say when they see their friends entering dangerous situations.

The most meaningful point in the training I’ve witnessed is when participants drop into a Restorative Circle together. With guidelines such as listen from the heart, speak from the heart, say just enough, and don’t rehearse, the students begin sharing with each other, and eventually dive deeper when asked to answer “Who is harmed and how by ATODs.” As students begin sharing, the energy in the room changes. Students frequently say that they share things in that circle they haven’t ever spoken aloud to another person. There is immeasurable power in being heard, of sharing your story, of opening up to your peers and having them respond with empathy, compassion, and ultimately, understanding. An understanding that says “I see your pain, and I recognize it, because I too have experienced a loss that could have been prevented.”

At this stage of opening and increased awareness we then ask students if they are ready to learn tools and techniques on what to do or say to support their friends in making healthy and safe decisions around ATODs. It is a moment of transformation as the students become eager for ways to prevent a future story from being shared in a future circle of a tragic ending to a preventable situation. By the end of the second day of training, students have learned six “Upstander Actions,” communication skills such as Exiting, Supporting, Reasoning, Active Listening, Directing, and Getting Help, in order to develop their toolbox of being an Upstander.

As trainers and program designers, we can’t take credit for much. We can set the stage, hold space, initiate conversations, facilitate not as a sage on the stage but as a guide on the side. But at the end of the day, it’s the courage and compassion that lives in each student we are lucky enough to meet; the courage that helps us step up when it’s easier to step back, to speak up instead of stay silent.

So, the answer is yes: waking up the courage and compassion of young people does in fact increase their likelihood of standing up and speaking up when they witness dangerous or unhealthy choices being made by their friends with drugs and alcohol.

Now that we’ve found a way that is working, it is our responsibility to keep going.


For more information on Community Matters’ ATOD Prevention Prevention visit https://community-matters.org/programs-services/youth-empowerment-programs/atod-prevention/

Sami Ryan is a former Training and Program Development Coordinator for Community Matters. She worked on the design and development of Youth Empowerment Trainings, as well as training youth directly in the field. Sami supported the development of Community Matters’ ATOD program in addition to delivering this training in schools in Northern California.

What are “Restorative Practices” in Schools? Hint: It’s Not Restorative Justice

by Paul Osincup, Restorative Practices Trainer, Community Matters

One of the first questions I ask administrators and teachers when I facilitate trainings on restorative practices is how much experience they have with it or what they know about it. After working with educators in school districts all over the country, here are three things that are consistent everywhere I go:

  1. Administrators and teachers are always open to learn about strategies that will help them decrease classroom disruption and increase social responsibility and inclusivity.
  2. When I first mention restorative practices, many people in the room think I’m only talking about restorative justice.
  3. Educators are predisposed to “initiative fatigue” and don’t want this to be just another thing to add to their plate.

Restorative Justice (RJ) is a formal process where a person who has caused harm to an individual or group has the opportunity to meet with those who have been harmed or affected. They create a shared agreement about how the offender can repair the harm and all parties can reintegrate and move forward. RJ is used in the criminal justice system as well as at some colleges and universities and K-12 schools in conjunction with traditional disciplinary procedures.

Restorative Practices (RP) according to Ted Wachtel, Founder of the International Institute for Restorative Practices, RP is “…a social science that studies how to build social capital and achieve social discipline through participatory learning and decision-making.”

The simplest way to understand it is that restorative practices involves a continuum of interventions and strategies that are both proactive and responsive. Restorative Justice is ultimately a subset of restorative practices and is primarily only responsive in nature. On the continuum below, RJ would be considered a form of “Formal Conference” on the right.

Proactive RP Strategies:

  • Strengthen Relationships
  • Build Trust
  • Develop Community

Responsive RP Strategies:

  • Manage Conflict and Misbehavior
  • Meet Needs/Repair Harm
  • Restore Relationships

At Community Matters, we know it’s crucial to have evidence-based strategies to respond to disruptive behavior, and we also know that prioritizing relationships and connections creates a community where students develop a sense of social discipline resulting in less disruptive incidents to respond to.

