Photo caption: “Students in discussion at The Young Women’s Leadership School”
Lifting others up and helping them find grounding, wellness, and the power of their voice is at the foundation of what we do at Girls Leadership. When girls experience their own power, amazing things happen. Last year eleventh graders at The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem (TYWLS), one of our school partners, took the initiative to support 6th graders through an unusually challenging transition from elementary school to middle school on the heels of a pandemic and remote learning. Our work at TYWLS is made possible by the support of The Estée Lauder Companies Charitable Foundation.
Like many students across the country in 2021, the incoming 6th graders at The Young Women’s Leadership School of East Harlem were entering middle school after a year and a half of remote learning: new peers, new teachers, new school policies, and new responsibilities. While this transition is historically challenging for any young person, it is well known that the pandemic took a dramatic toll on students’ mental health, making entering middle school that much more difficult.
“When quarantine started for the 6th graders, they were in 4th grade… I mean, you’re still a real kid then,” current 12th grader at TYWLS East Harlem, Talayeh Vega, shared. “For them to come back and be launched into something as jarring as 6th grade with the increased workload, fully being on your own in your academic life for the first time, and not being familiar with anything… they had a really rough time integrating.”
Talayeh and her 11th-grade peers saw that the 6th graders were struggling and decided they wanted to help; but unfortunately (and understandably) with everything teachers and administrators were handling at this time, the school did not have the capacity to help the 11th graders formalize this idea with programming. Girls Leadership was called in to provide support.
Following in-depth listening sessions with the 11th graders, 6th graders, and their teachers, our New York Program Manager, Catherine Del Castillo, designed a full year, multi-pronged program that consisted of the following:
- Preparation workshops for the 11th graders to explore mindfulness, self-compassion, advocacy and action.
- Implementation of “Big Sib / Little Sib” weekly mentoring sessions between the 11th and 6th graders.
- Professional development training with teachers to equip them with healing centered tools and techniques to better support their students.
Throughout the year, 11th graders built skills as facilitators of social emotional learning activities. They identified and practiced mindfulness strategies to feel calm and present while leading 6th graders through activities. They learned how to guide a conversation, how to set up and lead a game/activity, and how to ask effective questions to support learning and reflection. In addition, they identified their own strengths and areas of desired growth to become better facilitators and mentors.
During their mentorship sessions with Talayeh and her 11th-grade peers, the 6th graders learned skills to respect their emotions and self-soothe when feelings became overwhelming. Important skills were practiced around identifying and setting their personal boundaries and they rehearsed how to communicate these to others. Listening to others’ feelings and understanding different perspectives were other important skills they built and honed. The principal of TYWLS East Harlem, Colleen McGeehan, noted a significant transformation of the 6th graders throughout the year and teachers derived new insights from the professional development workshops that they “felt [they could] use in their practice.”
At its core, this program surrounded students with a supportive community that saw and listened to the issues they were experiencing and made them feel like their emotions mattered. According to Talayeh, “The return to in-person schooling was weird for all of us, no matter what grade. But Catherine helped us identify and cope with the range of emotions we were experiencing and, in turn, we were able to help the 6th graders through their tough times. In a way, empathizing with them, mentoring them, and leading them through activities, helped us process our own experience during that difficult year at school.”