Compassionate Conversations: Fostering Connection Through Community Building

By Dana Asby, CEI Director of Innovation & Research Support

The logistical and emotional hoops that COVID-19 has forced us to jump through have left educators and families exhausted. As the U.S. rolls out vaccines, more and more schools are opening up, with many forced to close back down after a coronavirus outbreak. Administrators are acting as principal and substitute teacher. Teachers are juggling online and in-person classes, often simultaneously. Family members are playing the role of at-home educators while working forty plus hours a week on their own laptops right across the kitchen table. Almost everyone is feeling burnt out and wondering when this will all be over. 

The Childhood-Trauma Learning Collaborative (C-TLC) has created spaces for educators, healthcare workers, and families of Pre-K-12 students to connect, learn wellness strategies, and share their experiences navigating mental health challenges during the pandemic through our Compassionate Conversations program.

The Need to Connect in Times of Isolation

COVID-19 brought many of our worlds entirely into our homes. While several areas of the country are re-opening and business is slowly going back to normal, there is a large percentage of us that are still stuck inside for work and school. There are some groups, such as those with compromised immune systems, who will likely be spending most of their time in their homes for several more months. Even after this pandemic is over, there are subsets of the population with chronic illness, severe injuries or mental health challenges that may keep them home for a longer period of time. The sense of isolation this brings can sometimes be as challenging as the physical or emotional ailments that keep us at home or in the hospital.

Connecting with others while quarantining, for whatever reason, can be an inherent challenge. Thankfully, COVID-19 has taught us that connection is not limited to face-to-face interactions. More people than ever are becoming computer literate so they can connect with others, near and far. The C-TLC has been facilitating these types of connective spaces through our Compassionate Conversations program.

What is a Compassionate Conversation?

We developed the Compassionate Conversations model as a way to provide groups of people a holding space for their emotions and experiences around wellness during COVID-19. We recognize that one key component of healing from emotional turmoil is talking about the experience. For many of us, this is the first universal trauma we have experienced. While each of us is experiencing the trauma of this pandemic in a unique way, we can all relate to the ups and downs and challenges it has posed; discussing this rollercoaster we are on with each other helps us feel less out of control.

In each Compassionate Conversation, we:

  • Introduce a brief, easy mindfulness technique that can be shared with others and used in participants’ daily lives
  • Share strategies and tips on that month’s topic to help educators, healthcare workers, and families gain expertise around positive wellness practices
  • Facilitate a discussion about challenges, successes, and questions on that month’s wellness topic

Those who show up to our Compassionate Conversations gain insight from each other, feel heard and understood, and leave with some action steps to help them improve this area of their life. We send each person who shows up to a Compassionate Conversation a tip sheet that summarizes all of the evidence-based advice we’ve compiled, as well as the ideas they shared that have worked for them.

Compassionate Conversation topics include:

  • Compassion
  • Community Wellness
  • Compassion Fatigue and Burnout
  • Fostering Connection
  • Talking to Youth/Loved Ones About How They Are Doing
  • Addressing School-Related Trauma
  • Sleep Hygiene
  • Holistic Health: Mind, Body, Spirit
  • How to Motivate All Teachers to Care About Wellness

Who Are Compassionate Conversations For?

The Compassionate Conversations model can be replicated with any group of people. The size and function of the conversation will vary depending on how well people know each other. We began our Compassionate Conversations project with the C-TLC Fellows, most of whom we have been working with for years. In these intimate conversations of 10-20 people, Fellows share about their own mental health challenges, as well as the successes of staff and students overcoming their mental health difficulties. 

We’ve also begun Compassionate Conversations with a group of healthcare workers and educators who we convened in the Fall of 2020, the Healthcare workers and Educators Addressing and Reducing Trauma (HEART) Collective. When we started this branch of the series, we worried that this group of people with a more tenuous connection might not feel as comfortable sharing about their ups and downs with mental well-being during COVID-19. We are grateful that the HEART Collective Compassionate Conversations have been just as rich, inspiring, and comforting as the ones convened for the C-TLC. In fact, it has deepened connections within the HEART Collective.

We’ve just begun offering Compassionate Conversations to the general public, anyone who identifies as a family member of a Pre-K-12 student. Perfect strangers shared an hour of vulnerability (or observation) and connection. Our next Family Compassionate Conversation is on March 30th at 3:00 p.m. EST. We’ll be talking about compassion fatigue and burnout. All are welcome to join in this conversation!

We believe that anyone can use the Compassionate Conversations model to hold conversations about well-being with groups of people in their community. We encourage you to try holding a Compassionate Conversation with your school community soon!

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