So, how does it all work?

Well, that usually takes us two full days to explain but I can at least give you some proactive and responsive examples based on the RP continuum. For example, classroom circles (second from the right on the continuum) can be used proactively or in response to an incident.

A teacher who’s trained to facilitate classroom community building circles will use circle guidelines, a talking piece, engaging prompts, and activities to help students get to know one another personally throughout the year and create meaningful connections with their classmates. Once these connections are established and the kids begin to develop trust with each other and a familiarity with using circles to speak honestly and listen actively, that same teacher may choose to use a circle to respond to an issue. For instance, she may ask the students to respond to a note she received that the class was not good for the substitute the day before.

Ideally, about 80% of the RP work that is being done in the school is to build community to foster a positive school climate, while 15 – 20% is responsive in nature.

Whether I’m facilitating a workshop focused more on community building and the proactive side of things or on facilitating formal conferences to respond to student behavior, I’ve found it’s important to remind the participants that restorative practices is not a separate curriculum or initiative designed to replace your current curricular, behavioral intervention, or disciplinary models. Rather, RP is a way of being. It’s a tool to enhance your current practices, and a catalyst for youth voice. As a former Associate Dean of Students and university disciplinary officer, I understand the overwhelm and “initiative fatigue” that happens when we’re given a new program or curriculum to add to our plate. What I love about restorative practices, however, is that it’s really just a collection of tools you can incorporate into your school culture as you see fit.

Restorative practices help kids learn the basic skills it takes to be a member of a community, like empathy, listening, and conflict resolution, so it’s easier for you to teach them more complex skills like reading, writing, and math. Reclaiming the role of relationships and connection in schools isn’t just another thing to add to our plate… it is the plate.

National Bullying Prevention Month – The Power of Student Voice

by Jade Sizemore, Outreach & Program Coordinator, Community Matters

Bullying can take many forms, from physical aggression and intimidation to more subtle behaviors that might not be apparent to an onlooker. In honor of National Bullying Prevention Month, we would like to draw attention to all types of bullying, especially those that are less obvious yet pervasive. Seemingly subtle put-downs, teasing, and acts of exclusion, are all forms of mistreatment that can lead a child to feel insecure and unsafe.

With teachers and administrators already facing unmanageable workloads, we must begin to view students as capable contributors to a culture of change. Student bystanders see, hear, and know things adults don’t, can intervene in ways adults can’t, and are often on the scene of an incident before an adult. They are the first “boots on the ground”, and are a critical resource for positively impacting the crisis of bullying in our schools.

Given our experience with providing support, training and consultation to more than 2,000 schools, we know the “inside-out” approach is key to successfully shifting this social paradigm. This relationship-based approach is built on a foundation of restorative practices and utilizes students as resources for minimizing and preventing acts of bullying and violence. It emphasizes the power of student voice and the importance of youth and adult relationships.

Let’s do more than instruct our youth. Let’s empower them.

Using a peer-to-peer approach that empowers student voice is the quickest, most effective, and most cost-efficient way to change social norms on campus. By training the socially influential leaders of each clique on campus to be examples of courage and compassion, the social acceptability of bullying can be eradicated. This is the model employed by our Safe School Ambassadors® Program (SSA).

Evidenced-based research has proven that implementing SSA is a long-term, sustainable solution. For any school climate improvement program to be impactful, daily attention must be given to even the most subtle discrimination, intimidation, exclusion, and microaggressions. Here are some things to start paying attention to today:

• Ingenuine or passive-aggressive compliments
• Students being called by new nicknames- possibly an insult or type of taunting
• Gossip- both on and off-campus, including stories related to social media
• Exclusion or withdrawal
• Unexplained absences or complaints of feeling unwell

Bullying is not an inevitable act of youth. It is a conditioned behavior that can continue into adulthood. But there is a solution. Intervention must be swift, and discipline needs to be focused on restoration rather than punishment. Community Matters offers programs and services that help to create educational environments where learning potential is maximized, discipline incidents are reduced, and children can become caring, responsible citizens.

