An innovative pilot project developed by Frank Jemison, director of education outreach at the ACE Awareness Foundation, and Mim Stokes Brown, education consultant and Momentous-Memphis program manager, brings Shelby County educators together to learn ways to equip students with the building blocks of self-regulation, cooperation, and other hallmarks of social-emotional health. Photo courtesy of ACE Awareness Foundation.

Local news has been riddled recently with heart-wrenching stories of youth violence. But little focus has been placed on the resources and tools students need to overcome the effects of trauma — and schools are too often ill equipped to handle children’s social-emotional needs.

The good news is that the team behind an innovative pilot project in Memphis is looking to overcome these issues by starting at the top, with school leaders.

The Leader Learning Collaborative for Social-Emotional Health brings together nine Shelby County principals and school leaders to explore the role that social-emotional health plays in student — and school — achievement. Each month, they attend sessions on the paradigms and practices needed to foster social-emotional health in their schools.

“We know that social-emotional health — a child’s ability to form relationships, regulate emotions, and cooperate with others — is really important,” explained Frank Jemison, director of education outreach at the ACE Awareness Foundation. “However, systematic forces in schools and school districts force educators to elevate the importance of short-term academic goals over long-term development.”

That decision, Jemison said, comes at a cost to the entire educational model. “In order for schools to be socially and emotionally healthy, they have to have leaders who think that’s important.”

He added that the idea for the program came from discussions with teachers, social workers, and school leaders who had attended the foundation’s awareness sessions and community workshops led by Momentous Institute in Memphis. Those sessions were designed to broaden and shift participants’ thinking around ACEs and social-emotional health.

“A number of teachers expressed how much they’d learned during the sessions, but they knew they’d be met with opposition from school leaders who did not yet understand the importance of social-emotional health.” Jemison said. The pilot is designed to help equip school leaders with the tools to advocate for students’ emotional development along with the established educational goals.

Last spring, leaders from Momentous Institute in Dallas hosted conversations with local school leaders to highlight social-emotional health. Jemison partnered with Mim Stokes Brown, education consultant and  Momentous-Memphis program manager, to take a deeper look at the initial lessons learned from principals who were ready to put this work into action.

“A lot of schools are doing great work around academic content and instruction, but still not reaching all of their kids,” Brown said. “This work will not only help address behavior issues that happen in schools but also help bridge achievement gaps and provide a safe space where children can truly learn.”

Jemison and Brown both said they kept the unique challenges of principals in mind when creating the workshops, which include modules on creating a social-emotional health team, vision, and plan; understanding adult emotional health and regulation; and promoting a culture that responds to student voice. Once the collaborative began, the pair quickly realized another important benefit of the collaboration: the cohort provides a much-needed community and safe space for principals who rarely get to connect with their peers.

“In a perfect world, schools would put as much staffing, program, and evaluative focus on the development of social-emotional skills and mental health as they do academics,” Jemison said. “But it takes resources and re-training teachers, counselors, and leaderships to do that.” Jemison admitted. “The goal of the collaborative is to test how we can effectively address this issue on a smaller level — school by school.”

When asked why it might be important to start with school leadership, Brown said the answer was simple.

“To do this work well, we need to take a top-down and a bottom-up approach,” Brown said. “This approach will help students academically. But most importantly, it’ll help them in life. Being emotionally regulated will help students in the long run.”

At the end of the year-long pilot, the Leader Learning Collaborative cohort will submit an implementation plan for a schoolwide social-emotional health program and pursue a micro-grant to support their vision.

Shelby County school leaders interested in this project can email for information.