This work we do is vital, and we look forward to continuing collaborative partnerships with those who also believe that compassion and empathy are the key to our future. We extend our appreciation to all the organizations around the country that help to shine a spotlight on this urgent epidemic. And finally, we are ever-grateful for the thousands of students who day-in and day-out express their courage and speak up when they encounter meanness, intolerance and injustice. Together we are making a difference.

How Youth Empowerment Leads to a Positive School Climate and Academic Success

By Diana Curtin, CEO Community Matters

When effective youth empowerment is integrated as an integral way of operating, it is transformative for students, adults and schools. National best practices and current research validates that when schools make youth empowerment a cornerstone of their comprehensive school climate efforts, schools become communities where staff and students feel connected. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports that feeling connected at school is the strongest protective factor for students to decrease substance use, school absenteeism, early sexual initiation, and violence; and notes the strong correlation between school connectedness and academic success.

We define youth empowerment as an attitudinal, structural, and cultural process whereby young people gain the ability, authority, and agency to make decisions and implement change in their own lives and the lives of others, including youth and adults. In schools where young people are empowered to have influence on decisions and afforded opportunities to lead and serve, they naturally feel more self-confident and have an increased sense of pride, ownership and connectedness for and at their school. This sense of empowerment naturally leads to a more positive school climate that supports increased competence, academic achievement and overall student success.

Best practices for increasing student voice and empowerment in schools include offering a variety of opportunities for students to have influence in decision making in the classroom, on the playground, for the campus and for the school. Even the youngest of students have valuable insight and can provide input and ideas, they just need the avenue and encouragement to be contributors and to be heard and acknowledged. It makes sense to consider and value the opinions of the largest population on campus – the students. The following youth empowerment opportunities incorporate leadership, service, input and decision making:

  • Serving on a climate committee, site council, parent-student organization etc.
  • Student Council and committees
  • Student led clubs and initiatives that they drive
  • Student led campaigns that promote a value or initiative they stand behind
  • Leadership opportunities for more than just the leadership classes (consider the playground/campus, classrooms, and projects)
  • Community service opportunities for the school and community that include a service-learning component
  • Peer mediating, mentoring and tutoring
  • Restorative Practice leaders
  • Serving as a Safe School Ambassador

As the CEO for Community Matters, I am a firm believer and advocate of our evidence-based Safe School Ambassadors® (SSA) Program as a best practice youth empowerment platform that has been active in 2,000 schools across the US and five countries. I have witnessed how this program transforms the lives of students and schools by empowering and equipping young people to find and use their voice to effect positive change.

The SSA Program fosters school safety by empowering influential students to safely intervene when they witness mistreatment such as bullying, cyberbullying and other harmful behaviors that can lead to tragedies such as suicide and gun violence. Consider this incredible statistic: on average, student Ambassadors intervene with actions two or more times per week. During a school year, these individual actions add up to more than 2,400 interventions, which impacts the entire school by establishing a more positive climate and culture.

SSA is a long-term prevention and early intervention program. Because climate and social norms in a school are created over time, it requires a concentrated and time-oriented approach to change the established norms. Therefore, the SSA Program is most successful when it is implemented and championed with a long-term strategic approach in mind. It is most effective when implemented over a 3-year timeframe, allowing it to develop strong roots that anchor it firmly into school culture and practice. After the first three years of Community Matters providing the SSA Training, schools are provided the opportunity to move into a sustainability model whereby the school takes over implementation and leadership of the program. With this approach, the SSA Program and the premise of effective youth empowerment become embedded into the school practices as a way of thinking, communicating and behaving.

When effective youth empowerment becomes the way of operating, school climate becomes more positive; one built on relationships, inclusivity and connection. As the school climate warms, students feel safer, more engaged, and are better equipped to lean in and learn. When these conditions are present, we see academic achievement and overall student success increase.

Student ambassadors train against bullying, violence

September 9, 2019 KUAM News

About 400 recruited students from nine private schools and one public high school participated in the two-day Safe School Ambassadors® training that was hosted for the sixth year by the Judiciary of Guam in partnership with the Guam Department of Education.

Read the article